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Full Steam Ahead: A Look at the Lady Flames
Teamwork is a key to success on the soccer field, and squads that are unified both on and off the field will often band together to find a way to win.
Liberty women's soccer head coach Jessica Celi, along with assistant coach Ethan Allen and graduate assistant coach Laura Armstrong, are focusing a lot on team unity, confidence and leadership in 2009. And, Celi expects that approach to pay off on the field.
The Lady Flames return 10 letterwinners from last season's team, including a 2008 Big South All-Conference second team honoree Silvia Betancourt. Betancourt, a sophomore from San Jose, Costa Rica, started 14 games for Liberty last year. She ranked second on the team with four goals, three assists and 11 points, behind four-time all-conference player Amy Oberlin.
In the team's forward positions, Celi says the Lady Flames plan to use a very attack-minded system. Joining Betancourt is returner Maria Owen, a junior, who made 11 game starts in 2008, scoring four goals and nabbing three assists and nine points. "Maria plays as a wing forward," Celi said. "She's a tremendous player and she's returned this year even better than last year. With her and Silvia, I think we will have great weapons in the attack." In addition, Celi says the team has a lot of depth in that area, including several newcomers, who will add more possibilities upfront for the Lady Flames.
The midfield is where Celi is looking for new combinations after losing Oberlin to graduation. Oberlin and Maggie Woody were key to last year's midfield structure, and Woody is redshirting this season with an injury. Celi is looking to returners Kristi McBrien, Rachel Michener and Jordan Woody, along with freshman Madi Short, to fill that void. Additionally, Laura Nyholt, who redshirted last year, is expected to contribute. The Lady Flames have lost another player at midfield during early season practice, when Caitlyn Riley, who took a medical redshirt last year, experienced another season-ending injury.
Defensively, Celi says this year's team has a lot of mobility and a good amount of experience. Four returning players are expected to make an impact on defense: Aimee Luurtsema, Heather Bowling, Rachel Wisehart and Elia Lake. Wisehart and Bowling are this year's senior captains. There are also several new players who could see significant playing time. "There's a lot of options in the back," Celi said. "Ariana Espinoza is a transfer student who has played for the Costa Rica national team. Then, we have three very good freshmen who are experience defenders, and they will most likely contribute."
In goal, sophomore Karen Blocker and junior Ashley Nyholt are expected to split playing time. Blocker started 11 games last year, stopping 69 shots for a 2.41 goals-against average, while Nyholt started five games with 20 saves for a 1.53 goals-against average.
With a large roster and plenty of experience, Celi is excited about the numerous possibilities for on-field options. "It's exciting because it can give the team a sense of unity, knowing a lot of players can contribute," Celi said. "It also gives us the ability to be confusing to other teams because we have so many different options."
The 2009 schedule will be challenging, as the Lady Flames open with No. 11 Virginia Friday night, then travel to East Tennessee State (Aug. 30) and James Madison (Sept. 6) before the home opener on Sept. 11 against Old Dominion. Liberty will begin conference play on Oct. 3, hosting Charleston Southern. This year's Big South Championship will take place Nov. 5-8 at Blackbaud Stadium in Charleston, S.C.
"I like that we are competing against established mid-major programs," Celi said. "We're in a great area for soccer, surrounded by the ACC and the CAA, among others. We're in a prefect area to play great schools outside of our conference that will prepare us for Big South play."
After a disappointing record last year, Celi has high hopes for the 2009 squad, and expects her team to finish higher than the fifth position, where Liberty was ranked in the Big South preseason poll. But more than anything, Celi is impressed with the team's character, and expects her players to not only compete with passion, but to share the gospel with that same enthusiasm.
"We fight for each other as a team, but we also fight for the other team," Celi said. "The girls have embraced that. They are highly competitive, talented soccer players who want to live their lives for Christ. We have an incredible opportunity, a unique niche, and I fully expect God to continue to bless us."