When Vanessa Mann was hired as the ninth head coach of the UMBC women's soccer program in January, she came to Baltimore with a plan to make the team the best it possibly it could be. And that meant she needed to be schooled herself by her own athletes.
"We're seven months into this and the whole goal, especially for this first year, was to watch, listen, and ask questions," Mann said. "Hearing some of the things the student-athletes are wanting had to do a lot with consistency and being clear and concise with a message. So we've tried to identify a few things and do them really well, day in and day out."
The team holds a pre-training meeting every morning and currently is in a team book club, reading Chop Wood, Carry Water by Joshua Medcalf, which is helping the team to become better versions of themselves.
"It's all about focusing and falling in love with the process about how we do it. It's broken into 35 chapters and we focus on a chapter a day, and we can relate it back to everything we do, whether it be school, soccer, or social," Mann said.
Last season, the program finished with a 4-10-3 record and last in the America East with a 2-6 record. While some would focus on trying to automatically overhaul what was wrong, Mann is prepared for all the bumps that come her way during this first year.
"I have contingency plans, and I think that's why I'm easy going. I spend a lot of time looking at all the things that can go wrong. Am I a pessimist? I don't think so," Mann said. "But I'm ready for those moments where something does go wrong or things need to be tweaked. We never have just a Plan A – we have a B, C, and D, so we're good to go."
While Mann understands that not everything is going to go right the first time around, she also wasn't prepared to come in and overhaul the entire operation that was in place before her. She was ready for the rebuild slowly and thoroughly.
"I haven't come in and said 'This is how we're going to do things.' I got here and I've just been listening. And when you listen, a lot of the feedback you get is actually what you want to implement anyway," Mann said. "We've just had to have honest conversations about if we want clear and concise messages from the staff, is it okay that they ask for the same in return."
It's these messages and ideals that have fueled the team's hashtag for the season: #BeUncommon.
"Essentially for us, there are over 300 Division I women's soccer programs. And 64 of those of teams get it initially right, they get to participate in the NCAA tournament. But only one team at the end of the year is satisfied, and that's the national champion. So, everyone else is trying to work out ways to do things differently," Mann said.
While winning is something that the team has yet to experience together with new leadership, Mann wants to make sure that the women are able to set themselves apart from the rest of the pack in other ways.
"For us, we don't know what it's like to win so what I have to instill in them is we do things differently. It's showing up early to things, it's making sure you're clear and concise with your job description, when a recruit and their family comes on campus, the first thing you do is you shake their hand, look them in the eye and you introduce yourself, we don't make recruits sleep on the ground, we get air mattresses," Mann said. "It's these different things that maybe other schools don't do, but it's what sets us apart. At the end of the day, I'm not asking the girls to do something that they can't already do, so that's why we're just asking them to be the best versions of themselves. It's pretty simple."
A Look into the Future
As the team moves through the opening phases of their schedule, Mann is relying heavily on her returners to guide the incoming players through the first few weeks of the collegiate soccer experience.
"What we've initially been doing is breaking up the season into phases. Phases one is a little bit of what we've been doing in the spring anyway," Mann said. "A majority of the program is returners, so we've been putting a little bit more responsibility on them to relay the message, foundationally, to the freshmen. We have our own language that we speak within the program and it's been good."
Within the team, each player is tasked with finding who they want to be on the field and using that to strengthen the team to help in any situation.
"Each woman has a job responsibility pertaining to where she is and wants to play on the field, whether attacking or defending or within those transition moments and it can be adapted to whoever we play against. It's very basic at its core," Mann said.
Mann's schedule features tried and true opponents, such as Robert Morris, Loyola (Md.), Mount St. Mary's, and Towson, while also featuring a newcomer to the fold as the Retrievers face NJIT for the first time in their 30-year history.
But, Mann believes that each of the team's non-conference opponents just helps to prepare the team for the battle that comes in the America East schedule.
"I think the non-conference schedule, when you look at it, has a variety of different opponents that you could pick pieces of that will illuminate themselves in our America East opponents. So I think they're really going to set us up to be successful later on in the season," Mann said. "Right now, we're just looking at each phase, and we know we've got a couple games in each phase, so we're just taking those one step at a time."
This season, the Retrievers were picked to finish ninth in the America East preseason poll – the same place they ended the 2017 season. But, Mann doesn't let the numbers deter from what the team is trying to accomplish on the field.
"Here's the thing with polls, whether preseason or in-season: it's always someone else's opinion on what it is you do, but no one knows what we do on a daily basis. We have a working model for this season, we've broken it into phases," Mann said. "We have the opinions of what people will think we'll do, and then we have the ones where we're realistic. There may be games that we do lose, it won't be a shock to us, but there are games that are winnable for us and we're going to go in as if we're trying to win every game. We're not going to be disappointed if we lost when everyone else didn't think we were going to win anyway."
Breaking down the Squad
The Retrievers will return 21 letterwinners from a season ago, with just the departures of seniors Gabby Boehmer and Madison Koening, as well as sophomore Jamie Shiflett. This year, Mann is looking to utilize the players in the ways that they fit best into the program.
On the front lines, Mann believes that there are strong group of contenders, both returning and newcomers, that can help to be an offensive push. Christina Corbi, Elysia Paolillo, Emily Horn, and Wren Aye return to the forwards position from a season ago.
"The ladies that play in more advanced positions for us, we have a great depth. The depth up there, not only from incoming freshmen to our senior class, they all bring something different. Within that 10 to 11 that could play up there, we're just trying to find those pairings again," Mann said. "We don't have starters for us right now; everyone's playing a specific role and we've preached since we got here that we need everyone to share the load, which means the intensity of the game will never drop because it's that next man up mentality. I think we're just trying to find the right pairings with who we have so we can roll in the next line of people we've got."
Last season, freshman Erin Stevenson led the team with nine points off four goals and one assist, including a three-goal performance in the last game of the season against New Hampshire. Stevenson, Nikki Saad, Meredith Webber, Olivia Bronson, along with the rest of the midfield will be a source of duality throughout the year.
"Those in the middle of the park, it's like a hybrid role for us. They do have those attacking qualities, but they also have those defensive qualities that they'll always take care of us," Mann said. "We have a few people we can have in there and the job looks depending on who is in there, so we're just looking for those pairings."
In the back portion of the pitch, Mann identified this as the strongest unit of the group as it is made up of mostly upperclassmen. Katie Berkowitz, Sydney Donovan, Rayven Conner, and Marissa O'Connor all return to the lineup from last season.
"Those who are playing in the defensive positions, we have mainly returners. Which is a great thing because those relationships have already been developed. Now we're just getting to know each other a little deeper, we can be a little more specific with what we're asking from them just because they have that basic foundation," Mann said. "We can stretch them a little bit more, whether it's range of passing or positions. They're going to be more of the leaders for us in set pieces and over the last week, that's what they've done."
"When you get to the goalkeeper role, we have three completely different women who each in their own could get the job done. We're just looking for the one who steps up and is able to take charge of it," Mann said. "Again, the role looks different but at the core, who gets the job description done more efficiently and more effectively at a higher rate [will be the starter]. We're still in the evaluation phase."
Mann's purpose with the 2018 team is to help scrub the rust off the exterior from last season and reveal the shining examples of UMBC women's soccer to the world, whether in the surrounding community or elsewhere.
"What I want to do is just make sure that everyone understands that's out there, that's coming to watch us or watching from afar that we have 28 incredible women here," Mann said. "The more I can showcase that, whether it's in the classroom, on the field, or you see them out there in their volunteering commitments, that if you brought your young daughter or son to a game, that you would want them to be mentored by them. We're just looking forward to getting the community out there. "
While she knows that this season is going to "happen either way," Mann is ready for the year to begin and to have her team's mentality be about the family they've created around them and not themselves.
"At the end of the day, we know we've got each other's back. The girls have already been saying we treat this like a family," Mann said. "We have an acronym: 'forget about me, I love you.' So you can't make this about you."