The Fort Hays State University women’s soccer team is going straight to the source of it’s problems to fix a job it felt was left incomplete last season.
When the NCAA announced it’s selections for the 2014 Division II Women’s Soccer Championship, the Tigers were left on the outside looking in. Three teams from the MIAA — Central Missouri, Central Oklahoma and Southwest Baptist — joined three teams from the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference in Super Regionals.
The Tigers finished 2014 with a record of 13-5-2, finishing third in the conference and advancing to the semifinal of the MIAA tournament. The Tigers picked up points in each of the final eight regular season games, picking up winning seven wins and one tie. In the end, UCO, the conference’s fourth-place team in 2014, earned the postseason bid ahead of Fort Hays.
Fifth-year head coach Craig Shaw feels it was due to strength of schedule.
He did not make the same mistake twice.
The Tigers’ first four games are against the NSIC’s third- through sixth-place finishers last year in an effort to, hopefully with wins, can boost his squad’s résume.
“If we go 4-0, we’ll be ranked top 20 in the nation, but it’s gonna be real tough,” Shaw said. “We played some teams that were maybe a little easier last year. Now we’re just playing everybody who is in our region and we’re gonna prove to them. If we win those games, we’re gonna be ranked in the nation, we’re gonna be ranked in the region and hopefully if we keep doing well through the season and in conference like we did last year,we get to go to nationals. We’ve got the hardest non-conference probably in our conference.”
The Tigers kick off opening weekend with a rematch with Southwest Minnesota State (10-8-1) on Friday at FHSU Soccer Stadium. The Tigers beat the No. 21-ranked Mustangs 4-1 in last year’s season opener on the road. Sunday’s matchup welcomes a new opponent in Minot (ND) State, which was 10-7-2 last season.
“I think it will be really good experience to play some really good teams,” said sophomore goalkeeper Kristen Thompson. “It will help us kinda start our season off with a bang. Hopefully get the wins, work hard from there and continue to grow. ...
“(Missing last year) made us really hungry. We were pretty mad we didn’t get to go on and I think that’s kinda lit a fire under everybody. We’re pretty motivated to get to that next level.”
While success in out-of-conference matchups can put icing on any season, it’s a different story in the MIAA. The Tigers play one regular season game against preseason No. 7 Central Missouri and Southwest Baptist, who finished second in the conference on its way to a postseason berth. With both teams returning plenty of experience, Shaw said his returners must build off of last season’s nerves and conference play to succeed in the league.
“I think we’ve got a squad that can match them,” Shaw said. “It’s just if we can have the experience during these big games during the actual season and carry that into the tournament. I just think we came out way too nervous and didn’t play well.”
Much of that experience returns from a talented midfield. Junior Hannah Smith was an All-MIAA second team and All-Central Region third team pick after starting all 20 matches for the Tigers as the anchor in the midfield.
In Shaw’s 4-3-3 formation, a handful of girls are battling for the other two positions from seniors to true freshmen.
“Our midfield is our toughest battle. They’re all fighting there,” Shaw said. “And then some freshmen have come in and have done really well. … It’s our deepest part of the field. Center midfield is where it’s gonna be toughest to get game time and is probably gonna be our most solid for the season.”
The battle provides plenty of starting experience, including Jasmine Beaulieu and Hannah Jurgens. Shaw also said sophomore Vianei Sanchez and a pair of freshmen, Taylor Spencer and Taylor Rodriguez, are in the mix for early playing time.
The Tigers hoped to return a proven defensive line from a top-25 defense last season that allowed just 13 goals in 20 games. Junior Mallory Diederich was a first-team selection in the region and conference who played every possible minute in 2014. A torn ACL will leave her sidelined this season and is the highlight for the Tigers’ preseason injury woes. Shaw counted as many as 13 girls that had to sit out practice at one time this fall.
After more injuries to the team, sophomore Bailey Schmitz is poised to anchor the backline in front of Thompson. Thompson was a wall in the goal last season and started every minute as a freshmen, garnering honors in the region and conference. Senior Gabrielle Makatura made 15 starts on a backline that recorded 11 shutouts last season and will be in the fold again in 2015.
“I think they’ve got great communication and have been willing to learn,” Thompson said of the defense picking up clean sheets in all three preseason games. “They’ve been working hard and I think it’s helped a lot.”
Shaw said Schmitz, Mukatura and CheyAnn Queener, a junior transfer from Laramie County (Wyo.) CC, are the lone girls to solidify their starting spots and “the rest is up for grabs.”
“We’ve had three scrimmages and kept three clean sheets so that’s a good sign,” Shaw added. “Still a little work to do on the team, defensively, but they’re ahead of where we thought they’d be with a big, new group.”
Goals can be hard to come by in the MIAA and Shaw hopes his experienced group can build on the success of putting away 33 goals last season.
“If you can find a girl who can score double digits, you’re probably gonna come first or second,” Shaw said.
After scoring 10 goals as a freshman and seven over the past two years, Shaw moved senior Jordan Hester back to a central forward position next to a pair of seniors in Kylee Loneker, who is also moving up from the midfield after four goals as an honorable mention all-conference honoree, and Ember Albertson.
“I was a little worried going in,” Shaw said. “I thought that would be our weakest area but those three have stepped up real big for us. Hopefully that continues for us when we start real games Friday.”
Sophomore Kelsey Steffens, who started 14 games as a freshman and earned third team all-conference honors after leading the Tigers with team-high eight goal and five assists, is healthy for Shaw’s squad. Cassi Moosburger, a true freshman, is also expected to seeing playing time early in her tenure.
With a healthy dose of position battles all across the field and positive wins in three preseason games, if the Tigers’ play carries over into the regular season this weekend, Shaw will be ecstatic.
“We’re really moving the ball well, our touches are clean, our decision making on where to play the ball,” Shaw said. “We’ve really dominated possession in all three scrimmages that we had. …
“We moved the ball quick, scored goals and kept clean sheets. That’s what every coach would like.”