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November 19, 2012

Defenders Get It Done

By: Marc Mullen

Virginia Tech senior defenders Kelsey Mitchell, Amanda Gerhard and Julia Goldsworthy are relative unknowns, but are big reasons why the Hokies advanced to the NCAA Championships yet again


The Virginia Tech women’s soccer team easily secured its fifth straight trip to the NCAA Championship thanks in part to its first ever unblemished non-conference slate, rolling to nine consecutive wins to start the season.

However, the Hokies’ run of four straight ACC Tournament appearances ended, as the Hokies finished in a tie for eighth place in the standings and lost out on a tiebreaker to Boston College because of a 2-1 heartbreaking loss to the Eagles in September. Despite that fact, the 2012 Tech soccer team could point to its posting a 3-0 victory in its final game of the regular season at No. 7 Wake Forest as another reason it advanced into the national tournament. With their backs up against the wall, the Hokies pulled off the upset and posted their school-record 12th shutout of the year.

“This should be an expectation. We should be getting into the NCAA tournament every year,” said Kelsey Mitchell, one of three senior starting defenders for the Hokies. “We have the potential. We have the players. We have the talent, and we have the heart. We have everything.

“We just have to take care of the little things during the season to make it to the postseason, like the BC game this year, when we didn’t finish off and that prevented us from being in the ACC Tournament. But making the NCAAs should be an expectation. It’s not something that you’re going to be given by any means.”

Mitchell, the right center back for Tech, is joined by redshirt senior Amanda Gerhard, who plays right outside back, and senior Julia Goldsworthy, who is the left outside back. Over the past two years, the threesome has provided a great wall in front of Tech’s goalkeepers while rolling up some impressive numbers.

Sure, the backline defenders aren’t your headliners – your goal scorers – and aren’t credited with anything in their stat line when it comes to the team posting a shutout, which goes to the starting goalie. These players are more like the offensive linemen on a football team, virtually unnoticed until a mistake is made.

“To be a good defender, you have to be pretty tough,” Gerhard said. “You have to be willing to go into tackles and go into tackles hard because we are the last line before our goalkeeper. If we get beat, then there’s not that much the goalkeeper can do.

“You also need the mindset that you have to try for the first ball, the second ball, the third ball. Mentally, you have to be smart, really intelligent in order to shift and cover and know defensively when and where you want to push the ball.”

A good mentality was echoed by Mitchell, who is less likely to push forward on offense, as outside backs Gerhard and Goldsworthy are encouraged to do in head coach Chugger Adair’s game philosophy.

“Mentality is the biggest thing,” Mitchell said. “You just have to go in there, when you are going one-on-one, and you just have to have the mentality that no one is going to get by you,” Mitchell said. “That’s the biggest part of defending. You have to be very strong. You can’t be pushed off the ball in any sense, and you have to be able to read the game because you are the one that can see the entire field, the backline. I just think that you have to be very good with communication and directing people, and leadership, obviously.”

Last season, then senior Brittany Michels led the Hokies on the backline, a player so talented on the defensive side that she played in a Tech record 90 career games and started 62 consecutive – a streak that started early in her sophomore year. She, along with the threesome, then juniors, helped the Hokies register a then school-record 11 shutouts (previous high was nine) and advance to the NCAAs Sweet 16. Gerhard also credited Michels with helping her transition into a defender after being a forward for her entire pre-collegiate career.

“I would say this season was definitely a challenge in the beginning because Brittany had such a huge impact on our team,” Gerhard said. “She helped me out so much. I probably would have had a more difficult time playing on the backline last season for the first time without her there.

“And I ended up making a bigger impact on the backline than I did on the frontline. I actually really enjoy playing on the backline, playing with Kelsey and Julia and Brittany, before, and now Jordan [Coburn]. They helped me a lot with the transition, and so it was actually a pretty smooth transition for me, and I just really enjoyed playing back there.”

The loss of Michels and the search for her replacement was one of the primary objectives for the Hokies in the preseason. Adair juggled a lot of players around, trying to find the right combination, but the left center back position was eventually filled by a freshman, Coburn.

“Tech brought in a very defensive freshman class, so we did have a lot of options, knowing that Brittany Michels’ loss was a huge role that needed to be filled,” Goldsworthy said. “We thought about a couple of different options, but once we saw that Jordan was left-footed – it’s something that we’ve never really had before – it made it easy to put her as a left center back.

“She’s hard in tackles, a good ball winner, and we all compensate for different things. I might not be the best recovery defender, so she always seems to be there, and I trust her to be behind me. She’s a lot more mature than a lot of the other freshmen on the field, so I feel that she embraced the role really well.

“And it was very hard on her because she had some big shoes to fill, and it’s a difficult position to step into, but she’s done her job very well this entire time.”

The seniors, along with midfielder Anne Lumpkin, entered the NCAAs as the class with the most wins ever over a four-year period with 53. In 2012, the defense, again, posted 12 shutouts, registered the most consecutive shutouts in a row with six, and have a chance at posting the fewest goals allowed in a single season (17 allowed, least is 20) and the lowest goals allowed average in a single season (0.87 now, least 1.06).

Not only did they welcome a freshman on their backline, but the Hokies also welcomed a freshman in goal. It cannot be forgotten that goalkeeper Dayle Colpitts missed the first five games of the season while playing for Team Canada in the U-20 World Cup in Japan, maybe putting even more stress on the senior defenders to try and ease freshman Caroline Kelly into the starting goalkeeper’s role.

“Yeah, there was a lot of pressure that went into that for Caroline,” Mitchell said. “Her being a freshman goalkeeper, honestly, if watching her, people didn’t know what year she was, you wouldn’t have thought she was a freshman. She has a lot of confidence, she was loud and directing and she wasn’t just going to stand back there and expect us to take charge of everything.

“Something that helped with that was immediately we told her, ‘We are going to listen to you. You can see everything. You just tell us what to do because you trust us and we trust you.’ There was a little bit of pressure at the beginning because we didn’t know how she would be. It’s nerve racking coming in and starting in goal in your first college game, but she did good.”

Having such an experienced backline in front of her certainly helped alleviate any pressure. Just how experienced are the three seniors? Well, Mitchell has set a school record with 87 starts in 87 career games played, second all-time. Not bad for a player who also played forward for most of her pre-college career and only switched to the backline for one game at the request of her coach.

“The one game that Kelly Cagle [former Tech coach] came to watch me play, she told my coach to put me at outside back because that’s where she was looking to have a freshman come in and play,” Mitchell said. “So I played there and the good thing about going from outside forward to outside back is not only do I have to defend, but I also want to attack, too. So I got up the field a lot in that game, and that’s exactly what an outside defender needs to do.

“I had no idea what the ACC competition was like coming in, and thinking about it now, I don’t think I would have done well up top. I’m not a very dynamic player. Forwards have to be very creative and dynamic and technically very good. I’m more of just a hard worker, tackle and read the game plan rather than being a very creative player.”

Goldsworthy and Gerhard have also seen extended time on the field, playing 84 (fifth all-time) and 83 (sixth) games, respectively, in their Hokie careers.

“I was even surprised getting time my freshman year,” Goldsworthy said. “I honestly did think that I was going to have to come in and prove myself. Being a freshman, you usually just don’t get thrown on the field.

“I think the fact that Kelsey, Amanda and I have been here together for so long and we just had a back four that worked, and you know when things are working you, don’t want to switch it. The camaraderie and the way that we connect with each other back there, it’s so hard and that’s why we don’t get subbed a lot because it’s so hard to just throw someone in there on the fly and keep the same rhythm.”

Secure in knowing that your backline is controlled by three seniors is quite comforting during the season, but what happens next year? The three seniors are certainly not worried about the transition. No, not because they won’t be in Blacksburg, but because they have seen the progress of their backups and have no doubt they will be able to step into their roles next year.

“When we were seeing success in the beginning of the year, if we would get up on some teams, Chugger would want to get those other girls some experience,” Goldsworthy said. “Dani King has gotten a lot of experience behind me and even Amanda, when she was battling injuries.

“So, Dani, Taylor [Antolino] and Morgan [Conklin], and others have embraced the role as backups. At practice, they do all the same things as the starters, so we actually do have depth at our position. I think that was Chugger’s intention with bringing these girls in, to get them playing time and experience and get them ready for their new role next year. And hopefully, Jordan will be the experienced defender that will be able to instill her knowledge into the starters next year.”

Unless they lift up that NCAA Championship trophy on Dec. 2, the Hokies will finish the 2012 season with a loss. However, that will be just the sixth loss of the year for the team, setting a new low for losses in a season, bettering the 2007 squad that lost seven.

Those fourth-year backline defenders certainly had a lot to do with the success of the team in their time in Blacksburg. The question is: did you notice them?


Amanda Gerhard: “Going into the ‘senior game’, I wasn’t very emotional or anything like that. I was there. It was kind of surreal. I’ve been here for five years, and I thought ‘Oh, I’ll be ready to be done after this season.’ But then it hit me all at once. I realized how much of an impact this team has had on my life.

“It’s made me a better person, and it’s been a big part of my life. I did get a little bit emotional, a little bit upset because these girls are my best friends and my teammates. The game was a rough game, but I was happy to be there with my friends, my family and my teammates.”

Julia Goldsworthy: “It’s been an absolute great experience, nothing of what I imagined. I really didn’t have any expectations for myself. I didn’t think that I was going to come in here and play and/or start and/or be a 90-minute player on the backline.

“I’ve built great relationships with my teammates, who are my best friends, and my coaches. I’ve never respected a coaching staff so much in my life, and the fact that they have trusted me and they’ve put a lot of pressure and responsibility on me made me better.

“I think that’s it’s made me a better person and a better leader by adjusting to adversity, dealing with the ups and downs of a season. You’re not perfect all the time, and I know that firsthand. I think it’s been a great experience. I never thought I’d be playing in the ACC, so it was an unbelievable soccer experience – any girl’s dream soccer experience.”

Kelsey Mitchell: “Being on the team, it’s such ... it’s like your family. You come to practice every day, and sometimes you hate it and sometimes you love it. I’ve learned so much from the players and the coaches and playing. You ask yourself, ‘Do you have it in you?’ And I’ve found out I can compete and I can keep up and work as hard as I possibly can when I need to.

“The overall experience of playing soccer and being in school is just unbelievable, and I’ve just learned so much about myself. I have confidence and always keep a positive attitude and bounce back when I need to because we aren’t going to win every game. So it’s [the soccer experience at Tech] just taught me a lot.”