October 25, 2007

W. Booters Adjust During Slide

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Every time a team goes through the kind of slide the Red is — having lost six straight games bu shutout and a handful of starters to injury — bench players are given the chance to step up and add a spark to the lineup.
The insertion of sophomore Kala Neilson into the lineup represents just such a move for the team. For Neilson, however, the change represents much more: it is another stage in her up-and-down journey as a Cornell athlete.
Neilson, a soft-spoken sophomore from Hollywood, Fla., enjoyed a successful freshman campaign in 2006 under interm head coach Gretchen Zigante, a long-time member of the Cornell coaching staff. In the second half of the season, as the Red limped to a last-place finish in the Ivy League, the defender made several starts and appeared to become a long-term fixture on the defensive line that was the Red’s biggest strength. With the springtime announcement of Danielle LaRoche as head coach, however, Neilson was lost in the shuffle. Every player on the squad had to prove herself all over again to a new coaching staff — but not everyone has to do it while switching positions.
Last spring, Neilson began practicing at midfield to give the Red a more defensive presence outside of the back line. The move reflected LaRoche’s commitment to putting her best team onto the field: Neilson’s defensive development was ended to let the skilled veteran defensive unit play another year, even though the 2007 campaign was likely to be a rebuilding season.
“The coaching transition was a good one,” said Neilson. “It was different from [the previous year] but in a positive way. … This program is really headed in the right direction now.”
Still, Neilson struggled to adjust at the new position. Defenders, especially in Cornell’s scheme under Zigante, can stay in the back-half of the field and let the action come to them. They play in a defensive stance and typically do not physically exert themselves as much as the field-stretching midfielders, who must have a knack for seeing the whole field.
“I’m definitely a more defensive-minded midfielder, I try to hold down the defense and I’m not into the attack very much,” Neilson said. “But [the change] was hard at first. … I started playing in the spring and it took me a while.”
When the 2007 season began, Neilson did not start the first several games, as the Red got off to a quick start. In a Sept. 23 tilt at Bucknell, however, Neilson surprisingly got the start over senior Kara Lewis.
In one of the best games of her short career, Neilson — the former defender making her first start in the midfield — fired two of the Red’s seven shots on goal in a 1-0 loss, the first two shots of her career.
“When I started playing in games, there was a lot more pressure,” she said. “But I’m playing well; I think I’m showing improvement in every game.”
With season-ending ACL injuries to sophomore Brenna Mcguire and promising freshman Natalie Zandt in the games since, the Red has shuffled its lineup in nearly every game. Neilson, though, has managed to start or receive substantial playing time in nearly all of those.
“Coach puts the best 11 on the field after every week of practice,” she said. “I’m just trying to help wherever I’m needed.”