With a wealth of experience and more than a dozen seniors returning this season, expectations were high for the Mansfield Lady Tigers soccer team – and the results thus far have supported the excitement around the program. After a 5-1 victory against Timberview last Friday night, Mansfield pushed its overall record to 17-0-1 and its District 7-5A record to 9-0-0.
Head coach Jay Zeller isn’t really surprised at his squad’s impressive campaign.
“I never really doubted what we were going to have, with 13 seniors and watching them come up over the four years,” he said.
But the Lady Tigers’ undefeated season has been no cake walk, and their biggest adversity still lies ahead. Just over a week ago, the team lost starting left defender Paige Taylor to an ACL tear. With a roster of only 16 players this season – compared to 24 last year – it wasn’t as simple as plugging in a new contributor.
“Essentially we took a midfielder and put her at left back,” Zeller said. “So then the hole became in the attacking part of the field instead of the defensive part. We’re just trying to work and find the right combination to get us back in the groove and clicking again.”
The injury has forced the Lady Tigers to shuffle several positions, which has eroded some of the chemistry the team had already forged this season. But most importantly, perhaps, it has kept the back line a venerable force.
“That’s always been a really strong group of ours and we’re still really solid there, but it’s changed our attacking half of the field,” Zeller said.
“Even in the games we’re winning we’re still working through some things (to) find a new system and plug some holes and figure out how we’re going to reconnect after shifting some players around,” he added.
One thing that hasn’t changed much is the impact of freshman Hannah Webb, who is staging an argument for newcomer of the year honors. She’s among the team’s top goal scorers and provides a steady performance no matter where she lines up.
“She plays all over the field,” Zeller said. “I think she’s played everywhere but goalkeeper. She has been a really nice addition to this senior-heavy group. When you watch her, you notice her right away. She’s such a hard worker, no matter where she’s at. But she’s very quiet. She’s just going to go get the job done.”
It could be expected that a freshman might find it difficult to fit into a locker room dominated by seniors, but Zeller sings Webb’s praises again in that regard.
“As much as we look to the seniors for leadership, you can almost say the same about her. If you just watch the way she plays and watch the way she practices, it’s indicative of this senior group.”
Mansfield can take a giant step to clinching the District 7-5A title on Tuesday when it travels to face Midlothian. The Lady Panthers are currently just a game back of the Tigers in the league standings, and a Midlothian victory would pull the two teams dead even with four games remaining. Zeller has tried to make sure his club doesn’t get blinded by its previous results.
“I feel like that’s the bad part of success, that you kind of get into a groove and there are certain expectations and I think they impact the total game if you’re not careful. So that’s the management part right now, is keeping them in games and focused and putting the last 18 games behind us and taking them from this point on one game at a time.
“That happens, I think, with a lot of teams, and it was our point of emphasis at halftime [Friday night against Timberview]. We were in a close game and we kind of had a little gut check. I felt like we were starting to go down that road where we go into games a little bit over-confident. We just need to step on the field and take care of business and not relax.”