OTTUMWA — Usually, it’s the players who are anxious on the eve of the first game of the season.
First-year coaches, however, also have their share of opening-game nerves.
“I probably won’t get much sleep tonight,” Lindsay Safranek said on Monday, less than 24 hours before making her head coaching debut with the Ottumwa girls soccer team. The Bulldogs kick off the program’s ninth season this evening at Walsh Soccer Complex, hosting the Oskaloosa Indians, with the kickoff to the new season coming at 5:30 p.m.
Safranek, for one, is excited to see what her new team is capable of this spring.
“We have a lot of very dedicated, strong girls. A lot of girls with experience on this level,” Safranek said. “This is such a great group because so many of them have worked together for so many years.”
That familiarity has certainly helped indoctrinate their new head coach. After spending three seasons as junior varsity coach and two other seasons as freshman coach of the girls soccer team in Belvidere, Illinois, Safranek takes over a brand-new role with a brand-new team that has made the adjustment period much easier to handle.
“It’s made it a very easy transition to have this much experience returning to this team,” Safranek said. “When we do drills, they know right where each player should be.”
That returning experience includes six starters from last year’s 5-11 squad, which seemed poised for a very special season early last spring. Under Erin Ebling, the Bulldogs got off to a very successful start by winning four of their first six games.
Then, the schedule began to catch up to Ottumwa. With five ranked foes in Class 3A awaiting them, the Bulldogs struggled to score at times in their final 10 games. Ottumwa went 1-9 to finish last season, suffering six shutout losses and seven losses by three goals or more.
Offensive production will be something the Bulldogs will have to make up for after losing six seniors who scored 21 of the team’s 30 goals last season. Departed seniors include team goal-scoring leader Kaley VanVelsor (eight goals) and Jessica Ghotra, who had six goals and a team-best six assists as a senior.
Despite that fact, Safranek is excited about the offensive prospects of the Bulldogs’ returning talent. That production, which does including six players that had at least one goal last season, has their first-year coach looking for immediate success.
“I’m looking to see us get wins,” Safranek said. “We have a very strong, offensive team. We’re looking to get more wins this year.”
Senior Shayla Robinson is the top returning player coming off a four-goal, three-assist junior campaign. Robinson was also second on the team last year with 28 shots on goal and will be joined by returning starting seniors Monica Trejo, Emily Kubbe, Veronica Gonzalez, Summer Street and Amber Bates — who made 139 saves and had a .799 save percentage in goal for Ottumwa last season.
The Bulldogs youth will also hope to serve Safranek well, highlighted by sophomores Kathy Lopez, Ginny Kjer and Avery Cash who all either started or played significant minutes as freshmen. With five other sophomores joining six newcomers to the Bulldog girls varsity soccer squad, Safranek is hopefully realistic about what Ottumwa is capable of this spring.
“When you look at last season, we had a couple of really tough losses,” Safranek said. “We can’t underestimate our wins from last year, but we want to push on picking up a couple of extra wins along the way.”
The Bulldogs face an Osky team in a rematch of a close 1-0 home win for Ottumwa last season. The Indians went on to finish 4-8 last year, but have 16 returning players looking to kick off their season by gaining a measure of revenge against their local rivals tonight.
“I’m very excited to get things started.”