bleedCrimson.net: How has fall practice gone and where do you see your team heading into the opening weekend this weekend?
Blair Quinn: I think it's gone well overall. It's a long process and you get 16 days between your first day of preseason to your first game and that's never ever long enough to teach everything you need to teach but you try to hit all the main points. It was easier this year in regard that we returned about 95 percent of our team and we have four new freshmen coming in. Teaching, instead of teaching 27 new people we were reteaching 22 people and teaching four new people so that was nice.
bc.net: What are you looking for from your team in the first couple of games and in particular the season opener against Boise State?
BQ: The biggest surprise of the year is always the first game of the year because the only thing you know about a team is what you know about them historically as a program, they tend to play this system or that system. They have new players so what you know about them is kind of limited and really what you know about yourself is limited because you really haven't been tested in a game. What we're really looking for is to ideally play as many of our players that are traveling as possible and see how they stack up at game pace. That's the thing we've really been trying to stress since Monday is to play at game speed and I don't think that we're there yet to be very honest with you. I don't think we're playing fast enough yet. We're making some good decisions but I think the decisions are being executed too slowly. I really just think that's a product of not having played a real game yet and of course that won't happen until you play. That's what we're trying to get out of the first game, figure out what game speed is and figure out what our speed is in relation to that and see how many players we can get involved and have them playing well in the first game of the season.
bc.net: From the beginning of last season to the end of last season there was a pretty significant progression in the way your team played and how you wanted them to play, especially offensively. What growth have you seen over the offseason and through the first couple weeks of camp?
BQ: I think that's actually been the place we've grown the most is in the attack. I don't know if it's necessarily more options but the options are better. The kids got better over the spring. I think several of them made the commitment to get better of the summer and our attack is connecting better. That's always the hardest piece to put together. That's the piece that takes the most time to sort out. The actual timing of the pass and the timing of the run and who you're playing with and what their tendencies are. Defending quite frankly is hard work to begin with. There's always a system to defend within but individual defending comes down to working hard and playing smartly so that tends to come together a little more quickly than the attacking piece does.
bc.net: Going into your second season what are some things that you took away from last season that really worked well for you and what are some things that you went into this season saying, "I'm going to tweak this a little bit."
BQ: I think the system that we play is really what worked for the girls. I think we have the players to play the system that we run, the 4-3-3, and I think them understanding it more quickly this preseason showed that. One of the things I quite frankly don't think I did well enough last year was I don't think I spent enough time on the attack and specifically in the area in front of goal. I think we spent a lot of time building up to that point but I don't think I spent enough time teaching them about what their options were and decisions that could be made in that final 30 yards or so in front of goal.
That something that one of my assistants brought up to me and she was right and that's something we've tried to spend more time on this preseason is to spend more time in that final third so that we're more comfortable when we get opportunities to finish.
bc.net: This is really the first senior class that this program has had. How important is that and it's really another one of those firsts for the program.
BQ: It's huge. There have been a couple seniors here and there but this really is the first senior class. These kids were the freshmen when this thing started in 2009. It's huge. From a leadership standpoint, from a been there done that standpoint, they've seen all the scenarios at this point. They've played some difficult games, they've won some overtimes games and lost some overtime games, they've been in just about every scenario. They've been in the tournament two of the last three years and they have advanced once so they know what it's like. Really for this class and what I've been calling them in all the interviews is the foundation and they really are the foundation of this program. As coaches and assistant coaches and peripheral staff have come and gone, those kids that are remaining, the senior class, they started it and they're in their final year to finish it properly.
bc.net: Have you seen any difference in the way they've approached the offseason and this season knowing that this is their final season?
BQ: Yeah I have and again it's new for this program but I think you see that in any program with every class that becomes seniors. All of the sudden the light at the end of the tunnel you've been telling them about, you're only guaranteed 80 games, that's all you're guaranteed. All of the sudden they see the light at the end of the tunnel. All of the sudden they see the last 20 games on the schedule and hoping they get to play a few more. There's definitely an urgency to their approach and a little more professionalism to their approach. Part of just having been there and done it so often is they know what the expectations are of the people they're playing with. There's definitely a difference in their approach which is great to see.
bc.net: Let's take a look at each of your position groups and talk about the everyday players and who some of the kids you'd like to see push for some playing time and we'll start with the goal keepers.
BQ: Jess Schutter and Mikaela Bitner, both were here last year and unfortunately Bitner had an ACL injury so we didn't get to see her play until the spring and even then she was having some issues with the knee and so she didn't really get to play much in the spring. She's brand new to me in terms of seeing her play. She's performed well so far. She's still in the process of getting her timing back.
Schutter played a few games last year and played mostly at the end of the year and was good for us then. I think that she's done a good job this preseason so far. I don't think that either of them has really put a stranglehold on the job yet so I wouldn't be surprised to see both of them playing some in the next couple weeks.
They're both technically part of that senior class, they're both redshirt juniors but they've both been here from day one as well and they're both approaching the game the same way the seniors are as well and that's a good thing.
The back line, three of the four are the same as last year. We did make one change. We moved Elise [Nordin] from center back to holding center mid. Vanessa Thomas is playing right back, Courtney Irwin is playing center back and Megan Hendler is playing left back and they are blue collar, hard hat players. They bring their lunch pails to work every day and they just get after it. They're not going to do anything real flashy, they're not going to do anything that makes you go "holy cow" but they're hard to beat and they've been there together for a while so they know how to work together. The new one in that group right now starting at center back is Alexys Brownell. We call her "Brownie." She's come a long way. We kind of had some higher expectations for her last year but she got sick with mono for a while and then she got injured and just never really refound her form after the beginning of the year but she's come back really well this fall and she's been locking down that other center back spot next to Courtney Irwin.
bc.net: Before we move on, let's talk about Courtney Irwin and Megan Hendler a little bit more. Megan was one of those players that you were pleasantly surprised with last year and Courtney is one of the few kids that has started every single game in the program and she's that enforcer kind of player.
BQ: Hendler was definitely a pleasant surprise last year. She was one of those players who we had some conversation with in the offseason about how she'd had more of a limited role the year before I got here and she's more of an attacking player and I had some familiarity with her from my time in Phoenix and we talk about her playing in the back and as you know she started just about every game and played just about every minute for us last year at left back and she was awesome. She was our defensive player of the year for the team and she was great at left back and we're seeing all the same things from her this year.
Irwin, you're right she's kind of the, for lack of a better term, hockey-style enforcer and if you beat her you're going to pay for it. Those players are good to have and as long as she makes smart decisions and makes those plays at the right time it's good to have those type of players around. Courtney is definitely the vocal leader of that back line and she's the one that's talking the loudest and the most and the one who's organizing the most and she's a very good athlete and she's strong. Those are all very good attributes to have at the center back spot. She's actually the only player at this point to have started every single game in the program's history. That's a pretty neat accomplishment.
bc.net: Moving on with the position groups up next is the midfielders.
BQ: The mids are a pleasant surprise this year. That's where I've been the happiest. It's where I think we're the deepest in overall talent and leadership and I just think it's a really good midfield. We moved Elise from center back to holding center mid. I think she's got great feet and she wasn't really getting an opportunity to show those when we had her at center back. She connects the ball really well, she can dribble and hold onto the ball really well. The holding center mid is similar to the center back role but it's got more attacking responsibilities and she's good at that.
Daisy Hernandez and Mary Kate Koziol have been awesome together at the attacking mid spot. The three of them so far have been the best trio together. Having said that, Lauren Cope has played really well in the preseason. She's kind of been playing with a chip on her shoulder. She's about 5'1" and I think she kind of always plays with that chip on her shoulder but she had hurt her knee last year in about the fourth day of preseason and was never 100 percent the whole year and just didn't give us what we were hoping for from her and what she was hoping to give but she's doing that now which is good.
Katie Smith who we call Scooter because we have two Katie Smiths on our team. Scoot's been very good on the dribble as she usually is. She's a young player and we're still trying to get her to connect her passes more when she sees a forward in the gaps but she sees situations very well and she probably defends the best of the attacking mids in terms of her ability to track back. She'll slide tackle somebody to poke a ball away. It's a really good midfield rotation.
The forwards is probably where we're the deepest in terms of total numbers. Yolanda McMillion has had a very good preseason. Cass De Leon has improved quite a bit. She's played much better for us in the preseason than she did at the end of last season. Jennae Cambra has had a pretty good preseason as well. She's still a young player so she has some ups and downs but she has been pretty good overall. The pleasant surprise up there has been Sam Sandoval, she's a freshman. The kid's got very good pace. She's small but man is she scrappy. She plays bigger than she is, she's got great pace and she's got a good left foot. It'll be nice to have her up there on that line providing some depth.
Both Meghan Gerry and our other Katelyn Smith who we call "Calvin", those two were walk-ons last fall and returned to us this fall and both have improved tremendously. They're both better now than when they left us in the spring. That's our deepest spot.
Bree Luhrsen is kind of our big tall target type forward. She's a kid who's about 5'10" or so and very good feet. That's a pretty deep spot for us overall.
For us it's more about us as a coaching staff trying to find the best combination of players when they're in there together.
bc.net: The sophomore class had a pretty tremendous impact on the field last year as freshmen, you had a couple of good goal scorers out of the freshman group as well. What are you expecting from them in year two?
BQ: Playing as many minutes as they did as freshmen helps tremendously. Unfortunately right now we've got a couple injuries in that class. Amber Harrington is out for now with an injury, Katelynn Tupponce is out for now with an injury so a couple of them are out right now but them returning having played as many minutes as they did is huge. That's our biggest class in terms of numbers and it's important that they were as involved as they were as freshmen and that they continue to be as involved as they go through all four years because no matter how many players we keep bringing in we're never going to be able to over-recruit that class in terms of sheer numbers and the talent there is. They've got to continue to be the next group behind that foundation group because the junior class is very small.
bc.net: You added a new assistant coach this year, Scott Smith, what type of impact has he had so far?
BQ: Scott's been great. He's a guy I knew out of Phoenix already and when I knew the position was going to come open, we had some good applicants and he applied and that for me was like a no-brainer. He's a guy that I had actually coached a club team with for a couple years in Phoenix and he'd been around. He's well respected with the junior college he was at as well as the high school level. He understand the system because we played this system with our club team and he's been a good addition right off the bat. He's a good balance to me. I'm pretty loud and high energy and he tends to be more mellow and he's good with grabbing players individually and getting in their ear while I might be yelling across the field at somebody or trying to get an entire group or line of players to do something. He's good at getting in a player's ear and saying, "Hey, we need a little more of this or a little more of that," and I think the girls are responding real well to him.
bc.net: This year's schedule is a unique situation because of the number of teams that left and the number of teams that came into the league, you do have a conference schedule but it's almost like the entire schedule is a non-conference schedule.
BQ: Yeah, it's kind of weird like that. I think we've got seven or eight teams on our schedule that we've never played before and I think four of them we're not going to play again probably. It's kind of unique. It's certainly the toughest schedule in the history of the program. The first couple of years you've just gotta play whoever will play you and now that we've been established we've got a little bit of a tougher schedule. If you look there's a five game stretch in ten days that's really tough. I think the whole idea of it is to set us up for conference play. We've got some tough road games, we've got some tough home games and that's really the idea. When conference play begins we've got to be ready for that. Texas Tech is tough, UNM is tough, UTEP is tough, Montana went to the tournament last year and we're at their place. UC-Riverside has a new coach this year who I know really well, Matt Gonzalez, he's been an assistant with the national team for years and with the U-20s, he's going to do a great job with UC-Riverside. Starting right off the bat with Boise State, I'm great friends with Steve Lucas and his teams are always prepared to play.
It's a good schedule. It's a schedule that if we play really well we could come out with a really good RPI and who knows maybe 12, 13 wins or more. It's also a schedule that if we come out and have two bad weekends, we could be looking at six wins. It's that kind of schedule where every game is probably going to come down to a goal or two and probably even a goal in the last half. I'm really happy with it.
bc.net: One of the issues that was concerning for you last year was the starts of games and not quite having the energy level you wanted at the beginning. What are some things that you're hoping to see, especially in this first game against Boise State, from that standpoint?
BQ: It's funny because we actually just addressed that today. We told them we were going to play for 30 minutes and do a half and we ended up doing that and we said get some water, take five minutes and then we're going to play for five more minutes and those five minutes are the first five minutes of the game. You're not to give up a goal in those five minutes and if you score we'll end it. If you score in a minute we'll end it. We ended up playing the full five minutes but it was much better in terms of the energy in that five. It is something we've continued to focus on is our start of games. The first five minutes will be really key. I think we've addressed that appropriately and I think we'll see a difference. I thought we finished games well last year, especially coming from behind. I think we were the cardiac kids there for a little while last year, four straight overtime games and things like that. While that's great that we finished so strongly, it's the starting so slowly that put us in that position. So I think we'll see better starts out of us this year.
bc.net: What are some of the goals you have for this season and what are some of the mini-goals you have for maybe a weekend or some of the stretches during the season?
BQ: Obviously the main goal, especially the senior class, it's been every bit as much their goal as it has been mine to win the WAC Championship. That's something they feel like that they've been here long enough and regardless of who's in here new and who's out that it's something they can do. The girls were none too happy when that preseason poll came out and that eight was next to our name again. Neither was I but it's a preseason poll and it is what it is. It's certainly been a motivating factor for the girls to not only not finish eighth but to win the conference.
Individually one of the things they talked about, we talk about the "no big game" theory because the only big game is the next game, what they talked about doing is going 1-0 19 times. They just want to win one game every time they play. At the end of the day if they do that we'll be 19-0 but that's the way they're approaching it. They want to go 1-0 19 times and I really like that. That's a goal of theirs. I think winning every home games, you never want to lose at home, especially because we only have eight home games and 11 road games so that's important.
Then we have a lot of little goals like how many goals we want to score. We want to break last year's goal total, we want to break last year's goals against total. That's something you want to do every year is score more and concede fewer.
bc.net: You're going to open up in your new facility this season. How important is that for the program?
BQ: I think it's a huge step for the program. When you get kids on campus and you're recruiting. Last year we were saying, "This is the space over here that we're going to play in, I know it doesn't look like it yet." Then we're playing in Aggie Memorial which is a great football stadium but it wasn't built for soccer. It was a decent temporary home but to have our own facility now, it looks awesome. We've finally just gotten all the pieces put together this last week. We got the benches put up with bench covers that say New Mexico State Soccer across the top of them. We have new World Cup style box goals at each end with the box next that gives it that professional look. The stands are up, the field surface looks great. The grounds crew is still figuring it out too. They're still working on how much water is the right amount of water and when to mow. They're doing a great job. It looks awesome. The girls can't wait to play. I think if you asked them, specifically the seniors, they'd tell you how excited they are to play. The freshmen are lucky because that's all they're going to know. That's their stadium from now on. But the seniors having played in Aggie Memorial Stadium for three years and now to get their own facility, I think it's a really big deal to them.