NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Vanderbilt’s 2019 season has been anything but smooth sailing. But now the Commodores are hopeful the rocky waters have subsided and the adversity has strengthened them for the stretch run.
Thursday’s match against No. 22 Texas A&M is the regular-season home finale for Vandy and a prime opportunity to get the ball rolling toward another postseason run.
“We’re never complacent. We never get to a point where we say, ‘Hey, we’re good,’ ” Vanderbilt head coach Darren Ambrose said after Wednesday’s training session. “I think that’s what they did after the (LSU) game Friday, ‘OK, we got to get better at these things.’
“I think we’re moving into a fifth gear – and I think they got a sixth. I think that’s the piece now that I’m excited to see. We got players back and now there’s a rhythm. I can feel it and they can, too. There’s a rhythm coming to them at the moment.”
The Commodores are 3-0-1 in their last four matches and have put themselves in a fourth-place tie in the Southeastern Conference standings with three matches to play. The SEC tournament is scheduled to begin Nov. 3 in Orange Beach, Ala.
Coming off a 16-win season and SEC regular-season title in 2018, expectations in 2019 were high thanks to a senior class that had helped rebuild the program. But injuries – both minor and major – took their toll through the meat of the campaign.
After a 7-0 start, Vanderbilt went 1-3 to end the month of September.
“The emotional toll in the Arkansas (Sept. 26) game was pretty significant,” Ambrose said. “We had just lost (junior defender) Myra (Konte) and we were reeling a little bit – just in general – and then to lose two more players within four minutes in the first half. And we were playing exceptionally well.
“They rolled up their sleeves and it’s next man up and the kids that have come in have done a good job. To be honest with you, they’re getting some minutes that they may not have got if a lot of girls hadn’t been hurt. The girls that would have played 70-80 minutes have played 90 minutes. A lot of the work has been carried by 60-70 percent of the squad. The others have rotated in and have done what they’ve been asked to do.”
The Commodores have begun to gain a little momentum here recently thanks to wins over Missouri and LSU sandwiched around a 0-0 draw at No. 7 South Carolina. Part of the reason for that is the return of several important pieces from injury.
Ambrose has watched at least 11 of his players miss game action due to physical setbacks. Some of those players have begun to make their way back to the pitch at just the right time.
“Now for the first time all season we’ve played the same lineup four games in a row. We’re 3-0-1 in those games,” he said. “Now, the quality of opponent (Thursday) is pretty significant and we know that and we’re going to have to play our best.
“But if we continue to fight for respect in the league – in order to be considered a team that every year is capable of winning it, you’ve got to beat A&M, South Carolina and Florida on a regular basis. We didn’t beat Florida, tied South Carolina and still got A&M – so we know we still have work to do.”
Vandy has also continued to play stonewall defense – it has given up just seven goals all season and is second among SEC teams with nine clean sheets. The team’s defense has been so stingy that Vanderbilt keepers have only been forced to make 40 saves (only South Carolina has fewer in the SEC with 26).
That facet of the squad’s game as allowed it to remain in the hunt for a top-four seed in next month’s postseason tournament.
“They’re just fighters. They’re just competitors and it rubbed off on each of them,” Ambrose said. “I’ve said it for two years now – it’s a unique group. The juniors and seniors have created an incredible foundation. We had a foundation from the first two or three years, but they put the next layer on it.
“They have built on to what we have started. And they’ve done it really, really well. I think it has a lot to do with their mentality.”
After Thursday’s match the Commodores head to Kentucky (6-8-2, 1-6) and Alabama (8-4-3, 3-2-2), respectively, next week. Results in those contests plus a run in the SEC Tournament could mean another trip to the NCAA Tournament – Vandy lost to Baylor in the second round of the 2018 event.
Texas A&M (10-3-3, 4-2-1) comes to Nashville having gone 1-2-1 in its last four matches. Vanderbilt is 8-1 at home this season.