If students are returning from the winter holiday break, that means it’s high school soccer season. The Mansfield Lady Tigers are gearing up to improve on last year’s run to the regional quarterfinals, and coaches and players think the 2014 edition of the team has the pieces to do just that.
“I have a lot of expectations,” midfielder McKayla Paulson said. “I think we’re as good, if not better than last year.”
Paulson, the 2013 District 7-5A Player of the Year and a member of the Star-Telegram Super Team, is among 13 seniors on this year’s Mansfield roster. In all, the Lady Tigers have 17 returning lettermen from last year’s district champion squad that was 22-4 overall and 12-2-0 in district play. As many as six of the senior players have competed at the varsity level since they were freshmen. All that experience should pay dividends in 2014.
“This is a group that we knew their freshman year there was some talent coming in, and it’s all coming to a head,” head coach Jay Zeller said. “They’re much more mature. I think they’re ready. It’s nice to have that experience on the field. They’ve been in some tough situations and I feel like they’re ready to rise to the occasion.”
“That’s probably the best thing,” Paulson added. “We know how each other plays and we know where each other will be at on the field and that makes it so much easier to have that chemistry. It’s not just on the field, it extends off the field. We’re all great friends and we are really close; it’s a pretty tight-knit group.”
The primary hole left by graduation is at goalkeeper, but whoever ends up manning the net will have the luxury of a stout defense in front of her.
“We’re really solid in the back,” Zeller said. “We’ve got a great defense. They’re very smart and soccer-savvy. They know what’s going on and they work well together.”
The back line consists of returning starters Landry Bender, Madison Wilson and Paige Taylor. Senior Megan Reynolds will slide back from the midfield, where she primarily played last year, to cover the left side of the defense.
Paulson will team up with fellow senior Marcy Schengber in the central midfield.
“The midfield works well with the defenders,” Zeller said. “Right now, that’s our strength, is that we’re going to be tough in that back eight.”
Scoring is the immediate concern for Mansfield. In their first two scrimmages, against state powers Trophy Club Byron Nelson and Flower Mound Marcus, they Lady Tigers were shut out. Part of the issue has been an injury to forward Sidney LeRoy, but Zeller is also trying to find the right combination of players in attack.
“Right now we’re trying to find the right fit up front,” he said. “Our biggest weakness has been in the attacking half of the field, but I think we’ll work through that.”
“We didn’t get off to a great start,” Paulson added. “But I’m not worried about that too much. We’re still figuring out who will play exactly where. I don’t think the results are a true testament to what this team can do.”
It’s worth noting the strength of the Lady Tigers’ first two scrimmage opponents. Byron Nelson and Marcus were both regional finalists a year ago, and Marcus bounced Mansfield from the playoffs.
“Last year when I made this schedule, I knew what we had coming back,” Zeller explained. “It’ll expose us; it will make us better. It’s just good learning lessons. We’ve competed. We played well against Marcus without three starters. These are good confidence games. The outcomes weren’t really what we’d like, but at the end of the day, I don’t look at the outcome of scrimmages, I’m looking more at attitude, what are the girls doing, how they show up and play against these teams that are tops in the state year in and year out. Are they scared or are they willing to go compete with them? So far, we’ve competed better than we ever have mentally and that’s a good sign for us.”
The Lady Tigers open the regular season at Waco Midway on Jan. 14 before participating in the Vernon Newsom Classic Jan. 16-18.