HARROGATE, Tenn. — The Lady Railsplitters will be presented an opportunity to make a national statement as well as earn a pair of early regional victories to kick off the 2014 women’s soccer campaign in this weekend’s Columbus State University Collegiate Invitational in Columbus, Ga. Lincoln Memorial is set to invade CSU’s Walden Soccer Complex to square off against powerhouse West Florida on Friday before closing the weekend on Sunday against Conference Carolinas foe Mount Olive.
West Florida enters play ranked No.2 in the NSCAA’s preseason national poll, trailing only defending national champion Grand Valley State for the top spot. The 2012 NCAA national champions, the Argonauts finished as the national runner-up in 2013 with an 18-1-3 overall record. West Florida boasted not only one of the most prolific offensive attacks in the nation a season ago, but one of the stingiest defensive units, pitching in 2.45 goals per game while allowing only 0.68.
With the loss of three of the team’s leading scorers, Chelsea Palmer, Sashana Campbell and Shelby Bush, this year’s iteration of the Argonauts will look to a strong sophomore class and 13 incoming freshman to continue the grand winning tradition.
In a match-up that features former Gulf South Conference rivals, the Lady Railsplitters will expect a veteran backline comprised of senior Kristen Cook and juniors Lauren Dusold and Krista Holka to slow down a proficient West Florida offense. Junior goalkeeper Kayla Stephens will look to get off to a fast start as she will be handed the daunting task of keeping the Argonauts’ top offensive threats out of the net.
The Argonauts claim two 2014 preseason All-GSC selections, Sara Helgadottir and Kelly Andres. In 2013 Helgadottir scored five goals and added seven assists in her debut in Pensacola, while Andres posted three goals and three assists of her own. West Florida will also benefit from the return of April Syme and Svenja Burkhardt, who added a pair of goals apiece last year.
While defense will be crucial in slowing down the relentless Argonaut attack, the Lady Railsplitters will look toward an aggressive offensive front to control time of possession and take pressure off of their defense. With the potential for a freshman manning the net for West Florida, Lincoln Memorial hopes an experience midfield can control the ball and allow forwards Michelle Hunter and Fernanda Miaci to escape a veteran back line and give the Lady Railsplitters an edge. With two experienced defenses facing off to open the season, goals could potentially be a rarity.
“Back in the good old days, when we were in the GSC, they were our nemesis,” LMU head women’s soccer coach Helio D’Anna said regarding West Florida. “We have had great battles with them, conference finals, semifinals, always competing to go to nationals. They are obviously returning runners-up in the nation so in theory they are the better team and the favorites, but I think it’s a great way to start. We steal this game, watch out.”
In the weekend’s second game the Lady Railsplitters will meet a Mount Olive that looks to get back on track after back-to-back losing seasons, including a 5-11-2 tally in 2013. The Trojans welcome back preseason All-Conference Carolinas selections Ellie Barnes and Alex Wetherholt, both of whom tied for the team’s scoring lead with six goals apiece last season. Having graduated only one senior from the 2013 squad, the Trojans are primed for an improved year as they benefit from the return of four additional players who tallied at least three goals last season. Mount Olive also retained goaltender Stephanie McCoy, who stopped 53 shots as a true freshman a year ago.
The Lady Railsplitters hold a combined 5-12-2 record against this weekend’s opponents, trailing West Florida 3-11-1 in the all-time series while owning a 2-1-1 advantage over Mount Olive. Lincoln Memorial has not played the Argonauts since 2005, falling to UWF in the NCAA South Regional. The Lady Railsplitters last faced Mount Olive in 2011, a 1-0 loss in Mount Olive, N.C.