As Mizzou soccer gains young talent, the team identity evolves

A strong group of underclassmen have lead the Tigers’ offensive attack this season, reflecting a shift to a more offensive-minded program.
Freshman Sarah Luebbert blocks out her defender while focusing on controlling the ball for the next pass.

Last season, the Missouri soccer team was known for its defense. The Tigers allowed the fewest goals in the Southeastern Conference during their 2015 campaign, leading the team to a second-place regular season finish in the SEC, an all-time high for the program.

This year’s squad is looking to build on 2015’s success, but using a different style of play. Propelled by young players with strong offensive skillsets, the Tigers are beginning to take more shots, score more goals and win more games on the strength of their offense.

“[The ability to score goals] is something that the youth has added to us that maybe we didn’t have last year,” coach Bryan Blitz said. “I hope it carries on, you never know with freshmen, but at least they came and performed under pressure.”

A key aspect in this influx of talent has been the play of freshman Sarah Luebbert and redshirt freshman Madison Lewis. Through the first few games, Luebbert and Lewis have taken the majority of the team’s shots and taken a leading role on the offense.

“We have more depth in the attacking line,” Blitz said, “whether it is [Lewis] who...can score in the air on set pieces or Sarah Luebbert who, with her speed, really wants to go to goal. That’s the difference.”

Lewis recognizes her and Luebbert’s early success. She credits it to her coaches’ and teammates’ insistence on an aggressive style of play.

“Our coaches just keep telling us every game before the game to just go for it,” Lewis said. “Don’t be scared, be courageous. We just keep pushing forward, even if our shots aren’t falling at the beginning, we just keep going and going and going. Eventually, they fall.”

Senior Melanie Donaldson has been a key player for the Tigers since her arrival on campus three years ago. Needless to say, she has seen the team progress and evolve during her time with Mizzou, a cycle that she has come to enjoy.

“It’s sad to see older girls go, but it’s also exciting to have these new girls coming in,” Donaldson said. “We tend to bring in an offensive line and a defensive line. So, mixing that in is pretty cool, and getting everybody to mesh right away is fun.”

Now a senior, Donaldson has embraced her role as a team leader and mentor for the young and talented players. She empathizes with their situation.

“Being an upperclassmen, I’ve been there,” Donaldson said. “As a freshman, the greatest support I could’ve had was my seniors helping me out and telling me what to do. Freshmen are always a little nervous. We’re just excited for them to be there. They’re like little babies and we’re the grandmas.”

Blitz believes the role the seniors play and what they do for the younger players and the team as a whole relieves a little of the stress off of his shoulders.

“We always let [the seniors] go in,” Blitz said. “The seniors are in there at halftime organizing and saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to do this,’ and, ‘We’re okay.’ So, they’re doing exactly what they should do, and that is their natural leadership skills. That certainly makes my job a lot easier.”

Luebbert recognizes and appreciates the help from the seniors and coaches as she and her teammates make the transition to an important offensive role. Luebbert also believes that they appreciate the aggression she and her young teammates have shown.

“[The upperclassmen and coaches] welcomed us,” Luebbert said. “I think they like the intensity and excitement that we bring. We’re new to this. We’re really excited to start showing people the skills that we have. Everyone has been really helpful and supportive in helping our transition from high school to college.”

Just like Luebbert is impressed with the way she has been treated by the upperclassmen and coaches, Donaldson is impressed by the progress the young players have made since joining the team.

“Our freshmen and underclassmen are picking up real quick and I’m like, ‘Dang!’” Donaldson said. “Everybody is really adjusting to and embracing their new roles. Luckily, the underclassmen have been huge this season as far as adjusting and being real flexible with what we are trying to do.”

This ability to adapt and progress quickly may have been the result of the preparation the team put in before the start of the season.

“We begin at the beginning of July to incorporate the freshmen and make sure we’re all on the same page as far as team rules and our goals for the season,” Donaldson said. “So, we’re starting mid-summer to form that personality for the team so we can implement at the beginning of August.”

Luebbert took a more proactive approach in preparation for the season than some of the other new players; she began working with the team in January. After graduating from Jefferson City High School in December 2015, Luebbert enrolled at MU for the spring semester and trained with the team. This, Luebbert believes, is the reason for her success and steady playing time.

“I do not think that I would be playing nearly as much as I am if I hadn’t come in January,” Luebbert said. “I was able to lift and gain some confidence playing at this high of a level. It definitely paid off.”

Blitz also believes Luebbert’s early appearance helped her in the long run.

“I think the spring really helped her grow,” Blitz said. “She’s really nine months further than the typical freshman.”

While the early-season progress on offense is optimistic, Blitz plans to remain patient. Blitz is not looking to the new players to carry the team. Instead, he is looking to upperclassmen to be leaders on and off the field.

““We have to be patient,” Blitz said. “They’re freshmen. They’re here for a reason, they have a certain skill set, but it’s an 18-year-old playing against a 22-year-old. So there is a learning curve on that end of it. They can’t solve everything. There are plenty of older players that can step into that leadership role.”

A good example of an upperclassman that Blitz anticipates taking a strong leadership role is Donaldson. He believes Donaldson is a key player for the Tigers.

“[Donaldson] is invaluable,” Blitz said. “We can play a certain way only because she is on the field. Also, she makes sure that everybody is focused off the field.”

In the end, Donaldson doesn’t pay much attention to the changing dynamic of the team. Instead, she is focused on the goals for the season and the things that brought them all together.

“Last year we got so close to a conference title,” Donaldson said. “That’s our goal this year...to get that finally, get to the NCAA tournament and get further in the SEC tournament. We want to get better and keep learning and advancing the Mizzou program. We’re all here for a reason. We chose this school for a reason.”

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