Women’s soccer returns to play after extended layoff due to COVID-19

The+San+Diego+State+women%E2%80%99s+soccer+team+celebrates+after+scoring+a+goal+during+the+Aztecs%E2%80%99+1-0+win+on+Oct.+4%2C+2019+at+the+SDSU+Sports+Deck.

File photo

The San Diego State women’s soccer team celebrates after scoring a goal during the Aztecs’ 1-0 win on Oct. 4, 2019 at the SDSU Sports Deck.

by Devin Whatley and Reese Savoie

San Diego State women’s soccer has not played a game since Nov. 19, 2019, when they lost to Boise State in the Mountain West Conference championship game. 

They were hoping to play a fall season last year, but it was postponed due to COVID-19 concerns. 

More than 430 days have passed since that final game. However, starting in March, the team will finally get their chance to compete on the pitch.

Here are a few observations entering the 2021 women’s soccer season.

1. An unorthodox schedule

Last August, the Aztecs had an initial fall schedule set with non-conference games and Mountain West games on the slate. 

Head coach Mike Friesen said he felt that at the time, some games could end up being postponed or canceled because of high COVID-19 cases going on across California. 

Then came the postponement, and all of the non-conference games were no more.

Now with this new schedule, the Aztecs will be playing 20 conference games where they face five opponents at home and on the road. 

“It was done based on geography more than anything else, ease of getting to those places, cost and then safety and all that,” Friesen said. 

Set to face the team this season is a mix of opponents who finished at the top, middle and lower half of the conference standings two years ago. 

The Aztecs face two of the bottom teams in the league with UNLV and Nevada, the fourth and fifth place finishers, San Jose State and Fresno State – and the conference tournament champion  Boise State. 

 “It’ll be a good test on our side, that we’re going to play in this (west division),” Friesen said. “It’ll be good to get a chance to see what teams do against us, and then if we can adjust and do things the second time around, and make some changes.”

Many of the players are looking forward to finally getting a shot at getting back on the field.

“The games are what we look forward to,” senior defender Sarah Broacha said. 

Senior midfielder/forward Chloe Frisch felt the same way.

“I’m really looking forward to getting to play again because we haven’t been able to play,” she said. “We’ve just been practicing, and practicing isn’t the most fun part about it – it’s the games, so I’m excited to do that.”

Whoever finishes first in the West Division will face the winner of the Mountain Division in a single-game elimination match for the conference title. This year, the conference title winner will get an automatic bid to the NCAA women’s soccer Championships. 

2. Time away allows freedom to grow

After the fall season was postponed, Friesen and the team continued going through three different phases of practice – from running, to socially distanced passing drills and mini-scrimmages – with the hope of slowly building toward full 11-on-11 games.

As the season nears, a lot of players have used this time off to improve themselves, both mentally and physically. 

“Mentally, I’ve been really having to focus on the joy that soccer brings me,” senior defender Jordan Girman said. “There were times during this pandemic when I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. I have five more months before I get to join my team, how am I gonna stay motivated?’”

Broacha used her time to rest and refocus. 

“To take a little rest time, when I first stopped (last spring it) was really essential for my body,” she said. “I kind of just needed a little recovery.”

Other players have focused on maintaining their fitness over the break. Frisch sees it in practice, and believes it will translate when games start. 

“I think people came back (in great shape) and even our soccer has been pretty good,” she said. “I think that that’s because people are excited – we haven’t played in so long.”

Girman said she’s been focusing on keeping herself healthy on levels that go beyond just physical. 

“What I really worked on this year was just my fitness, because I knew that was going to be an ultimate factor, and you know as (Coach Friesen) said, he’s been kind of worried about injuries, and I am unfortunately one of those players that is pretty injury-prone,” she said. “I’ve been focusing on my physical health and my mental health, to just make sure that I am ready to take on the challenges that this season is going to bring.”

She said that keeping herself mentally sharp has been key for her in the offseason. 

“Being off the field for that long, your brain kind of forgets how quickly you have to be thinking on the pitch because soccer is a game that’s constantly moving,” Girman said. “So I think just by training my brain to keep going and making sure my fitness is up to where it needs to be I’ll be in good shape and so far so good.” 

“I think that’s what I get excited about: we have a bunch of players that have committed to their fitness and getting better and learning,” Friesen said.

Time away for the Scarlet and Black has opened the door for players to work on their game – which they hope will make a difference in this unprecedented season.

3. Depth and experience aplenty

Heading into this season, the Aztecs return 18 scholarship players. 

Despite losing four seniors – most notably MWC Defensive Player of the Year Brooke Lisowski – to graduation, Friesen believes the amount of experience and depth coming back is a major plus. 

“We only get (student-athletes) for three and a half years,” he said. “So the fact that we have our seniors for this spring, and then we’re going to get them again, most of them for next fall, that’s the part that gets exciting, thinking about how mature we can be.”

Heading into a season where a COVID-19 case could put one player out for two to four games, having enough players ready to play becomes more valuable than previous years. Considering the circumstances of one conference bid to the NCAA Championships only adds more weight to it.

The Scarlet and Black return depth in their front seven, and Friesen believes they are in better shape now compared to when they won the regular season title last season.

“I think we’re in a way better spot depth wise and we were in the fall of 2019,” Friesen said. “We’re gonna be so deep and so good it’s gonna be scary.”

There’s hope among the team that this depth will translate to fresher legs, healthier players and more victories this season. 

4. Keeping chemistry high 

With the team returning to the field amidst the ongoing pandemic comes the adherence of specific rules designed to keep the players safe. 

Namely, remaining inside each of their respective COVID-19 bubbles. 

“We have to do a really good job of making sure we maintain our bubble and not getting anybody in a position where we’re missing (a player) for symptoms of COVID or for COVID itself, and trying to manage them so that we are healthy and can be deep,” said Friesen. 

Broacha said that the size of the team makes it challenging, yet all the more important to minimize unnecessary contact when possible. 

“(The team) is a big group of people, so it’s just kind of keeping to your circles when you go home and not seeing that many people even though you want to,” she said. “That’s (coach Friesen’s) biggest concern: one person gets it and then their entire house has to be quarantined with them missing games, which could really affect the season.” 

Girman said that although the protocols surrounding this unprecedented season are frustrating, her teammates keep her going. 

“Everything that we do is working towards a goal and working towards playing and getting somewhere,” Girman said. “No matter how annoying it is that we have to test multiple times a week or that we have to social distance with each other, no matter what we have a goal in mind, and we’re just constantly working towards that.”

“Sometimes we have to remind each other, but that’s what being a team is about,” Girman added.

Staying connected as a team is another area that’s been made difficult by the pandemic. However, the team’s chemistry has remained high despite not being able to see one another as often.

Frisch said that experiencing the difficulties brought on by the pandemic together has allowed the team to bond in a way they never thought possible.

“I’d say that it kind of forced us to get a little closer because we went through this quarantine and losing a season together,” she said. “I mean it’s been hard; I’m not gonna say it was easy, because it wasn’t. We’ve been training a bunch with no goal in sight for a while, but then finally they gave us a season so I’d say that because we went through something difficult together, that made us come closer as a team.” 

Girman agrees.

“I think because of the pandemic we had such an emphasis on getting to know each other because we knew that that could be a problem,” she said. 

5. Winning season, winning attitude 

SDSU saw their previous season end back in November 2019 when they fell to conference rival Boise State 2-0 in the MW Championship. 

This year, the Scarlet and Black will face off against the Broncos once again — this time at home. 

“We’re super excited,” said senior defender Jordan Girman. “We’re so ready to take them on and show them what we’ve got, because we have a whole different team and they have a whole different team too.” 

Frisch said that she’s looking forward to a shot at redemption. 

“It’ll be cool to play them at home because we haven’t played them here in so long, and hopefully get another chance to prove ourselves,” Frisch said. 

Friesen said he’s excited to get back on the field against an old competitor. 

“(Boise State head coach Jim Thomas) and I are good friends, and I think this is a fun rivalry where they play good soccer, we play good soccer. It’s a good game,” he said.

Defeating the Broncos is only part of the team’s ultimate goal for the team’s upcoming campaign. 

Their main objective? Win it all. 

Friesen believes that they have the tools — and the team — to do just that. 

Aside from an increased amount of practice time given the postponement of their usual fall season and a schedule that avoids the challenge of playing at high altitudes, the Aztecs have added some new pieces to their roster that Friesen believes will take them far. 

“We have a couple of transfers: (sophomore defender) Claire Watkins who was at Oregon and then (junior midfielder) Anna Toohey who was at North Carolina State, as well as our current freshmen,” he said. 

These freshmen include goalkeeper Alexa Madueno and forward Emma Gaines-Ramos, both of whom have much to contribute to the team. 

Although the squad visualizes a MWC Championship title as their endgame, coach Friesen said what matters most is being able to get back on the field and have a good time. 

“I think that’s the main thing for all of us coaches: we just want to get our kids back out there competing and enjoying it, which is what sports are about,” Friesen said. “We’re hoping that we come out on top and win and all those things, but at the same time we’re excited just to compete.” 

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