Hope West and Paige Cheek
With the Liberty Lady Flames opening their 2006 soccer season tomorrow night at Longwood, a preview of the upcoming season follows: After producing a Big South record third championship and the fourth double-digit win season in program history in 2005, the Liberty Lady Flames hope to make even more history this year. With 13 returning players led by a strong core of nine juniors, it appears that the pieces are in place for another exciting season. "Our returning players have all had a lot of playing time, so we have a deep, experienced squad," stated head coach James Price. "For the first time in a while, we don't have many questions about who is going to play where. With such a big group coming back, we haven't had to change much and in the preseason, we don't have to start from scratch. We just have to fine tune things." Six newcomers and a redshirt freshman are expected to complement the Lady Flames' returning players, providing Price with one of his deepest squads in his 10-year history. "Our recent recruiting classes may not have had much fanfare, but they have provided a lot of depth," noted Price. "There will be competition at every position and knowing there is no drop off from one player to the next, prepares us for any setbacks we may have this season." Things will be a little different for Price's squad as for the first time since 2001, the Lady Flames will enter the season as the Big South's defending champion. However, Price believes that the main lesson learned last season will continue into the 2006 campaign. "Last season, we went into every game planning to outwork every team we played," added Price. "That is not going to change just because we are the Big South Champion. In fact, we are going to have to work harder. No matter who you play, if you can outwork them, you have a chance and other teams are going to have to outwork us. If we can go into every game wanting to outwork the other team, then we are going to be difficult to play against."
A LOOK AT THE LADY FLAMES BY POSITION:
GOALKEEPER With the graduation of Sonia Rodriguez last May, the Lady Flames will have someone new in goal this season. Veteran Katherine Neff along with newcomers Lauren Kamphuis and Michelle Rich will compete for time in the Liberty net this fall. "We don't have a lot of experience at the collegiate level in goal," commented Price. "Katherine played all spring and did a great job and is out front, while Lauren walked on this spring and has improved a lot in a short period of time. Michelle has the most experience in goal in terms of playing time, but she is new to college soccer and she will be pushing for playing time this year too."
DEFENSE Always a strong suit of Liberty teams under Price, defense should once again be solid with an experienced core of returners. However, the group will look for someone to step up as its leader after the loss of 2005 Big South Tournament MVP and team captain Rachel Bendzlowicz. "We feel really confident about our defense, however, we did lose Rachel," stated Price. "Our defense will miss her communication and organization skills, but several players have stepped up to fill that void this spring. With the people coming back plus several newcomers, we should be hard to score upon once again." The Lady Flames will look to returning starters Tanya Payne and Paige Cheek to provide leadership on defense this season. Payne, named to the 2005 all-conference first team, was the team's leading scorer after moving from the mid-field at the start of the season, while Cheek became a presence in the middle of the Liberty defense after winning a starting spot in preseason. They will be joined by veterans, Emily House, who started the last nine games of the season in her first year as a collegian, Brittany Tyson, who may have been the most improved player last spring, Suzanne Edwards and Mallory Neff. Freshmen Heather Bowling and Rachel Wisehart will also compete for minutes.
MIDFIELD Another experienced and deep unit will patrol the midfield this season as the Lady Flames return everyone from last season. Mandee Wheelock, a first-team all-conference performer in 2005, returns for her last season and will anchor the Liberty midfield as team captain. Wheelock was also a first- team all-conference selection in 2003. She will be joined by fellow seniors Kristin Faxon and Alaina Hohnarth, both of whom saw considerable playing time last season. Junior Hope West, who started 18 of the Lady Flames' 21 matches last season, rounds out the returners. With the additions of freshmen Christina MacDonald and Maggie Woody, Price looks for the midfield to be even stronger for the Lady Flames this year. Ally Erving, who sat out last year due to injury, could give Liberty an extra boost with time in the midfield if she can return to full health.
FORWARD Goal scoring has been a question mark for the Lady Flames for several years and the team will be looking to boost its output this season. Although the 2005 squad put the ball into the back of the net consistently down the stretch and a balanced attack, no Liberty player tallied more than five goals. The Lady Flames hope to reverse that trend in 2006. "We have people who are capable of being great goal scorers, but unfortunately great goal scorers must prove it every game," stated Price. "Our scoring has been balanced, but we need someone to break out." In order to improve scoring, Amy Oberlin, who earned second-team all-conference honors last season, will play up more up front this season. Oberlin netted five goals in her first collegiate season in 2005 and provided a solid presence on the attack. The Lady Flames also hope to benefit by having Rachel Hetrick at forward for the full season. Last season, the junior moved from defense and created scoring opportunities for her teammates with her speed and passing ability. Joining those two will be juniors Kendall Bartholomew, Ashley Braam, Brittany Bench and annah Sullivan. Braam scored five goals for Liberty in 2005, while Bench broke through at the Big South Tournament to earn a selection to the all-tournament team. Meanwhile, Bench and Sullivan come off good spring seasons and are possible scoring options. SCHEDULE Liberty will once again have an ambitious and challenging schedule in 2006. This season's schedule will have the Lady Flames hosting five teams at the Liberty Soccer Field along with non-conference matches at Arkansas, Virginia and Old Dominion and a neutral site contest with Wake Forest. "We like to challenge ourselves with our schedule," commented Price. "Each season, we try to come back and win a Big South Championship, while also trying to take our program to a national level, which does not happen overnight." The Lady Flames will open the 2006 season on August 25 with a short trip up the road from the Liberty campus to Farmville, Va. for a match with Longwood. The Lady Flames will continue on the road with a visit to Charlottesville, Va. and Virginia on August 27 in a rematch of their 2005 NCAA Tournament game. Continuing its season-opening road swing, Liberty will travel to the state of Arkansas for two matches.
The Lady Flames will square off with John Brown on September 1, followed by a visit to Arkansas for a contest with the Lady Razorbacks on September 3. The squad then finishes up the road swing in Blacksburg, Va. at the Virginia Tech Tournament the next weekend. On September 8, Liberty will play 2005 NCAA Tournament participant Wake Forest, while on September 10, it will face host Virginia Tech to close out the four-team event. Price's team will host Charleston Southern in its first home match and its Big South Conference opener on September 16. After that contest, the Lady Flames will take to the road again for their first-ever visit to Old Dominion on September 18. On September 24, they will step back into conference play with a match at Coastal Carolina. The Lady Flames close out September with two home conference matches. High Point will visit Lynchburg on September 27, while Liberty hosts UNC Asheville on September 30.
Liberty takes to the road again to open the month of October. The Lady Flames will travel over the mountain on October 3 for a Big South match with VMI, followed by another conference match against Radford on October 6. The team will close out the home portion of the season schedule with two matches. On October 9, non-conference opponent Howard will visit, while on October 14, the squad will honor its seniors as they play their last home game at Liberty Soccer Field against conference foe Birmingham-Southern. Liberty concludes the regular season on October 21 in Rock Hill, S.C. with a Big South contest with Winthrop. Following the regular season, the Lady Flames will travel to Conway, S.C. to defend their conference championship at the 2006 Big South Women's Soccer Championship. This year's championship is set for November 2-5.
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