After fighting for an overall record of 7-9-3 last season, the Elon University Women’s soccer team is prepped and ready to kick off the 2017 campaign with a bang.

Head coach Chris Neal will be hoping to set the tone early before Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) play begins mid-September. Much to his pleasure, the Phoenix showed great team chemistry by jumping out to an early 2-0 record, beating North Florida University and Jacksonville University by scores of 4-2 and 2-1, respectively, before dropping the third match to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro by a score of 2-1.

One major question surrounding this year’s squad is its youth: the Phoenix added ten incoming freshmen while having only eleven upperclassmen in total. The team will look to its five remaining seniors for leadership while the new members become comfortable with all the new faces and surroundings. The talented players from the class of 2021 made the move to Elon from all over the world. Midfielder Reena Wichmann joins the Phoenix from Bremen, Germany, while midfielder Hailey Tucker makes the trek from Spokane, Washington and midfielder Ashley Rumley hops on board from the neighboring city of Greensboro.

For many first-year collegiate athletes, the transition from high school sports to the NCAA can be a challenge, but for Elon’s freshman striker Meredith Christopher, nerves have taken a backseat to her eye for goal. Christopher netted four times in the team’s first two games of the season and added an assist for good measure, earning her the title of CAA Player of the Week in her first week as a Phoenix. The savvy forward opened her goalscoring account with a hat trick inside 15 minutes of the season-opener, making it a dream debut for the South Carolina native. She went on to knock in the first goal against North Florida, and though the opponents equalized just eight minutes later, the Phoenix was able to get the win thanks to a go-ahead goal by Susannah Anderson at the stroke of half time.

The Phoenix will look to quickly solve whatever problems led to its six-match skid at the tail-end of last season which saw it close out the campaign on a 0-4-2 slide. Coach Neal’s women were able to secure a 4-4-1 record in nonconference play last season, and will undoubtedly be looking to improve upon that mark this year, as the squad will have a total of ten competitive matches before CAA action gets underway at Rudd Field against the University of North Carolina at Wilmington on September 21. The Phoenix will hope to better its results against the highly-competitive sides they will battle in the CAA. Last season’s 2-5-2 CAA record was an improvement from the prior season, when the Phoenix struggled to a 1-7-1 record in conference play.

In order to accomplish these goals, it will be important for Neal’s experienced back line — which is largely comprised of upperclassmen — to serve as leaders for the rest of the squad as they look to better the team’s five goal differential from last season. But the lack of depth in Elon’s defense is a cause for concern. The Phoenix have only six defenders in the team, and selecting a fit, prepared back line for each game may prove a daunting task for coach Neal as the season progresses. This makes the decision to forego recruiting defensive reinforcements a strange one, but Elon’s newly strengthened midfield and talented front line just might be enough to cover for its shallow arsenal of defensive weapons.

The Phoenix will also need players to step up and fill the boots left vacant by last year’s graduating seniors. Former Elon defender Erin Tanhauser — who was among those to hang up the maroon jersey last fall — was the joint-leader in goals (4) last year with current junior forward Tori Baliatico. This season, Meredith Christopher managed to eclipse last year’s goal record inside two matches; Christopher’s flying start has all the marks of a successful career with Elon, and fellow members of the Phoenix community will be hoping she can continue her impressive run of form.

Last year, five of Elon’s seven graduating players were midfielders, so it comes as no real surprise that the coaching staff wasted no time recruiting fresh talent that can be deployed in the midfield. This year, eight of Elon’s ten freshmen prefer to play in the midfield, which will give coach Neal plenty of options in the middle of the park week in and week out when picking matchday squads. Now, with more players who can command the pace of play, the Phoenix will look to have more fluidity in its attacks and more stability on the defensive end, while having the ability to press teams higher up the pitch.

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All in all, Elon’s fresh crop of talent should be enough for the team to see improvement from last season. Thanks to the class of 2021, the Phoenix seem to have found new life in attack and in the midfield. Its biggest challenge may prove to be staying fresh on the defensive end, as the team’s lack of depth in the back appears to be a weakness on paper. In coach Neal’s tenth season at the helm of Elon’s women’s soccer, he will be looking to continue steering the program in the right direction and developing the incredible student-athletes who continue to move throughout the Elon community.


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