Thursday, November 20, 2008

LAST CALL: The Road Gladly Traveled

Coaches in virtually every sport at every school in the nation bemoan having playing on the road. Tough travel schedules, hostile fans and unfamiliar locker rooms all play a role in the universal disdain for leaving home, but Texas A&M soccer coach G Guerrieri is taking a glass-is-half-full approach as the 3-seed Aggies prepare to travel to Gainesville, Fla., for a Sweet 16 match against second-seeded Florida.

It helps that A&M has seen a fair amount of Florida in recent years, including an exhibition game prior to last season. It also helps that this year’s A&M squad has been pretty darn good when they’ve ventured outside of College Station.

The Aggies are 5-1-1 in true road games this year, the school’s best record away from the Aggie Soccer Stadium since the 2004 team posted a 6-1 mark. The fact that Sunday’s contest with the Gators will be played in warmer conditions also helps.

“Those are good things for us,” Guerrieri said. “If we were having to go to the snow belt and play someone we’ve never played against, we would be in a much different match-up that what we will see Sunday.”

A&M’s road prowess this year is interesting considering the amount of underclassmen contributors the team counts on. Eight of the Aggies’ 11 starters in the team’s second-round game against Washington were freshmen or sophomores. The Aggies upended the Huskies by a 3-1 tally, and two of those goals were scored by freshman Rachael Balaguer and sophomore Whitney Hooper.

The fact that this team has performed so well in front of hostile crowds says a lot about the type of steel-willed players Guerrieri has recruited, as well as the chemistry the team began developing during a pre-season trip to—interestingly enough—Florida.

The Aggies spent several days in mid August in the Sunshine State, training at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., and playing an exhibition game against Florida International. A&M picked up a 3-1 win against the Golden Panthers, but more importantly, Guerrieri said the team began to bond during their days away from home.

“The reason we did that was to get us in an environment where we were completely on our own,” Guerrieri said. “It was a big growing up for a lot of our players, not that they were shocked into having to grow up, but they were able to grow together quickly. The team gets along together very well, and in women’s sports more than men’s sports, chemistry and respect and communication and how the team kind of breaths together is a very important part of your success.”

Midfielder Laura Grace Robinson, one of just two seniors on the roster, has played in plenty of tough games in her career. She said in a way, it can be a little easier to focus before a game away from home.

“When you’re on the road, you can focus completely on the game,” Robinson said. “You’re not going to class on Friday and you’re in the hotel—we’ve done a good job of staying focused. We know that since we draw such a great crowd at home that it isn’t going to be that (friendly) on the road.”

If the regular season was any indication, the Aggies will be primed up to play the Gators. A win would catapult A&M to its second Elite Eight showing in three years and would likely set up a contest against North Carolina to advance to the Final Four.

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