Months of preparation and practice has all built up to Friday’s start of the MIAA season for the Fort Hays State University women’s soccer team.
With the Tigers feeling undermined by securing the conference’s third-best record and not being chosen to the national playoff field a year ago, a beefed up non-conference schedule and strong start to the MIAA just might be the force to propel the Tigers back to nationals for the first time since 2012.
After four games against some of the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference’s top teams, the Tigers begin MIAA play with a 1-3 record under their belt. Fifth-year head coach Craig Shaw’s team started with a 1-0 victory against Southwest Minnesota State on a last-minute goal but has since lost three one-goal games.
Senior forward Kylee Loneker sees a number of positives in the past two weeks of games, despite a three-game losing streak.
“I’m actually really, really proud of us. We’ve been working so incredibly hard during preseason and most of us girls were here before,” Loneker said. “We really came together and connected really well. These last four games didn’t really show on paper how well we did, but I felt like in those games we were really possessing, connecting, and obviously we have room to tweak. … I think those bonds and connections are really gonna show on the field these next few games.”
The Tigers started 2014 with a record of 2-2, but were able to find the net 10 times. The Tigers’ first goal of 2015 came from senior Jordan Hester with 11 seconds to play in the season opener with the team’s only other goal coming by way of Loneker in the final minute of Saturday’s loss at Upper Iowa.
“I think getting that goal in kind of exemplified just how hard we’ve been working,” Loneker said. “If you don’t get to that ball, if you don’t get to that front post, don’t put forth that effort, it wouldn’t have gone in. I think it kinda just set the tone for what we have to do as a team.”
A decrease in goals comes with the territory of playing a tougher schedule, as Shaw said an easier non-conference schedule was the reason the Tigers were one spot from the playoffs in 2014. The team has shot the ball less but has allowed less shots through four games than last season and just one goal against per game to tougher opponents.
Fort Hays has also sent out very young lineups to start the season. Four freshmen have started for Shaw, with forward Cassi Moosburger having started three games on the offense’s front line. The defensive line has been filled with experience as Jessica Babyak (3), Taryn Schnell (2) and Alexis Jacobs (2) have seen significant minutes and combined for 7 starts early in the season.
“Stepping out for the first time was nerve-racking, for sure, especially coming straight from high school,” Jacobs said. “But all together we’re clicking really well. We’re finally starting to get into the groove of things and we’re starting to work better as a team.”
Jacobs said Shaw has not been discouraged by the early-season struggles with a 14-game MIAA slate set to begin.
“He told us that we haven’t played awful, the losses were just unlucky mistakes,” Jacobs said. “We’re doing well, we just need to come together to be able to fix our problems and understand what we’re doing wrong. If we work hard and with that passion that he knows we have, then we’ll be able to win conference.”
After a two-game road trip ended with two losses, the players are bonding as well as ever and not letting the recent string of results get to them.
“We got frustrated at times just because it sucks to lose,” Jacobs said. “Throughout practice we’ve come together and said let’s dig ourselves out of this hole, let’s get through it together and we’ll be able to work harder to fix the issues that we need to work on so we can come out with wins.”
The MIAA poses threat to the Tigers from some of the country’s best teams with three having gone to nationals last season, including Central Missouri, who is currently the No. 2 team in the nation. With the task at hand and the end goal in sight, Loneker said there is a different feel of the game getting into the conference schedule.
“They definitely all count but in the MIAA, starting from the beginning we have to win games, winning every tackle, winning every 50/50,” Loneker said. “It really comes down to the intensity of the girls.”
The Tigers now venture on a seven-week business trip with a Friday night matchup at Nebraska-Kearney (1-1-2) followed by a Sunday afternoon game in Emporia against the Hornets (3-1).
With Central Missouri and Northeastern State standing as the only undefeated teams through four non-conference games, Loneker is confident a statement opening weekend can carry the Tigers to their ultimate goal of a return to the postseason.
“I think some people are a little iffy with us, especially how we did this last weekend,” Loneker said. “We’re gonna come out as the underdogs, which is exactly where we wanna be because no one will be ready for what we’re about to bring. We are a force to be reckoned with, for sure.”