Elon University women’s soccer head coach Chris Neal has never been afraid to play freshmen. Sometimes, that’s been out of necessity. But they’ve rarely disappointed.
At some point, that experience has to benefit the team. It did in 2013, when the Phoenix charged to the top of the Southern Conference (SoCon) standings before a runner-up finish in the league tournament.
Elon played a number of freshmen that year and started three regularly last year, all key contributors on offense.
Bundle that up with a solid core of seniors, and it could mean some success for the Phoenix.
Sophomore forwards Grace Bennett, Sydney Schilling and Susannah Anderson all figure to work into Elon’s attack again. Bennett, who earned Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) All-Freshman honors, led the Phoenix with three goals, and Schilling was right behind with two.
That alone exploits a problem. Elon scored just 13 goals last year, and Schilling and Bennett were the only two to score more than one. That comes out to an average of less than a goal per game.
This is after the 2013 season in which the Phoenix scored 56 goals, averaging 2.55 per game.
By now, that trio knows what to expect. It’s never easy to gauge, particularly in Olympic sports, how an athlete’s transition from the high school to college level will go. Bennett, Schilling and Anderson proved themselves well. But there’s still a good ways to go for them to meet their potential.
Elon had a rough go of things once CAA play came around last season. The Phoenix only scored five goals against CAA teams, two of those in its lone league victory against University of Delaware.
Neal never shied away from admitting how big a jump it was from the SoCon. Having a team that played so many freshman didn’t help things much.
Now those freshmen have a year under their belts, and the senior class — many of whom have played since their freshman year — should have a better grasp on leading the team.
Defender Mel Insley, now a senior, carries the leadership torch. Fellow captains Samantha Burch, Taylor Glenn and Alexis de Groot will aid with that, too. Junior midfielder Kelly Siewers, who played in every match her freshman year, is back after missing much of last year to injury.
The only question mark is in between the posts. Kate Murphy, who’s among the program’s best in saves, starts and shutouts, graduated last spring. Sydney Branson isn’t on the team, either.
So, the load falls on sophomore Hanna Macaulay, who played in four games and started one last year.
Come CAA season, the defense will need to kick it up a notch. But the offense is in place to return to its old form.
All because three freshmen took their lumps a year ago.