COLUMBIA — A cicada chorus begins humming outside of Walton Stadium on Tuesday evening, gradually growing louder until the trees near the fence around the soccer field are buzzing. Try as they might, the insects cannot drown out the newest voice on the Missouri soccer team as it calls out from the goalkeeper’s box.
“Lets go white!” Paula Pritzen says to her teammates.
It is the start of a new season, but MU soccer coach Bryan Blitz is not forgetting how the last one ended. After winning its second consecutive Big 12 Championship, his team was denied a bid to compete in the NCAA Tournament.
Blitz received multiple reasons behind the non-invite, including strength of schedule, strength of conference, and a not enough strong road wins.
The schedule for this season is stronger. After an opening game against Belmont at home, the Tigers next five games are on the road, including a matchup against two-time defending national champion North Carolina.
“We certainly aren’t gonna hide,” Blitz said. “We’re putting ourselves out there. We are a high risk, high reward type of operation.”
The schedule is not the only thing that has changed. Returning players remember the bitter taste from last season’s snub, and are taking a one game at a time approach to treat each game with the same level of focus.
“I think this group is aware we let something slip away last year,” Blitz said.
The Tigers are scheduled to play a preseason exhibition game Friday at Illinois.
On the field, the back-to-back Big 12 Champions are playing their preseason scrimmage against the MU men’s club soccer team. Earlier in the game, before the players sought a halftime refuge from the sun under a black and gold tent, Pritzen played some minutes as a forward. She doesn’t usually play offense, but then again, Pritzen adjusts to unfamiliar situations well. She is new to the team, the university and the state, but she is right at home as she steps in front of the net to defend the goal at the start of the second half.
“Whatever field I’m on, whether it be here, or in Houston (her hometown) or Clemson, soccer is soccer,” Pritzen said.
Pritzen, a senior transfer from Clemson, will be spending her final year of NCAA eligibility with the Tigers as she pursues a graduate degree in journalism. Because she redshirted as a freshman her first year at Clemson, the goalkeeper finished her undergraduate studies with one year left to play. The combination of a competitive soccer team and the journalism school made MU a strong candidate, but previous experience playing under MU assistant coach Todd Shulenberger made the decision even easier. Shulenberger knew Pritzen from Clemson, where he was an assistant coach before before coming to MU in 2009.
“It was definitely good to have Todd as a familiar face. He knows my playing style, so he definitely helped the transition a little bit,” Pritzen said.
Missouri soccer coach Bryan Blitz calls the addition of Pritzen a “perfect storm.” Before the start of the season, Blitz told Shulenberger the team needed to find a third goalkeeper.
“A transfer, or a junior college kid, or just a really great athlete, kind of as an insurance policy,” Blitz said.
He ended up with much more than an insurance policy. Pritzen started 35 games during her Clemson career. Last season, she totaled 89 saves and three shutouts.
“It worked out great. It’s a little bit of, I’ll say luck on the way,” Shulenberger said. “I actually knew Paula, I coached with Paula, and knew that grad school was her next journey. Why not give her a shot to finish that one last year of college soccer?”
After a tour of the university, Pritzen made her decision. She would switch her tiger stripes from Clemson orange to MU gold. Adjusting to a new team? No problem. Pritzen says she “clicked” with her teammates upon her arrival.
“They really welcomed me with open arms, and I really appreciate them,” Pritzen said.
Watching the scrimmage on Tuesday, it is almost impossible to pick out the new addition to the team. Constantly communicating, the shouts range from defensive adjustments to general encouragement. Almost always, each one begins with a player’s first name.
“Right Haley. Three steps, stay tight,” as she lines up sophomore midfielder Haley Krentz.
"Step up Kendra," encouraging junior forward Kendra Collins to attack the ball.
“Let’s go ladies!” as a scoring opportunity opens up on the opposite side of the field.
Pritzen considers her vocal contribution part of her duty as a goalkeeper.
“I love to have a presence in the back. I think it’s really important for your defenders and your team to know you’re back there and you’re up with them and you’re being really aggressive,” she said.
Shulenberger says he thinks the experience Pritzen brings will benefit the younger goalkeepers on the roster, sophomore Jessica Gwin and freshman McKenzie Sauerwein.
“We have such great young goalkeepers coming up through here, and she’s sort of the player that will help lead the group,” Shulenberger said. “Whether she plays or doesn’t play, Paula brings a lot to the table.”