The Daily Egyptian | A new era begins for Saluki football under coach Craig Roberts

On November 2, 2019, the Saluki football team left the field at the Lew Hartzog Track and Field Complex after winning their fifth game in program history against the visiting California Baptist Lancers. It was the last game of the inaugural season for the women’s soccer program, a campaign that ended in a 5-10-2 record.

Three years later, the team is still searching for their sixth win.

What followed that first year became a series of seasons to forget. The 2020 season was pushed back to next spring and ended in a 0-6-3 record, with just one goal scored all year. Most recently, SIU finished 0-15-1 in fall 2021, extending their winning streak to 26 games.

The difficult phase for Saluki football was associated with a few asterisks. The COVID-shortened 2020-21 season forced SIU to a tough schedule, facing almost exclusively established Missouri Valley Conference opponents. The team then faced a quick turnaround from just months before next year, which was a record-breaking worst yet.

As the 2022 season begins, the team seeks to relegate that stretch of futility to the past as it enters the Craig Roberts era.

On March 15, Saluki Athletics announced the hiring of Roberts as the second women’s soccer coach in the program’s history. Roberts was previously the head coach at Grambling State, Ball State and UT Martin and has a 150-92-45 record in 15 seasons.

“Craig has an impressive track record of building football programs at other institutions and has demonstrated a strong commitment to student and athlete development,” interim athletic director Matt Kupec said at the time of hiring.

While no longer a brand new program, SIU women’s soccer continues to face the challenge of building a team from the ground up. With a new coaching staff, it gets a fresh start in this process.

“It’s a brand new beginning to take on this program,” said Roberts. “We have set many new values, many new standards, expectations and also try to implement the environment that we want – definitely a family, well-connected team. We have a sisterhood within the team.”

Before a team can win, it needs to establish a good culture. With an emphasis on togetherness, the team may face an uphill battle, but the results they achieve starting this season will be won or lost together.

“I feel like everyone is on their toes, including me,” said junior forward McKensey Bunch. “Everyone’s ready to go, especially with the new coaching staff bringing all the new material to the table… I think we’re ready to just dive in and get to work.”

In the first game of the year, the home opener against Lindenwood, the Salukis saw a familiar result: a 2-0 shutout. While the result didn’t leave much to be desired, the game on the field was the first step in a long process for the team to dig out of rock bottom.

“Our focus has to be on getting the positives out of every game,” Roberts said. “In the 60 or 70 minutes of this game we took a lot of positives out of the game and what we’re going to do now is analyze the last 30 minutes and just make sure we correct those mistakes.”

Saluki football will face a difficult task on the road against Missouri on Thursday before returning to Carbondale for a three-game home game that begins Sept. 1 with Alabama A&M.

Staff reporter Brandyn Wilcoxen can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @BrandynWilcoxen

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