TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The effects of the Wes Hart era on Alabama soccer have been reverberating throughout the program for years now. Now into his fifth year with the Crimson Tide, the coach has guided the program to two victories over top-10 opponents including last year's upset over No. 5 Texas A&M.
In 2017 it also reached NCAA tournament for only the third time in program history after an impressive season that resulted in the Crimson Tide’s first appearances in multiple national rankings.
Now that success, along with Hart's attractive playing philosophy, is beginning to translate into recruiting.
Hart welcomed 11 freshmen to his side for this season, a class ranked No. 12 nationally by TopDrawerSoccer.com.
Finding ways to incorporate so new players in such a short amount of time has been a challenge, but Hart’s emphasis on team bonding combined with experienced leadership from veteran players like junior goalkeeper Alex Plavin, have assisted in the cementing of these new faces into the heart of the program.
“This is the deepest team that we’ve had in my few years on the team,” Plavin said. “It provides an environment where everybody can continue to grow, whether or not it’s being pushed by those around you, whether or not it’s being pushed by the coaches, there’s just a sense of wanting to get better and that can take many shapes and forms.
"It’s something that we try to engrain in everyone on the team but really those that have just joined us, the 11 new players that are joining us for the fall are really going to have the opportunity to contribute in the future.”
Freshman midfielder Carlee Giammona was one of four players to graduate high school early and enroll to participate with the team during its exhibition spring season. It allowed for her to not only adjust to the speed of play at the Division I level, but get accustomed to her new teammates.
Similar to football, early enrollees have become commonplace at Alabama since Hart’s appointment as head coach.
“[Hart] really just wanted us to get to know the team, bond with them, get to know the girls and really be able to show what we can do on the field,” Giammona said. “We were all really into team bonding so I think that he wanted us to come together and be able to put all that together when we were going to play in the spring games and in the fall.”
Hart doesn't just view these new additions as key pieces for the future, but looked at how they could make an impact immediately.
He's been trusting his freshmen from the very beginning of this season, often starting four to five per match with even more coming quickly off the bench. Some of Hart’s most critical positions in midfield are now being occupied by young talent who are seeing big minutes in the start of their Crimson Tide careers.
“It really reassures me that he does have faith in us and he knows that hopefully we can change the game and help our team for the better,” Giammona said. “I think that all the freshmen coming in will make such a big impact in all the games we play and we’re really excited that he’s giving us an opportunity to show what we can do.”
Not only has the class been given an opportunity, but many of the newcomers have already demonstrated their willingness to take chances. Three of the Crimson Tide’s ten goals to start the season were scored by freshmen.
The class has also added two assists all the while strengthening Hart’s midfield, a key area if the team is to play the intense, possession based game that is so attractive to Hart and his players.
“It’s amazing because when you have a coach that trusts in you, you just want to play 10 times harder, 10 times faster,” Wyatt said. “Having him trusting us and putting us in the game gives us 10 times more confidence when we’re on the field and we have the ball. That’s huge for us.”
The group benefits from strength in numbers, especially when considering that it consists of players from all over the nation, a demonstration of the allure that the program now has in recruiting players from outside of the state.
Only one player on Alabama’s roster is in-state. Senior Nealy Martin provides not only the experience on the field, but also serves to teach the group what it means to play for the Crimson Tide.
“We’re all going through homesickness,” said freshman forward Carly Wyatt said. “and just trying to adapt to being far away from home. Just having them there for you. We’re not all struggling but most of us, we do struggle, we all struggle from day to day, so just having them to go to and talk to, and then just on the field knowing that we all have the same goals and standards.
"It is just amazing to have a class that all have the same goal and will do anything and everything to get there.”
The season is only beginning for this talented group of players working its way through Hart’s ranks. While it's still early and many of these players are still far from reaching their full potential, the chances that they are receiving early will only benefit them later in the season, and in the years to follow.
“They don’t look like freshmen, they don’t play like freshmen,” Hart said. “If they keep getting better like we think they will, then we’re going to be okay.”