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-   -   2021 UD Women's Soccer Season Preview: The Next Step is Now (http://www.udpride.com/forums/showthread.php?t=35145)

Chris R 08-16-2021 12:08 AM

2021 UD Women's Soccer Season Preview: The Next Step is Now
 
The Dayton Flyers women’s soccer team enters the 2021 fall season like all other teams returning from an abbreviated spring competition: searching for normalcy. The Covid pandemic ravaged all sense of comfort and routine over the last 18 months, forcing athletic teams and conferences to cobble together the best path forward from a choice of imperfect options. The programs that navigated the gauntlet of uncertainty with an urgency to get better rather than tread water in self-pity are the ones best positioned to make the largest gains. In UD’s case, there were plenty of tools to work with, but also plenty of tools to sharpen.

The Flyers finished 7-6-1 (4-3-1) during the salvaged but half-baked spring, working under the constraints of both the Coronavirus and A10 mandates to structure a schedule based on geographical pods to limit exposure. Those decisions put UD and A10 favorite Saint Louis in the same grouping, forcing UD to tackle perhaps the toughest league schedule of anyone trying to close the gap on the Billikens. All three of UDs regular season losses came to SLU, along with a fourth loss in the A10 Tournament. Only Butler and Louisville also topped Dayton – non-conference games while the ground was still thawing out. The good news is UD got challenged and other than the 3-0 defeat in the A10 Quarters, played SLU exceedingly tough – as tough as anyone else in the league. It also meant a 4-3-1 A10 record required a controversial tiebreaker to nab the 4th and final seed in the scaled-down postseason conference tournament. The Flyers showed some good things on the field, but margin-for-error remained razor thin.

The fall season is UD’s opportunity to show fans and critics alike that the gap continues to narrow with the preseason nationally-ranked Billikens. The schedule returns to relative parity and everyone is starting from the same position on the track. It’s also year seven of Head Coach Eric Golz’ tenure and that’s enough time to return to traditional program expectations even after the rebuilding project he inherited. Those expectations include at least twice as many wins as losses, favorites in the A10, and an opportunity to compete in the postseason.

Picked 2nd in the A10 preseason poll, others feel Dayton is best positioned to challenge SLU too, but the final vote tally separating the leading chase group was rather thin (SLU 195 [13], DAY 153, VCU 152, GW 145 [1], MAS 144).

DEPARTURES

Dayton was so young that spring 2021 losses to graduation, transfer, or otherwise remained exceedingly minor. Morgan Henderson graduated without seeing the field do to injuries, while Olivia Brown (28 total minutes, also plagued by injuries), Kara Camarco (11 starts, 2gls), Emma Thomas (6 starts), Megan Rack (DNP), and GK Carly Becker (4 starts) finished their Flyer careers. Perhaps the biggest loss was A10 All Rookie defender Katie Houck's transfer to – of all destinations – Saint Louis.

Houck’s loss is significant and needs immediate attention, but the Flyers return the bulk of the difference-makers everywhere else.

RETURNEES

Few players leveraged the shortened spring season better than Itala Gemelli (9gls, 1ast, 14 starts). The Michigan-native led the Flyers and A10 in scoring, shots on goal, and earned A10 Rookie of the Year and 1st Team All-A10 honors in her Dayton debut. Gemelli’s prowess to find the back of the net came from terrific positioning, good instincts, and a habit of keeping her shots on frame. While other players might have more flash, her game celebrates the fundamentals and consistency without over-thinking the next play. Gemelli plays smart touches, executes to an extremely high degree, and has a sixth sense for scoring. Provided she’s healthy and available, she gives UD one of the top scoring threats in the A10.

As much upside as Gemelli has however, others must get her the ball in scoring position. Junior Jessica Sheldon (1gl, 5asts, All A10 2nd Team) is UD’s “X” factor along the left touch line, utilizing her greyhound strides to run past defenders and send dangerous balls into the opposing box. Sheldon’s next challenge is becoming a capable scorer of her own. In the meantime, few players in the A10 pose a more difficult defensive assignment.

If grading on a “most-improved” scale, junior MF Yaiza Navarro Leon (13 starts, 2asts, All-A10 2nd Team) took top honor in the spring. Ya-Ya plays the diminutive undersized but crafty go-between as the Flyers transition from defense to offense – a role many undersized but talented Flyers of the past have flourished in. Dayton’s key to winning games hinges on YNL’s touches and the more she gets, the better UD’s chances. When matches turn long-ball and bypass her Barcelona feet, weighted passes, and weak-side service, Dayton never looks the same.

Beavercreek product Diana Benigno (2gls, 1ast) has the tools to be Navarro Leon’s doppelganger in the central third. The former HS All American plays a similar style and just needs additional field time to gain a greater level of confidence on the ball.

Likewise, Sophomore MF Madison Wilson (3gls, 2asts, 9 starts) has lots of upside as a target midfielder capable of serving as both a conduit in transition and goal scorer when approaching the box. Wilson earned A10 All-Rookie honors in the spring and should be somewhere in the starting XI again. Junior Marlee Taylor (2gls, 3asts, 8 starts) should be in the mix as well.

Additional returnees Mia Perri (1gl, 1ast, 5 starts), Laney Huber (2asts, 3 starts), Hannah Osland (10 starts), and Adriana Alonso-Gomez (8 appearances) are a few more names to keep an eye on in the Flyer offense.

Junior MF Alexis Goins had a blockbuster freshman season in 2019, earning A10 All-Rookie and All A10 1st Team Honors. But the spring season was unkind and injuries may have contributed to just 188 total minutes on the pitch. Goins has the same upside as Gemelli – provided she’s healthy. Dayton needs a couple more impact players inside the box that can terminate balls against the best teams on the schedule. If Goins can bounce back, UD’s ceiling rises.

Defensively, junior GK Madelyn Dewey (10 starts, 14 appearances) is probably the front-runner once again in front of the net. Dewey was solid and helped in part by a decent defensive line slowing traffic in front of her. Golz’ biggest concerns hinge on UD’s ability to play out of the back – especially on goalkicks and stoppages in play. The latter were a liability in the spring, forcing the Flyers to pinch defenders for service near the box. Teams that can play with precision out of the back can flourish, but at times the Flyers gave away balls with errant distribution or weak goal kicks that locked UD into defensive bunkers for extended periods. Dayton must find a way to get the ball to midfield with less stress on dead-ball restarts. Sophomore GK Isabella Simoncelli is another option if Golz doesn’t like what he sees.

Junior defender Mackenzie Lutz (13 starts, All A10 2nd Team) anchors a back line that’s experienced but still relatively young. Helping out are sophomores Gabbi Tremonti (1 start, 8 appearances), Elle Lovdal (11 appearances), and Natalie Hegg (10 appearances), while senior Lexi Kidd (2 starts, 11 appearances) adds maturity and a calming presence.

Lutz’s main partner-in-crime however is junior Audrey Steiert (3asts, 14 starts). The pair are career starters in the back line and have improved each year; they’ve had to because the Flyer offense was an evolving work-in-progress. This fall however, Lutz and Steiert must be Dayton’s strongest muscle, capable of shutting down dynamic teams with dynamic playmakers to help keep the scoring down. Excellent teams positioned to win conference titles and reach the NCAA Tournament know how to beat good teams 1-0 and 2-1. The Flyers haven’t taken that step yet but the development stage is over and it’s time to return to the traditional program benchmark of fielding a team with the toughest defense in the league. UD must end the soft mistakes, defensive-third generosity, and force opponents to earn everything they get.

NEWCOMERS

Dayton brought in another diverse class with hopes of closing the recruiting gap on Saint Louis. To the staff’s credit, the talent level has improved greatly over the last 2-3 seasons, but SLU Head Coach Katie Shields hasn’t been wasting time doing victory laps either. She senses some pressure from the chase pack and has countered well. It hasn’t helped UD’s cause that talented young players like Houck (SLU) and Landy Mertz (Pittsburgh) transferred out to be closer to home.

The chaotic spring and summer has made for unconventional recruiting and press updates about incoming players so it’s hard to fully evaluate the newcomers. Sophomore Marquette transfer Addison Shock might be the safest bet to contribute early on. The defender hails from Dublin, OH and played alongside her sister Macey with the Golden Eagles. Her father played football at UD so her addition is a coming-of-home in some respects. Shock started nine matches as a freshman at Marquette but did not play in spring 2021.

Other newcomers include MF Taylor Thomas (Sioux Falls, SD), MF Ashley Stewart (N. Vancouver, BC), F Noel Blain (Canton, MI), and GK Maddie Crosbie (Niagara Falls, ON). It may be a wait-and-see with this group – more so than with any other recruiting class in recent memory.

SCHEDULE

The Flyers begin the regular season with a pair or road matches at MAC members Akron and Kent State on Aug. 19th and Aug. 22rd respectively. The home opener is Aug. 26th against Northern Kentucky, sandwiched in between another MAC opponent on the road (Toledo) on Aug. 29th. UD steps up in class on Sep. 2nd with a road match at Kentucky before returning home for three straight home games to round out the non-conference season – IUPUI on Sept. 5th, Ohio State on Sep. 9th, and Michigan State on Sep. 12th.

Dayton gets no reprieve as a road trip to A10 favorite Saint Louis on Sep. 19th opens the A10 season. Home dates with LaSalle (Sep. 23rd) and Davidson (Sep. 26th) follow that important measuring-stick match with the Bills, while the rest of the conference slate swings home and away over the final seven matches: at SJU (Sep. 30th), George Mason (Oct. 3rd), at VCU (Oct. 10th), GW (Oct. 14th), at St. Bonaventure (Oct. 17th), Fordham (Oct. 21st), and at Richmond (Oct. 24th).

The Flyers avoid UMass – a team likely to fight in the top half of the A10 – but must tackle SLU and VCU away from home. Overall, there is no easy path in the non-conference or A10 so UD will have to earn respect the old-fashioned way: results on the scoreboard.

The non-con schedule is challenging enough to provide the staff a decent gauge of where the team is heading into the critical A10 opener at SLU. If UD can toughen up and develop good habits by then, it will serve them well over the final five weeks of the regular season.

PREDICTIONS

It was fun while it lasted but the honeymoon is over. UD women’s soccer has made incremental improvements every year under Eric Golz’ tenure – even if the overall record occasionally suggested otherwise. The quality of play and overall talent level has gotten better each season, but it’s time to take a bigger step and cash in on that R&D. Saint Louis remains the clear favorite in the A10, but the Flyers must – at the very least – distance themselves from everyone else in the A10 and force the Bills to put more focus on maintaining distance from Dayton than from the field in general. Anything less right now would be a disappointment.

UD has enough talent and experience to do just that, but certain things must happen. First, the Flyers must end the habit of being so kind and generous in their own defensive third. Too many goals have been conceded (or nearly conceded) from momentary losses in focus, confidence, or both. Hospital passes, errant clearances, pick-pockets, or poor decision-making have swung matches into all but unwinnable outcomes because UD dug their own grave and jumped in. Dayton must stop trying to win important matches after falling behind and start front-running against the good teams – with confidence on the ball to expect shutouts and expect extensions on the lead. Goalkicks cannot continue to be a liability.

There have been flashes, but in 25 or 30-minute increments. The Flyers must learn to focus over 90 minutes and not see a dropoff in pace, precision, or overall play. This is how SLU won all four matches in the spring – persistence from start to finish.

Offensively, Jess Sheldon is a nightmare matchup along the touch line and her crosses in the box are high-quality. Her great service has largely gone un-rewarded however as UD struggles terminating those high balls in the box. It shouldn’t take 10 Sheldon crosses for every one that’s redirected into the net. UD mids and strikers must get more physical inside the box and sacrifice their bodies – you never know if the last ball your way is the best service you’ll get all night. Golz must demand more fight and urgency in the mixer. This is especially true on corner kicks. The comparison once again fits: SLU scored several goals against UD on set pieces while Dayton spent most of the season wasting opportunities on free kicks and corners.

Navarro Leon must get the most touches of any player on the field. Dayton cannot compete at its best unless she’s a primary focus in the offense. While YNL may never be a scorer, she’s the player that allows other players to find the players that can.

Gemelli must play a ton of minutes. Flyer fans would love to see Goins find her freshman mojo, while Benigno must step up and play at an All-A10 level in the midfield. And then two or three other returnees or newcomers need to step in right away and make an impact. Perhaps Shock is that kind of player in the back line, while Wilson or Yara have the intangibles to make a huge leap.

Dayton should be able to score goals, but can they keep opponents off the scoreboard? That’s the $64,000 question and the best place to look for that “big next step” in program development. Margins in the A10 remain thin and going by the A10 Preseason Poll, there’s no clear second best. Teams like LaSalle, VCU, UMass, and GW can cause problems for the Flyers – especially if UD insists on gifting a goal every match or two that costs UD some W’s. The 2021 season is about tightening the screw and exorcising the bugaboos that inexperienced or talent-starved teams suffer from.

In short, the Flyers are out of excuses. But that’s a good thing because it’s all been building to this – enough time and development work to put UD in a spot where “time to grow” is no longer an acceptable reason for taking L’s when W’s were there to pocket. UD’s A10 finish is somewhat contingent upon scheduling and with unbalanced schedules it’s hard to tell which teams have the easiest and most difficult paths. Dayton should finish in the Top-4 and anything less would be a disaster. But that’s no longer good enough – at least it shouldn’t be. Our feeling is both the coaches and players feel the same away. If UD can land that #2 spot in the A10, win all the winnable matches, knock off an Ohio State or SLU along the way, and play at a level commensurate with high-level D-I soccer, 2022 should be NCAA or Bust because almost everybody on this year’s team should be around next year as well.

A10 FINISH: 3rd Place
A10 TOURNAMENT: Semifinals (assuming 8-team field)
POSTSEASON: None

The Fly 08-18-2021 05:45 PM

Excellent series, Chris. Been a long time coming, but there is real talent in the ranks. Maybe a year away, but they’ll be fun to watch this season.

Chris R 08-19-2021 12:05 AM

Dont ever draft an article in MS Word. The spell-correct was atrocious. It renamed Itala into a country among other auto-fixes. I shoulda paid more attention before cutting and pasting.


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