Every coach wishes his athletes would think about the finer points of play when they’re away from practice or competition, but soccer coach Rob Donnenwirth can enjoy his evenings at home knowing that his starting midfielders are dissecting game strategy in their ECU apartment complex.
Senior Annah Lindberg, who was named ECU’s student-athlete of the month for August, recently walked next door to the apartment of two teammates to borrow some milk. Soon they were talking about the team’s recent losses to N.C. State and UNC-Charlotte and mapping out strategies for putting a more aggressive spin on the midfield.
“I went over there to ask for milk, and we ended up talking about practice, and then we were like, yeah, if we’re doing more of an attack we can do this, and I think we can incorporate that into the game,” said Lindberg, who transferred to ECU from N.C. State before her junior season. “All three of us got going.”
It’s that kind of eagerness to excel that Donnenwirth hopes will challenge his team to live up to the promise they showed with a 4-0 start to the season. After a disappointing 5-12-1 finish in 2016, the Pirates stand now at 4-2-1 after losses to N.C. State and UNC-Charlotte, but the early winning streak and the defeats both have been instructive as they head into the heart of their season.
“I like the group, we have a lot of new players, which is injecting some good life into the program, but the players that were here last year had to endure a tough year,” said Donnenwirth, who is in his 18th season at the helm of the program. “The positives that came from last year, I think, is that the players this year really have something to prove, and they’re being good leaders now, too.”
The area of greatest improvement for the Pirates this season, Donnenwirth said, is on defense, where new starting goalkeeper Michelle Newhouse and a group of experienced backs have given up only seven goals in as many games.
The arrival of Newhouse, a graduate student and West Virginia transfer, and elevated play from backup goalkeeper Genevieve Ramirez have fortified the Pirates goal, Donnenwirth said, and reliable returning backs like Rachel Renfrow and Jayda Hylton-Pelaia and freshman Kim Sanford have provided invaluable support for the keeper so far.
“A big change from last year is that we’re giving up less goals,” he said. “Part of that is the goalkeeper, part of it is the backs, but I think overall our whole team defending is a lot better. We do well when we’re playing good team defense and we’re connecting passes.”
That second area, presenting a clean, unified attack with pinpoint passes and winning the possession battle, will frame the Pirates’ efforts moving into two big home games – Thursday night against UNC-Wilmington and Sunday against 5th-ranked Virginia.
Even though the team was thrilled with its hot start, Lindberg believes the losses to the Wolfpack and 49ers have been more instructive in showing her and the rest of the offensive players what it will take to put together a successful campaign.
“It kind of humbled us a little, and it just really taught us some lessons about how important the little things are — passing to the correct foot, or checking at a better angle,” she said. “Inches really do matter, especially on the soccer field. Now we’re getting the opportunity to be more creative and generate more in the attack.”
Next week kicks off the American Athletic Conference schedule, featuring such challenges as 15th-ranked Central Florida, Memphis and Cincinnati. But before they focus on those obstacles, the Pirates hope to continue polishing their product against the rival Seahawks and the Cavaliers, whose program Donnenwirth calls “the gold standard of college soccer.”
With a beautiful weekend forecast, he is looking for plenty of Pirate fans to come see the new-look ECU squad as they look to get back in a winning groove.
“Coming out with the four wins was amazing, and I think it really set the tone for us, that winning and shutouts, that’s something we can do,” Lindberg said. “We just need to get it done.”