Soccer team prepares for two conference rivals

The Lions soccer team is off to an impressive start this season, winning their last three matches after settling for a draw in the season opener.

Each of UNA’s first four games were against tough opponents – three of those on the road – but now the Lions are getting into the part of the schedule that matters most: conference games.

“I have been really pleased with how the team has started off so far this season,” said head coach Chris Walker. “We have played a really challenging schedule, and to go into conference undefeated is a big boost to the girls’ confidence. The girls have done a great job of playing as a complete team.

“It is still early in the season, and the new players and returning players are starting to get used to how each other play. That will hopefully only make them strong over time.”

Junior midfielder Ele Costello said she believes the team has found its rhythm.

“Our first game against McKendree was a bit of a shaky start,” Costello said. “Our confidence wasn’t there, and we were panicking on the ball rather than playing to our strengths, which are staying calm and keeping possession. Our first conference game is huge for us. We want to not only begin a (winning streak), but also want to send a message out to other opposing teams.”

The first of the two opening conference games this week will be against rival UAH Chargers Sept. 17.

“UAH (is) the closest school to UNA. I think this creates a bit of a rivalry no matter what sport it’s concerning,” Costello said. “We like to approach the game like we would any other conference game and focus on getting the result we want.”

Last season the Lions kicked off conference play, beating the Chargers 3-1 in Huntsville. Facing a team picked to finish eighth in the GSC, UNA is hoping for a repeat performance and to take its first step toward a conference championship.

“It is super important to us to start off our conference play on a good note,” said junior defender Susan Lang. “We made it to the (GSC) final last year. We will want to go one better this year and win the final. It all starts with our rival game against UAH.”

The Lions will face the Lee Flames at home Sunday. Lee, who became eligible for postseason play this season, beat UNA 2-0 last year.

For the Lions, the match against Lee will prove as a measuring stick to see how good the team is this season. The Flames are the preseason favorites in the conference, making this game a potential GSC championship preview.

“A win against anyone in the GSC is always good, but Lee will definitely be one of the teams to beat this year,” Walker said. “They were the number one pick and have some fantastic players. We are expecting there to be two great games of soccer this week.”

Facing Lee and beating them would leverage some momentum UNA’s way.

“They beat us last year, and we played poorly against them,” Lang said. “It will be good for us to come out and show them how we can actually play. To beat Lee would be great for us and boost our confidence.”

The Lions are usually favored to win their games, but Costello said she and her teammates feel being the underdog allows them to play loose.

“The fact that they have been predicted to finish first in the conference this season places us in a good position for hosting them here at UNA,” she said. “It’s not always a bad thing being the underdog (because) the pressure is off us and on them.”

Two big conference wins this week would likely land UNA at the top of the GSC standings and be a big confidence booster moving forward.

“Our team confidence is high right now, as we are building on last year’s success and the good start to this year,” Walker said. “We have got off to a strong start to the season and we really want to continue that into conference play. It is important to come out and play to the best of our ability.”

UNA will face UAH Thursday night and then take on Lee Sunday night. Both games are scheduled to kick-off at 7 p.m.