The Elon University women’s soccer team comes off an impressive 2013 campaign with a record of 13-3-6, with one of the three losses in the Southern Conference Championship game against Furman University.
Elon’s tremendous run was on the tail end of a season-long offensive outburst. But the 2014 version of the Phoenix will be without many of the players who led the team to the conference final.
“There’s a lot of unanswered questions as to who exactly we’re going to be,” said Elon head women’s soccer coach Chris Neal. “Time will tell, and my only expectation is to take it day by day and make sure we get better as a team.”
Star forward and reigning SoCon Player of the Year Nicole Dennion will miss the 2014 season via a redshirt year. With Jennifer McGorty and Catherine Brinkman graduated, the Phoenix has lost each of its top three goal scorers from last year.
“We scored 56 goals last year, and 42 of those goals are not returning,” Neal said.
Elon’s 56 goals ranked eighth nationally in scoring offense. Elon’s opponents also failed to post a shutout in any of the 22 matches.
Senior forward Marissa Russo is the highest returning goal scorer for Elon, racking up five goals and four assists. Russo said she believes she will need to increase her production in her senior year.
“Entering the [Colonial Athletic Association], I have to increase [my scoring]. [I’m] definitely going to have to score more goals and have more assists if we’re going to compete,” Russo said.
Last year, the Phoenix was able to rely on Dennion’s lethal season. The Ewing, New Jersey, native racked up 15 of the team’s 56 goals. The team is set up for a more balanced attack in 2014.
“The goals are going to come from everyone,” said sophomore defender Erin Tanhauser. “I think we’re all going to step up.”
In addition to a balanced scoring attack, Elon feels its style of play will yield plenty of goals. Neal’s system has the Phoenix playing a fast-paced style of soccer. For example, once the ball is lost, each player will be looking to win the ball back immediately. This philosophy may seem obvious, but aggressive defense can result in goals on the other end.
“All of our goals come from our style of play of hard defending that puts the other team under pressure, so they make mistakes that we can capitalize off of,” said junior midfielder Taylor Glenn.
In terms of personnel, the Phoenix will use a variety of players in an effort to replicate last year’s offensive outburst. Neal admits he is still uncertain who will be the ones to lead the offense, but he’s excited about his options.
“There’s a lot of question marks up top, [but] there’s also a lot of opportunity for not only the returners, but also for the freshmen,” Neal said.
Elon’s front three will look a bit different this year. Russo will once again line up on the right wing, but some different faces will occupy the central and left-sided forward positions. Freshman Grace Bennett is eager to get her shot up top for the Phoenix. The Rocky River, Ohio native has turned heads in the early goings thus far.
“Her fitness has been off the charts,” Neal said.
Bennett has been playing mostly in the right forward position behind Russo, but she said she believes she and the rest of the freshmen are poised to make an impact.
“The freshmen are ready to step up to whatever the coaches ask of us,” Bennett said.
Freshman Sue Anderson and senior Raychel Diver will look to fill the void at the center forward position. Diver played as a midfielder in 2013, but Neal moved her to the forward spot during their spring sessions.
“She’s getting thrown into a role where she’s going to get a lot more minutes,” Neal said.
Anderson, a native of Jacksonville, Florida, will look to be a scoring threat in the air.
“Goals are going to come from our outside forwards crossing it in to players who are hungry in front of the net and wanting to score,” Russo said.
Elon will also look to get its fullbacks ahead from its defensive lines to provide further options to cross the ball into the box. With a tall 5-foot-10-inch frame, Anderson could find herself on the end of a number of crosses this season.
On the left side, sophomore Hannah Howard and freshman Sydney Schilling will be battling for minutes. Both call Florida home, with Howard hailing from Sarasota and Schilling from Oviedo.
There’s another trio that is looking to continue Elon’s explosive offense — the midfield. The Phoenix’s three midfield positions in the center of the pack are the lynchpin of Elon’s attack.
“Out of midfield, we require a whole lot out of work rate. Those players log a lot of mileage every game, and just three players won’t get it done for us,” Neal said.
With such a high tempo playing style, Neal recognizes the need to use the squad’s depth to keep the players’ legs fresh.
“We’re going to use at least six players to be a six-headed monster for us in the middle of the park and dominate the space between the [defensive and forward] lines,” he said.
Neal added that sophomore midfielder Kelly Siewers can play a key role linking up play with the forwards.
“We’re really expecting big things from Siewers in the attacking center midfield role,” Neal said. “She came in really fit, and we’re excited about what she can bring to the table for us.”
Siewers appeared in all but one match in 2013. She featured mainly as a substitute but managed to tally two goals and an assist to her name.
After being picked eighth in the CAA preseason polls, it would be easy to call last season’s goal surge a one-and-done. But the team is confident in its system and one another.
“We’re going to go out and try to replicate the success we had last year,” Neal said. “We’re not going to change anything out of the gate. We’re going to carry on being who we are. Hopefully the personnel can rise to the challenge.”