Vanderbilt Soccer’s freshmen leading the charge to the NCAA Tournament


Vanderbilt Soccer freshman Raegan Kelley celebrates her goal against Mississippi State with her teammates. Photo by Hannah Haecker

Simon Gibbs, Senior Writer

When Head Coach Darren Ambrose arrived at Vanderbilt just four years ago, he was tasked with recruiting new players to a struggling soccer program.

It was very much a rebuilding process, one that would typically steer some prospects away. However, under Ambrose’s leadership, the team began to improve. The Commodores’ record returned to what it once was, as they eclipsed the .500 mark. Despite their success, Ambrose’s pitch to prospective players remained the same. 

Now, the Commodores boast an elite-level freshman class that has made a serious impact on the team this season as they approach the NCAA Tournament this week.

“I think the coaches, because it was one of their first couple years here, were talking to me about how we could be an important part of their legacy,” said freshman Madi Allen. “Yeah, they were improving, which would make it harder for a freshman to see the field, but I remember coming in and talking to Darren about it. He said his opinion won’t change. The hardest workers and the players that earn their minutes will get them, regardless of how young they are.”

The freshmen were given plenty of trust from the coaching staff. All they had to do was earn their minutes. Throughout the regular season, they’ve had no problem proving themselves; freshmen Ella Shamburger has appeared in all 18 regular season games, Peyton Cutshall in 17, Karissa King in 13, and Raegan Kelley in 11, to name a few.

They’ve worked their very hardest in each practice, each drill, and for one player, after each training session.Along those lines, the class was asked which teammate was most likely to be the last one off the field after practice.

“Karissa,” said each and every freshman, other than King herself, in unison.

In giving these freshmen significant minutes this season, Ambrose has shown his trust in their potential, and they have not disappointed. Cutshall scored the game-winning goal against Tennessee. Kelley scored the only goal in a 1-0 grudge match against Mississippi State. Shamburger was named to the All-SEC Freshman team.

The opportunity to get significant minutes is part of what attracted this superstar class to the program. While Ambrose was recruiting this class, he marketed the team as somewhere each recruit could come in and start making an impact immediately.

And that is exactly what Ambrose has allowed them to do.

“I think it shows he is following through on what he said when he recruited us to the program,” Kelley said. “He told us he wanted to give us playing time, he wanted to change things.”

The unprecedented impact that this freshman class has had can at least partially be attributed to their amazing chemistry with each other and the rest of the team.

As a class, this chemistry extends to what they do off-the-field; they’re always on the same page, whether at practice, in the classroom, or simply joking around. Mind you, the jokes are somewhat sparing in a business-first freshman class.

When asked who they’d identify as the class clown, the girls went silent for a few seconds. King smiled and simply said, “We don’t really have one.”

Every other freshman nodded their head in agreement.

Similarly, the girls give little mind to coordinating celebrations, something that should be considered a far less important dimension of the game, even though they were responsible for many goals scored during the regular season. The opportunity to celebrate was there, but Cutshall explained their celebrations best.

“None of us really celebrate, we kind of just aimlessly jump in the air while still running,” she said.

However, they are always on the same page, even if it means alleviating your teammate from an awkward, limb-flailing celebration.

“But then someone is always there to catch you in their arms when you jump and have nothing to do with your body,” King added. “That’s always the best part”

This class came in and truly clicked with each other, which helped with their their transition to the college game.

“We also got to know each other really well because we moved in early for preseason like a month early. At times, it seemed like we only had each other,” said freshman Sarah O’Neal. “We were able to work together and create a very cohesive unit, of course with the help of upperclassmen.”

Including the upperclassmen on this team, especially the red-hot sophomore class, the Vanderbilt Soccer program is only getting started.