RICHMOND, Va. – You could certainly forgive the VCU Women’s Soccer team for their exuberance. The Rams don’t normally celebrate every goal like a “Price is Right” contestant on her fourth cup of coffee, but on Sept. 18, they couldn’t help themselves.
In the third minute of a game at Penn that night, freshman Julia Suarez curled a corner kick into the net for a goal that touched off a raucous celebration. What probably seemed like a fairly innocuous goal to Penn was something entirely different to the Rams. It was VCU’s first score in more than six games – an agonizing 555 minutes and 28 seconds, to be precise.
“It goes in and everyone is like, ‘Yes!’ Hands in the air like we just won the World Cup,” said senior forward Kailyn Slade. “We only scored one goal. But we hadn’t had that feeling in so long, it felt so good to finally score one.”
“It was a relief, the Penn goal. I was just ecstatic,” said VCU Coach Lindsey Martin. “The kids were laughing on the sideline. Everybody was high-fiving like we had won the game and really we’d just gone up 1-0. There were still 80-some minutes to play.”
Suarez’s goal appears to have opened the floodgates. What began as a trickle is now a fire hose. VCU earned a 1-1 tie that night in Philadelphia, and the Rams are unbeaten since. Fueled by an offense that seemed to transform from punchless to prolific overnight, the Rams are riding a six-game unbeaten streak into Thursday’s showdown with George Washington at Sports Backers Stadium. The Rams (6-6-1, 4-0 A-10) and Colonials (9-4-0, 4-0) are the Atlantic 10 Conference’s only two remaining unbeaten teams in league play.
In its last five games, all wins, VCU has scored 17 goals.
“I feel like we’re creating more chances now than we did before. We have more opportunities to finish now. Also, in the beginning of the year, we weren’t finishing the chances that we were creating,” said Slade, who leads the Rams with seven goals this season.
It’s been a stunning reversal for Martin’s Rams, who entered the preseason young, but optimistic.
Half of the Rams’ roster – 15 players in all – is comprised of true freshmen. Martin expected some growing pains, but didn’t anticipate a frustrating 1-6-1 start.
“We’re a young team. I know we say that all the time, but it’s true, and young teams make mistakes,” Martin, in her third year at the helm, said. “You learn lessons the hard way, whether it be giving up goals on set pieces that should’ve been taken better care of, or sometimes not being able to find the groove on the attack.”
Martin says that as the Rams integrated their large freshman class into the program and its culture, details were occasionally lost in translation. Mistakes that may have gone unnoticed at the high school level were costing the Rams games. Defensively, VCU was respectable, but the Rams couldn’t generate enough offensive chances and didn’t finish the ones they did create.
“We weren’t disciplined enough early in the year,” says Martin. “We felt like we were doing our job by getting to the endline and swinging a leg and getting a ball in the box. Well, that’s not good enough anymore. We need to make sure we’re getting our head up and picking out a runner and putting it right on their foot or right on their head, as opposed to in the general vicinity. That’s the difference between average play and pretty good play.”
While VCU’s rough start concerned Martin, she remained confident in her roster. The Rams had talent. What they needed was time.
“As a coach you always fear the worst. You’re like, what if this doesn’t work? But we knew that we had to trust the process, and the truth was we had the right players in the right places, and it was going to come,” Martin said “We could feel it building through those losses. We were starting to make fewer and fewer mistakes.”
The Rams have tightened their play across the board, but the emergence of Slade, Suarez and midfielder Sharon Wojcik have been particularly critical. That trio has accounted for 15 of VCU’s 22 goals.
For Slade, the Rams’ lone returning starter at forward, it’s been a breakout season. A center midfielder for most of her youth and high school career, she says she struggled with the transition from organizer to finisher in college. She entered this season with three career goals. She matched that total during one lethal 32-minute stretch in a game against Davidson on Oct. 1.
“I think for Kailyn Slade, a little bit of a light bulb has gone off,” Martin said. “She’s never been somebody that’s productive on the stat sheet. She’s been productive in other ways, but not necessarily the box score. But she’s taking greater attention to detail and she’s being more anticipatory, more proactive, as opposed to being reactive.”
Slade knew she’d be asked to contribute more offensively this season, but like the Rams, she struggled early. Her fortunes changed quickly. She scored her first goal of the season in a 6-0 win over Mount St. Mary’s on Sept. 20. Then, she really got going. Slade scored hat tricks in two of the Rams’ next three games. Her emergence has mirrored her team’s growth.
“I feel like we’re starting to know who we are and what each player can do for us,” she said. “I feel like we were figuring out a lot of positions in the beginning with two ACL injuries. That moved a lot of people around. I feel like it’s started to click, and once the goals started coming, they didn’t stop.”