The smile strapped on Missouri senior Taiwo Adeshigbin’s face Friday night as she stood in the middle of Walton Stadium said it all.
Fresh off the best game of her college career, the look was an expression of relieved joy, the reward for hours of hard work put in under the summer sun.
“We had to stop her from working out at times this summer,” coach Brian Blitz said. “We’d catch her in between two-a-days doing abs and medicine ball skill work. I’d say, ‘Hey, Taiwo, you’ve already done it twice, not a third time.’ But it’s certainly paid off.”
It certainly has.
After not netting a single goal last season, Adeshigbin scored twice in two minutes Friday night, leading an explosive Missouri attack to a dominant 5-1 victory over No. 14-ranked Memphis in the Tigers’ season opener.
Adeshigbin practiced individually for three hours a day, five days a week throughout June and July, working on finishing balls from all over the field. When she finished against Memphis, she appeared to have put the practice in, scoring once on a 25-yard bullet from the right side and then with a header off a cross-field pass.
“My coach is always getting on me, thinking I’m working too hard,” she said. “But I don’t know, I love soccer. You just have to execute.”
Junior forward Alyssa Diggs said she was impressed by Adeshigbin's work ethic.
“Taiwo worked her butt off all summer,” Diggs said, who with three goals is the Tigers’ top scorer. “She’s an unsung hero. She’s out here all the time - in Devine, on the field - it’s crazy. She’s coming, as you can see.”
The emergence of Adeshigbin this season could polish a Tiger attack that returns 2011 All-Big 12 Conference selections Diggs and junior midfielder Dominique Richardson, who both tallied 12 points a year ago. Sophomore midfielder Kaysie Clark, who was named to the Big 12 All-Newcomer Team, is also back, along with standout sophomore goalkeeper McKenzie Sauerwein and junior defender Danielle Nottingham.
The offense has been explosive early on, notching seven goals in two games - including four in nine minutes against Memphis and one in the first minute of a 2-0 victory over the University of California-Santa Barbara on Sunday.
In their inaugural season in the Southeastern Conference, the Tigers will be led again by Blitz, the 17th-year coach who preaches aggressiveness and tenacity.
Blitz’s 2-0 squad unofficially began the season last week with an exhibition game against Southern Methodist, when they were dealt a 4-0 loss.
Afterward Blitz implemented a change in the Tigers’ formation, dropping an extra defender back and leaving only three midfielders. Blitz said this new 4-3-3 shape should improve the defense, and that when the defense plays well, it gives the offense more confidence to be aggressive.
“I think our personnel suits us better with this shape because we have so much depth up front and also in the back,” Blitz said. “We felt we had to take advantage of numbers.”
The Tigers will stick with the new format for the foreseeable future, especially given how well it’s worked so far. But Blitz didn’t throw away the possibility of going back to the 3-4-3.
“The good part about that is that we’re able to be flexible,” he said. “We can always go back to the old formation because we all know how to do it.”
What they won’t know is many of their new conference opponents. A rigorous 20-match schedule awaits the Tigers this fall. Of those matches, 12 are against teams that qualified for the NCAA tournament a year ago, and five are versus opponents they have never met.
Instead of focusing on the schools Missouri hasn’t played, he cited the ones they have as proof his team will be fine. Missouri is 2-1-1 against SEC teams in the past three seasons.