Courtesy photo

The new-look Lady Railsplitters open year two under Fraser this week with a pair of matches at the LMU Soccer Complex, hosting Erskine on Thursday and Salem on Saturday.

2018 LMU women’s soccer season preview

HARROGATE, Tenn. — While last season marked the official start of the Sean Fraser era for the Lincoln Memorial University women’s soccer team, the 2018 season feels like a more appropriate beginning. The new-look Lady Railsplitters open year two under Fraser this week with a pair of matches at the LMU Soccer Complex, hosting Erskine on Thursday and Salem on Saturday.

In his first season at the helm in Harrogate, Fraser led a team that won a program-low three matches in 2016 to a 7-10 overall record in 2017. The Lady Railsplitters reached that mark despite suffering a program-high seven losses in one-goal matches.

This offseason, Fraser and his staff went to work and brought in 18 new players to help continue the program’s evolution that was set in motion last season. That recruiting effort has suddenly loaded the team with talent and depth at multiple positions, but the focus remains on day-to-day improvement.

“We’ve not really talked about the season and we’ve not talked about goals short, medium and long-term too much,” Fraser said. “We are trying to take it every day as we come.”

Due in large part to injuries, the Lady Railsplitters averaged just 1.29 goals per match and were shut out seven times last season, but the offense should now be a source of strength.

At the top of the formation, LMU will feature two electric offensive weapons in junior college transfer Itzel Ballesteros and freshman Jessica Cravero. Both have massive experience, as Ballesteros combined for 34 goals and 38 assists in two seasons at Cerritos College, where she was a first team All-American, and Cravero represented the under-18 Italian national team.

Those two forwards headline a group that includes senior Caroline Souza, who is returning from a season-ending injury and is just two years removed from leading the Lady Railsplitters in goals, and freshmen standouts Lindsay Horton, Rachel Taylor and Ashlyn Miller.

While the explosiveness and creativity at the forward position was improved tenfold this offseason, the greatest source of strength for the Lady Railsplitters could arguably be in the midfield.

While returning senior Isa Jara and sophomore captain Mariana Diaz, who both started all 17 matches last season, the team also added junior college transfers Maria Hernandez and Mikayla Vang as well as stud freshman Daisy Drake. Hernandez played alongside Ballesteros at Cerritos College, while Drake played for the under-18 English national team before making her way stateside.

Defensively, the Lady Railsplitters return senior preseason All-South Atlantic Conference selection Courtney Boyd, senior Gabby Garcia, who is also working back to form from a season-ending injury, and senior Alyssa Berry.

That group was also bolstered with some solid additions in the form of freshmen Lauren Wood and Fabienne Loetscher and Middle Tennessee State transfer Jessica Steen. Wood was a two-time all-region defender at nearby Powell High School, while Loetscher starred for one of the premier club teams in Switzerland.

At goalie, the Lady Railsplitters return senior Brooke Taylor, who made 81 saves across 16 appearances last season. But Fraser will have options there as well with the addition of junior college transfer Ann-Marie O’Connell and freshmen Molly Kleinhans and Jami Maloney.

“I think we’ve got a nice mix,” Fraser said. “We’ve got a good balance of upper classmen and younger players. We’ve got good leadership and phenomenal assistant coaches. I’m thrilled at the way it’s going.”

So what kind of team does Fraser want to put on display this fall? In short, one that reflects him. One that is organized and focused on the details. One that is passionate about the game. And above all else, one that has fun.

“That’s important as well. It’s something that was lost on last year,” Fraser said. “A team that has fun all the way through this process. That’s what we should be in this for – to have fun and achieve something.”

Expectations are fickle by nature. They are shaped and reshaped by circumstance and context. The Lady Railsplitters have a ton of talent and a ton of options at their disposal, so it’s easy to be excited about the prospects for the upcoming season.

It would also be easy to place lofty expectations on the Lady Railsplitters, but Fraser is more focused on competing every match and enjoying the day-to-day process.

“The expectation is that we are competitive in every game,” he said. “We feel like we’ve got a good game plan and good players. To be competitive in every game is a start and it’s the bare minimum for us.

“This team – the young team that they are – is focused on improving and enjoying each other. That’s one of the things that I’ve found pleasure in is that they are enjoying being around each other, competing on a daily basis and having fun.”

As for Thursday’s season opener against Erskine, Fraser doesn’t expect to see the Lady Railsplitters at the absolute best they are going to be, but he does hope to see a high level of execution and, of course, a lot of fun.

“We won’t see the finished product for a while,” Fraser said. “I’d like to see a team that has a game plan, executes that game plan and has fun with it. Those ingredients are the recipe for success.”

Kickoff between LMU and Erskine in the 2018 season opener is set for 1 p.m. on Thursday at the LMU Soccer Complex.