Clarksville, Ark.- Despite facing the challenge of replacing five seniors and seven starters, head U of O women's soccer coach Bryan Drotar believes his team has enough team chemistry and talent to carry the Lady Eagles to a successful season.
Ozarks must replace nearly all of their goal scorers from a year ago in addition to finding replacements in the defensive line. Kaitlyn Williams is the only returning player who netted a goal last season. The team does have three seniors – Kristi Gordon, Jessica Martin and Su San Low - that will provide veteran leadership from last season’s 5-14-0 squad.
“The main strength this season will be our team chemistry,” said Drotar. “It will be a far tighter group than I’ve had here. We have girls that are willing to fight for each other and pick each other up. This translates into working hard during practice and being more team oriented than individually oriented.”
Replacing five quality seniors is no easy task, so Drotar is counting on his incoming class to make an impact.
“Losing those five seniors will definitely change things,” said Drotar. “But this year we are very happy with the culture of the girls coming in and with the returners. The excitement that is here wasn’t here last year. I do think that helps in terms of how they work and how they prepare.”
The freshman class, which includes Jessica Temple, Bree Eichenberger, Monica Seiler, Abby Kern and Katherine Hill, will no doubt have to contribute immediately in order for Ozarks to improve on their 4-9-0 conference record a year ago.
“This is the best recruiting class we’ve had in several years,” said Drotar. “We have girls that have been successful in high school and in their club environments. They are individually talented girls, and I think if we can mesh them with our current team we can be very successful. I expect all of them to contribute early. Several of them are beyond the maturity of a lot of freshman players. As soon as they figure out the transition to college and the speed of play, I think they will do well.”
Williams, who started in all 19 matches, is expected to play a much bigger role this season, according to Drotar. Gordon started in 16 matches and has been a four-year starter. Martin returns after missing all of last season due to an injury and Low is back after missing most of the 2009 season with an injury.
“Kaitlyn’s game has developed so far in two years,” said Drotar. “I think she will surprise a lot of people as a very dominant centermid.”
Martin will bolster the attack in the midfield. Up front, junior playmakers Natalie Grove and Lacey Mainer return to the striker position. Mainer started in all but one match, while Grove played in all 19 matches.
“I think we will be more successful on the attack this year,” said Drotar. “I think we have a couple of players that can get in behind defenses. We have several returners who have really bought into the idea that they have to work hard to prepare for this and they have.”
“Natalie and Jessica combine great skill with speed,” said Drotar. “Natalie has a heart that just doesn’t stop. I think the combination of those things will be very solid up top.”
Morgan O’Neil is penciled in as the starting goalkeeper. O’Neil, a sophomore, started in goal four times, owning a 1.77 goals against average last season. She posted one shutout in 407 minutes of play.
“Morgan will do very good in goal because she has been preparing herself for a year at an incredible work rate,” said Drotar. “It will be a change for her because she knows it is hers going in. She is a far different player than she was last year. She is a lot more confident and her skills are better.”
Providing defensive stability in front of O’Neil will be a mixture of newcomers and veterans. Rebecca Groff, who played in 15 matches in 2009, and Gordon will see action as defenders.
“I expect that Abby, Kristi and Monica will be solid in the back,” said Drotar. “The fourth player in the back is open. I think the individual ability and preparation is far beyond what it has been. I think our defense will be solid. Their physical abilities will help our defense.”
Drotar believes his team is making the necessary steps to move the program forward.
“I have high expectations for this team,” said Drotar. “I think we are taking a step forward from where we’ve been the last few years. We will be shooting for a playoff spot and I think that is a realistic goal and one we are capable of.”
In order to qualify for the playoffs, the Lady Eagles must fight through the rigors of the American Southwest Conference and a tough non-conference slate.
“The ASC is challenging,” said Drotar. “And UA-Pine Bluff is an NCAA I team that made the national tournament last season. So that will be a challenging opening match. We also play Rhodes College and they are traditionally good year in and year out.”