Soccer struggles early in season

by Managing Editor Mike Ezekiel

The UNA soccer team is not off to the start they expected through the first four out of conference games.

Heading into Gulf South Conference play Sept. 14, the Lions were 1-3 on the season. UNA head coach Chris Walker scheduled stiff competition for the first four games, a decision he said he does not regret.

“We could pick up some (easy) games and be 4-0 if we needed to be, but we want to prepare ourselves for a good postseason run,” Walker said. “We wanted to put together a competitive schedule, and I’ll never change that. You run the risk of starting 1-3, but we could easily be 3-1 right now.”

The season opener was against the nation’s top-ranked team, Columbus State, where the Lions fell 3-0. The Lions then dropped a 1-0 extra time loss to Eckerd before coming back home for the 2016 Lion Shootout.

UNA earned its first win against Nova Southeastern in extra time, defeating a team just outside the national rankings. The Lions then dropped a 2-1 loss to Tampa, the Sunshine State Conference favorite for 2016.

But UNA did not dwell on the losses for long.

“We’re happy with where we’re at,” Walker said. “Obviously, we would like to have more wins in the win column, but we think we’re progressing and getting better.”

The Lions started the conference season with a clean slate, traveling to Rome, Georgia, to face Shorter. UNA came out with a 2-0 win, outshooting the Hawks 14-7 with eight shots on goal.

The team never panicked despite the slow start, said senior defender Alyssa Bova.

“In my opinion, our record does not reflect who we truly are,” Bova said. “We have had some problems, but since it is early on (in the season), I think we can turn around and fix what we need to be successful.”

A few key injuries have hindered the team, including junior midfielder Beatriz Fernandes, who was hurt in the first five minutes against Coulmbus State. Fernandes played through her injury in the following games, but Walker said she’s about 80 percent health for now.

Freshmen Caroline Naess and Haley Yarber each dealt with injuries in preseason, but Walker said he expects both to be healthy before the heart of the GSC schedule.

“We’re hoping to have virtually everyone back healthy for this week,” Walker said. “We’ll have a deep squad, especially for those afternoon games where it’s a bit warmer and you need a few extra bodies.”

The Lions will have their most important contest to date Sept. 18 as they travel to Lee University. Lee is the favorite to win the Gulf South Conference this season, and will look to gain revenge on UNA after losing the 2015 GSC championship game in penalty kicks.

With a fresh start against familiar foes, the team is optimistic about its chances of winning the conference, said senior forward Ele Costello.

“We are more than ready for conference play,” Costello said. “We’re a lot more familiar with the opposition, and after winning the regular season and conference tournament last year, we can go into conference play with confidence in ourselves.”

After Lee, the Lions return home to host rival Alabama-Huntsville Sept. 21.