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2007 Women's Soccer Preview
The Liberty women's soccer team will open its 2007 season at Clemson this afternoon at 5 p.m. A season preview follows.
As the curtain lifts on the 2007 season, the Liberty women's soccer team, the Big South Conference preseason favorite to capture its fourth conference crown, will field a deep and talented team in 2007.
Led by seniors Suzanne Edwards, a 2006 first-team All-Big South member, and Tanya Payne, a 2005 first-team All-Big South selection, the Lady Flames return 14 letterwinners from last season's Big South runners-ups. Along with the pair of seniors, all-conference first-team member and top returning scorer, Amy Oberlin, defender Brittany Tyson, forward Brittney Bench and 2006 Big South All-Freshman picks, Maggie Woody and Heather Bowling, return for another season. Add Ashley Braam, Rachel Hetrick, Hope West and Ally Erving, who are all back from injury, and the Lady Flames' core of game-experienced players returns intact.
"It really doesn't make any difference to us," stated Liberty Head Coach James Price, when asked about being picked as the conference's top team for 2007. "Every game is tough and we don't mention it. It doesn't really change how we prepare for anybody.
"Our girls are pretty focused on the task at hand. I know it is a cliche, but we are taking one game at a time. We are concerned about preparing for the game in front of us, and know if we win the game, the wins will mount up over the year. At the end of the season, if we win more than we lose, then we had a pretty good season.
"We go into every game planning to outwork our opponent, and that philosophy is not going to change. No matter who you play, if you can outwork them, you have a chance to win."
Along with the squad's experience and lunch-bucket work ethic, Price says a renewed hunger for a return to their third-straight Big South Championship final is another driving force for the Lady Flames.
"We came together at the end of last year and were able to get back to the [Big South] final, but came up short, remarked Price. "It was disappointing. What that does is make our kids hungry again. They don't want to experience that feeling of defeat in the final again.
"The team's combination of experience and hunger is a good combination to have. It should take us a long way."
A look at this season's squad by position follows.
The Liberty net will be minded by a different face for the second-straight year. Last season, Katherine Neff had a solid year as the Lady Flames' keeper, but vacated the job after her graduation this May.
Despite her departure, Price believes the Liberty net will be just fine, in the capable hands of freshman Ashley Nyholt and returner Lauren Khamphuis.
"Ashley is a polished goalkeeper. She has played a lot of soccer and has a lot of experience," commented Price. "She doesn't really have a weakness. The only thing she lacks is college-level experience, but our girls are already confident with her back there."
"Lauren has come a long way and is pushing for playing time. She is very athletic and matches Ashley in shot blocking, but still needs to work on her game management. She had a great spring, and if there is an injury, she will be a quite capable backup."
Newcomer Dani D'Amico completes the Liberty net trio.
The defensive unit has always been a strong suit of Price's Liberty teams, and with several veterans returning, the Lady Flames should continue the tradition in 2007.
Last season, the Liberty posted a 1.07 goals-against-average, the second-lowest in school history, and recorded eight shutouts.
"We have some good experience and athleticism back there," commented Price. "I think our athleticism makes us different from a lot of teams. We are very athletic all the way across [the back]."
After an outstanding season in 2006, in which she was named to the Big South all-conference first team, team captain Edwards returns for her final season with the Lady Flames. Also, a first-team VaSID All-State performer, Liberty went 7-3-2 and posted a 0.79 goals-against-average and six shutouts in her 12 starts last season.
Returning to Edwards' right side is Tyson. The junior played in 17 contests with 12 starts in 2006 and, according to Price, possesses all the tools to be a top defender.
Junior Rachel Wisehart is expected to fill the other center position on defense, while junior Emily House or sophomore Christina McDonald will man the left outside spot.
Freshman Alyssa Andersen could also see time as a defender.
A deep and experienced corps will once again patrol the Liberty midfield this season.
"We have a good mixture of young and veteran players in our midfield," remarked Price. "A lot of our players there have experience, which can only help."
Leading the way in the Lady Flame midfield is Oberlin. The junior tied for the team scoring lead in 2006 with 13 points on five goals and three assists, earning her first team All-Big South honors.
Oberlin will be joined by Bowling and Woody, who come off successful freshmen campaigns. Bowling started all 14 games she played last year, while Woody played in 15 contests with eight starts, and both players earned Big South All-Freshman team recognition.
Price believes junior returnee Mallory Neff, who has been bothered by injuries the past two seasons, could have a big year in 2007. Neff closed out last season by earning all-tournament honors, with a goal and two assists in the 2006 Big South Championship. She enters her junior year coming off strong play this summer in the W-League.
The group will also receive a boost with the addition of Payne and the return of Hope West from injury. Payne, who was a defender the past two years, moves to midfield for her final season at Liberty. In 2005 as a sophomore, Payne was an all-conference first team member and netted five markers. Meanwhile, West returns to the Lady Flame roster after sitting out the entire year in 2006. The junior played in all 21 games with 18 starts during Liberty's 2005 Big South Championship run.
Junior Carly Miller and freshmen Laura Nyholt and Ashley Gibson round out the Lady Flames' midfield unit.
Up front, the Lady Flames will rely on several veterans this season in order to supply offensive punch.
"We have a lot of options there," stated Price when discussing the group. "We have speed, height and skill. Whatever we need up there, we have at our disposal. It is just up to us coaches to decide what the right mix is.
"They have to prove themselves every day. We don't have two forwards we rely for everything. For now, it is going to be done by committee.
"I would love for two to step forward, but until they do so, we will rotate players there and figure out who is playing best."
Braam and Hetrick's comebacks from injury have boosted the Lady Flames prospects at the position. Braam was Liberty's leading scorer and had tallied four goals and 10 points, before a knee injury sidelined her last season in Liberty's 11th game. Despite missing the last eight contests of the year, the senior still received a Big South all-conference second-team mention. Meanwhile, Hetrick returns after missing all of spring practice. The senior adds speed to the Lady Flames' front. During Liberty's championship run in 2005, Hetrick netted a career-high four goals.
Besides the return of the two seniors, the Lady Flames hope to benefit from a healthy Erving. The redshirt-sophomore has been hampered by injury throughout her first two seasons at Liberty, but appears to be ready to go this year.
The trio joins seniors Bench and Kendall Bartholomew, both who have logged significant minutes over their first three seasons with the Lady Flames. Bench earned all-tournament honors during the 2005 Big South Championship, while Bartholomew has been a key reserve off the Liberty bench during her time with the Lady Flames.
Newcomers Maria Owen and Caitlyn Riley complete Liberty's forward unit. Both bring extensive soccer backgrounds into their first seasons as Lady Flames.
The Lady Flames have a challenging slate set for them in 2007, featuring the team's first-ever trip to Arizona.
Of the squad's 17 regular-season contests, Liberty will play nine of its matches at Liberty Soccer Field. The Lady Flames' 2007 home schedule begins on Sept. 15 with a visit by Old Dominion. Price's club will also host VMI, Winthrop, Radford and Coastal Carolina in Big South Conference tilts in Lynchburg.
Liberty opens the year on the road, Friday afternoon, at Clemson, No. 19 in the preseason. The Lady Flames will also visit No. 17 Virginia (9/21) in late September.
In addition, Liberty will travel to Arizona to participate in the Northern Arizona High Altitude Tournament, where the Lady Flames will meet the host Lumberjacks (9/7) and UC Irvine (9/9). Highlighting the conference road schedule is a late October date with UNC Asheville (10/31). The Lady Flames and Bulldogs played to two 0-0 ties last season, with UNC Asheville claiming the Big South Championship on penalty kicks in their second meeting.
"The Big South is a very scrappy league," noted Price about the conference. "All the teams are about even and there isn't an easy game. Every one is tough."
After the finish of their regular season at home against South Dakota St. (11/3), the Lady Flames will travel to Charleston, S.C., in search of their fourth Big South crown at the 2007 Big South Women's Soccer Championship (11/8-11).