Q&A with @SunDevilSoccer head coach Graham Winkworth
WHAT: Sun Devil Soccer (0-0) vs. Central Arkansas (0-0)
WHEN: Thursday at 7 p.m. MST
WHERE: Sun Devil Soccer Stadium • Tempe, Ariz.
PURCHASE TICKETS: Click here
LIVE STREAM: Click here
LIVE STATS: Click here
Coming off the program's first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2014, Sun Devil Soccer kicks off the 2021 campaign on Thursday when it hosts Central Arkansas at 7 p.m. at Sun Devil Soccer Stadium. Below is a Q&A with fifth-year head coach Graham Winkworth about the upcoming season.
Usually the offseason is approximately eight or nine months with a spring season in between. Did having a shorter offseason (approximately three months) affect preparations for the upcoming season?
It is exciting having a short offseason. I'm in favor of a year-round model but I'm in favor of a year-round model where we play one game a week to help the players' bodies heal. We've got a few bumps and bruises and injuries we picked up along the way (during the 2.5 weeks of preseason training) and some that carried over from the spring as well. But what we have got is a group of women that are so close and fit that work extremely hard. They are energetic, they are a joy to be around and they are ready to play somebody else other than each other so we can't wait to get the ball rolling (on Thursday night).
On having so many core players return:
It's huge. The camaraderie we have on the roster from the spring… We were supposed to have a poor season (according to preseason projections) and to turn around and have a great season and manage to beat some incredible teams with incredible players and coaches. Having everybody back from that group is fantastic in itself, but having them teach the new players how things are done around here – having a 'team-coached team' is so easy for me and my staff. It has been a lot of fun.
Has the team's mindset adjusted to one that will now have a target on its back as opposed to being more of an underdog like last season?
I've been trying to get that point across to them. We are no longer the underdog because we are good, but at the same time we are not at a place where we want to be. We are delighted that we managed to lose the underdog tag because if you are the underdog then it means you are probably not doing something right because you are struggling. We have managed to lose that tag but we are still not the favorites. We are somewhere in the middle and so it is exciting we still have teams we are chasing and we want to finish above in the conference, but at the same time we cannot get complacent over the teams we were fortunate to finish above last year because there is not a weak team in the Pac-12. There is a reason it is the best conference in the country and we know that in the league we are going to have 11 incredibly tough games.
Talk about some of the players who have stood out in preseason training.
Our midfield has been very strong so far. The likes of Alexia (Delgado), Eva (van Deursen) and Jazmine (Wilkinson) in particular have come back in great shape. They are very gifted players. (Nicole Douglas) has been scoring goals for fun in training which is good. Callie (Darst) is one who has worked extremely hard in the offseason on her strength and conditioning. She has learned a new position the last couple of years and has really thrived. I think she is developing into an excellent central defender alongside Lieske (Carleer) and so I'm really excited about that returning group. And then, some of the incoming players, (transfer) Jayda (Hylton-Pelaia) is going to be an impactful player for us immediately. Keri (Matthews) – when we get her healthy – will be an incredibly impactful player for us as well. But all that said, this entire team has worked hard to make sure they are in peak condition. They are all fit, they are all working hard and they are all going to contribute to making this team deeper than we were in the spring.
As much as the team has improved, how would you characterize being picked to finish seventh in the Pac-12 coaches poll?
I'd say it is fair. When we were predicted to finish 12th the year before, that was fair as well (because) we finished last the year before and so I would say this is a fair reflection based upon the spring season which in many ways is a credit to the team because they have come so far to move up in what is an incredibly difficult league, but at the same time we have a long way to go to where we want to be. We didn't come to ASU to be in seventh place even though seventh place will probably get you into the NCAA Tournament in a regular year because the league is so strong. We want to try and challenge the best teams in the country and maybe we can't do that every year, but we have certainly shown now that it is possible and we look forward to giving our best against really talented, well-coached teams because that is the reason we've all chosen to come to ASU; because we want to play with and against the best.
What are your thoughts on the non-conference schedule?
It's the toughest non-conference schedule we've had since I have been here. We have four Power 5 opponents in Mississippi State, LSU, Nebraska and Texas Tech who are all really good teams. We have to go on the road to Colorado College and they play on a plastic pitch and so that will be another challenge for us that we don't see very often. This coming weekend is going to be a challenge with Central Arkansas and Southeastern Louisiana. Last season Southeastern Louisiana was an NCAA Tournament team and they were tied with nationally ranked Rutgers going into the 87th minute and were unfortunate to lose the game in the last three minutes and so we know we are going to be in for some tough games. Southeastern Louisiana is coached by my former assistant coach and they are very well organized and so we know will be in for a very tough game on Sunday. It will be a very tough non-conference schedule but it is the type of schedule we need if we are going to be ready for Pac-12 play come late September.
How important has it been to have had the same coaching staff since you arrived at ASU?
I have an incredible staff. Sugar and (Jo Chubb) are both capable of being head coaches in their own right with their own programs but they are Sun Devils who bleed Maroon and Gold as much as anyone else on this campus. They are not only two of the most talented coaches you are going to find, but they are extremely loyal and they are family. You have to work with people you love and I'm very fortunate to do that every day. (Jo) is like my little sister and Sugar is my best mate. I'm very blessed to come to work and live in that environment.
Anything else you'd like to add?
We are looking forward to playing Thursday night! We are hoping to have a great crowd with the 942 Crew (student section) leading the way and Forks up!