New-Look Bison Soccer Program Set to Kick Off Season
Release: August 16, 2012
First-year North Dakota State head soccer coach Mark Cook shouldn't have to worry about upsetting the apple cart with new schemes, new tactics, or a new way of conducting day-to-day business. When half of the team and all the coaches are new, everybody is bound to learn something.
North Dakota State has 11 newcomers including 10 freshmen on its 22-player roster. Only four starters return from last year's team that went 15-4-2 overall and placed second in The Summit League with a 7-1-1 record before falling to Oakland in the league championship game.
This is the first collegiate job for Cook, who spent the last 11 years as the director of coaching for the Minnesota Thunder Academy. But he says his style won't change just because he's in the college game now. In fact, that might be the easy part.
"Where I came from, you had nine months to develop a team," Cook said. "The big transition is here you have 22 kids and you've got a very short season to mold them into a team, get them prepared, get them buying into your system, and you have three months to perform."
And Cook knows performance matters. Where the club game is about development over time, college soccer is about wins and losses and making a run at the postseason. But it's going to be a step-by-step process.
"We know we're young, we know we're inexperienced," Cook said. "I want to make sure we're an intelligent team. I want them to learn the system, learn the style of game we want to play, and understand our defensive principles."
Sophomore forward Tristyn Walczak and sophomore defender Taylor Stainbrook have both been out of training due to knee injuries. Cook says those two losses, plus two incoming freshmen with knee injuries, have slowed the development of the team.
"I think if you put a new head coach into a situation and said 'here's the worst possible scenario' as far as health goes, I think we've had it to be honest," Cook said. "It's been an adventure. We haven't been able to play 11 aside, which is an important part of preparation for games."
Because NDSU's roster essentially is whittled down to 16 position players plus two goalkeepers entering the first weekend of play at Boise State, Cook says they've prepared accordingly. It will be a tough physical test with temperatures in the upper 90s and playing at elevation with a short bench.
"We've talked all week about being smart defensively, not conserving energy but using energy when we need to. If we can't win a ball, don't make a 40-yard run just chasing it for the sake of chasing it," he said.
That smart, conservative style is in line with Cook's principles for the team. He says it's important to build a style that is based on the players.
"You have to play to your strength," Cook said. "We're probably not the quickest team, so we have to be more possession orientated. We're not going to be a team that runs up and down the field a hundred miles an hour. We have to be organized defensively getting numbers behind the ball."
One of the biggest question marks for North Dakota State entering the season was goalkeeping with freshman Katie McCormick and redshirt freshman Sierra Bonham contending for the open spot. Bonham has a slight edge with a year of collegiate training under her belt, but Cook says both are good shot-stoppers and showed well during the exhibition game with Creighton.
"Each came up with big saves, but more importantly they directed their team, they controlled their box, they did the little things well," Cook said. "When you have inexperienced keepers they tend to be a little more hesitant, maybe not as aggressive, and I thought that was the biggest plus. They were willing to risk their body and come off the line."
North Dakota State turns to a pair of senior veterans to anchor the back line in Brooklyn Dyce and Shannon Brooks, while junior Sheri Fitzsimmons and freshman Meghan Johnston are the outside backs. Cook says the biggest question in the backfield is finding depth and the rotation might include Walczak, who has the speed to match a fast opposing forward.
"We ask them to be intelligent defenders," Cook said. "We have to give up some territory, keep the game in front of us, and then know when we have opportunities to step and know when to drop."
The Bison return junior Steph Jacobson and sophomore Anisha Kinnarath, a Summit League All-Freshman selection last year, to the midfield position, and Cook says the Bison will rely heavily on the 5-foot-11 Christian not only for her ability to disrupt opponents in passing lanes, but also for her leadership.
"Holly's a good ball-winner and we certainly ask her to win everything we can in the air," he said. "And she's a fifth-year senior, so her leadership is critical both on and off the field."
The Bison also gained some valuable experience with the addition of Jordyn Wallenborn, who transferred from Minnesota State Moorhead. "We didn't know what to expect coming in with her," Cook said. "She's good technically and she's an intelligent player."
Two of NDSU's faster players up front are Tallas and fellow sophomore Jaclyn Scanlan. Cook says they will play a hybrid forward/midfield position on the outsides with redshirt freshman Mary Krambeer as the main target forward.
"We're hoping Katie can do a lot for us being our leading returning scorer," Cook said, "but it's probably a little less familiar for her in the new system because she's asked to defend a little more. She's a good ball-striker, she has good speed, and it's going to be her job to try and stretch our opponent. Jaclyn has the same role on the other side."
The Bison have a tough non-conference schedule which has them playing eight of their first nine games on the road. The home opener is Sept. 7 against Bemidji State and Summit League play begins Sept. 29 with a home game against South Dakota State.
"The non-conference schedule will be a big learning curve for us," Cook said. "Our goal is to get better every game so when we get to The Summit League we have a good idea where we stand, we've solved a lot of our problems, and now we can come out and be really competitive."
The Bison were picked to finish fourth in the nine-team Summit League. Oakland and South Dakota State were first and second in a close vote, and Kansas City was third. The top four teams in the regular season standings advance to the Summit League tournament Nov. 2-4 at South Dakota State where the winner moves on to the NCAA playoffs.
"Oakland is very good. South Dakota State is very good. I think you could put the other teams into a hat and it could be any one of us," Cook said. "But if you get in the top four and have played teams once already, I think as a coaching staff and players we can give ourselves a pretty good chance of winning the Summit League tournament."