By Jeff Shearer
AUBURN, Ala. - Sometimes, coaches will try to temper expectations for their teams, pointing out every perceived shortcoming for all who will listen. Poormouthing, it's called.
For Auburn soccer coach Karen Hoppa, this is not one of those times.
"On paper, coming into the season, it might be the best squad we've ever had," says Hoppa, whose 18th season at Auburn begins Thursday at home with a 7 p.m. exhibition against Alabama.
With 10 starters returning from a team that won a program-record 16 matches in 2015, Hoppa's confidence is well-founded. But, as in investing, past performance does not guarantee future results.
"That doesn't always work out," she says. "We've got a lot of work to do. I think it will be a different set of challenges for this team than what we faced last year, because we are going to have so much depth, and so much competition."
Competition to be in the starting lineup, to be one of the first off the bench, to make the travel squad.
In 2015, Auburn reached the Sweet 16 for the first time.
"The goal is an SEC Championship. That's the first goal," Hoppa says. "And from an NCAA standpoint, we told them, the new challenge for them, our goal has always to the Sweet 16, because we hadn't been there. That's not a goal anymore, that's an expectation.
"And the goal is Elite Eight. As soon as we chop that off, it will be Final Four. That's going to be a new challenge for this group as well."
All-American Casie Ramsier begins her senior season on the watch list for the Hermann Trophy, soccer's equivalent of the Heisman.
"I think it is great recognition for Auburn and what our program is capable of," Ramsier says. "If anything, it makes me even more excited to get back out on the field with the team. My teammates push me every single day to be better. I wouldn't be on this list, let alone be the player that I am today, without them constantly demanding more from me. I am looking forward to starting the season off and making it the best one yet."
Hoppa says the Tigers will go as far as Ramsier and her fellow seniors will take them.
"They came in in a year where we lost a bunch of players, we kind of had turmoil. And they all played. So they've all played significant minutes. So that class a whole is going to be a group that is going to make or break our season," Hoppa says. "If you've got to hang your season on a group of players, you want to do it on seniors. I think they're going to be, as a group, what makes us go."
"Last year, Kala couldn't have the year she had without Kiana," Hoppa says. "And now Kiana has to step up into more of a leadership role, so she's going to have to answer that question, and who plays next to her, from a lineup standpoint, is probably the biggest question mark."
"We have a lot of people who can do it," she says. "We just have to find the right partner for Kiana."
With so many starters returning, it would seem like a longshot for newcomers to find a spot in the lineup. Hoppa says otherwise.
"We told them after last year. `We had a great year. It's over. We're not going to start you based on what you did last year. You're going to have to earn that,'" she says. "And we've always felt that, every day, every game. If I have to change the lineup every game, I will.
"For us, it's going to be about best 11 on that day for that game. For the freshmen to crack the lineup, they've got to do what they're capable of doing. And I think there are a few who will have a chance to break into the lineup. I think that freshmen class will contribute significantly this year."
Last season, Auburn rallied around strength and conditioning coach Megan Young, who was diagnosed with leukemia. Young, in complete remission, returned in the spring, just in time for summer workouts.
"It's a huge lift," Hoppa says. "All accounts are, the summer workouts have been going great, and Megan's back and will be back on the bench, so she'll be a huge presence for us."
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer