After reaching three straight NCCAA tournaments, the Grace College women’s soccer team, coached by Michael Voss, are eager to make their first NAIA tournament in program history.
Voss, the team’s all-time winningest coach, returns most of his starting lineup from last fall, including a trio of All-American winners in juniors Mallory Rondeau and Carianne Sobeyand sophomore Meredith Hollar. Additionally, the Lady Lancers have fortified their roster with 10 new faces – two of whom transferred from NCAA Div. I programs.
“Our goal for this year is to outdo ourselves. We’ve been second in the CL for three years, so our sights are set on the [league] championship and being successful through an NAIA tournament,” Voss said. “We have the ability to succeed, but we need to make progress from day one until the very end. If we stay the course, we have the ability to be a leaning elephant – a very difficult team to handle.”
Grace finished 13-7-2 last season and 8-1 in CL play. To better that mark, Grace will lean heavily on its senior leadership of Holly Bennett, Kaitlan Wiles and Kelsey Christner. The trio, who serve together as co-captains, have advanced to three national tournaments in their first three seasons and are ready for one more postseason run. Voss had high praise for the seniors as “the epitome of what our program stands for in terms of being spiritual leaders and leaders on the pitch.”
The Lady Lancers’ defense returns three players who started in 2013. Faith Voehringer, Heather Martin and Erica Manchess give the team valuable experience and comfort on the back line, and they will be pushed by sophomore transfer Meredith Matson and freshmen Kristelle Jadoo, Carlie Salinas, Emma Neahusan, Sabina Meyers and Marina Tolczyk. Christner may also make a position change to provide a vocal presence in central defense.
The biggest question mark in defense comes in front of goal. Much-heralded local freshman Abby Schue (Warsaw) will step in immediately as the starting goalkeeper, replacing All-American Carmen Barnhill who graduated in May. Voss expressed confidence for Schue’s level of readiness come opening day. “[Schue] is very familiar with our system, and she has the potential to outdo all the goalkeepers we’ve had in the past. It will be determined by how hard she works during her career, but she has the potential to be the best goalkeeper we’ve ever had at Grace.”
Bennett, Sobey and Meghan Wiles anchor Grace’s midfield after combining for nine goals and 17 assists in 2013, and Darcy Johnston and Maile Grout also return to fortify the middle of the field. Several newcomers will make an already solid core even better, according to Voss. NCAA Div. I transfers Kaitlyn Hayes (Murray State) and Jerusalem Groves (Rhode Island) will join with freshman Mimi Lozano to provide a wealth of flexibility and talent.
Familiar faces are featured among Grace’s forwards. Kaitlan Wiles, Rondeau, Hollar and Jordan Hairgrove ensure the team will not lack in scoring depth. The group accounted for 55 percent of Grace’s goals last season, including Hollar’s team-high 11 goals. Hollar, the reigning CL Offensive Player of the Year, was knocked out of her freshman season with a knee injury after 17 games. She is “way ahead of schedule for her recovery” according to Voss and will be worked into the rotation early in the season.
Grace’s road to the 2014 NAIA National Championships will not be easy with a challenging schedule awaiting the team. The Lady Lancers face four teams that reached last year’s NAIA Nationals and open the season against the Haiti Women’s National Team. Haiti, who is ranked No. 56 in the FIFA/Coca-Cola Women’s World Rankings, marks Grace’s home debut of the newly renovated Miller Athletic Complex on Aug. 15. The Grace/Haiti game will be played under the lights at home (9 p.m.) for the first time in program history.
“I am super pumped about the advent of this new season. It’s extremely exciting to see all of the improvements at the field, and we can’t wait to get on the pitch under the lights. It’s going to be revolutionary to what we do with our motto ‘Love God. Be a baller,'” Voss said. “If we play our ‘possession-attacking futbol’ well and hit our stride, teams are going to be hard-pressed to knock us off that.”