Texas soccer head coach Angela Kelly can remember the last time she and her team took the field for a match.
It was 187 days ago.
At that time, it had not even crossed the minds of many that the Covid-19 pandemic would soon shut the world of college sports down indefinitely. On that Friday night, March 6, in Austin, the Longhorns rolled to a 5-1 victory over Monterrey, with Kelly on the sidelines, leading the way. Little did they know how different the world of college soccer would look six-and_a-half months later.
Now, as Kelly and her squad look ahead to the fall, the stage has been set. They are venturing into a new frontier. Goals have changed, players have adapted and the passion for soccer has continued. Due to a decision by the NCAA to cancel fall sports championships, there will be no title-chasing this season.
That doesn't mean though, as the Horns prepare for a season-opening match Friday against Kansas, that the spirit of Texas soccer, the constant commitment to excellence has vanished. In fact, it will be quite the opposite, as Texas embarks on a conference-only slate this season. The Longhorns have a great deal to play for, and having grown closer through the Covid-19 pandemic, they have high expectations for their play on the pitch.
“It’s been an adventurous last six-and-a-half months,” Kelly said. “I think this has allowed our team to grow and to grow closer together and really define what our ‘why’ is.”
Midfielder Julia Grosso and forward Haley Berg will lead the charge as the Longhorns aim for a Big 12 regular-season title. Grosso was a United Soccer Coaches Third Team All-America last season, and also spent time playing abroad with Team Canada at the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France. Berg received All-Big 12 First Team in honors each of the last two seasons. Last year, Grosso and Berg tied for the team high with eight goals apiece, and will be expected to carry much of the offensive load this season, although Texas will also be aided by sophomore forward Syndey Nobles and junior defender Cameron Brooks, each of whom tallied two goals and two assists last season.
But according to Kelly, Grosso and Berg, the mere ability to play is more important than wins and losses in this unprecedented, truncated season. Kelly said she is choosing to focus on what her team has this fall, rather than what it will not have.
"I think that your best growing moments in life are through adversity," Kelly said. "Every time something happens to you, you have a choice to wallow in misery and dwell on the negatives, and life is still going to go on regardless of the emotions you have in your body, so I'm always a big promoter of being as positive as possible. I love the fact that Haley [Berg] is talking about embracing this time that she has to play, whether it is this year or next year. So I think we just have to embrace it. We were excited that we were part of a conference that is going to continue to play, because we could be in the Pac-12 or Big 10 right now and not be training, possibly not on campus."
One of those things the Longhorns will embrace is a stacked conference schedule, which features five teams that reached the 2019 NCAA Tournament. Friday's home opener will be a battle of two teams with legitimate chances to finish atop the Big 12 this fall, teams that have the necessary scoring weapons to do so.
Kansas won the Big 12 last season, and reached the Round of 16 in the NCAA Tournament.
"I feel like our team is really positive and really happy that our first game is at home this week,” Grosso said. “We’re just excited to take every opportunity we get to win.”
With neither team having played a single non-conference game (the Big 12 did not allow any of its soccer teams to schedule non-conference matches), both will have rust to shake off. The question will be, which can shake that rust off quicker?
While it may take time for either team to get back in a gameday mindset, the Longhorns' preparation only improved during the Covid-19 shutdown, thanks to a unique kind of accountability.
"We all stayed in touch [throughout quarantine] in fitness groups for our workouts, and you'd send it to your group when you finished a workout," Berg said. "It was really easy to stay motivated because your teammates were sending you pictures of them all sweaty after working out and it makes you think, 'I don't want to sit in bed all day, my teammates are working.'
"So it really did help. I can't imagine what it would have been like if we hadn't done it like that — especially for freshmen. We got to know them. If we didn't we would have come in like strangers, almost, and it would have taken a lot longer to build the relationships that we started over quarantine."
The Longhorns are no longer in quarantine, but the relationships built over the course of those several months are still very much in place, even if they only got to practice in person starting last month.
In a season that closely resembles a sprint from start to finish, the Longhorns are prepared and ready to seize the opportunity before them, making the most of the opportunity to get back on the pitch ... and there is still the possibility of an NCAA Tournament in the spring.
"We're still optimistic that it could be played this next spring," Kelly said, "but we'll cross that bridge when it happens."