Aug. 21, 2009
VILLANOVA, Pa. - When the 2008 season began, Villanova fielded a roster that consisted of 17 returning letterwinners from the year before. It might have sounded strange then, to say that the team entered the year as a relatively young and inexperienced squad. The Wildcats faced a difficult task before ever taking the field, however, as the team looked to replace seven graduated starters. The departed group of seniors included half of the team's scoring, two starting defenders and an All-American goalkeeper. Villanova made significant strides during the course of the season but wound up with an 11-7-1 record and, at 4-6-1 in the BIG EAST, missed qualifying for the conference championship for the first time since 2000.
Now fast forward to the beginning of the 2009 season which gets underway on Friday when the Wildcats host Temple at 5 p.m. at the West Campus Soccer Complex. The 27th varsity edition of Villanova women's soccer features a roster consisting of 17 returning letterwinners from last season. Familiar sounding, yes. But these Wildcats are a year older than in 2008 and they return 89 percent (34 of 39 goals) of the scoring from last season. Nine starters return, including a goalkeeper, three defenders, two midfielders and the entire front line on the attack. In addition, reinforcements are on hand with the arrival of nine freshmen, all of whom are capable of making immediate contributions on the field.
"The most notable observation coming out of preseason training is that as a group we are a deeper and better team than last year," second year head coach John Byford said. "The preseason is the longest period of time we have to work with the players without any distractions. We will see now how the team can transfer what we have worked on in practice into game situations."
Villanova's progress will be measured quickly with a schedule that will be very challenging well before the start of BIG EAST play. The season opener is against a Temple team that the Wildcats are 4-0-2 against all-time, but three of the six contests have gone to double overtime and three of the four victories have been by a one-goal margin. One week after facing the Owls, Villanova hosts its annual home tournament and will match up against opponents from the Atlantic Coast Conference (Virginia Tech) and the Big 12 Conference (Nebraska).
"With such a challenging schedule this early in the season, we are going to quickly see where we stand," Byford said. "The team has come up with a number of goals for this season, one of which is to get back to the NCAA Tournament. If we are going to do that it will be important for us to have success in our early non-conference schedule."
In order for the Wildcats to be successful in their quest to return to national postseason play, they will need to draw upon the experience and depth found throughout the roster.
Villanova scored multiple goals in each of its first seven games last season, the longest such streak in program history. The Wildcats later produced a four-game multi-goal streak in conference play and averaged better than two goals per game for the year.
"We scored a good number of goals last season and we should be able to do well scoring once again this year," Byford said.
Senior Grace Hawkins (Northport, N.Y.) and sophomore Katie Ryan (Wayne, N.J.) tied for the team lead with eight goals each last year, and both are expected to play key roles once again. Hawkins' 10 career goals are tied for the most among returning players to the team, while Ryan will draw upon the experience gained during a freshman campaign which saw her earn BIG EAST Rookie of the Week honors on three separate occasions.
Junior Justine Wollner (Downingtown, Pa.) and sophomore Megan Verdeur (Levittown, Pa.) also can be counted on for scoring production. Wollner made a seamless transition to the front line last season and registered four goals and four assists. All four of her goals were the first score of a game and she had one game-winner. Verdeur burst upon the scene with two goals in her first collegiate game and finished the year with nine points (four goals, one assist).
The Wildcats increased depth on the field will be seen in contributions made by junior Patty Tierney (Churchville, Pa.) and sophomore Rachel Breton (Manalapan, N.J.). Both have split time between forward and defense in their careers and should be used almost exclusively as attackers this year. Tierney has a goal (game-winner at DePaul in 2007) and two assists in 25 career games, while Breton appeared in nine games as a freshman last fall and showed significant improvement in the preseason.
Two newcomers up front include freshmen Heidi Sabatura (Lawrenceville, N.J.) and Colleen Lineweaver (Alexandria, Va.). Sabatura comes from a strong club team (FC Bucks Vipers) which won the U-18 national championship this summer. She has proven herself as a potent scoring threat with great poise in front of the goal. Lineweaver walked onto the team last spring when she enrolled at Villanova for the spring 2009 semester. She comes from a family with a great soccer pedigree and will compete to earn playing time during games.
Although the midfield is where Villanova has the most significant loss to graduation from 2008 - Erin Hardiman was named BIG EAST Midfielder of the Year and set a single-season team record with 14 assists - it may also be the spot where the Wildcats show the most noticeable improvements from last season. The team hopes that defending in the midfield will become a strength this year, while the right personnel remain in place to generate scoring chances for their teammates up top.
"We defended the midfield better in our training sessions," Byford said. "We are good advancing the ball forward and appear to have some strong midfield units entering the season."
Seniors Jessica Carnevale (Princeton, N.J.) and Erin Byrnes (Sayville, N.Y.) are two of the most experienced players on the roster and will be anchors of Villanova's midfield play. Carnevale will play more as an attacking midfielder than in the past and can add to career totals of six goals and three assists in 56 games played. She has contributed two goals in each of her first three collegiate campaigns and has a knack for being able to finish scoring chances in front of the net.
Byrnes has some of the best footwork of anyone on the team and her move from forward to midfield late last season was a successful one. She possesses explosive scoring potential, can distribute the ball well and leads the team's returning players with 29 career points (10 goals, nine assists).
Significant contributions will also come from junior Rachel Schuyler (Cheshire, Conn.) and sophomore Katy Nagy (Bellmore, N.Y.). Both are players who have been used in the midfield and up top in their careers and who should now benefit from full-time midfield duties. Schuyler totaled four goals and six assists in 2008, while tallying two game-winning goals and leading the team with 44 shots. Nagy's only goal in her freshman campaign was a game-winner against New Hampshire and she has the ability to make an impact as a defensive midfielder.
Sophomore Lauren McCoy (Spotsylvania, Va.) and freshmen Carly Edgcomb (Princeton, N.J.) and Samantha Kovarik (Pittsburgh, Pa.) will figure into the midfield mix as well. McCoy had one assist in 17 games last season and was a valuable player on set pieces. Edgcomb was another member of the FC Bucks Vipers club team that won the U-18 national championship this summer and can contribute to the team in a variety of ways. Kovarik is an excellent passer and is capable of playing at a high level. She figures to be a good attacking option from the midfield.
The Wildcats midfield depth will be bolstered by sophomore Bridget O'Brien (Havertown, Pa.) and freshman Katrina Battle (Ho-Ho-Kus, N.J.). O'Brien joined the team last season as a walk-on and has shown steady improvement. Battle makes the team as a freshman and is well-acquainted with Villanova. She is the younger sister of Erika Battle, who played defense for the Wildcats BIG EAST championship squad in 2003.
Villanova is a typically strong defensive squad, though a young back line experienced its share of growing pains last season. The Wildcats surrendered 28 goals in 19 games in 2008, six more than the combined total from the previous two campaigns in 2006-07. The talent and potential of the team's defense was never in question, however, as Villanova did log seven shutouts a year ago, including five against BIG EAST foes.
"One of the goals the team came up with was to allow fewer goals than last season," Byford said. "We weren't always able to keep our opponents from putting the ball in the back of the net and that is an area we need to get better in. The players have done a much better job of defending set pieces than we showed at times last season."
The Wildcats return three-time All-Mid Atlantic Region selection Kelly Eagan (St. James, N.Y.), a senior central back who has started every team game in her first three years on campus. She earned All-BIG EAST preseason accolades for the third straight year entering her senior season and will lead Villanova's defensive efforts. Eagan's presence won't only be felt on defense, however, as she also has four career goals, all of which are game-winners.
The two other returning starters on defense are junior Amy Greco (Media, Pa.) and sophomore Erin Ryan (Doylestown, Pa.) at the outside spots. Greco started 16 games last season and is an aggressive defender capable of being a playmaker from the back line. She serves a great driven ball and can be a scoring threat at times. Ryan started 14 games as a freshman while demonstrating her ability to take a ball away from an opposing player and quickly move it up into the attack. She is one of the quickest players on the team and is poised for a big sophomore campaign.
Freshman Alexa Carugati (Newtown, Pa.) is the team's third member of the FC Bucks U-18 national championship squad from this summer. She is a central back who isn't afraid to play aggressively along the back line and should develop quickly within the Villanova system. Senior Samantha Moskal (Chantilly, Va.) and freshman Jaclyn Wood (Park Ridge, N.J.) are also options on defense. Moskal can play either outside spot and has gained a great deal of experience in her career. Wood is very solid on the ball and comes from an exceptionally strong high school program, which should give her the experience necessary to make an immediate impact at Villanova as a freshman.
Senior Molly Williams (Hinsdale, Ill.) stepped into a starting role for the first time in her career last season and posted seven shutouts in 18 starts. She logged 1,613 minutes in the net and registered a 1.39 goals-against average while making 74 saves. Williams is an athletic keeper who reads the game extremely well and should compete for the starting job once again this season. Her career-high 12 saves against Notre Dame last season were the most by a Villanova keeper in more than six years, and Williams also earned All-Tournament Team honors (Penn Invitational) and BIG EAST weekly recognition during the season.
Freshmen Kelsey Quinn (Mt. Airy, Md.) and Sarah Banks (Okemos, Mich.) each are talented goalkeepers who will be in the mix to earn playing time in goal for the Wildcats. Quinn is a good shot stopper with a strong foot who has a wealth of potential. She is capable of pushing for immediate playing time at the beginning of the season, as is Banks, who was a three-time All-State selection in Michigan and has a great deal of experience for a young player.
The demanding three-game stretch to start the season does offer Villanova an opportunity for early success, as the team has not begun a season with three straight home games since 1999. After the first three games, the Wildcats head out on the road during Labor Day weekend for away games at Davidson and Charlotte, opponents the squad has never faced. Villanova will also play non-conference games against Fordham, Delaware and Vermont in addition to the 11-game BIG EAST slate.
In league play, the Wildcats host National Division rivals Seton Hall, Louisville and Cincinnati while also entertaining permanent American Division crossovers Pittsburgh and West Virginia. On the road against BIG EAST foes, Villanova will take on Georgetown, Rutgers, Notre Dame, DePaul, Connecticut and Providence. The latter two teams are this year's rotating crossover opponents from the opposite division. The Wildcats have not played a regular season game at Connecticut since 2002 or in Providence since 2004.