Clarksville, Ark.-University of the Ozarks head women's soccer coach Justin Neese has reloaded his 2006 team with a large crop of incoming freshmen, giving the Lady Eagles a solid group of young and old to provide Ozarks with an optimistic outlook for the upcoming season.
Neese’s team returns seven starters and he expects immediate help from 13 talented incoming players. <#IMAGE:2#> “This is the biggest recruiting class in the program’s history, and in my opinion it is also the best,” said Neese, who is entering his second season at Ozarks. “I think they can come in, considering they work hard during the preseason, and play this season as well as the majority of their four years here. They are very driven and dedicated kids. They want to be successful here. I’m tremendously excited about our freshman class.” Ozarks finished the 2005 season with a 3-15-0 overall record and a 3-10-0 mark in league play. “In a lot of ways, this is the first year of a brand new program,” said Neese. “I think that is how the freshmen and returning players should look at it. We are doing the work to build a strong program and now we have the tools to be successful in our building.” Aside from an influx of newcomers, Neese can count on starters Katie Adan, Amanda Bohon, Emma Cantele, Mandi Carter, Olivia Fisher, Jessalyn Halsted and Ember Smith returning for game experience. Halsted, a midfielder, made the All-ASC second team a year ago after leading the team in points (8) and tying for the team lead in goals (3) and assists (2). She should be full strength this season after an injury forced her to miss most of last season. Bohon, another midfielder, started in all 18 matches and had 3 assists. “I think our midfield will be really good this year,” said Neese. “It will be one of our stronger points. It’s one of the positions where we have returning players mixed in there, and that’s pretty exciting. Having Halsted back is a plus, and obviously having Amanda return is great. They are both good players and we can do a lot with them. Marisa Maldonado is a creative player for us. Roxanne Moody is quick. She starts a lot. Heather Dryden is an exciting player and Emalee Pearson could be a defensive midfielder for us.” <#IMAGE:1#> The forward positions will get a lift with players from the freshman class, according to Neese. Senior Mandi Carter is the top returning goal producer at this position. She scored 2 goals and started in 14 matches. “Our forwards should be good this year,” said Neese. “We brought in three or four freshman who I think can play there. Laura Sprueill will be good for us and Kristyn Shinn can do a lot. Both are small, but both move at a quick pace. They will combine well with our midfielders. Some of our midfielders can play forward, too. Maldonado, Moody and Dryden could fill the forward position. I think the key to their success will be their pace. This area should be a factor in that whoever we play should have to give attention to it.” Ozarks returns only one full-time starter at the defender position. Senior Ember Smith, who received All-Conference honors in 2003, brings experience and maturity in the back. “Ember could have a big year,” said Neese. “She gives us leadership in the back, which will be important because this is a young team. We are bringing in some very cultured defenders who are able to do a lot of things. Defensive wise, they will win a lot of balls. But, I think more importantly, they will be able to combine with the midfield and move down the field a little more. Raysha Naumann is a good defender. She had a strong year in Tulsa. Taylor Crutchfield is another strong defender. Pearson is a utility player for us. We can play her in the back or the midfield. She is big and strong.” Junior Olivia Fisher will begin her first year in goal for the Lady Eagles. The 5-10 Fisher is athletic and knows the game well enough to be able to make an impact, according to Neese. “I am optimistic about the goalkeeper position,” said Neese. “Olivia is a strong athlete and has good soccer sense and that will help us. The biggest thing we were looking for is a good athlete and someone who is mentally sharp. She wants to help the team.” On paper the Lady Eagles appear much improved, enough so that Ozarks could end the program’s ten-year playoff drought. “Our goal should be to get into the playoffs,” said Neese. “I think it is entirely possible to make the playoffs. This is our goal because we brought in a quality group of kids that can take us there. They will be hungry. I think that is what is appropriate for what stage we are at right now.” Neese hopes this season is the beginning of a strong future. “Accomplishing any of our goals and going beyond that would make me happy,” said Neese. “I think the overall principle of what will decide whether or not we had a successful season is if we end the season with the feeling that things are turning around. That’s something this program has never had. To know we are taking steps towards a brighter future will make me satisfied.”