COLUMBIA — A group of about 30 players with big smiles on their faces walk toward the soccer field early Thursday morning. They are chatting enthusiastically and joking with each other. They talk about the cooler weather and their classes.
Coaches, trainers and managers follow closely, also catching up on the latest news from their colleagues.
The Missouri soccer team is set to host No. 9 Florida at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Walton Stadium.
The Tigers will be looking to get their eighth win in row, which would be the program's longest winning streak.
"They are not looking at that (the record)," Missouri assistant coach Todd Shulenberger said. "They are just like 'Hey, this is great. Let's keep going.' It's probably hard to believe, but we really haven't mentioned that at all."
They have plenty of reasons to feel excited and positive. They are part of a team that has won seven games in a row, the past four of them without allowing any goals. They are having their best start in the past five years. Their performance has earned them a spot in Soccer America's national top-25 poll.
The atmosphere is relaxed and lively. Then, as if someone had pushed some sort of magical button, everybody switches to hard-work mode. It's practice day for the No. 24 Missouri women's soccer team. Training starts punctually at 7:30 a.m.
Each person on the field has a specific job to do, and they know it. The object is to become an efficient machine. The results prove that their training is working. After eight games, the Tigers are 7-1-0. Last season, after the same number of matches, they held a 2-4-2 record.
On the field, the answer to why Missouri has improved so much is simple: It has defended better and scored more goals than last year. Missouri looks like a balanced team, with a good combination of experience and youth.
The coaching staff said that veteran players like senior defender Mallory Stipetich, senior midfielder Kelsey Blincow and senior striker Kendra Collins have played major roles.
"Our seniors took a hold of this team from the get-go," assistant coach Todd Shulenberger said. "They are doing a great job leading and that has sprinkled down to the rather younger team we have."
The young players are also stepping up, and the goalies are a great example.
"Our goalkeepers are experienced in a different way," assistant coach Shaunna Daugherty said. "(Red-shirt freshman) McKenzie (Sauerwein) was here all year last year, learning the game, learning our system. And then we have a kid like (true freshman) Caroline (Stanley), who's played at a very high level. She has played with the national team."
Apart from experience, physical preparation is certainly one of the main reasons behind Missouri's improvement. Shulenberger and Daugherty are directly responsible for the players' fitness levels. They make sure everybody is moving, running, giving their best.
"Last fall when we came in, we weren't as fit as we could have been and should have been," Daugherty said. "That hindered us a little bit. So we spent a lot of time improving our fitness in the spring. And the message really stuck in. This is one of the fittest teams that we've had."
But physical fitness is only one of the keys to the Tigers' remarkable form. Sports psychology intern Lea Lafield is in charge of helping players stay focused on realistic goals.
"It (mindset) is incredibly important," Lafield said. "At this level everyone is good. So the mental component is another weapon in your arsenal. Something that you have and that's going to be the difference maker."
Lafield gives all the credit to the players, who have handled the pressure of winning seven games in a row in a positive way.
"They are the ones working hard out there," Lafield said. "They have done a great job at refocusing. Not only after a bad play but also after great plays."
As a result, Missouri has developed a winning mentality.
"They have an incredible work ethic," Lafield said. "They got their bar set really high."
Nobody on the team wants to get ahead of themselves, though.
"Our seniors have been through two Big 12 championships," Shulenberg said. "And they've also been through last year, when we had a little bit of an off year. They have been on both sides of it."
It's helped the team keep the proper attitude.
"They (Missouri) have been playing very confidently," Daugherty said. "But there's a fine line between confidence and arrogance, and we're careful not to cross that line. Every game that we've played, we've had to work very hard for."
After the practice is over, the players walk slowly toward the locker room. They do a lot less talking, but the smiles have returned to their faces.
Winning is fun, but it's also hard.