For the first time this season the Auburn soccer team is at full strength, as it prepares for tonight’s match against Texas Tech at the Auburn Soccer complex.
Juniors Bianca Sierra and Ashley Kotero have made their return to the Tiger lineup, after having missed most of the summer and each of Auburn’s first five games of the season as part of the Mexican National Team at the FIFA Women’s U-20 World Cup.
Their return couldn’t come at a better time for the Tigers, who face the Red Raiders (6-1-0) at 7 p.m. tonight in their final non-conference game of the year before opening SEC play next week.
Sierra started all 24 games at center-back for the Tigers last season, while Kotero found playing time in all but one match at midfielder a year ago. However, after a summer of gaining experience at the international level under their belt, neither Tiger expects to be the same player as they were last year.
“I definitely think I’ve gotten a lot stronger,” Sierra said. “We trained a lot in Mexico City during the summer — two-a-days almost every day. I think I’m more game fit now than I’ve ever been.”
Besides gaining a physical edge after grueling international workouts, Kotero said that her mental approach to the game has sharpened as well.
“The international game is definitely different from college, just as far as the pace and the style of play,” she said. “You take some of that back here and it definitely helps. They’re very organized — especially Mexico and the way we play. It’s a very set system. It takes a lot of discipline when you go there and it’s totally different. Definitely, discipline helps when you come back here.”
Auburn head coach Karen Hoppa, who served as an assistant coach for the United States in the 2002 U-19 World Cup, has seen with her own eyes just how valuable experience at the international level can be for a college player.
“You can’t really explain the amount of experience they gain by going through a World Cup,” Hoppa said. “Obviously it’s the highest level for their age group. I think they learned a lot tactically, because tactically it’s at a higher level, but also just about playing at another level, and being almost a professional.
“When you play for a national team — even a U-20 national team — you’re much more of a professional than you are at the college level. Everybody is much more serious about the game and they’re traveling all over the world, and they have to be responsible and take care of themselves and figure out how to get the right nutrition in foreign countries, and all of those things. I think that professionalism in their experience will help them a ton as well.”
Sierra, Kotero, and the Mexican National Team fell to tournament-host Japan but finished 2-1 in group play, advancing to the quarterfinals before being eliminated from the tournament.
“It was an incredible experience, with all of the cultures kind of coming together,” Kotero said. “In Japan, those cities were great. We were in Miyagi first and then Kobe, and we were lucky enough to advance to the quarterfinals and be in Tokyo, and that city was just unbelievable.”
On top of the trip to Japan, Sierra and Kotero both traveled with the Mexican National Team to Panama, Argentina, and South Korea over the spring and summer in preparation for the tournament.
“It was awesome,” Sierra said. “I really got in touch with Mexican culture more than ever and improved my Spanish a lot.”
Now that Mexico’s tournament run is over, both Sierra and Kotero are looking forward to the playing out the 2012 season as Auburn Tigers.
“Over there, because it was international games we did have a very lively crowd, and it was very exciting playing in the stadiums and stuff,” Kotero said. “But it’s kind of nice coming back home to our roots. We know everyone in our crowd here, and we always have a really good fanbase at Auburn. Being on our home turf and in familiar settings just makes it maybe even more comfortable, and more of an incentive to defend home turf.”
Sierra made an unexpected season-debut for the Tigers last Sunday against William & Mary, being plugged into the lineup on the defensive back line at halftime just days after returning stateside.
“We thought she played very well in the second half against William & Mary, and has been in practice with us,” Hoppa said. “We were really happy with her. Ashley, it’ll be a little harder for her to work her way back in because we have more depth and our forwards have been playing a little bit better. The backs have been a little more inconsistent. We subbed a lot of people in trying to replace Bianca.”
“We missed them both, we missed their experience as juniors. We’re really, really happy to have them both back.”
Both Sierra and Kotero will be available for the Tigers tonight and through the rest of the season, and, despite missing the first five games of the year on the other side of planet, neither student-athlete has missed a beat, on the pitch or in the classroom.
“One thing you say about Auburn is that it’s family, and it’s true,” Kotero said. “It made the transition easier. Even academically, they shipped us our books. And we were in touch with counselors and teammates.”
Photos via Melissa Hazeldine.
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