When TWU plays East Central at 7:30 p.m. tonight for the first of three games in the first of three homestands this soccer season, the question is whether the Pioneers’ young roster can put together a complete, 90-minute effort.
TWU (1-3) has several moving parts in the early stages of polishing, including new head coach Babak Abouzar, who was an assistant last season under Fleur Benatar, and the Pioneers are working on being more consistent in each half.
The Pioneers began the season with an offensive outburst and defensive prowess, shutting out Texas A&M International 5-0 on Sept. 6. TWU scored four or more goals just once last season.
The final scorer of that game, sophomore midfielder and Ryan product Lauren “Lou” Smith, was optimistic about the start to the season.
“We were really excited in our season opener,” Smith said. “The more we played together, the more the other team got frustrated, so we took advantage of that. We kept our heads together, we were able to ping the ball around them and as they got tired we were able to put the ball in the net.”
Abouzar expects Smith to be integral in the Pioneers’ success for several reasons, including her defensive reliability, adept passing skills and her connection with the team’s freshmen.
“Lou just had a great preseason and has continued where she left off from last year,” Abouzar said. “She’s a returner on the team that has come in and exceeded our expectations. She does the simple things right, and she really helps in the midfield with keeping the possession, defending and tracking back. She’s a hardnosed defender and does a great job starting the attack.
“She’s kind of one of those silent leaders, but she gets the job done and she’s been a great example for our new players. She lets them know that if you work hard and buy into the system that we are trying to do that you can really be an impact player.”
After taking down A&M International, TWU suffered its first loss in a 3-1 decision against St. Edward’s and fell 2-1 to Ouachita Baptist and 1-0 to Central Oklahoma.
Abouzar said he’s seen flashes of greatness, but his team has struggled at key points in games.
“On Sunday [against UCO], we started off fairly well, but we got in the habit of the last three games where we have given up a goal in the first five minutes of the second half,” Abouzar said. “It has come down to mental focus and staying sharp the whole 90 minutes. We had to start chasing the game to catch up, but in the last 35 minutes, we started playing well. We were at the right spot but just couldn’t finish. That’s what was upsetting — to have two games and be in both of them and not put it away when we needed to.”
After East Central, the Pioneers will face Harding on Friday and Northwestern Oklahoma State on Sunday, and Abouzar said his message to the team was one of focus and execution.
“I challenged the girls this weekend at home to be able to finish off the great chances that we’ve been able to create,” Abouzar said. “We need to make sure we are engaged for the whole 90 minutes. With any team that we play, if we give them time and space and not focus on the things we need to do offensively and defensively, we can definitely hurt ourselves. If we stay talking throughout the game as a team, I think we’ll be really great.”
TWU has just four juniors and two seniors on the roster, but last year’s batch of freshmen had plenty of opportunities for playing time.
“Last year we were a really young team, but this year we are more experienced,” Abouzar said. “Last year we had a lot of freshmen step up in big roles and get significant minutes. Because of that, it has prepared them to come in almost like seasoned veterans. Now things don’t faze them as easily. We aren’t having to throw the freshmen into the fire so quickly either.”
Smith said the team’s success rides on the mental aspects of the game.
“If we keep improving, I think we have an excellent chance of making [the Lone Star Conference tournament],” Smith said. “We are obviously going to need improvement throughout practice, but we have to keep the 110 percent throughout, keep our heads up and stay positive.”
PATRICK HAYSLIP can be reached at 940-566-6873 and via Twitter at @PatrickHayslip.