As she enters her sixth year as the head coach of the UMBC women's soccer team, Leslie Wray knows that what the coaching staff needs from her team is going to change as the weeks go on. For openers, it is critical to go through preseason with "players who are fit and to keep players healthy," which the team has been able to do.
But as the season opener against Towson on Friday, August 18 looms on the horizon, the second expectation for the season kicks in, as the staff hopes the team sticks together as one.
"For the first part of the season, our expectation is one we've been working on a lot, [which] is our team defending on the field, but also staying together as a team. We've said that a lot throughout our meetings that it is important for us to work hard together and we've laid the groundwork by being competitive within ourselves this preseason," Wray said. "We want to see what relationships prosper on the field, what players work well together, and that's basically our non-conference season."
The final expectation comes once the team hits the America East portion of the schedule, where the team posted a 2-5-1 record just a season ago.
"By the time we hit our conference schedule, we know the relationships are steady and we understand exactly what their roles are on the field. Our expectation in conference play is to get into the tournament and make a run for it."
This season, the Retrievers' non-conference schedule features two teams that played on the big stage last season, as the team will travel to face Big South champions Liberty and the reigning NEC titleholders St. Francis (Pa.). But the tough beginning of the schedule is just molding the team for their own America East Tournament run.
"The competitive out-of-conference is just preparing us for conference play. Everything we do revolves around how we can make a run for a championship and a title," Wray said. "Having games that are going to really push us and challenge us, like Liberty and St. Francis (Pa.), and really everyone – we have a lot of challenging teams on our schedule."
While non-conference is sometimes seen as an easy way for teams to pick up wins at the beginning of the season, Wray doesn't see any of the teams as sleeper picks to put a "W" up on the schedule for the Retrievers.
"We don't have a 'gimme' game on our schedule this season, there's no team where we can say 'oh, we're going to take a break on this,' and that's only preparing us for the fight we need in conference play," Wray said.
Once the America East portion of the schedule begins on September 24 against defending champs Albany, Wray knows that the team will have to be prepared to battle to make it to the conference tournament.
"We need to be prepared and ready and focused for everyone and we need to be disciplined," Wray said, regarding league play.
After finishing eighth in the America East last season and missing the postseason for just the second season under Wray's tutelage, the Retrievers were picked to finish ninth in the annual coaches' poll this year out of nine teams.
"It's difficult to try and pick those polls. Every year with this conference, everything changes. Teams that are picked first don't end up winning it and teams that are picked last don't end up finishing last," Wray commented. "There's so much parity within the conference that you take it for what it is as a coach."
While the poll doesn't factor much into Wray's everyday teachings as a coach, she does believe that the team being picked last of all the teams does embody the entire message of the athletic department of never giving up and fighting hard.
"It really feeds into the personality and the aura of what UMBC is about. We say we have grit, our mascot is True Grit, we can dig down and being the underdogs is where we like to be," Wray said. "We want to go out and upset teams and say 'yeah, this is us, this is UMBC.'"
Wray will enter the season with a full roster with immense experience, as she returns 12 letterwinners and six starters from a season ago. Even though there are only seven upperclassmen on the roster, Wray thinks the experience of her sophomores who saw significant playing time help to close that gap.
"We have a lot of experience because we have a lot of sophomores who saw a lot of playing time last year that were relied upon to do well in our season," Wray said." "So, where we kind of lack that overall experience and maturity of being older, we may make up for in just the experience with our sophomores."
Wray has been impressed, however, with the amount of leadership she has seen from her five juniors and two seniors.
"Gabby Boehmer, who is a captain for a second year, epitomizes what we talk about within our core values of integrity, teamwork, and hard work. She's a player who wants to win and will really sacrifice what she can for the good of the team, and you don't get many players like that. Joining her as a captain is Leah Roth, who is a junior and had a great year last year, and in this preseason, she has improved her game every step of the way, whether that's in the weight room or on the field. No matter where you are right now, all we ask is that you keep growing and keep getting better.
"We have Katie Berkowitz back, who is a junior as well, the maturity that she brings and the levelheadedness, she's fantastic to talk to. Madison Koenig has really stepped up as another senior to say 'I want to go far and however I can help the team is how I can help the team.' You love those players that have that versatility and you find that in your older players more than you do in your younger players."
Overall, the team lost eight letterwinners and four starters, bringing back a strong set of players who Wray believes could boost the team's skill levels.
"As a coaching staff, you know you're going to have some years where you're really going to have to grind through some things because you may not have what you need," Wray said. "With this group, if we can stay focused and disciplined, we have some tools that can make us successful."
With only the departure of Alexa and Preslie Quaranta from the front line of UMBC's offense, Wray has decided to shake things up in her attacking core.
"If you look at returning players that are up top, I think we've added a little and changed things around for our attacking three and attacking four," Wray said. "We are going to be stronger around the goal than we have been in the past. We've made some switches and some players are going to be moved around."
Wray mentioned that Koenig, who has played centerback most of her career and junior Wren Aye, who is featured "predominately in the midfield", will be pushed up to the front line this season.
"Jess had surgery over the summer so we're working on getting her fit, but her feet are really good and she's going to give us that strength and be able to hold it for us up top. Jamie is another returner that we're going to look to to give us some of that experience. Emily has grown a lot as a wide player and got a lot of time in spring. She can run forever, has a great driven ball, and she's going to be able to give us fantastic depth," Wray said.
"Christina is making an impact right away in that central position or out wide," Wray said. "Elysia is coming in, playing out on the left, and she has a fantastic left foot."
Overall, Wray thinks the attacking core will be "dynamic up top, have a lot more creativity and more experience than we did last year."
In what Wray called a "battle," the three midfield spots open for UMBC will have to be narrowed down from a pool of six or seven. However, Wray is confident that sophomore Nikki Saad will fill one of those spots. Last season, Saad scored three goals and lead the team with four assists in her rookie campaign.
"Nikki came back into preseason and into camp and has just really impressed us with her ability to drive, to get forward, and ability to shoot with both feet," Wray said. "She played in every game last season as a freshman, so just that experience alone is going to help us on the field."
Boehmer is also a contender for the spot as a midfielder after finishing with five goals and one assists last season. Junior Jenna Denis, who played in just 10 games last season before suffering an injury, will also try to compete for the midfield.
"Gabby's traditional spot for us has been in midfield, maybe found to be pushed out wide a bit knowing that she's going to have to be on the field. But she's also a great attacker and just sneaks in," Wray said. "Jenna, who last season suffered a concussion, is back and come into the preseason working hard and phenomenal in the air. She's really going to battle to keep that position."
"I feel if we can get some sort of rotation in there, we can keep pushing. Probably the most exciting part about our team is we're going to have a lot more depth in our midfield than we've ever had," Wray said. "We're going to have a lot more players that can handle the ball very well and are good in the air."
"Our back line isn't going to change much" was the only thing Wray had to say about her defense. The only missing piece gone from last season is Shannon Phillips so Wray returns her entire line while gaining more players in the process including Berkowitz, who sat out last season with an injury.
"Katie, in her freshman year was a centerback, she's coming back as a centerback and played all spring, is stronger than she has been, and has that maturity of a junior," Wray said. "But, it's going to take her a couple of games to get back into the speed of the game."
Joining Berkowitz at the centerback position is Sydney Donovan, who played in all 17 games last season as a rookie.
"Sydney, who started every game as a freshman as a centerback, is going to keep that position, and that duo is going to be the center of our defense," Wray said.
Out on the wings, sophomores Rayven Conner and Marissa O'Connor, who each saw significant playing time in 2016, and Courtney Culp, who sat out last season with an injury, will see time on the pitch. Wray also mentioned that Koenig or "one of the midfielders" could play out wide.
In the goalkeeper position, Roth, a junior, returns to the box after her first season of competition in which she made 99 saves, which ranks eighth in a season at UMBC.
"Leah in goal has really stepped up with her communication to come out, in 1-v-1 situations and shot stopping. Last year was her first year, so she has a ton of experience now. "
Overall, Wray is extremely pleased with the team's defensive situation, which is in part because of the complete team dynamic.
"The defense just feels a little bit more solid than we ever have been," Wray said. "We're further along this year in preseason than we've been in the past and that's because we have a controlled core and we're just going to get better, whether that's with experience or with newcomers up the spine."
Wray feels confident in the 24 women she has on her roster this season.
"Above all, we have to have all the players on the same page," Wray said. "More so than any other year, I feel like every one of the players is working their butt off and that there are no real outliers."
And with that confidence, Wray feels that the team is one of the more cohesive squads she's seen in her six-year tenure at UMBC, which she says is a coaching staff's dream.
"We have a stronger team chemistry than we've had in years past and that's exciting. It's exciting to see the girls have a lot of fun, on and off the field," Wray commented. "We enjoy being around them, they're all good kids, and they just want to compete and play. You really can't ask for more as a coach."