POCATELLO — Debs Brereton pulled no punches regarding the condition of the Idaho State soccer program she inherited.
“Certainly the only way is up as of right now,” Brereton, ISU’s first-year head coach, said Tuesday.
The Bengals are coming off back-to-back seasons as the bottomfeeders of the Big Sky Conference, with a total of just three conference wins between 2017 and 2018.
The good news is that Brereton, hired last December, not only has a plan to turn the program around, but she’s liked what she’s seen from her roster through the spring and preseason.
“I think so far during preseason, the players have responded really well and have been really open-armed, and they’ve worked very hard,” Brereton said. “A change is not easy, but change is the best way to have growth and to be more productive. We had a really good spring together, and I felt like we created a really solid foundation.”
After two exhibition games — a 0-0 home draw Salt Lake Community College and a 4-3 loss at Westminster — the Bengals start the road back to respectability with their regular-season opener Friday at South Dakota.
As Brereton pointed out, a new coach invariably brings changes, and there are a few to keep an eye on this year.
The first is a switch to a more possession-based system. Brereton, originally from Middlesbrough, England, wants ISU to try to build out of the back and keep possession through midfield to build attacks rather than relying on clearances and long balls.
It’s a move that will ask more out of the players but, given their results the past few years, the Bengals were likely going to have to start from scratch anyway, meaning there’s no time like the present to institute a new style of play.
Brereton was adamant about the benefits, and enthused about the way the players have adapted.
“I think it’s a little bit different for them, but I think it’s more enjoyable,” Brereton said. “I believe that because of that, they’re embracing it and they’re looking forward to coming to practice and playing games and putting on the Bengals shirt and being proud of that. ... It’s a different style of soccer, but I think it’s more enjoyable to watch and certainly more enjoyable to play.”
The other big change is less about tactics and more about pure performance.
It comes on defense, where the Bengals conceded an eyepopping 57 goals in 16 games last year. A 10-0 loss at BYU and an 8-1 defeat at Eastern Washington skew those numbers a little bit, but still, ISU kept just one clean sheet last year.
Again, Brereton is hopeful for improvement.
“The players that I inherited in those positions, they were sound, very good players, technically, tactically, they had really good understanding of what the position entailed,” Brereton said. “(We need to be) taking every day as it comes, not getting too hard on ourselves for conceding certain goals. ... I think every game is an opportunity to learn a little bit more about themselves, about each other, and make improvements.”
Meanwhile, the players are hungry after the past few years, and there are several bright spots on an experienced roster that returns nine seniors.
Senior midfielder Makena Bambei was the Bengals’ lone all-Big Sky representative in both 2017 and 2018, securing an honorable mention spot on the all-conference team last season.
She finished with two goals and two assists, and was second in the conference with 3.13 shots per game.
Senior forward Michaela Didericksen, who led the team with seven goals as a freshman and added four more as a sophomore, is also back after losing her junior season to an ACL tear. She had two goals and one assist against Westminster and, according to Brereton, is looking fully healthy and ready to return to her previous form.
"She came back in tip-top shape, broke all the records for the yo-yo test, and has been very, very good in practice, and produced some really good moments in games,” Brereton said. “So, she for me is the player that has stood out the most so far.”
She’ll be supported in attack by sophomore Delaney Johnston, who led the team last year with four goals.
Farther down the pitch, Idaho State also returns seniors on defense with Paige Smith, who’s started all 36 games since transferring from Cal State Fullerton two seasons ago, and midfield. Esmeralda Nunez, Natasha Camacho-Bier and Christina Kreiger all started games in the middle of the park for the Bengals last year.
Another senior midfielder, Jazmin Lopez, is still working her way back from injury, as is experienced forward Brooke Kortekaas.
”(Kortekaas) has had a really difficult foot injury. She’s just been very resilient and she’s growing her grit daily,” Brereton said. “If she can get on the pitch soon, that would be really beneficial for the team as well.”
Three transfers might also add depth.
Midfielders Caitlin Gerrard, from England, and Josefin Jonasson, from Sweden, are juniors who transferred in from abroad, while forward Morgan Hall, another junior, is a little more local. She’s from Preston, was the Journal’s All-Area Player of the Year in both 2015 and 2016, and transferred from Utah State University Eastern.
“I think they’ve all got an opportunity to try to have an impact,” Brereton said. “I’m not one to think that freshmen or new players have to wait a little while to earn their shot. If they’re available and ready to come in and make a difference, then they’ll play. And I see several of the new players coming in and making differences in practice, so there’s no reason why we won’t have some new faces out on the field this fall.”
From where they’re starting, it will be a long journey to get the program back to its former heights, but Brereton and her players are eager to begin.
"They’ve come in, and some players have really developed in certain areas that I wasn’t expecting,” Brereton said. “I think because we have a very large senior class, they’ve just put their arms around everyone and kept them all together. And I think because of what they’ve been through, they’re going to really feel grateful for what we’re about to endeavor together, and I’m really excited.”