Soccer team enters post-Richards era

Senior midfielder Ele Costello races toward the net against Tampa last season. The Lions open their season at Columbus State Sept. 2.

Without Division II National Player of the Year Chloe Richards, UNA women’s soccer fans might question if the team will repeat the same success as last season.

Despite losing his cornerstone, UNA head soccer coach Chris Walker said this year might be his best one yet.

“I think player for player the group we have this year is the best group I’ve had since I’ve been here,” Walker said. “Going back to the spring, we went undefeated in all 11 games we played. Scoring goals wasn’t a major issue.”

The defending Gulf South Conference champions rank third in the preseason polls, with Lee and West Florida receiving the first and second place votes. After being picked third last season, the Lions look to once again prove doubters wrong.

“I think that we are going to use that to our advantage,” said sophomore midfielder Paige Porter. “I really don’t think we read into a lot of the rankings. We just do our thing. We definitely have a chance to win conference, but this year, we want to go further than we did last year.”

Although the No. 18 Lions lose the nation’s top scorer from last season, Walker returns nine of 11 starters and six other players. Four of the nine returning starters are seniors.

The team’s primary strength may come from the back line, as seniors Alyssa Bova, Susan Lang and Samantha Parrish, along with junior Abby Cavitt, make up what many believe to be the best defense in the conference.

“Our defense is pretty strong right now,” Bova said. “ In my four years at UNA, this might be the strongest year we’ve had. We have so much talent on this team, and I feel good about it.”

The athletics department released a statement from Walker Aug. 14 that former junior goalkeeper Shelby Thornton, who made the 2016 preseason All-GSC squad, will not be returning to the team for undisclosed reasons.

With a hole to fill at goalkeeper, returning sophomore Kate Webster and incoming freshman Savannah Stewart will compete for the job.

Although Richards scored most of the team’s goals, the Lions return senior midfielder Ele Costello and sophomore forward Kylie Huey.

Walker said he expects incoming freshman forward Shelby Wall to step in straight away and contribute to the scoring. Wall was the Class 7A state Player of the Year last season.

“Shelby Wall actually scored 32 goals and had 15 assists for Auburn high school last year,” Walker said. “She was actually one of the late pick-ups we got, and we’re really impressed with her.”

The Lions open the season on the road in Columbus, Georgia, against Columbus State Sept. 2 and Eckerd College Sept. 4. The following week, UNA hosts the “Lion Shootout” beginning Sept. 9 vs. Nova Southeastern.

Many believe UNA has Sept. 11 circled on their calendars, as the Lions host Tampa, the team that knocked UNA out of the playoffs last season with a goal in the final seconds.

“That’s the game the girls are really looking forward to,” Walker said. “It should be a good game. We have a real tough schedule to start off with, and we’re really excited.”