FLORENCE, S.C. – The Francis Marion University women’s soccer team prepares for its first season transitioning to NCAA Division I with 12 returning letterwinners, a lot of excitement, and some trepidation.
“We are excited about the move to Division I, but we also understand the great challenge facing us in 2005,” said third-year Patriot head coach Marty Beall. “In the past, we have won with speed and athleticism, but now every opponent we face will have an abundance of those attributes. We must find other ways to win, by better possessing the ball under pressure and by being better organized on defense. It will be a learning experience, but one that we are looking forward to.”
In its final year in Division II, the Patriots were 13-4-0 last season and captured the program’s first Peach Belt Conference regular-season championship. A semifinal loss in the PBC Tournament likely cost FMU a bid to the Division II national tournament.
The 2005 schedule includes 10 matches against Division I opponents, including the Sept. 2 season opener at Vanderbilt University. During the transition period, Francis Marion has only seven home matches, among them an Oct. 10 match-up with Howard University and an Oct. 18 contest with UNC Asheville.
Heading the returnees are six starters: senior forward Katie Riley, senior midfielder Mollie Jones, senior backs Kate Anderson and Sara Wilson, junior midfielder Brittany Rothenbach, and junior midfielder Keri Barton.
Riley was a third-team All-American on the field in 2004 and a third-team Scholar All-American in the classroom, making her only the seventh FMU student-athlete to earn both athletic and academic All-America honors in the same year. She tallied 13 goals and nine assists last year to rank fourth in the Peach Belt Conference in total points, and four of her goals were match-winning scores. With career totals of 38 goals and 18 assists, while not missing a match in her three seasons, she is approaching the school records for shots, goals, and points.
Jones and Rothenbach, an All-Conference selection in 2004, helped direct a Patriot offense that averaged 2.82 goals per match in 2004, second-best in the PBC.
However, the Patriots must replace several key losses at the offensive end. Gone is graduated forward Cyprian Gillingham (9 goals, 4 assists), while the team’s leading scorer last year, Ashley Fortune (15 goals, 10 assists), will redshirt during the 2005 campaign. A member of the PBC Presidential (academic) Honor Roll as a sophomore, Fortune will have to sit out the season because of eligibility differences between Division II and Division I. Another blow came when a junior college All-American forward backed out of her signed letter of intent two weeks prior to the beginning of preseason practice. “Because of these losses, we have been forced to make some adjustments in the way we play, compared to past seasons,” said Beall. “While our tactics may change, we are still looking for wins. In fact, our team fitness is the best it has been in the past four years.
“Offensively, Riley, Jones, and Rothenbach will be our key cogs,” said Beall. “Riley is a tremendous scorer and has done everything that has been asked of her, both on the field and off. Jones is an outstanding leader and has the ability to control the pace of a match. Rothenbach is a great ball winner and also has a hand in team leadership.”
In goal, FMU will rely on sophomore transfer Jacque Sutphin, who played the 2004 season at West Virginia University, a perennial Top 20 program. The Davidsonville, Md., native did not allow a goal in five appearances in 2004. The Patriots lost the services of Megan Corker, who will not return for her sophomore season for personal reasons, leaving Sutphin as the lone keeper on the 2005 roster. “Jacque has been a pleasure to work with,” Beall added. “She is very athletic, possesses Division I experience, and will definitely keep us in matches. With an experienced back line that includes junior Jody Rhoderick, Wilson, and Anderson, we hope to take some of the burden off Jacque, while also keeping her healthy.”
Other returnees include senior midfielder Liz Gallacher, junior back Morgan Harwood, junior midfielder Alese Tremmel, sophomore back Ricci Sheridan, and sophomore midfielder Stacy Smith.
In addition to Sutphin, other newcomers to the Patriot program are freshmen twins Dani and Jayme Friess (Springfield, Ga.), freshman midfielder Kiersten Nedervelt (Montpelier, Va.), freshman back Brandi Bonifay (Stuart, Fla.), freshman forward Ashley Wahl (Whispering Pines, N.C.), and freshman back Ashlyn Curtis (Bishopville, S.C.). Wahl tallied an amazing 133 career goals and 58 assists at Union Pines High School, while the Friess twins were multi-sport athletes at Effingham County High School. Curtis is a product of West Florence High School.
According to Beall, many of these first-year players are battling for starting positions. “After only a week of practice, we are still finding our way. We have dropped two exhibition matches to quality Division I opponents, but these have been opportunities for us to prepare for the new world of Division I soccer.”
FMU will compete as a Division I independent this season. The Patriots will close their slate at the Independent Cup in Kennesaw, Ga., facing the University of Northern Colorado on Nov. 5 and Kennesaw State University on Nov. 6.
In its previous 10 seasons, Francis Marion owns a .736 winning percentage (133-46-5 record) and the Patriots have never experienced a losing season.