Former UT women’s soccer head coach Brian Pensky may have departed to take over the programs at defending national champion Florida State, but he didn’t leave the cupboard bare.
The No. 11 Tennessee women’s soccer team returns 10 starters from a 2021 season that saw the Lady Vols finish second in the SEC regular season and capture the SEC tournament title.
Tennessee won a program-best 20 games in 2021, going 20-3 and reaching the NCAA Round of 16.
The Lady Vols were picked to finish first in the SEC this season in a preseason coaches poll. They opened the season last Thursday with a 3-0 loss to No. 10 North Carolina in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
It marked the debut for new head coach Joe Kirt, who was promoted to replace Pensky in late April. Kirt has been a member of the Tennessee coaching staff since 2007, and has watched the program build into a national contender.
“I think Joe has given us a lot of freedom. He wants us to grow as players and as people,” says fifth-year senior defender Abbey Burdette. “He’s given us a lot more decision-making (power) and more freedom on the field, which I think is allowing us to grow mentally and physically on the field.”
Tennessee features a mix of seasoned veterans and a young core of promising newcomers.
Three Lady Vols were named to the Hermann Trophy Watch List, which honors the best women’s player in college soccer. Fifth-year senior Mackenzie George, redshirt junior Jaida Thomas and sophomore Taylor Huff all made their first career appearance on the 61-player list.
Thomas earned second-team All-American honors last season after scoring a team-high 13 goals and adding six assists. With 25 goals in two seasons, she is already tied for 10th on the all-time career goals list.
George, a first-team All-SEC and All-Region selection, tallied a team-high 10 assists in 2021 and finished third on the team in total points with 22.
Huff completed a standout rookie season by scoring 10 goals in 22 starts and being named SEC Freshman of the Year.
Tennessee’s signing class was ranked No. 6 by Top Drawer Soccer, and features nine field players and one goalkeeper. Freshmen Layla Shell and Macaira Midgley arrived on campus in January and went through the spring season with the team.
“With the compressed preseason we have – and we all talk about it as coaches – but the amount of information they get thrown at them is just a lot,” Kirt says of the newcomers. “So trying to get them to process all of that and understand it and then do it at speed is hard, but they’ve been amazing. They’ve been great. They continue to get better each time we get on the field, and they’re certainly more comfortable being around us and their team.”
Kirt is trying to manage the team’s workload to ensure they are not worn down by the pressure of games, practices and workouts while also balancing school and personal lives.
“After training sessions, they all fill out a questionnaire that says, ‘How difficult was it physically, how difficult was it mentally, and overall how hard was the day?’ And that gives us an idea of where their stress is,” Kirt says. “We have to stress unload them in different ways, but we also have to make sure they’re rested and ready to go. That’s been the biggest balance. It’s just making sure they’re fresh during a really congested time, both physically and mentally.”
The Lady Vols are in the midst of a six-game homestand before beginning SEC play against Florida on Sept. 16 in Gainesville. They are playing on a new field at Regal Stadium.
“We couldn’t be more excited for what the administration has done, getting us a new surface and bringing fans closer to the field,” Kirt says. “With the two berms on the far side, (it) is going to be huge and just create a stronger home field advantage for our team and our players.”
In June, Kirt announced two additions to his staff, hiring Becky Edwards as assistant coach and Macaulay Soto as director of operations.
Edwards spent the last two years as an assistant at Penn and worked directly with the offense. A former All-American as a player at Florida State, Edwards helped the Seminoles go 72-18-11 in her four seasons, including two College Cup appearances, before embarking on a professional career.
Although Kirt has been a member of the UT staff for many years, there is still an adjustment period for everyone involved with his move to head coach. He expects a few bumps along the road, but hopes the same high expectations and success can result in the end once everyone is comfortable in their roles.
“We have players in all three lines that have been performing well. Right now, we’ve been inconsistent in our ability to execute,” Kirt says. “I think the biggest thing right now is getting them all on the same page and executing at a high speed.”