Maddie Elwell admits there were times where her first year of college soccer felt overwhelming.
A standout player at Wissahickon and for her YMS Xplosion club team, the gifted winger had all the tools and ability to thrive at the top level of collegiate competiton. But the transition to life in the SEC at Vanderbilt was on occasion, daunting and Elwell knew to be successful, it was on her to change that.
As a sophomore, Elwell narrowed her focus and rediscovered the form that helped get her to Nashville in the first place all while the Commodores authored a magic season that took Division I soccer by storm.
“Last year, my coach pulled me aside and said ‘I know you’re capable of more,’ and wanted me to work on that emotional aspect,” Elwell said earlier this week as she prepares to start preseason of her junior year. “So I focused more on completing the small stuff in a game and it would all tie together into something bigger that would help the team.
“I started not doubting myself and I was put in a position where I was more comfortable with what I could do and it was a reminder of high school and what I would do there.”
Elwell helped YMS Xplosion win a club national title prior to her senior season at Wiss, then kept it rolling through a 27-goal fall that saw the Trojans reach the second round of the District I playoffs for a second straight season. The current Vandy junior is still very close with many of her former Trojan teammates and her high school career is still an inspiration at the next level.
That said, the rampaging runs she would make up the left side against defenders at Wissahickon were much harder to come by at Vanderbilt. Coupled with a potential move to outside back that was scrapped early in her freshman season, the initial adjustment was tough.
“Every practice you’re competing, every game you’re competing, there isn’t a moment where you aren’t giving your hardest,” Elwell said. “It honestly took me a while in the aspect of handling it emotionally. When I play, I’m a very emotional player and jumping in as a freshman to these games, I wasn’t prepared.
“I just wanted to do well and when I wouldn’t do as well as I’d hoped for, I had to remember to take a deep breath, take a step back and remember the bigger picture and think about the team.”
She found her stride toward the end of her freshman year and scored the first goal of her college career in Vanderbilt’s season-ending loss to Santa Clara in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Moving back to a wide midfield position and the self-confidence off her strong finish parlayed into a strong second season.
After appearing in 20 games and starting eight as a freshman, Elwell started all 21 games last season as the Commodores had their best season in 25 years that included a 13-match winning streak, winning SEC regular season and tournament titles and again advanind to the second round of the NCAA tournament. Elwell scored four goals, including a superb individual effort against Western Kentucky and added four assists.
“I narrowed it down to ‘don’t think, compete, trust yourself and your abilities and the rest will follow,’ that’s really where I was at,” Elwell said. “It wasn’t like I was expecting to beat five defenders and put one in the back of the net but instead if you see an opening or you see an opportunity, then see where it will take you. It may not work in every game but in certain scenarios, it did and that was a huge boost for me.”
The endgame was always to win each particular match, but Elwell learned that getting worked up over a bad shift or an errant play only took her away from doing that. Instead, while not ignoring the big picture, she focused on winning each individual moment, like completing a pass or serving a good cross and building confidence that way.
For her, it was a way to build trust with the ball on her foot and she knew each positive play was getting the Commodores closer to a win.
On paper, Vandy looks poised to build off last season’s resurgence but the rest of the SEC will now have the Commodores in their sights. As the reigning SEC champs regroup for preseason this coming week, they’re not worried about last fall.
“Right now we’re just focused on bettering ourselves, it’s a different season,” Elwell said. “I feel very confident and I’m very excited for the new players we have coming in. With everyone so focused on building and getting back together as a team, I’m excited about it.”
Aside from a short stint back home in right after the spring semester ended, Elwell spent most of her summer in Nashville playing soccer and working an internship. The winger played a handful of games with the Nashville Rhythm of the WPSL and got a chance to share the field with some of her fiercest opponents during the fall season.
“Meeting them and playing with them was cool, there were a couple Tennessee girls and while it’s competitive in-season, it’s nice getting to scrimmage against all these players and keep my touches intact,” Elwell said. “Having a different coach who looked at you with a different perspective is always interesting. Everything is make-or-break at Vandy so this was more a chance for me to see what I could do and test myself in different aspects.”
Elwell, who is majoring in Human Organizational Development, also worked in the HR department of a recruiting company nestled in downtown Nashville. It made for some busy days that started with a Vanderbilt team workout early in the morning, her internship during the day and most nights a practice with the Rhythm.
“It’s not really offered at every school so to put it the simplest terms, it’s a mix of psychology and business and then I’m also minoring in business,” Elwell said.
Two years into her career, Elwell’s already been through some incomparable experiences on the pitch. Last season started with a visit to eventual national champion Florida State, a 1-0 loss that Elwell said taught the Commodores a lot of good lessons and reached a peak with the weeklong atmosphere of the SEC tournament.
Gaining emotional maturity was a huge factor in Elwell’s growth last season and the now-junior feels being away from home helped to do that. She’s also come to enjoy the culture in Nashville, with Vanderbilt’s campus close to downtown but also isolated enough that it offers the right amount of quiet.
“It feels like you’re in a bubble but at the same time you’re right in the middle of a huge, buzzing town,” Elwell said. “I love having people visit. My family can visit and if they’re not with me, they’re not going to be bored just because there’s so much to do.”
Now that she’s found comfort on and off the field, Elwell has spent the summer working to be more of a contributor. Whether it’s honing her corner kick or set piece deliveries, adding variety in her ball to the or find ways to beat college defenders like she did back at Wissahickon, Elwell wants her junior season to top her sophomore campaign.
“A lot of it is reading their positioning and for me, it wasn’t like that in high school,” Elwell said. “You could just take the ball and go at them almost blindly. At this level, you have to read what way they’re forcing you, where you’re trying to go, how many defenders are backing your opponent up, that all has to be read before you even get the ball.
“For me, that was a huge adjustment because I wasn’t used to it. These players were all at least just as good in high school, most of them were older too so it was an adjustment to be smarter about the way I play than just hoping to be successful every time I got the ball.”