WILLIAMSTOWN — When Erin Sullivan came to Williams College last year, the former Ephs goalkeeper had some big shoes to fill by replacing Mike Russo as head coach.
It was an adjustment for both Sullivan and for the Williams players. But as the coach and the Ephs look ahead to 2016, things appear to be on course.
"In his second year, I think a bunch of the intricacies and things he may not have known about, are smoothed out now," Williams tri-captain Kevin Mercadante said. "I think the guys got to know him a little bit more over the off-season and we're a bit more comfortable.
"This year, it's gone really smoothly. We're happy to be back and we can't wait to hit the field on Saturday."
Saturday is when the Ephs open the season against NESCAC rival Trinity. Williams was 7-6-3 in 2015, losing to Connecticut College in the NESCAC quarterfinals on penalty kicks.
"It does feel different. I feel like we have a clear plan and a vision for the team," said Sullivan. "We also have eight seniors, so the leadership is more of a united front. We have a bigger mass of experience and wisdom.
"It's been a very good start."
Sullivan, who played in net for Williams' 1995 NCAA Division III championship, a title won on Cole Field, came back to Williamstown last year after a very successful 15-year stint as the men's soccer coach at Western New England University.
"You can't coach everything and you can't fix everything" in one season, Sullivan said before a recent practice. "I think we have a better plan this year. We also have the benefit of eight strong seniors and a good off-season. Those are things that are helpful, but they don't guarantee anything."
For many soccer coaches at all NCAA levels, 7-6-3 would be a pretty good year. It had to be a disappointment at Williams, where the Ephs had recently gone to consecutive Division III Final Fours in 2012 and 2013.
Not only did Williams finish just north of .500, but for the first time in recent memory, did not defend home field successfully. The Ephs were 2-4-1 at home.
Compounding the felony, so to speak, was the fact that Williams won only one of the six overtime games it played in during the regular season. Williams was 1-4-2 in overtime in 2015, 1-3-2 in games that went into double overtime.
"Defending Cole is very important to us as a team. It's a tradition that this program takes very seriously," tri-captain J.C. Bahr de Stefano said. "Defending our home pitch, it's a really beautiful, incredible place to play. It's probably one of the best places in the country to play.
"So definitely there's some added fuel to the fire because we didn't do our job last year."
Sullivan said his team lost more games on Cole Field than he did when he played for Russo in the 1990s. The coach said that the effort to change both of last year's negative trends start above the shoulders.
"We're trying to get these guys to have more of a strong will and strong mentality," he said. "That starts with winning your games at home, and controlling the things you can control."
Williams graduated only two players, co-captains Geoff Danilack and Noah Grumman. The Ephs return one All-NESCAC, second-team selection in senior forward Mohammed Rashid. Rashid led the Ephs with six goals and six assists. Junior Mark Sisco-Tolomeo had a team-best eight goals last year.
Senior tri-captain Christian Alcorn started all 16 games in goal for Williams last year. Alcorn is being battled by junior Bobby Schneiderman and sophomore Aaron Schein.
"Aaron's come a long way and I think he's ready now," said the coach. "We're going to need to really have the type of standard that Williams soccer has always expected of its players. That is that we perform, we execute, we win."
Sullivan said that the incoming freshman class is "right where we want to be." There are eight listed on the preseason roster
Williams opens 2016 with six consecutive home games. NESCAC games with Trinity and Colby are part of a schedule that sees the Ephs not going on the road until they play at Amherst on Sept. 24.
Williams has also scheduled four Saturday-Sunday game weekends. It starts this weekend when Eastern Connecticut plays at Cole Field Sunday afternoon. Three of the four back-to-backs are at home.
"We scheduled a few of them because we wanted to replicate the Amherst-Bates and Bowdoin-Wesleyan [weekends]. It's important," said Sullivan. "You get to the NCAAs, you're going to have to win and if you're lucky enough to advance, you're probably going to play a better team the next day.
"It's important that you're prepared for that."
Contact Howard Herman at 413-496-6253.