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Baylor Soccer

Notes from Baylor Soccer Spring Scrimmages

April 18, 2024
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Baylor Soccer has played five of its six spring exhibition games and I have been able to attend two of them. This is what I’ve learned:

TL;DR

⇒ Goalkeeper battle ongoing (Incumbent Zirkel vs. transfer Alvarez)
⇒ Starter Obar (Sr.) injured, Vatter (R-So.) & Mabra (Fr.) improving, Marissa Gray brought back
⇒ UNC transfer midfielder Kai Hayes could be the biggest offseason addition
⇒ Merrill and Isgrig will continue leading the attack, but more options and better conversion         rate is needed to make the NCAAs
⇒ This team has raised the bar by showing they are better than last year already. They can’t           go back now.
⇒ Team’s vibes are great

Goalkeeper

Starting at the back, goalkeeper is still an open competition mainly between rising junior Ashlee Zirkle and TCU transfer Azul Alvarez. Alvarez, who I believe redshirted last year at TCU, should have three years of eligibility left entering the fall. Zirkle should also have three years after not seeing game action in 2022.

Jack Mackenzie - SicEm365
Azul Alvarez (#1), TCU Transfer GK

Both are tall players at 5-foot-9 for Zirkel and 5-foot-10 for Alvarez. Where Alvarez has high-level experience playing for the Mexican youth national team before riding the bench in Forth Worth, Zirkel has a little over half of a season of experience as the starter for Baylor from last year.

If I remember correctly, Zirkel played 60 minutes to Alvarez’s 30 against Tyler Junior College at the first game I attended. Against much stiffer competition in Arkansas, the minutes were inverted with Alvarez playing the majority. If I am misremembering the minutes, the point remains, it is a close battle from what I can tell. Perhaps the slight edge goes to Alvarez right now, but that could very well change by August. Neither keeper would be a bad choice.

Defense

Jack Mackenzie - SicEm365
Natalie Vatter (#3) played a very good 90 minutes vs Arkansas

Moving forward to the defensive line, the back four is an area to watch closely in the lead-up to the season. Blythe Obar has been out this spring with an injury. Hannah Augustyn might play less defensive midfield than she did last year in light of that. Early enrollee freshman Paisley Mabra and soon-to-be redshirt sophomore, Natalie Vatter, will both push for more playing time as well. Vatter particularly looked solid in her 90 minutes against the Razorback last Sunday.

So the Augustyn twins, Ava Colberg, Vatter and Mabra all seem like solid options right now. But never wanting to be short on options, Michelle Lenard is bringing back a familiar face for one last ride. Marissa Gray — who has not played a regular-season collegiate game since her 2019 freshman season — is rejoining the Bears. Heading into Lenard’s first season in Waco (2022), the Bears’ head coach was excited about what Gray could offer in defense. This could end up being a key move if for nothing more than depth. Hopefully, for all parties, it becomes more impactful than that.

Midfield

Maybe its because Coach Lenard has said before that midfield might be the most important position group to her system. Maybe its because I think midfield is the most important position group period. Maybe its because she comes from the most successful program in women’s college soccer and Baylor needs to find a way to beat high-level competition like that … but I am convinced Kai Hayes will be the most impactful addition to this squad for the upcoming season.

Jack Mackenzie - SicEm365
Kai Hayes (#8), UNC transfer midfielder

When your style of play is about keeping possession and building from the back, a cool-under-pressure midfielder with the skill to put the ball where she wants it with a touch or two is paramount. I think Hayes’ presence can unlock others along this line. Winning the ball and feeding playmakers in Skye Leach or Tyler Isgrig who should go on to combine with leading scorer Ashley Merrill is the roadmap. 

There is a lot of talent at this position, but whoever can pivot from defense to offense and from one sideline to the other the best will be what best to have on the field with Merrill. Whether that’s a tandem of two more defensive-minded midfielders (6s) or an extra attacking midfielder (10) alongside Merrill … we will see. Maybe it becomes a true 6, 8, 10 midfield (8 is a box-to-box). Who knows?

Forward

In all likelihood, Ashley Merrill and Tyler Isgrig will score the most goals for Baylor yet again, but more options to spell them and take pressure off them need to be developed. Coach Lenard knows this and has some promising options.

Rising sophomores Skylar Zinnecker and Callie Conrad both saw action in all 19 games last year earning 13 and six stars respectively. Conrad ended up playing more minutes and is more of a back-to-goal No. 9 that others can make runs off of. Her five assists last season would back that up. Zinnecker saw more time on the right wing and looks very at home against tough competition like Arkansas. Between them, playing time next season may come down to matchups and tactical needs.

Jack Mackenzie - SicEm365
Tyler Isgrig (#11) scored 6 goals and dished out 9 assists last season for Baylor

One last listed forward I need to mention is early-enrollee Alysiah Lockette. Lockette is already one of the three fastest players on the team and has been showing a lot of promise when she’s been fit to practice. She picked up a knock in the middle of this spring, so she has not played in all of the exhibitions. Nonetheless, watch out for this new Bear wearing No. 2 in the fall.

Now let's look at some players listed as midfielders on the roster we might see more in attacking roles. Theresa McCullough showed a lot of promise last year bombing down the wings, and she looks to be gaining comfort with the speed and physicality of the college game. Adriana Merriam is in a similar spot, though she seems to like to cut in from the wing more whereas McCullough might prefer beating you to the byline. 

I also haven’t mentioned Salma Simonin yet who scored three goals last year, good for third most on the team. I’m not quite sure where Coach Lenard would prefer to play her though. She is listed as a midfielder but she is forward-focused. I would say she is the like-for-like sub for Merrill if I had to guess.

Overall Notes

Everything is about “the next step”. 

Coach Lenard has said “conquer” is the motto. View it as “one game at a time” or “winning the challenge in front of you”, but the team looks bought in. 

The vibes from the team are positive. They look like they have fun and are a tight group that shares competitive fire. This has helped them take steps forward. 

They know their game model and tactics better. Have to think less and they make decisions quicker on the field now. They know each other better with the least roster turnover in a couple of years.

Now they have to convert this into more goals and wins on the field. They have to go out and deliver on the potential that they clearly have.

In my brief conversation with Michelle Lenard after their exhibition against Arkansas, she said that they can’t go back after what they showed on the field that day.

They went out against a top SEC program — a conference that has great physicality as well as skill —and showed they could compete. The physicality did not throw Baylor off its plan. Either team could have come out victorious, but this was a big step from the 4-0 drubbing against BYU and Texas or the rough 2-0 defeat to Texas Tech last season.

In my own words, the Bears have raised the bar. They can’t go back to being bullied, being outpaced, or being overwhelmed. They are better than that and they have shown it as a team. Consistency and chance conversion are what I view as the next steps. The more clinical the Bears get, the higher in the Big 12 standings they will finish in the fall. 

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Notes from Baylor Soccer Spring Scrimmages

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