As the Washington and Lee women's soccer team kicks off its 2011 campaign, it finds itself in an exciting position of blending a talented upperclassman group with a large rookie class.
And while every season sees an influx of new talent, the anticipation building around this team and its potential is contagious.
Entering his 11th season at Washington and Lee, Head Coach Neil Cunningham returns 14 letterwinners off a team that went 10-6-2 in 2010, advancing to the semifinals of the ODAC Tournament before falling to eventual champion Lynchburg College.
Joining the returnees are 12 fresh faces, and Cunningham is hopeful that the blending of old and new talent will bring a renewed energy to the team and enough depth off the bench to push for the fourth ODAC title under his tutelage.
"I am excited about the blend of experienced players in our squad mixed with the energy that young players can bring to a team," remarked Cunningham." I believe this squad has the talent, experience and work ethic to do great things."
Anchoring the 2011 W&L squad will be the defense, which returns all of its starters from a season ago, including all three captains. Senior Heather Deisher (Cape Girardeau, Mo.) and junior Katie Howard (Atherton, Calif./Menlo School) are joined by senior captains Kat Lawson (White Post, Va.), Page Minton (Bowling Green, Ky.), and Emily Leary (Cincinnati, Ohio), forming what has been one of the top defensive units in the conference. Together, the quartet has posted an impressive 0.67 goals-against average over the past three seasons, including 36 shutouts.
"I am particularly pleased about the veteran leadership this group can provide," stated Cunningham. "They have proven time and time again to be reliable, consistent and talented performers on and off the field."
Lawson, a two-time All-ODAC honoree and recipient of NSCAA First Team All-America honors as a sophomore, continues to provide a strong option in the middle of defense. Cunningham is quick to note that Lawson is "one of the best defenders in the league", and "provides great vocal leadership for the unit".
Flanking Lawson are Minton, Howard and Deisher. Coach notes that Minton is a "fierce competitor and an excellent passer of the ball", while Deisher is a "no-nonsense, tough tackling defender who is difficult to beat". The newest face in the backfield, Cunningham stated that Howard has worked extremely hard to solidify her place at the back, providing valuable athleticism to the team.
A familiar face in goal, Leary enters her senior season serving as a team captain for the second-consecutive season. Leary will look to build upon her strong play from previous seasons, posting a 0.58 goals-against average, an .818 save percentage and 25 shutouts over her career at W&L. She is on pace to etch her name into the W&L record books, both for career save percentage and career shutouts.
"Leary is an excellent goalkeeper and I would not trade her for any other [keeper] in the country," stated Cunningham. "She has excellent command of the box, athleticism and quickness and a knack of producing match winning saves."
"I know Emily is committed to breaking records this year and we would love to see her at the top of the goalkeeping record books," he added.
With a strong defense providing a solid foundation from which to build the attack, Cunningham is anxious to see how his offense will develop this season. If preseason practices are any indication, W&L fans can expect new and exciting scoring opportunities during the 2011 campaign.
Seven returnees are vying against a large contingency of new faces to earn a spot in the lineup, and Cunningham likes the competitiveness and energy he has seen among his players competing for a starting position in the midfield and attack.
" Practices have been fierce and extremely competitive," remarked Cunningham. "We have done an excellent job as a staff to improve our athleticism, speed and depth in these areas, and I expect this team to be prolific in front of goal and very dangerous on the counter attack."
Three of the top five scorers from a season ago return, including junior Ainsley Daigle (Lafayette, La.), and seniors Kat Barnes (Charlotte, N.C.) and Anne Masich (Raleigh, N.C.). Daigle registered 10 points (4g,2a) in 2010, while Barnes and Masich each finished with seven points (2g,3a).
Joining the scoring trio are senior Allie Espina (Gaithersburg, Md.), junior Hannah Sackfield (Louisville, Ky.) and sophomore Jasmine Soo (Charleston, W.Va.), who combined to score six goals last season.
Add in experienced senior Dory Blackey (Versailles, Ky.), along with the ever emerging sophomore Alexis Blight (Columbia, Md.), and Cunningham is optimistic the returnees will bring experience and a renewed enthusiasm to an offense that was sluggish last year, scoring only 28 goals for the season.
Cunningham noted that he will be counting on the senior leadership of Barnes, Masich and Espina in the offensive end, as all three have a proven track record of offensive prowess, ranking in the team's top five offensive scorers each of their past three seasons.
" I feel good about the combination of older players that understand their position and have been battle tested and first-years that have the ability to score goals and make chances for others," said Cunningham. "We have more flexibility and options and can really give some teams a hard time."
Eleven new faces will don the Generals' Blue and White for the first time this season, and Cunningham is pleased about the talent that the class of 2015 brings to the field.
" This class will be exciting to watch that is for sure," mentioned Cunningham. "They are strong performers from excellent soccer clubs all over the country."
Cunningham notes that they are a great group to work with, and that this class has arrived on the W&L campus at just the right time.
"They [class of 2015] will quickly learn the Generals' Way from our seniors, providing a strong foundation to move the team forward next year and beyond."
Cunningham understands that there will be growing pains early on as the rookie players learn to compete on the collegiate level and work on making their impact on the field. However, he can't help but recognize the special chemistry this team has demonstrated early on, and how that will continue to develop as the team heads deeper into the season.
The Generals' season schedule includes two preseason ranked opponents, with both teams traveling to Lexington to face the Generals. W&L will square off with perennial for and ODAC contender Lynchburg College (ranked 18) on October 8, before facing No. 11 Denison University on October 16. The Generals also have to contend with traditional ODAC challengers Virginia Wesleyan along the way, but Cunningham believes his team has what it takes to once again climb to the top of the conference standings and advance to the NCAA Division III Women's Soccer Tournament.
Additionally, it's a milestone year for the W&L women's soccer program, as it celebrates 25 years as a varsity sport. The team will host an alumni event on Saturday, September 10 at halftime of its game versus Averett.
W&L kicks off its season on Thursday, September 1, playing host to North Carolina Wesleyan at 4:00 pm.