FAYETTEVILLE – When first-year head coach Colby Hale took over the Arkansas soccer team last December, he set out to change the culture of the program with hard work and more hard work.
In the preseason, he talked about the team’s "identity" and "blue collar mentality," and how the Razorbacks would be dependent on a team concept and not the play of two or three stars.
Hale and the Razorbacks saw the results of that blue collar mentality and hard work pay off with a dramatic turnaround.
In 2011, the Razorbacks were 4-14-0 and 2-9-0 in the Southeastern Conference.
This year, with a senior class of just two – Andrea Carlson and Allie Chandler – the Razorbacks went 9-10-1 overall and 6-6-1 in the SEC.
"One of the areas where we took a lot of pride is that we were going to be difficult to play against," Hale says. "We were going to be the harder working team and they really bought into that. That’s an area where, as a program, we took some steps in terms of changing the culture from competition and training, to expectations to winning games."
That step led to a 4.5 game improvement from 2011, including four more wins in conference play.
Hale became just the third of eight Arkansas soccer head coaches to win his first game as coach, topping Austin Peay at home on Aug. 17, 2-1. The Razorbacks followed two days later with their first big win of the season, beating Texas for the first time in program history, 1-0, in Fayetteville.
"We got better from game to game, learned from our mistakes and handled everything with maturity," Hale says. "It was enjoyable to watch them grow as young ladies and as soccer players. We’re proud of them and told them the bar has now been raised in every area – fitness, technical ability, tactics, team cohesion, everything. We’re going to use the offseason to get better."
Other highlights included:
– The first two wins in program history over ranked teams – 3-2 over No. 18 Kentucky in Fayetteville on Sept. 21 and 2-1 at No. 16 Missouri on Oct. 19.
– A 1-0 win at Tennessee, which was No. 18 in the NCAA RPR ratings at the time; it was also the first win over UT since the first meeting between the two teams in 1996.
– A 1-1 double-overtime tie with defending SEC regular-season champion South Carolina.
– The 1-0 win over defending SEC Tournament champion Auburn; it was also the first win over the Tigers since 2000.
– The 3-1 win over Alabama, which was Arkansas’ first win over the Crimson Tide since 2006.
– Rallying from a 1-0 deficit to win 2-1 at Mississippi State in a game nationally televised by ESPNU.
– Pushing No. 1 Florida State to the wire before falling 1-0 in Arkansas’ first game ever with the top-ranked team in the nation.
– Going 2-0 on the Missouri-Mississippi State road trip for the program’s first 2-0 SEC road weekend since 2008.
– A three-game SEC winning streak (Auburn, at No. 16 Missouri and at Mississippi State), which was just the second three-game league winning streak in program history and the first since 1999.
"I feel like we crossed a lot of bridges," Hale says. "We won at home, we won on the road, we beat some ranked teams and we beat teams we had not beaten in a long time. There are still a lot of things we want to do, but making the conference tournament (for the first time since 2000) and being in position on the final day of the regular season to get a bye in the first round was big. We didn’t accomplish everything and we have a lot to work on, but we took a lot of good, positive steps."
In addition, Arkansas set a school record with the six SEC wins and the nine-win total is the best since the 2008 team finished 11-8-0.
The Razorbacks earned a spot in the SEC Tournament for the first time in 12 years by going 6-5-1 over the final six weeks of the season.
Arkansas was 6-4-1 at home, recording the most wins at Razorback Field since the facility opened in 1992 (6-2-0).
"The team genuinely expected us to be competitive and to win against anyone in the country, and I think it showed in our play," Hale says. "They felt like we had more soccer in us at the end of the year. We were playing our best at the end of the season. They know we accomplished quite a bit and the program is headed in the right direction. We’re taking a lot of confidence into the offseason."
Individually, Chandler, who was a nominee for the Senior CLASS Award, and Ashleigh Ellenwood earned All-SEC honors. Chandler was named second-team All-SEC for the second straight year while Ellenwood was voted to the All-Freshman squad.
Ellenwood, sophomore keeper Kelly Roliard and freshman Lindsey Mayo earned player of the week honors during the season. Ellenwood was named SEC Freshman of the Week following the wins at No. 16 Missouri and at Mississippi State. Mayo was SEC Offensive Player of the Week following the win over No. 18 Kentucky and the tie with South Carolina. Roliard was named to OurGameMagazine.com’s Team of the Week after a 15-save weekend, including a career-high 11 at Missouri.
Ellenwood, Chandler and sophomore Jeriann Okoro led a balanced offensive attack. Ellenwood led the team with six goals and 13 points. Chandler was second with five goals and three assists, and tied Ellenwood with 13 points. Okoro was third with four goals. Mayo and Carlson tied for fourth with three goals each, and Sam Wolf, Haley Hatcher, Phyllis George and Yvonne DesJarlais had one each. Fifteen different Razorbacks had at least one assist, led by sophomore Allie Tripp with four, Chandler three and Tyler Allen two.
Defensively, Arkansas improved its goals against average from 2.68 in 2011 to 1.71 in 2012. Roliard, in her first season as the starter, had 79 saves and a 1.68 average. Wolf filled in when Roliard was injured and unable to play at Tennessee and No. 24 Florida, and got the win in goal against UT with five saves.
The back line featured a rotation of Tripp, sophomore Kaylyn Cooper, freshman Teni Butler, freshman Margaret Power, freshman Blake Pruitt and sophomore Courtney Williams. Cooper was the only Razorback to start all 20 games and easily led the team with more than 1,700 minutes played.
Fans appreciated the Razorbacks’ efforts by showing support. Arkansas drew three of the top 11 all-time crowds in 2012, including the second-best ever of 1,575 for the win over No. 18 Kentucky. The Razorbacks drew 1,100, the seventh-best, for the tie with South Carolina and 1,036, the 11th-best for the 1-0 loss to No. 1 Florida State.
Following a short week off, the Razorbacks are already preparing for the spring and 2013.
"We’ve started working on our fitness and lifting weights," Hale says. "We told them what was hard work before is now not hard work. What was fit before is now not fit. They have bought in. We have a great group of young ladies. We’re preparing for the spring. We want to set goals and get better."