For the first time since taking over the helm of the UMBC women's soccer program, head coach Leslie Wray doesn't feel pressure heading into the season. The first year for a head coach there is always something to prove. Year two there was the pressure of continuing to build a program and, as Wray described it, changing the culture of a program that had struggled in recent years. The third year may have brought the most pressure and expectations of all after the Retrievers had their Cinderella run that saw regular-season and tournament championships and the program's first-ever NCAA tournament appearance.
But now entering her fourth year at the helm of the UMBC and seeing the departure of a very influential senior class, Wray doesn't feel that cloud of pressure hanging over the Retrievers. The Dawgs, who return four starters from last year's roster, have what Wray calls a "fresh start" for the 2015 campaign. Despite an array of new faces, the Retrievers were picked to finish third, just two votes behind second-place Hartford, in the annual America East Preseason Coaches' Poll.
"This year is going to be a challenge right from the beginning," said Wray. "After losing five starting seniors last year and some underclassmen that transferred, we have a new team and an entirely new dynamic from last fall. We are looking forward to this fresh start that we have with the players that are coming in, the young returners and some key veterans."
The Retrievers missed the dynamic duo of Alexa Quaranta and Preslie Quaranta, who saw action in two and three games respectively in 2014. Alexa proved in 2013 that she is able to create for herself on the offensive side of the ball, having tallied a team-best eight goals, including three game-winners, en route to earning America East All-Conference First Team honors. But this season the red-shirt junior will be looked upon to use her speed to also create for her teammates up front. Preslie has been fighting the injury bug in each of the last two seasons but is looking to return strong in 2015.
Veteran Amanda Dailey returns after earning America East All-Conference Second Team honors last season. Dailey started the final eight games of the 2014 campaign and provided the Retrievers with some much needed speed up front after the loss of Alexa. The Retrievers, who lost their top two goal scorers from a year ago, will the look to the senior, as well as junior Destinee Morris, to put the ball in the net in 2015.
Also returning to the forward position for the Retrievers are sophomores Rachel Lyon and Virginia Moyer, as well as senior Sunita Mengers. Lyon made six starts and saw action in 10 games in her rookie campaign, while Moyer tallied one goal and one assist in her 18 appearances. The speed of Mengers and newcomer Fern Peters will make the two viable options up front for the Retrievers.
"We are going to have a lot more depth in the forward line than we've had in years' past," explained Wray. "We are happy to have Alexa back and healthy. She gives us some speed up top, which we missed last year when she was hurt. Amanda was coming into her own at the end of last season and we think that she is going to get out to a strong start. Then we have depth throughout with Rachel, Virginia, Sunita, Destinee and Fern."
UMBC's midfielders will have some big shoes to fill following the departure of a highly experienced and productive graduating class. The Retrievers lost the two-time America East Midfielder of the Year Jessy Brown, along with classmates Lilly Rydon and Paige Preston. The Dawgs' midfield last season combined for 16 goals and eight assists, with 15 of the goals coming from the senior trio, so UMBC will have plenty of opportunity for young players to make immediate impacts.
Sophomore Gabby Boehmer will have to build off her rookie campaign and pick up some of the scoring slack for the Retrievers after registering a goal and assist a season ago. Senior Amira Walcott and sophomore Nicole Delabrer will both see action in the midfield and the back in 2015. Walcott has earned America East All-Conference recognition in each of the last two seasons as a defender and has combined for five goals and three assists during the span. Despite playing in just two games in her rookie season, Delabrer is the only other Retriever midfielder with collegiate experience and is expected to see an increase in playing time in 2015.
Sophomore Hannah Goff will look to get into the mix after battling injuries last season. She will compete for time with newcomers Jenna Denis, Karen Aye and Skyler Mackey. Denis, a three-sport athlete at Ridgefield High School, earned All-Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference First Team honors en route to helping her team advance to the state semifinals last season, while Aye earned Washington Catholic Athletic Conference All-Conference Second Team honors as a junior. Mackey was a two-sport athlete at Woodrow Wilson High School and the first to sign a national letter of intent. She will split time between the midfield and back positions in her initial campaign with the Retrievers.
"The midfield is definitely going to be a challenge," admitted Wray. "That is where we are going to be our youngest, but that's where I feel where our ball handling skills are going to get better. We are going to miss having a two-time midfielder of the year and it is going to be hard to play without that, but we are going to have to find a different way and a different style to play through our midfield than in years past, which is exciting and scary at the same time."
The Retrievers' defense may be one of the most underrated parts of Wray's teams at UMBC. Last season, the Dawgs defense posted the lowest goal allowance in program history (12) and ranked in the top-10 nationally in save percentage. UMBC's 2014 backline had worked together for three straight seasons, but this year will take a different form with the graduation of Morgan Taylor and Melissa Hummel and the dual positions that senior Amira Walcott will be playing. Senior Nikki Boretti, one of the team's three captains, brings veteran leadership to the Retrievers' defense. Boretti has not missed a start in the last two seasons with the Retrievers and has earned the starting nod in 55 of her 57 appearances since stepping on campus.
Joining the backline will be Rutgers' transfer Shannon Phillips, who is expected to step in a make an immediate impact for the Retrievers. Senior Bria Bass and sophomore Madison Koenig are fighting for one of the starting roles after seeing limited time last season. Freshman Katie Berkowitz gained valuable experience in South River High School's Maryland 4A State Championship run and will look to translate that knowledge to the collegiate game as she battles for time.
"After seeing what our backline has done in the two scrimmages, I am confident that we can rely on our backline to be solid again this year," said Wray. "They have all played at a high level and so far what we've see is that they've been able to come in and be consistent for us back there and they've really minimized the mistakes.
"We also have talent in our senior goalkeeper in Jen Nance," continued Wray. "She is going to help organize our backline."
After entering 2014 with some uncertainty at the goalkeeper position, Jen Nance did all she could to put minds at ease. In her first season as the starting keeper, Nance set a new program single-season shutout record and led the league in goals against average (0.61), save percentage (.882) and shutouts (nine) en route to earning America East All-Conference Second Team honors. Nance will also serve as one of the team's three captains for the 2015 season.
Newcomers Leah Roth and Mikayla Krinetz will serve as Nance's backups. Roth was a two-time All-WPIAL and All-Section at Pine-Richland High School, while Krinetz was named an All-County Honorable Mention after making 53 saves and tallying one assist in 2014 at Broadneck High School.
The Retrievers open the regular season at Navy on Friday, Aug. 21 at 7 p.m. at Glenn Warner Soccer Facility and host Bucknell on Sunday, Aug. 23 in their home-opener at 1 p.m. at Retriever Soccer Park. UMBC opens its 13th season in the America East Conference when the Dawgs host Albany on Sunday, Sept. 27.
"What's exciting about this year is that we aren't sure what we can expect," said Wray. "We are going to have to rely a lot on some returners that didn't get that much time last year, along with freshman that are going to have to step up and provide quality minutes. We are looking forward to the excitement that brings and looking forward to what they can bring to the team."