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|Duke Blue Devils|
If the Bulldogs are looking to put last season behind them, then they picked a tough way to open the season. The venue and the opponent will be the same as they were last November for a game that has to qualify as the most memorable in the program's history.
After losing to the Blue Devils earlier in the season, Yale came back to stun Duke in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. It's a result the Duke players will no doubt remember well.
Of course, familiarity works both ways.
"This year, obviously, it's a little different, because we've played them twice already," Crysti Howser said of the Blue Devils. "Last year, we had no clue what to expect going into the first game; we didn't know if they'd be way better than us, they've been practicing for a month or what not. But this year, you definitely know what to expect."
While uniformly showing Duke the respect that program has earned over the years, the Bulldogs also sound like a team with confidence that Friday's game will be a fair fight and a positive experience.
"I don't know if we're thinking about the outcome so much as just how well we play together," Mary Kuder said. "I mean, we surprised ourselves last year, but we're expecting just as good a result, like not a loss this year. The bar is that much higher, and we have high expectations."
After discovering, much to my chagrin, that the best coffee house in New Haven (at least in my humble estimation) doesn't even bother opening its doors before 8:30 a.m. on Saturday morning, I set off on foot in search of another purveyor of caffeine-induced consciousness before meeting up with the Yale women's soccer team for an early morning soccer practice.
As I walked the blocks of shops, restaurants and bars adjacent to one part of the campus, the only other humans out and about were a city employee blowing leaves off the sidewalk and occasional groups of three or four students, who judging by their height, athletic-department attire and the direction of their trudging were headed to offseason training in the nearby athletic facilities.
The early-morning walk of shame may get the fame as a rite of passage in college, but athletes are all too familiar with the early-morning walk of pain that accompanies playing college sports.
And so it was that last Saturday, a mile or two removed from those vacant streets and more than a week removed from the start of classes, the women's soccer team was already hard at work preparing for its first on-field exam, a two-game set with soccer powers Duke and North Carolina over Labor Day weekend.
The 26 players who ambled onto one of the practice fields that sprawls out across the street from Reese Stadium, the simple but charmingly picturesque home of men's and women's soccer and men's lacrosse at Yale, admittedly looked less than fired up under early-morning gray skies that threatened to keep them cold and wet throughout the morning session on one of their first days of preseason practice.
"This morning is like winter, and it's only August," laughed (and shivered) freshman Leslie Perez, a Florida native getting her first extended taste of unpredictable New England weather. "I'm in big trouble, I'm in huge trouble."
But meteorological discomfort aside, the players weren't complaining about the chance to officially take the field together for the first time since a loss to Notre Dame ended last season's NCAA Tournament run in the round of 16.
"It's not tedious at all," junior Mary Kuder said during a break in drills. "This is the fun part, getting ready for the biggest game we'll probably play all season."
Being human, the team's collective body language occasionally suggested the same sort of affection for practice articulated verbally by Allen Iverson, and harbored silently by just about anyone who has ever endured a steady stream of coaching whistles. But Kuder's assessment appeared to be an accurate reflection of the overall mood.
Maybe they weren't thrilled to be getting cold and wet when so many of their peers slumbered at home -- at one point the players began giving coach Rudy Meredith grief for accessorizing with both a raincoat and an umbrella while they suffered -- but they seemed eager to be back on the field again.
|Crysti Howser is looking forward to improving on last season's success.|
Even for players not staring down their senior seasons, there are reasons to appreciate the week. For one thing, preseason at Yale means soccer without Socrates or sociology. Life without lectures, papers and exams is a rare treat, especially considering classes at Yale don't mean ballroom dancing (although they do include Comparative Literature 727: Postcolonialism and Its Discontents).
"It is really nice," Macauley said of being able to focus solely on soccer for a few days. "I mean, classes don't start until the 6th. We're just here playing soccer and it's fun. We don't really have that stress yet, but we will."
The players also don't have time to get completely sick of preseason two-a-day practices and scrimmages. This was the first Saturday the team had been allowed to practice, but the following Saturday would be the team's day of rest between games against the Blue Devils and Tar Heels. If there is an Advanced Placement version of preseason training, this is it.
"I think it's a little more rigorous, a little more intense than it could be," senior captain and four-year starter Christina Huang said of the condensed timetable that results from Ivy League rules prohibiting teams from practicing too far in advance of the academic year. "I'm not quite sure why the Ivy League has this rule, because we're not in school, so what is two weeks versus one week?"
Coming off last season's success, Huang and the returning players knew waiting until the abbreviated preseason to start focusing on the challenge ahead would be a recipe for disaster.
"It was good, because there was kind of a different mood, everybody was really competitive," the captain said of the player-run offseason workouts. "We all actually entered real preseason practice really tired, because we worked so hard."
Coach Rudy Meredith offered proof of their hard work, saying all but two of the healthy players passed their conditioning tests on the first try.
"That's a good stepping stone, a good starting point for us," Meredith said. "So I'm happy about that."
Led by Huang and the seven other seniors on the roster, the returning players also appear to have entered this season with the mental focus to match their physical conditioning.
"We had this meeting, and we all decided to take off our Ivy League [championship] rings, because there are eight girls on our team who don't have them yet," Huang said, referencing the eight freshmen on the roster. "I guess one thing that is different on our team is that we have a really good team chemistry, there's no in-fighting or, you know, silly girl things like that. And so I think we really wanted to emphasize how important each player is on the team. Taking off the rings was sort of, in one sense, making us look forward to this coming season and forget about what happened last year and how great it was. And another one was to emphasize our team unity, team chemistry."
Added Macauley, who has started 51 of 54 games at Yale, "I think it's leading on the field that's going to show our younger classes, which are sometimes our stronger classes and probably this year they're going to be -- you know, our freshman and sophomore classes are incredibly strong. So I think the best way we can lead is through work ethic."
Both the focus and the chemistry haven't gone unnoticed by the newcomers.
|North Carolina Tar Heels|
Last year's trip to North Carolina for games against the Tar Heels and Blue Devils set the tone for Yale's season. Although the Bulldogs lost both games by identical 1-0 scores, they proved more than capable of pushing two elite programs for 90 minutes.
In the loss to North Carolina, the lasting memory for many observers, and something Meredith took pride in, was Yale's willingness to play its game and press the attack against a team accustomed to seeing unranked opponents go into a shell to slow down the Tar Heels' vaunted offense.
North Carolina, already smarting from an opening loss to Texas A&M, isn't likely to overlook Yale this time. But the Tar Heels are also in the early stages of reloading following the departure of key players like Lindsay Tarpley and Lori Chalupny.
Karyn Lush, content manager of the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team Players Association Web site, saw the game against Texas A&M and said the double-overtime result was no fluke, as the Aggies put together better chances than the Tar Heels. Pointing to center-mid Yael Averbuch as the key figure for North Carolina, she said another area of concern is hindering Heather O'Reilly's effectiveness up front.
"The area where UNC has trouble on the attack right now is on the flanks," Lush wrote. "They play a 3-4-3, so those flank midfielders need to create width in the attack and fire in serves."
In a good break for Yale, North Carolina standouts Tobin Heath and Casey Nogueira won't be with the team in New Haven, as both are playing for the U.S. Under-20 national team at the World Championships in Russia.
The good vibes off the field should help the product on the field, but it's a two-way street. Nothing tests chemistry more than adversity, and the team was dealt a significant blow when senior goalkeeper Chloe Beizer fractured her ankle in Saturday's afternoon practice. Beizer will miss the entire season, meaning junior Susan Starr, who had been expected to split time with Beizer, will play almost all the time (coaches hope to recruit a former player who is still in school to fill the backup role).
Chemistry aside, the focus in practice on Saturday and in the next day's scrimmage against the University of Montreal was on the technical aspects of defensive fundamentals.
"I think our biggest concern is defense first, obviously, so that's what we've been doing in practice," said sophomore Crysti Howser, who tied for the team lead with eight goals and was named Northeast Region Freshman of the Year by SoccerBuzz. "This week is all defensive work, so obviously the defense looks good out here, which is a great sign. But the offense is a little jumbled at this point, because we haven't spent much time on it -- not at all really -- but I think it's a great sign that the defense is set now."
Held out of Sunday's scrimmage for precautionary reasons, Howser offered her assessment after the Bulldogs held the visitors from Montreal without a goal and without much in the way of scoring chances. Working with former Southern Connecticut University coach Bob Dikranian, Meredith's mentor and a special guest at preseason practices, the team spent much of Saturday's morning practice working on ensuring that the backline and the midfield worked together as parts of one entity.
And while the offense, as Howser suggested, wasn't able to generate any goals of its own in the scrimmage, both sophomore Emma Whitfield (who matched Howser with eight goals last season) and Perez showed the kind of attacking mentality that Meredith, an elite forward in his college days, prizes.
From balls rolling down the hill that abutted one side of the field to the referee coming over to apologize to Meredith for a blown call that negated a Yale goal, the scrimmage had all the markings of preseason action. But being a work in progress on the field is what preseason is all about.
The hard part will come once North Carolina and senior star Heather O'Reilly arrive and professors start handing out reading assignments at the same rate referees handed out cards at this summer's World Cup. For now, the drills and alarm clocks are a small price to pay for being able to share with teammates the sense of anticipation that accompanies a new season.
"Right now, we can't move into our dorms yet, so we're all put up in the same dorm with all the other athletes," Howser said. "So it's been a lot of fun sort of rooming together and just hanging out. We eat every meal together, obviously, but then we hang out together at night and watch movies or do whatever -- last night we had a huge dance party, which was really fun.
Along with learning the tenets of disciplined defense and finding the right personnel for the right formations, that's what preseason, even an abbreviated one, is all about. Just as it's important to find out what freshman Hannah Smith can do on the field, it's important for her teammates to discover that Smith, in Howser's words, "can definitely dance."
Summed up Kuder: "We've been with each other for a week and a half, and it feels like it's been two months, but not in a bad way. We already know each other so well, and we're having a lot of fun."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.