IU women’s soccer head coach Erwin van Bennekom has made it abundantly clear that he is not one to look too far ahead into his team’s future, preferring to operate on a game-by-game basis.
But with just two nonconference games remaining before the Hoosiers open Big Ten play at home against the University of Iowa on Sept. 20, van Bennekom admits the conference preparation has been underway for a while now.
“What we’re doing now from training and from a game perspective, is us getting ready for Big Ten play,” van Bennekom said. “I think the level we’re seeing and the atmosphere we’re seeing at away grounds I think prepares us, hopefully, for the Big Ten.”
It’s an atmosphere that many of the returners on IU’s squad, and even van Bennekom to a degree, are quite familiar with.
Junior goalkeeper Bethany Kopel has seen firsthand just how rigorous a tour of the Big Ten can be, especially with a young team in front of her.
“Expect everything. For us, expect everything to go wrong even though we’ve prepared and all that stuff,” Kopel said. “We’ve got to prepare for the worst. We need to focus on what we are right now and focus one game at a time.”
Last season, van Bennekom was able to get acquainted with a handful of Big Ten teams as an assistant at Duke University, helping guide the Blue Devils to a 3-1 mark against Big Ten opposition, including a 1-0 win over Rutgers in the first round of the NCAA Championship.
Van Bennekom has watched plenty of tape on the other foes the Hoosiers will see in conference, and while he doesn’t have a feel on all the teams’ home environments, he believes the prep work his team does will serve it well, regardless of venue.
“We’re well prepared and we’ll do our scouting before games. I think we know what we’re going to see,” van Bennekom said. “I think we as a staff are well aware of where the teams are. We’re going to be a little bit more pragmatic, defend deeper, be organized.”
After four seasons as an assistant for Duke in the stacked Atlantic Coast Conference, van Bennekom sees parallels in the power structure of both the Big Ten and the ACC. There are comparisons between the ACC teams the Hoosiers have faced already this year.
No. 8 Penn State University is, in his estimation, the closest Big Ten team to a University of North Carolina, Duke, University of Virginia or Florida State University in terms of national title contention and sheer firepower. UNC, now ranked No. 1 in the country, defeated the Hoosiers in its season opener 3-0.
“Obviously, Carolina is the pinnacle of what we’re going to see," van Bennekom said. "I think Penn State is in that same category.”
There is also the comparison of the University of Louisville, who Indiana faced last Thursday, to the upper and middle echelon of Big Ten opponents like Minnesota and Northwestern. They are teams that occasionally break through for a league title and postseason berth, but fall just shy of powerhouse status.
“ACC is one of the more competitive soccer conferences, so it definitely makes us get ready for what to expect in Big Ten play,” Kopel said.
With plenty of experience already under their belts in this young season, van Bennekom’s Hoosiers still have a ways to go in their development as they hope to work their way up to the top of the Big Ten hierarchy.
In year one, however, there is one thought preoccupying the mind of IU’s rookie head coach.
“Can we stay healthy and get better?” van Bennekom said. “That’s what it’s all about.”