So much went right for so long for the Bellarmine University women’s soccer team in 2016 that reaction to a normally enviable 11-3-4 finish could only teeter between elements of satisfaction and disappointment.
With four regular-season matches left, Bellarmine carried a 10-1-2 record and was seemingly charging toward its fifth DII NCAA Tournament appearance in six years. However, the Knights went a wobbly 1-1-2 in that stretch and fell 1-0 to McKendree in a must-win game in the opening round of the Great Lakes Valley Conference Tournament, a bruising end to a campaign that had been stellar the majority of the season.
“2016 was a very good season that most teams in the country would trade for in a heartbeat,” said Bellarmine Coach Chris Tinius, who enters his fourth season at Bellarmine with a 42-10-9 record, including 32-4-9 in GLVC play. “We lost three games to two very quality teams (Truman State and twice to McKendree, both NCAA Tournament teams). We just weren’t as consistent or detail-orientated down the stretch as the prior two years.”
Indeed, with competition fierce for the six NCAA Midwest Region bids, Bellarmine’s four draws against varyingly successful teams likely decided its NCAA Tournament fate. In recent years, the Knights had a knack for finding ways to break free from those deadlocks and notch wins even on days when they weren’t at their sharpest. Even though Bellarmine lost plenty of star power to graduation, displaying that mettle again would likely lead to a 12th straight season with double-digit victories and keep the Knights in the NCAA Tournament conversation.
“We were great frontrunners in 2016,” Tinius said. “When things went well, we looked very good. What we didn’t do was grind games out when we didn’t have our A-game like we had the previous two years. A lot of teams can win when they have their best. We have to get back to finding ways and doing little things to create our own luck when we are less than our best.”
Several program cornerstones are now gone. Mary Beth Gorham left as the Knights’ all-time leader in goals and Lauren Holder holds the same perch in assists. In addition to Gorham and Holder, goalkeeper Hannah Poteet, defender Lexy Hazle and holding midfielder Sydney Kraus each held All-GLVC distinction in their respective careers. However, the losses don’t mean Bellarmine lacks proven players. The Knights’ three seniors — defender Kelsey Lober, goalie Taylor Smith and midfielder Sam Tilton — are all battle-tested and the junior class is highly seasoned as well, giving the team a good deal of experience. What each player needs to provide to ensure team success is what has changed.
“We definitely aren’t starting over, but we certainly have a lot of people that will need to take on different roles than in the past,” Tinius said. “I feel confident in the natural ability of the players that we have, but sustaining the mental edge and concentration for extended minutes is a separate challenge. You only learn to do that through being in the heat of battle, so we may have some growing pains in that regard. I think once everything clicks, though, we are going to be a dangerous team to play once again.”
While name recognition favored the team’s offense last season, the defense was once again stout, allowing the second fewest amount of goals in a single season in program history with 11, one shy of the 2009 team’s program record. Lober anchors the back line behind 38 career starts. Juniors Caroline Lee and Madison Stephens started every game the pair played in last season. Sophomores Erika Joldrichsen and Rosie Taylor were in the rotation in their debut seasons. Sophomore Kira Steinke played up front last season but could be utilized in the back this year.
“We certainly lose as many or more ‘stars’ on the defensive side of the ball as we do in the attack. That said, I think everyone understands that while you want a balanced attack, being good defensively always takes the buy-in of the entire group,” Tinius said. “While we lost good players in the back, this could be the most experienced group coming back. Many of them played a lot of minutes last year. They mostly played very well but hopefully can also learn from some of the times we had letdowns in key moments.”
Smith was a first-team All-GLVC and All-Midwest Region goalkeeper as a sophomore. In two seasons, she is 15-1-2 with 10 shutouts and a 0.52 goals-against average. Redshirt freshman Emma Veselsky and freshman Elyssa Francis round out Bellarmine’s keeper corps.
“Taylor Smith would certainly have the edge from an experience standpoint and with her leadership ability. That said, Emma and Elyssa have both already made some great saves this preseason, so we feel confident in the depth there,” Tinius said.
In the midfield, Tilton returns to Bellarmine after not playing last season and carries 26 starts to her name. Junior Audrey Van Der Elst was third on the team last season in goals with four. Juniors Jordan Chlebowy, Polly Marino and Erika Laws logged time in every game last year.
“This is the most wide-open scenario with regard to people getting experience and settling in,” Tinius said. “We have returning players that have contributed well in the past but not to the extent they will be asked to this year. We also have a good crop of newcomers with the ability to make their mark on the game.”
Up front, sophomore forward Olivia Taylor is the reigning GLVC Freshman of the Year after ranking second on the Knights last season in goals with six and tying for second in assists with four. Sophomores Annabel Moore and Spencer Grim are also back.
“We have several players that I think can be very dynamic and are capable of contributing several goals or assists in spurts, but I think you should see a pretty balanced team from over the course of the season,” Tinius said. “Obviously Olivia is coming off a tremendous freshman year, but she will be in every scouting report this year, which will place different demands on her. I think Annabel Moore may be ready to settle into the college game and find some of the goal-scoring prowess she had in her prep days. We also have five or six players that we think could be good for three to five timely goals throughout the fall.”
Sophomore forward Kenzi Gooley is a transfer from Ball State. Freshmen looking to make contributions include Camryn Pictor, Alex Harber, Natalie Teo, Lauryn DeShane, Ellie Vandergriff and Samantha Ferry.
Tinius is interested to see how roles and style of play will be defined this season. Right now, there’s not much clarity.
“The big thing that we’ve already talked about with this group is how will the puzzle pieces fit together? We have a lot of good pieces, but it’s not quite as obvious how we will need to play coming into the season,” he said. “I think our depth and versatility can be strengths again. It will just take some time to get everyone on the same page and used to playing stretched out minutes.”
Bellarmine hosts Centre in an exhibition at 7 p.m. (ET) Thursday and scrimmages at 5 p.m. on Aug. 26 at Cedarville before opening the regular season by welcoming in Kentucky Wesleyan for a 7 p.m. match on Sept. 1.