Sixteen month snooze: It’s time for Quinnipiac women’s soccer to kick off the season

Riley Millette, Sports Editor

The Quinnipiac women’s soccer team played its last game of the 2019 season on Nov. 7. The Fairfield Stags hosted the Bobcats in the MAAC tournament semifinal and beat them 1-0. It was a rainy, windy, freezing night, and the Stags sent the No. 5 Bobcats home. For 16 months, that was the team’s most recent memory of a game.

After the extended hiatus, the team returned to action on March 9, 2021. It was a warm, sunny day in Hamden, Connecticut. The first hint of spring showed, the temperature peaked near 60 degrees and for just a couple hours, life seemed to return to normal for Quinnipiac women’s soccer head coach Dave Clarke and company.

The team’s first game of the year went down as a 3-1 victory against Marist, who the Bobcats upset in the 2019 MAAC quarterfinals.

The Quinnipiac women’s soccer team is looking to improve upon its semifinal loss in the MAAC tournament last year. (Connor Lawless)

Of course, both teams changed significantly. The Bobcats are now without some key parts of last year’s team, including forward Ally Grunstein and defenders Kylie Lance and Mackenzie Tibball. But Clarke says it shouldn’t make a difference who’s not on the team anymore.

“I think it’s just too many differences in the additions to the team and the program to really feel the impact of lost players,” Clarke said. “You can’t go back. Typically you’re always looking back at last year, looking at the scouting, looking at the teams and where they finish, and I think a lot of this goes out the window.”

The preseason practices were no easy task either, regardless of who left the program. Clarke said the team sometimes struggled to get through reps.

“I’m sure the players will sort of attest that it was a little bit frustrating,” Clarke said. “Small groups, pods, separate teams, mixing and matching, wearing a mask. But every team and every sport in the country has gone through it. So I told them early on, I said, ‘We just control what we can control.’”

Clarke also talked about the younger members of the team getting ready for the season, the sophomores in particular. One is standout sophomore goalkeeper Meaghan Phillips, who won MAAC Rookie of the Year last season. The other is sophomore forward Paige LaBerge, who transferred from Florida State University this offseason.

Phillips certainly attested to the fact that it was no easy feat going well over a year without playing a game-speed match against outside competition, in the spring no less.

But to her, the most significant part of the 2021 season is the shortened schedule. The team played 19 games last year, counting the two postseason games. But this year, they’ll be lucky to reach half of that mark. There are only six games on the regular season schedule, two of which have already been played.

“Talking with all the other girls, we kind of were like, ‘OK, we only have six games,’” Phillips said. “So we know that we have to make the six games count. So kind of just preparing to that sense, knowing that every little detail matters at this point now. Everything we do in practice, we have to pay more attention to it and be more cautious of what we’re doing. Because one mistake could mean everything.”

The stakes are especially high this year. One late-game concession could lead to immediate turnover in the league table. Not to mention, there’s not much time to get accustomed to competitive games before the tournament.

But LaBerge said the team’s leaders, both up front with her and behind her in the midfield and defense, filled in right away and helped the newcomers and young players.

“It kind of put me back, like as a reminder to always work hard,” LaBerge said. “They are probably the most competitive people I have ever seen. So it’s nice that we have like those leaders that kind of put everyone in their place. Even when they’re practicing, you have to be at that standard.”

Regardless, the regular season is now one-third of the way completed after the team’s games against Marist and Rider. Four more tilts are on the docket before the tournament rolls around again. And even after the revolving door pushed the seniors out, the women’s soccer team has plenty of talent.

Phillips had a rookie season for the books between the sticks and will be back in full force this season. Midfielders Hannah Reiter (senior) and Selena Salas (junior) will be ready this year after dealing with injuries in the past alongside sophomore Markela Bejleri. All three of those midfielders have been major playmakers for the Bobcats at some point and having them all healthy on the pitch opens up a world of potential.

Sophomore goalkeeper Meaghan Phillips is coming off a stellar year in which she won MAAC Player of the Year. (Jared Penna)

But that’s exactly the catch. It was rare to see those three players patrolling the midfield at the same time last year, and the team certainly hoped it could get it together for practices. But there haven’t been many opportunities for the team to go out and practice at full strength this year.

“I think I can count on one hand (the number of practices everyone has been together),” Clarke said. “That’s just the realities of coaching in a competitive environment. You’re always managing the numbers, but it is exciting as a coach to start to have players back that you want on the field and you want contributing.”

Small practice groups aren’t the only challenge that COVID-19 presented. After playing in the fall for decades, the team is now practicing and preparing for games in the spring. There has been league-wide disdain for the situation, but Clarke says it doesn’t affect him.

“The irony for me is the number of coaches who are complaining about it, but I like it,” Clarke said. “I embrace it, because I think the practices have been, not that they’re not meaningful in the spring, but there’s a different edge to them right now.”

Two games into the year, the team looks the part. That new competitiveness of the spring has taken over, and it seems as if a lot of the players have found their groove. Players from all three tiers are contributing. Salas and sophomore midfielder Olivia Scott are getting involved in scoring opportunities. Freshman forwards Courtney Chochol, Rebecca Cooke and Olivia Kudrikow have all been featured on the stat sheet. The Bobcats’ defense held Marist to only nine shots in the entire season opener.

But Phillips said the work never stops. Even if 100 obstacles fall in your path, it’s all about getting better.

“It’s a big year for all of us, I’d say in terms of getting our team where we need to be,” Phillips said. “So kind of just building off of, ‘Yeah, last year was great, but this year needs to be better.’”