The Catamounts were so close to history in 2015. The University of Vermont women’s soccer team was an inch away from its first trip to the America East tournament final, but the shot in overtime came back off the crossbar and the University of Albany found a double overtime winner to end UVM’s season.
It was a difficult way to end an otherwise successful season for a program that was only one year removed from going 3-12-2. The Catamounts finished 8-8-2 in 2015, which was their most wins in a season since 2005. Expectations are even higher for 2016 and UVM has mostly lived up them in the non-conference schedule, currently sitting at 5-3-1 after Tuesday’s overtime loss to Dartmouth. Tuesday’s defeat ended a three-game win streak and a four-game unbeaten run.
America East play gets underway on Sunday and senior defender Meg James, a former Hockomock all-star at Sharon, believes that this year’s squad of Catamounts is ready for the challenge.
“I think coming into preseason this year, the team as a whole had a completely different mentality,” James explained, “and we really wanted to come out strong and definitely going into conference play next week we’re really anticipating doing well because we know we can. We just have to prove it to ourselves.”
James, who was selected as a co-captain this year, said that the program has been building for the past three years and that the current crop of seniors wants to finish their careers with a title.
“It’s really important to us,” she continued, “and I think everybody who’s coming in after us has felt the same way. Everyone hates losing. Just the chemistry we have this year and everybody’s attitude this year is different and a lot more driven towards winning and that’s great to see.”
There is a lot of talk about attitude as James describes UVM’s chances this year. She describes the conference as being balanced “soccer-wise”, adding that it will come down to which team “wants it more” every game. As the captain and one of the leaders in the middle of the back four, James wants to set the tone for her teammates.
“There’s been days where we should’ve won,” James said, “but we didn’t show up to the game the way we needed to, especially in conference, so I think the majority of the team has a lot of experience with that kind of situation. We’re really looking forward to being there physically and mentally every single conference game.”
If anyone would know how much the team has changed in the past three years, it would be James. After three all-star seasons with Sharon and three Region I Championships with her club team, Scorpions, James became a starter for UVM from the first moment she stepped on the pitch in Burlington. James has started all 53 games that UVM has played the past three years and the first eight of this fall. She has logged more than 1,500 minutes for the Catamounts.
“As a freshman,” James recalled, “I was playing with three senior defenders, so it was definitely an experience and I was really lucky to have that happen. I think they gave me a ton of advice and were good role models for me, so then as sophomore I had a ton of experience under my belt and that’s really helped me the past couple of years.”
She credits her time in high school, as captain of the Eagles, for molding her as a leader today as captain of the Catamounts. “That definitely gave me the foundation to what being a leader is and while it’s very, very different in college soccer I do think some of the groundwork is the same,” James explained.
It is no surprise that James considers herself “a completely different player” than she was at 18 when she first arrived at UVM, but there has also been a significant shift in her style as a center back over the past year. Head coach Kristi Lefebvre, now in her sixth year, moved the Catamounts to a more possession-based formula in 2015 and that has made James one of the first outlets for goal kicks.
James laughed and added, “That’s a huge change for me because I did a hundred times more dribbling than I’ve done in my life and I’ve gotten to touch the ball way more in that style of play. It’s kind of an adjustment for me, but it’s definitely exciting. I feel like I’m way more involved in the offense.
“When I have space to dribble from my 18 to midfield and I know I’m not as offensively-talented as everybody else, it’s a little nerve-wracking but my coach has done a really good job of making me feel secure and confident.”
Regardless of how she feels on the pitch, James knows that she sets the mood for the team and is more aware than ever of her impact on her teammates.
“Being on the field is emotional and now, as a captain, I really have to not focus on my emotions but how I affect the team as a whole,” she reflected. “As a captain, I have to keep focusing on my energy and my body language and making sure it’s all positive.”
It has been a positive start to the season for James, who was named to two early season all-tournament teams. That was all a prelude to the conference schedule, which begins this weekend. James and the rest of the seniors want to ensure that their final season ends “with a bang.”
“I want to win an America East championship more than anything,” James said. “I think that for us to win that would be my entire college career goal.”
She has also spoken to some of her former club teammates, including former Canton star and current Boston College midfielder Lauren Berman, about the experience of playing in the NCAA tournament and it only adds more motivation to extend this final season as long as possible. But, James is content with where she is and the growth the team has made in the past three years and she is enjoying the final weeks and months of her college career.
“I’ve been playing soccer since I was three years old and it’s insane that as a 21-year-old, my college career is almost over,” James remarked. “Soccer has been such a huge part of my life that I look back on every single high school game, every single Sharon Rec game, every single club game and see how far soccer has taken on me and how much of an impact it’s had on my life.
“I’ve been thinking about that a lot as a senior and it’s sad that it’s almost over but it also makes me want to win even more because I’ve worked my whole life for this that I might as well end it with a win.”
Meg James and the Catamounts will start their quest for an America East title on Sunday when they take on the University of Maine.