As Mount Mansfield took on Burlington in the first game of the season, it looked like a return to last year’s form, as the Cougars struggled to score and fell 1-0 in overtime. Since then, the team has wiped last year from everyone’s minds.
Mount Mansfield rebounded to win its next three games, including victories over defending Division 1 champ Middlebury and Champlain Valley. After the first four games of the season, the Cougars are well on the way to matching — and surpassing — last year’s four-win season.
The start of the season was a question mark for Mount Mansfield after a so-so season last year and a group of young, inexperienced players coming in this year.
Head coach Paige Manning credits the early season success to commitment from her players to put in the work this off-season.
“These guys all came in prepared,” Manning said. “The girls came in fit and took the time during the summer to go to camps and play as often as they could. They came in ready to go when we started instead. They are a little bit ahead of themselves.”
A team that had a number of unknowns heading into this season, summer workouts organized by senior captains Zoe Walsh and Helen Cox helped the returning core jell with the newcomers right off the bat.
“We just kind of wanted to get ready for pre-season,” Walsh said. “It did help us get to know the younger players so that we can play well with them.”
“The summer thing is something that our program always does,” Cox said. “There is no intentional team bonding, but we try as a program to help everyone out.”
“I think we have a really good team dynamic,” said Shelbe Van Winkle, a senior defender. “We work really hard in practice and we have really gotten to know each other as a team.”
Another instrumental part of the Cougars’ first two wins was strong team defense, evidenced by the fact that they have given up only one goal in four games. Senior defender Van Winkle and Wynne Poleman were given kudos by Manning, but the coach was quick to mention the philosophy that she uses to preach defense to all her teams.
“We have a theory that defense is a concept, not a position,” Manning said. “Any time we don’t have the ball our entire team is on defense.”
“We get really competitive against each other so we have game-like situations in practice and it helps up prepare for the game,” Van Winkle said.
The main difference so far this season has been the ability to score goals, a problem that plagued the Cougars all last season. So far they have been able to find the back of the net, including scoring five goals against Middlebury, which is a relief to the coach.
“The goal scoring piece is something we have worked hard on because last year it was terrible for us,” Manning said. “It was just them focusing on the details, instead of being all scattered and running around.”
The Cougars’ good start has them right in the middle of an ultra-competitive D-I. Parity is the name of the game so far this season and Manning has her players taking the season a game at a time because there are no breaks in the schedule.
“I think we are all excited about what we have done so far but also really conservative and planning on doing the hard work until the end,” Manning said. “I think if these guys stay focused on what they want and work hard every day, who knows, we’ve got our fingers crossed.”