Loyola women’s soccer entered last season with three goals: secure a first-round bye in the Missouri Valley Conference Championship, win the conference championship and win a game in the NCAA Tournament.
The Ramblers accomplished the first two goals before falling to eventual No. 1 overall seed and eventual national champion Florida State 1-0 in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.
While the team might look a little different without their top two goal scorers from last season in Jenna Szczesny and Madison Kimball, the team believes they have the chance to be better this season, even if they look different.
“I think the mentality coming out of it showed in the spring, more than right after the game,” Loyola head coach Barry Bimbi said of the team’s response this spring.
“Right after the game they kind of decompressed and took a deep breath. In the spring, the returners were like we’re still pretty good and they talk about not reaching their goals.”
Reflecting on that game, junior midfielder Aleksa Tataryn said the team was a little nervous and didn’t necessarily enter with the confidence needed to win despite sticking with the Seminoles much of the game. With that in mind, the Ramblers will walk into this season more confident returning 19 players from last season
“Reflecting on that game we weren’t as confident in the game as we should have been,” Tataryn said.
“We were like ‘oh we’re playing the first seed’ I think that was a big thing we reflected on. In the fall we need to be confident that we can win that game, like yeah we played well against them but we didn’t meet our goal so just reflecting from that game was that we need to be more confident that we are good.”
This spring has offered a new set of challenges as Loyola looks to replace the production of Kimball and Szczesny, who accounted for half the Ramblers goals (20) last season. Szczesny was the second-to-last player selected in the 2018 NWSL Draft by the Chicago Red Stars.
Tataryn has had conversations this spring with Bimbi on how she can score more goals but has also been focused on developing chemistry with Savannah Cruz and Kat Stephens, two forwards whose roles are expected to increase next season.
“I thought the spring actually went really well,” Tataryn said.
“We didn’t get as many wins as we wanted in the games but I thought from the start to the finish we really improved and I think we really hit what we were focusing on during the spring so I think it was pretty successful.”
Bimbi noted one of the things the team has been forced to adjust to is no longer having the safety valve of being able to play a ball to the corner and have their star forward create a goal scoring opportunity or have a left-footed left fullback in Taylor Lambouris be able to relieve pressure by playing a ball 30 or 40 yards downfield. Instead, they have learned to play as a unit and create goal-scoring opportunities through slip passes and creative runs into the box.
With departure also comes opportunity and one of those players who has taken advantage is midfielder Ari Banks, who made five starts during her junior. Bimbi highlighted Banks, as well as, Cruz and Stephens as some of the players that have stepped forward this spring.
“[Ari] usually plays minutes in every game,” Bimbi said.
“But she really stepped up along the back line and understood. We meet weekly and kind of added things to her game and she really applied them in the spring, so I think she took a nice step forward. I thought our two forwards replacing Madison and Jenna, Savannah Cruz and Kat [Stephens] —yet they’re different — but they worked on and applied what we worked on with them is ‘hey you’re not blazing fast let’s work with our back to goal,’ they were awesome at getting us possession connecting passes in that midfield third so we could advance to the final third.”
Banks will enter next season as a captain and has embraced the role of being a leader on the team while making sure she is keeping everyone focused on the objectives the team has.
“I think mainly just trying to keep everyone focused,” Banks said. “Looking at the long-term goals like it seems like it might be far away but we just always have to keep in mind how we’re going to get to those long-term goals so just keeping everyone on track.”
With spring practice wrapped up and final exams around the corner, players will be on their own until August with the emphasis on arriving fit and ready to dive into 11-on-11 scrimmages with the season arriving shortly after.
“The last couple of years we’ve had good leadership in the summer and they really have concentrated on the summer fitness program,” Bimbi said.
“So when they come in for preseason like we don’t do a ton of fitness testing. We’ll do one test, if everyone passes we move on so if they do that we play a ton of 11 a side games in preseason so if they get in their head let’s get into preseason fitness now we can actually work on soccer instead of fitness and it’s helped because now the girls are game fit come our first game.
Bimbi notes when players show up fit following the summer, this allows them to use the preseason to play with different formations and get game-fit through playing rather than strictly emphasizing fitness.
The Ramblers will return in August looking to make back-to-back NCAA appearances for the first time since 2006 and 2007.