BALTIMORE--The UMBC women's soccer team hosts Delaware State Friday at 5 p.m. at UMBC Soccer Stadium in the 2010 season opener. Admission is free to all fans. The Retrievers then hit the road for the first time to take on Drexel on Sunday at 1 p.m.
In Alyssa Radu's first two seasons at the helm of the UMBC women's soccer team, a relatively inexperienced Retriever squad endured some growing pains while adjusting to a new coach.
But as Radu enters her third season on the Loop, that young group has grown and matured, and the head coach has higher expectations.
"The foundation has been laid and the standard of the program has taken great strides," Radu said. "We have a great opportunity in front of us, and we're in a position to succeed."
The difficult seasons are in the past, and the Retrievers plan to move forward. But Radu believes her players have learned a great deal and can take much from a 2-14-1 campaign in 2009.
"We're hungry, we're more driven, we're more focused," she said.
Though there are just three seniors on the roster, all three – backs Erin Johnson and Christine Sadowski and midfielder Sandra Vacarino – have tremendous experience with 148 combined starts under their belts, and Radu will rely on their leadership to help guide the nine newcomers. But the senior trio is not alone in this area, as the Retrievers lost just two starters from last year's squad.
"We're fortunate to return a large amount of our starting lineup," the coach said. "The returning players have increased their personal standards, and that makes younger players have to step up."
The experience begins on the backline, where Sadowski and Johnson will again be joined by sophomores Aly Gazarek and Katie Gitlin to anchor what should be a strong defense. While all four started nearly every game last season, Radu expects that they will be pushed by a pair of newcomers in junior Kelsi Morris and freshman Devon Burkholder.
A transfer from Pittsburgh, Morris is a tough center back who is strong off crosses and has a great defensive mentality.
"Combine that with her Big East experience and you have a great addition to our defensive unit," Radu said.
Morris' presence could allow Sadowski or Gitlin, the incumbents at the position, to slide into the midfield and get more involved in the offense. Both returners scored a goal last season and were honored at UMBC's varsity awards banquet – Sadowski as the team's MVP and Gitlin as its Unsung Hero.
"Sadowski is very dependable, she has developed all parts of her game," Radu said. "There isn't one weakness that jumps out. She's very balanced, positions herself properly. And Katie has been able to observe that and learn from it. Katie's very vocal, and they're both very technically sound. They can serve out of the back and stretch a defense and organizationally give us the opportunity to build out of the back."
On the outside, Johnson, a 2007 America East all-rookie selection, has been a steadying presence on defense her entire career, while Gazarek was a welcome addition whose attacking mindset allowed the Retrievers to build out of the back, as she was UMBC's third-leading scorer with four points.
"Both of them have speed to be able to isolate and deal with fast forwards and one-on-ones," Radu said. "Aly's very technically sound, and Erin's done a great job in the offseason maintaining and increasing her technical abilities."
Gitlin will also contribute a great deal at outside back, while Burkholder is a talented freshman from the Pittsburgh area who can play anywhere along the backline.
Behind the defense, Radu expects a battle for the goalkeeper position. Junior Mo Van Vlerah has started 23 games in her first two seasons, including every contest a year ago, when she played all but 76 of the team's minutes and ranked third in the America East with 109 saves. But freshman Lauren Kadet, a member of Team Ontario, comes from the Canadian National Training Center, where she developed tremendous technical skills.
"We have two very good goalkeepers," Radu said. "Mo's game experience and leadership skills are obviously strengths, and she's very good at distributing, very good with [her] back to [the] bar. Lauren is very technically sound, solid on crosses. She's also very vocal, even as a freshman. They will battle for the position."
With the depth and versatility of the Retriever defense, Radu believes the midfield positions could be the most competitive and should generate a large amount of UMBC's scoring.
The coach expects 5-10 freshman Jessy Brown, who comes from extremely successful high school and club programs, to contribute a great deal in the center of the field.
"Jessy is a ball-winning midfielder," Radu said. "She's tough, gritty, composed on the ball."
Vacarino, junior LeAnne Edgar and freshman Amy Savage are playmakers in the midfield, as all three can play in the center or slide up top if necessary. Vacarino led the Retrievers in scoring in 2009 with four goals and 10 points, all coming against America East opponents, and she should pick up where she left off during her senior season. Edgar has missed significant time with injuries in each of her first two years, but she has been counted on when healthy, starting 20 of 22 games. Savage is another Canadian product out of Team Canada's National Training Center.
Gitlin and sophomore Sarah Purdum could also see time at center midfield. Purdum, who can also play on the flanks, missed the first six games of her rookie campaign with injury, but she saw valuable minutes upon her return and was named the team's Most Improved Athlete after the season.
Sophomores Rachel McKee and Morgan Andrews and freshmen Nicole Clark and Stephanie Smith are outside flank players who have the ability to score. McKee started 14 games as a rookie and contributed three points, while Andrews started three times. Clark and Smith are both local products from successful high school and club programs.
"They have the speed that they can get by off the dribble and be played through, and they are very good on the service," Radu said. "They're dangerous running at defenders, which allows us to play off LeAnne and Amy and Sandra in the middle. They have good vision, they play very quick. They're generally playmakers for us."
In addition, sophomore Megan Arnold will also contribute on the flanks in her first season with the team after spending her freshman year on UMBC's cross country squad.
Fourth-year junior Megan McDonald will miss the entire season after suffering the second ACL injury of her career this spring.
Junior Brooke Piper is the Retrievers' only true forward, and Radu looks for more scoring out of her after the Ontario native did not find the back of the net in 2009.
"Brooke plays with her back to goal," the coach said. "She uses her midfield to create opportunities by playing back and is very scrappy off service."
Freshman Shannon McGuinness and sophomore Sarah Kopytko are also versatile players who will see some time in the midfield, but mostly on the front line, while Vacarino, Savage, McKee and Clark can also play up top.
While the Retrievers scored just 14 goals last season, 12 of the tallies came in the month of October, and Radu hopes her team can build off that late-season output.
"We have a lot more depth offensively, and I'd say we're a much more dangerous team now," the coach said. "We started clicking more offensively toward the end of last season, and we've already had a very good chemistry on the field early on.
"This is the most talented team I've had in my three years," she continued. "Everyone brings something different to the table, everyone's going to play a different role, and the girls are recognizing those roles better than ever. We have a lot of players that can contribute in different ways, so our challenge is to find the group that's going to be the most effective as a unit, but we also have the ability to change formations with our personnel."
Radu believes her team can use their schedule to their advantage, as they play a number of tough non-conference matches against local rivals George Washington, Delaware, George Mason, American and Loyola just before the America East slate begins.
UMBC opens the season at home against Delaware State on Aug. 20, before hitting the road for four in a row, including a game at Drexel on Aug. 22. The Retrievers open America East play at Vermont on Sept. 26, while the conference home opener is Sept. 30 against defending champion and preseason favorite Boston University.
"Every one of our conference games is always tough," Radu said. "We have a lot of proving to do, but we walk out on the field and we think we can play with every team in the conference. We believe in ourselves; if nobody else believes in us, it doesn't really matter. We understand that we just have to put on our hard hats and go to work."
NEWS AND NOTES
Dawg Bites: Van Vlerah ranked third in the America East with 6.4 saves per game in 2009… She became the first Retriever to crack the 100-save plateau since 1998 and boasted the fourth-highest single-season total in UMBC history… Her 144 career saves rank seventh all-time… Nine different Retrievers found the back of the net last season, the most since 12 scored in 2004… Sadowski, Vacarino and Edgar were named team captains for the 2010 season.
On the Hornets: Delaware State finished 1-15-2 in 2009 and ended the season with a pair of ties against South Carolina State and Wilmington… The Hornets return their leading scorer from a year ago, forward Theresa Wappett, who tallied seven points on three goals and an assist… Also back is defender LaToya Lesane, who was named the Great West Soccer East Division Newcomer of the Year in 2009… Goalies Courtney Haas and Brittany Curtis split time between the pipes last season, with Haas posting the better goals-against average (2.90) and save percentage (.761).
The Series: UMBC has won all three meetings with Delaware State by a combined score of 21-1. Last season, the Retrievers defeated the Hornets, 4-1. Midfielder Danielle Kell led the Retrievers with three points on a goal and an assist, while Gazarek's first career goal was the game-winner in the 55th minute. McDonald and midfielder Elyse Bilardo also scored for UMBC, while McKee added an assist. Lesane tallied Delaware State's lone goal on a helper from Wappett in the 26th minute. Van Vlerah stopped the Hornets' only other shot on goal, while Curtis and Haas combined to make eight saves.
On the Dragons: Drexel returns eight starts from the 2009 team which finished 4-13-1, including the squad's top seven scorers… Forward Jenna Lindsay, a Second-Team All-Colonial Athletic Association selection, led the Dragons with five goals and 11 points… Goalie Nicole Sinclair posted a 1.90 goals-against average and a .722 save percentage last season… Drexel was picked to finish 12th in the CAA preseason poll… The Dragons' game against the Retrievers will be their season opener.
The Series: Drexel has won both previous meetings with UMBC, including a 2-1 double-overtime victory in Philadelphia in 2007 and a 3-0 decision in Baltimore in 2008. Lindsay scored twice for the Dragons in the teams' last matchup.
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