By Kyle LoJacono
By almost any measure, the 2011 Saint Leo University (SLU) women’s soccer team had the best season in program history.
SLU went 15-3-1 and claimed its first Sunshine State Conference (SSC) championship. The squad also rose as high as No. 5 in the Division II national poll, the highest ranking ever.
Now, as the No. 23 Lions enter their 12th season, the players are out to build on last season’s success.
“It meant a lot to the girls,” said seventh-year SLU coach Ged O’Connor. “I had a few different goals that we didn’t meet, but they achieved a lot.”
O’Connor’s disappointment is in how last year ended.
The Lions suffered an early exit in NCAA Division II National Tournament, falling to Lynn University 2-1 in the second round after receiving a bye into the contest. SLU also lost 3-1 in the SSC semifinals to the University of Tampa.
“Until preseason we still spoke a lot about last year, but now it’s a brand new bunch of players,” O’Connor said. “To be honest, I think the new girls are sick of hearing about what happened in the past. I’ve been telling them ‘It’s your turn to write their own legacy. The program is going to go as far as you take it.’ The great thing about the freshmen is they have no idea. They’re not scared; they’re not intimidated.”
O’Conner will have to rely on more freshmen this season after losing eight graduates.
Among the departed are the Lions’ top three goal scorers in Dari Alcantara (11 goals, five assists), Pia Soesemann (10 goals, three assists) and Cassie Barbaresi (seven goals, 10 assists). Soesemann has the second most career goals at SLU with 50, while Alcantara’s 23 tie her for fifth. Barbaresi’s 21 assists are fourth all-time.
O’Connor also lost his three starting defenders, which allowed just 201 shots and 18 goals in 19 games, including seven shutouts. Also gone is last year’s starting goalkeeper Lauren Carstens (0.69 goals against average, 57 saves), who decided to stay in her native Denmark.
SLU has lost a lot of talent, but the current players have no interest in taking a step backward.
“I hear them every day in my head and think about what those seniors instilled,” said junior forward and Gaither High graduate Ashley Acco. “They’re never going to be replaced, because you can’t replace those kind of players, but at the same time you can move forward with each day and improve.”
Senior midfielder Lise Nisja added, “Those seniors had so much respect within the team, so it was hard to imagine them being gone. Someone had to step up, and I feel as seniors (Andrea Lott) and I have tried to do that.”
Lott, a defender, said the expectations are high.
“Our coaches recruit really well and go overseas,” Lott said. “They get the players we need. On paper we’re amazing. We have great individual players. My freshman and sophomore years we couldn’t put it together to win games. That’s all we need to do is work as a team and we’ll win. If we have that mindset we’ll win.”
The offense does return some blossoming players, including sophomores Ariana Foreman (four goals, three assists) and Samantha Buterbaugh (two goals, one assist).
Buterbaugh said learning behind Barbaresi did a lot for her development.
“Ending last year I knew I had big shoes to fill because Cassie is such a great player,” Buterbaugh said. “You can’t replace a player like her, so just being able to play with her was a good experience, and I think that’ll help me this year.”
Last season, Foreman, who was named the SSC Freshman of the Year, was just recovering from major knee surgery that stole her true freshman season. She tore the meniscus in her right knee in the second day of preseason while playing the Mexican U17 national team.
Doctors later found she also had an older and more serious injury.
“I found out I had torn my ACL the junior year of high school,” Foreman said. “I had no idea. When I tore my meniscus the doctors just did an MRI to check. They did and said I had no ACL.”
Foreman said she is still coming back from the injury but said she feels encouraged knowing her knee has a full set of healthy ligaments. She is also happy to see fast improvement in the squad’s offense.
“We lost a lot, but I feel like the torch has been passed, so I have to teach what I’ve learned from those seniors to the freshmen,” Foreman said. “We do have other people who can contribute up top.”
Lott sees similar growth with the defense.
“We have a couple new players who are going to join the backline with the returners, and I think as a whole they all have potential,” Lott said. “As long as we work together for a common goal the four defenders can, maybe not immediately, but the potential is there to be a very strong backline.”
SLU opened the regular season with a 3-0 win at home to Warner University on Aug. 30. The Lions play at Webber International University at 1 p.m. on Sept. 3 before traveling to Georgia for the Bobcat Shootout Tournament.
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