The women’s soccer team has had an impressive start to the season, keeping a perfect record and making statement NESCAC wins, like this weekend’s 1-0 triumph over Hamilton College. What is arguably more impressive, however, is that through the first four matchups, the Mammoths have yet to concede a goal.
Given the Mammoths’ style and caliber of play, this is not surprising, but several key factor are primarily responsible for their defensive success.
The first and most efficient key cog is the work of head coach Jen Hughes. By implementing a trio of center-halves with unique responsibilities, the Mammoths retain the solidity at the back to drive numbers forward and harry the opposition before they even cross into the Amherst half. Hughes’ emphasis on maintaining possession, regardless of the position of the ball on the field, also feeds into their strength. This trio, most often made up of Kim Zhou ’22, Bella Palma ’20 and Sloan Askins ’20, has worked together since last year’s NCAA tournament quarterfinal campaign. Each brings different attributes to the table. Zhou, swift, left-footed and excellent in possession, screens the half-space between the opposition’s striker and wide players with speedy decision making, preferring to defend by shepherding opponents in directions they’d rather not travel. She also provides a jumpstart going forward, always looking to make an incisive pass down the line to her wide midfielder to carve open the opposition defense.
Palma anchors the center with a certain serene grace. Although she never seems in a rush, her leadership marshals the trio as if on a string and she commands the players in front of her with ease. Often, central defenders in the “sweeper” role are long and lanky, but Palma, in the mold of FC Barcelona legend Carles Puyol (who despite his famous “large” hair was routinely dwarfed by his opponents), uses her knowledge of the game, rather than strength, to snuff out any opposition attack.
Askins, operating on the right of the trio, might be the most exciting to watch as a fan. Often tasked with immobilizing the opponent’s most promising attackers, Askins relies on her excellent judgement and speed to cut out attacks before they begin in earnest. She also has a penchant for the tackle — some of her sliding efforts are truly a thing of beauty. Given the ball in space, she often will loft a diagonal ball up towards the strikers to cleave the opposition defense in half.
Although the three-at-the-back approach works wonders for Amherst, the Mammoths have one more failsafe in defense. Antonia Tamarro ’21, who transferred from the DI program at St. John’s University last fall, has been consistently excellent — most notably in her shot-stopping ability. The keeper recorded 10 shutouts last season and saved 90 percent of the shots she faced. Tamarro attributes her success to the rest of the squad in front of her. “We’re so confident in the three players we have [in defense], so it gives the rest of the team the confidence to be more attacking-minded,” she said. “Since we have already had a year of playing together, the back line and I are super comfortable with each other’s playing style and tendencies. We also know how to communicate in a way that helps us get the most out of each other, whether that is motivation or support.”
With this strong defensive unit dictating the flow of the game, the Mammoths look to take on a string of tough fixtures, starting with Conn College at home on Saturday, Sept. 21 at 1 p.m.