Heading into the 2016 season, the Mountaineers women’s soccer team has higher expectations than ever before.
Coming off a season where the team advanced to the semifinals of the Sun Belt conference tournament and lost in a tight battle with the eventual Sun Belt champions South Alabama, the team has a new excitement heading into the season.
“The bottom line is we want to win the Sun Belt tournament,” head coach Sarah Strickland said. “We came very close last year and once we get there it will be a battle of wills, and I like our chances. Our team has heart.”
The Mountaineers lost some leaders in defender Merlin Beckwith, forward Sam Childress and starting goalie Megan Roberson to graduation. But the team is returning six of 11 starters from last season and was ranked fourth with 81 points in the preseason coaches Sun Belt rankings released on Tuesday.
Seniors Jane Cline and Carrie Taylor, along with junior Lindsey Tully look to pick up the leadership and on-field presence left from last year’s leaders.
One of the key losses from the strong defensive team they had last year is Beckwith, who now leaves a pivotal opening on the defensive side of the ball.
“We have put a lot of people there to fill Merlin’s spot, and I think everyone has stepped up and performed well no matter who we have had there,” Tully said.
Tully was named to the 2016 preseason Sun Belt all-conference team on Tuesday and now looks to be one of the key defensive players on the team.
Playing every second of all 20 games last season (1,880 minutes), Strickland says the recognition for Tully shows the respect she is earning from coaches and the conference.
Despite the losses of players, Flanders says that no matter who is in a new spot, the team has showed strength adjusting to new positions and players.
“I think the biggest thing we are doing well is adjusting to different situations depending on who is out there and formations we are playing or playing against,” Flanders said.
While chances will arise for new starters this year, there may be none bigger than at goalie.
With the departure of Roberson, the reigns have been passed to junior Sam Steyl, who was slated as the full time starter.
“Sam will be great, she is healthy and has improved her communication so much,” Strickland said. “Sam’s got a huge heart and the girls trust her.”
Already working well with the defense and getting to know formations of the offense, Steyl said she is more than prepared.
“I think the team is excited and I know I’m excited,” Steyl said. “The team is taking it in full stride and we have been working well together.”
Others that may have not had the opportunity in prior years will get a chance to show their skills this season, including junior Sarah Peatross, senior Brie Bahlmann and sophomore forward Jessica Easley who scored her first goal in the team’s exhibition against Elon.
Suffering two ACL tears in high school and sitting out last season recovering, Easley has already been opening eyes.
“We have been waiting for Jessica to have her breaking moment coming off of two ACL tears,” Strickland said. “In the spring when she could play, we knew she was going to be impactful.”
Brie Bahlmann has been catching attention as well with her senior leadership that is important to a young Appalachian State team that has 11 freshmen.
“Brie has been killing it, she is working so hard and her mentality has been great being a role model for the freshmen,” Flanders said. “She’s really going to help us this season.”
Leadership is very important to this program, with 12 of the 33 players on the team being in leadership roles.
“We have team captains but we also have family leaders,” Strickland said. “You have a voice and an arm around each person at some point.”
Everyone will be expected to step up with the loss of five starters, but at the end of the day “team” is the number one concern of the Mountaineers.
“The mentality of the program is bigger than any one of us,” Strickland said. “The girls are so invested.”
The ability for veteran players to move around to different positions, along with adding freshmen to the mix, brings depth to the team.
“Our freshmen are really stepping up to the key roles and moving around some upperclassmen,” Flanders said. “Coming into preseason everyone has been working hard and we are already one step ahead from where we were this time last year.”
The Mountaineers open up their regular season at home on Friday against Northern Kentucky at 4 p.m. at Ted Mackorell Stadium.
Story By: Adam Hothersall, Sports Reporter