New Chapter: Razorbacks return home for showdown

By: Matt Jones
Published: Tuesday, August 22, 2017
Arkansas soccer players run Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2017, while warming up before the start of practice at Razorback Field in Fayetteville.
Photo by Andy Shupe
Arkansas soccer players run Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2017, while warming up before the start of practice at Razorback Field in Fayetteville.

— Colby Hale speaks in parables.

The Arkansas soccer coach seems to have an endless supply of ways to relate the Razorbacks’ situation at a given time to something going on around them. They range from gathering Halloween candy to playing quarterback.

“He’s a parable guy,” said Jessi Hartzler, a senior defender who scored the game-tying goal in the 88th minute of the Razorbacks’ come-from-behind win over Memphis in the NCAA Tournament last November. “I’m not sure how he finds them.

“A lot of times, it’s something that will hit you deep and push you even more.”

After recording arguably the greatest season in program history in 2016, Hale compares his players’ task this year to that of an author trying to live up to previous work.

Penn State at Arkansas

WHEN: Friday, 6:30 p.m.

WHERE: Razorback Field

TV: SEC Network-Plus

RECORDS: Penn State 2-0; Arkansas 1-1

Arkansas went 18-6 last season, including 8-3 in the SEC. The Razorbacks won two games over top-five teams (Duke and Florida), finished runner-up in overtime at the SEC Tournament, hosted its first NCAA Tournament game (a 2-1 overtime win over Memphis) and advanced to the NCAA second round, where they lost to Clemson in penalty kicks.

“We don’t want this team to feel a pressure to replicate last year,” said Hale, who is in his sixth season at Arkansas and already has the program record with 58 career wins. “We said if you’re writing a book and you’re writing Chapter 31 last year — and it’s a great chapter — you wouldn’t then say, ‘Oh, I’ll write Chapter 32 the exact same, word for word.’

“This is a new team and we’re going to write our own story, a new story. When we get to the end of the season, we’re going to look back and read our chapter, and whatever it is, that’s the one we wrote and we’re going to take responsibility for that.”

Hale and the Razorbacks are taking that book concept quite literally. The team is documenting practices, road trips and functions with an old Polaroid camera, then creating scrapbooks to document its experiences.

“At the end of the year we’ll say, ‘These are the memories that we made,’” Hale said. “Last year, you would point to Duke and Florida and the SEC Championship Game, but we also had moments on the road that people maybe didn’t see that led to that.

“At every practice, we have people going around and taking pictures. We are writing Chapter 32. This is our story.”

Chapter 32 — or the 32nd season of Arkansas’ soccer program — began a lot different than Chapter 31. Last year, the Razorbacks were picked to finish 12th out of 14 SEC teams, primarily because of a disappointing 2015 season in which Arkansas finished six games below .500.

But after a strong turnaround, the Razorbacks were ranked 17th this preseason by national coaches and picked to finish fifth in the SEC.

“We’re not as much the underdog as we were last season,” said Katie Kienstra, a senior midfielder from St. Louis. “Coach will tell you a bunch of stories of other coaches he’s talked to and what he’s heard through the grapevine … like, how does Arkansas stay so relentless all the time?”

Hale sees Arkansas’ respect growing in other ways.

“When we first got here and went recruiting, the coaches would want to talk to us about their third-best player,” Hale said. “They would say, ‘This kid is going here and this kid is going there, but you should really look at her because she has a nice personality.’ Well, we don’t want the ones with a nice personality; we want the one who is going to help us win a national title. At first, that was a tough sell because we hadn’t won any games.

“When we were recruiting our first class, Oklahoma State had been to two Elite Eights and we had never beaten them. This class, we’ve never lost to Oklahoma State and we’ve beaten them three times.”

The Razorbacks have 12 players on the roster with starting experience but have to replace seven seniors, including key cogs like Claire Kelley, who finished third nationally in assists, and goalkeeper Cameron Carter.

Many of Arkansas’ notable returners are underclassmen, like sophomores Stefani Doyle and Kayla McKeon. Both were named Freshman All-SEC last season after scoring a combined 15 goals, including six game-winners.

The Razorbacks also return sophomore forward Tori Cannata, who was a freshman starter before suffering a torn ACL in the eighth game of the season.

“I think all three of those can play a major factor for us,” Hale said.

Arkansas also has a star-studded freshman class that includes Taylor Malham, a member of the U.S. 17-and-under team. Malham was the Oklahoma Player of the Year as a senior at Broken Arrow, near Tulsa, and scored a goal in the team's second game at North Texas on Sunday.

“The freshmen are very talented and this will be the most talented (class) on paper,” Hale said. “We’ve told them that and said, ‘Congratulations, you’re on-paper talented. Who cares? It doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t mean you’re going to be successful here. You have to prove it here.’

“Our leadership is going to be very important this year because we have 15 new players. That’s a lot. The way we come together as a team will determine (how we finish). You can have the talent … but what you don’t want to do is get to the end of the season and make excuses.”

Arkansas split a season-opening road swing at SMU and North Texas last week, losing 1-0 to the Mustangs in overtime on Friday before beating the Mean Green 2-0 on Sunday. SMU and North Texas were picked second and first, respectively, in mid-major conference predictions and the loss to Arkansas was the Mean Green's first at home since 2014.

Next up for the Razorbacks is their home opener against Penn State on Friday. The Nittany Lions are two years removed from winning the national championship and feature two players — forward Frannie Crouse and midfielder Emily Ogle — on the watch list for the MAC Hermann Trophy, given to the nation’s best women’s soccer player.

Penn State is ranked No. 9 by the coaches this week and No. 1 by the publication TopDrawerSoccer. The Nittany Lions are 2-0 after wins over BYU and Hofstra by a combined score of 6-1.

“We’re really excited to have an opponent like Penn State at home,” Hartzler said. “Our fans can make any team unbeatable at home.”

“Penn State, I feel like a record-breaking crowd, I’m hoping,” Kienstra added. “If we can get all that for Duke (a record 3,010 fans), then Penn State will be huge.”

The Penn State match is similar to the early-season meeting with Duke last season, which set the Razorbacks up for a memorable year. Balancing the lessons learned from last season with the ability to put that success behind will be critical to this year’s team.

That leads Hale to another parable.

“It’s like a relay race,” Hale said. “We said last year’s team handed us the baton off in a pretty good position. To use an analogy, last year’s team didn’t win the race for us, but they did give us the baton in a good spot. Maybe last year’s team got the baton a little behind.

“We still have to run our own splits. If we run our 100 meters in 9.8 and we set a world record for our split, then great. But we also have the responsibility to give the baton off.

“We actually have a baton that we’re going to take with us this year. At the end of the year we are going to literally hand the baton off to next year’s team. How do we want to hand it off?”

A version of this article originally appeared in Hawgs Illustrated

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