The first time Graeme Abel prepared to lead Oregon soccer onto the pitch, it was after a layoff of 15 months for the program.
As Abel and the Ducks prepare to open their second season together, Thursday at 7 p.m. against Fresno State at Pape Field, it’s under markedly different conditions. The turnaround time since Oregon’s last match isn’t 15 months, but closer to 15 weeks.
Just a few months after wrapping up an unusual spring season due to the COVID pandemic, by beating Oregon State on April 16, the UO women’s soccer program is again preparing to kick off another season, and at a more traditional time of year. For Abel, it’s been the first “normal” collegiate preseason he’s experienced since being an assistant at Oklahoma back in 2014.
“It feels different,” the second-year UO coach said. “But it’s been very enjoyable.”
After having the 2020 fall season delayed until this past spring, the Ducks demonstrated remarkable resiliency in crafting a 6-5-5 campaign that included five wins by a single goal. Among those five wins was the program’s first-ever victory over Stanford, at the time the defending NCAA champions.
Now the Ducks are preparing for their first fall season since 2019, but also their second season of this calendar year. The pandemic has upended the concept time for so many of us in so many ways, and the women of Oregon soccer are no different.
Senior defender Chai Cortez plays the ball in last week’s exhibition win over Corban.
“It definitely feels a lot quicker,” senior Jordan Wormdahl said of this offseason. “But it also feels like we haven’t been here in a while. It’s a weird time thing, mind-wise, for sure.”
Coming out of last winter, Abel and his staff consulted heavily with the sports science staff from UO athletics to craft practice plans for the spring. During the winter of 2020, it hadn’t been clear the Ducks would play a season at all last year. That uncertainty had the staff wary of jumping into training too quickly, and risking injuries.
The UO soccer staff was again on guard this offseason. This time the concern was not a layoff that was unusually long, but one that was unusually short, and how training plans might need to be adjusted to compensate for the quick turnaround.
“We got with our sports science guys, looked with our medical team, looked at where people were at in terms of injuries they picked up last season,” Abel said. “Everyone was on an individualized plan with the idea to bring them back and peaking for this game that we’ve got coming up (against Fresno State). Our medical team, our performance team, did an outstanding job setting us up for success.”
The Ducks spent much of the buildup to their spring season doing an array of new drills that allowed the team to practice under strict pandemic protocols. Abel said at the time some of those drills might become part of the program’s routine going forward, and that has proven to be the case this preseason.
“Some of the different exercises, how we spaced players out, that really helped us when we got into games last year,” he said. “So we’ve continued with some of those exercises.”
Junior forward Ally Cook scored both goals in Oregon’s exhibition win last week over Corban.
Preparing to play a fall season means doing so prior to the start of fall classes at the university, a luxury the Ducks enjoy due to the UO’s quarter system. Wormdahl said that has helped the players absorb even more fully the teaching concepts being imparted by the staff.
It has also provided time and space outside of practice for players to bond. After a year of team meetings via Zoom and meals eaten individually, the Ducks are enjoying the chance to build their team culture more organically.
“I’m not a big fan of forced team-building activities,” Abel said. “They’ve done a good job with it.”
Entering Thursday’s season opener, the UO soccer program is confident in the progress it made during its first year under Abel. Now, the Ducks are looking for more.
“We took full advantage, I thought, of our COVID year,” junior forward Ally Cook said. “So this year, we’re just going to build on that.”