Bolstered by a 5-0 start to the season, the Villanova women’s soccer team recently concluded nonconference play with a 6-2 record, the program’s best start under fifth-year coach Chris McLain and its best since 2009 overall. But with Big East play beginning Thursday, the team knows that the games to come are the ones they will ultimately be judged on.

McLain, who was hired in 2017 after working as an associate head coach for Ohio State and Colgate, was given the task of “getting the program back on track.” The early signs this season suggest that he has done just that.

“We worked our tails off trying to change the culture here,” he said. “We knew it was going to be a process, that it wouldn’t come overnight.”

Season by season, the Wildcats took strides in the right direction under the new coaching staff. After taking over a 4-14 team, McLain helped the Wildcats jump from six wins in 2017 to nine in 2018. In 2019, Villanova improved its record again, going 10-7-3 to secure the team’s first winning season in a decade.

While the Wildcats took a step back in 2020 (3-10-2), it doesn’t appear to have derailed any of the forward momentum built by the program. In fact, McLain credits the abnormal COVID-19 season that was pushed to the spring semester for helping him learn more about his team.

“Last year, we took two freshmen [Lauren Ashman and Emma Weaver] and threw them in at center back even though they never played it before,” he said. “We knew that it was kind of a weird season, so we were OK with them learning by trial and error and making mistakes.”

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Experiments like this have helped Villanova already double their win total from 2020 to 2021, thanks in large to the team’s improvements on defense. Not only have the Wildcats produced two shutouts so far, but in seven of eight games they’ve held their opponents to two or less goals.

According to McLain, the reason for this success is not X’s and O’s, but rather the personalities of the players on the team.

“I think the biggest piece for a great defense is that you have an alpha personality. If you’re asking somebody to be an alpha and they don’t have that personality, it’s very hard to change that.”

Thankfully for McLain, players like junior Jane Olcott and sophomore Emma Weaver have taken on this role for the Wildcats, both having logged over 500 minutes on the defensive end.

Rebuilding through recruiting

In the midst of McLain’s fifth season, his team now completely consists of his own recruits, which includes one graduate student and seven seniors. Among the group of seniors is forward Chloe O’Neill, who has been on McLain’s radar since he worked for the Buckeyes.

The native of Plantation, Fla., has made the most of what could be her final season suiting up for Villanova, scoring seven goals in eight games, third-most among all Big East players.

O’Neill admits that she cannot take all the credit for her offensive production.

“I’m definitely producing these goals because of the people around me,” she said. “I have a lot of people up top who are supporting me, giving me good balls, doing the hard work for me to score, and I’m definitely fortunate for that.”

O’Neill has already surpassed her previous career-high for goals in a season (five). However, she chooses not to pay close attention to this figure during the season.

“I don’t like focusing on that because I think that creates an expectation for me to score a certain amount of goals where in reality it is a team sport,” she said. “When I’m out there playing, I just want to do what’s best out there for the team and hopefully something good can come out of that.”

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This connection as a team was strengthened at the start of preseason for the Wildcats, as ihey added a “staycation” aspect to their summer training. They began their preseason at the Villanova Inn, with specific strategies in mind from McLain and his staff to improve the team’s chemistry. Along with the normal preseason practice schedule, the Wildcats also spent most of their free time and meals together at the hotel to improve the team’s camaraderie.

To top it all off, the rooms were randomly assigned by McLain himself, with hopes of combining athletes from different grades or cliques on the team. O’Neill roomed with sophomore Maria Thomas.

“We were not that close coming in,” O’Neill said, “but we had a great time and I really think that brought us together. It wound up being an incredible experience.”

Thomas is not the only underclassman receiving praise from Villanova’s leading scorer, as she has been impressed by the entire crop of talent that joined the program in 2021.

“This freshman class is one of the best classes we have ever had,” O’Neill said. “Personally for me, this is one of the best teams I’ve ever been on since I began my college career.”

The biggest challenges lie ahead

As the most important stretch of the schedule begins Thursday, when the Wildcats begin Big East play at home against Seton Hall, they will look to take several keys from their success so far this season into conference play.

When asked about the Wildcats’ upcoming stretch, McLain said: “I think we had a great start, so we’re ready to jump into the Big East and press the reset button. … Ultimately our team is in a good place, so we’re pretty excited to get this underway.”

O’Neill, who was one of the foundational parts of this rebuild under McLain, has certainly seen the progression of the program. And with the team off to a good start entering conference play, it’s safe to say O’Neill’s mindset is firmly on the goal she set when choosing to play for Villanova.

“That’s what I wanted: I want to win a championship,” she said. “I didn’t want to be on the best team and have some sort of structure of winning championships -- which would be great, of course -- but I love the idea of an underdog.”