ABILENE, Texas — When you make a deep NCAA Tournament run, return eight starters and 23 letterwinners, expectations are high. The 2013 Hardin-Simmons women’s soccer team has all four of those things that factor into the outlook of their season.
“The expectations are always high,” said 14th-year head coach Marcus Wood. “We have a lot of talent coming back, some very talented newcomers and we have to be ready to take on a challenging schedule.”
HSU was picked as the American Southwest Conference favorite. The Cowgirls have won 10 straight ASC titles and haven’t lost an ASC game dating back to September of 2000, a streak that now stretches 157 games. The Cowgirls are sixth in the first NSCAA national poll.
The Cowgirls have made several position changes with returning players from a year ago and going into the opener only a handful of starters will start in the same position as they did a year ago.
“We have moved some people around and put them in the spots we think will help us be successful,” said Wood. “We have some unknown going into the season but we think with a strong preseason trip to Costa Rica and the extra time you get with that we are prepared.”
The following is a position-by-position breakdown of the 2013 Cowgirls.
Abby Blunt and Lexi Stinson, a pair of sophomores, have had an offseason battle for the starting job. Blunt will get the call in the opener against Puget Sound. Stinson started every game a year ago and will give the Cowgirls a battled-tested second option.
”They have both worked really hard and improved not only the skill sets of the position, but the leadership aspect of the position.
Amy Powell will be the third goalkeeper for the Cowgirls.
The Cowgirls backline is anchored by the Cramer twins at center defender. Courtney and Caitlin are in their third years as starters and provide athleticism and leadership.
“When we build our team we try to be very good right up the spine and that is definitely our strength,” said Wood. “The twins have been phenomenal through Costa Rica and the two scrimmages, I feel they are poised for a big year.”
Outside defender has a different look for the Cowgirls. Four-year starter Christina Hartfield graduated and Julianne Kucera has moved to forward.
The Cowgirls will start two of three: Katie Haltiwanger, Karissa Olson and Kristen Pack. Olson is a transfer from Texas Wesleyan, who came with a reputation as a goal scorer. She will also play on the wing as well at time. Pack will also see time at midfield and Haltiwanger has been an offensive player the last two years.
“Although she has never done it Karissa has been outstanding in the preseason. She can make a lot happen. Haltiwanger and Pack have also been outstanding. Pack is tough to beat one on one, she is gritty and Haltiwanger is a strong athlete that can make things happen.”
The depth is young for the Cowgirls at defender. Jessica Stuckey is making the move to center defender and outside defenders include sophomores Madi Jo Witherspoon, Megan Prindle and Jacqueline Thorman as well as freshmen Gabby Hadly, Morgan Honza and Ashtyn Honza.
Lauren Ahart, Bekah Robinson and Sarah Phillips round out the lineup at defender.
The center midfield is the strength of the Cowgirl team and it is led by three veterans.
Senior Devon Howard had 10 goals and 18 assists a year ago, junior Shannon Byrd is an outstanding field general that is a consistent ball winner and Thigpen is a reliable weapon, who had nine goals and six assists a year ago.
Freshman Peyton Janssen and juniors Hannah Perkins and Callie Carter will also add depth at center midfield. Freshman Bethany Biles will play and Morgan Hollingsworth is missing the season with an injury.
“Devon, Shannon and Taylor work tremendously well in combination. They provide different weapons. We think our midlfield will offer us firepower in every match that we play,” said Wood.
Outside midfielder is a position that will be a battle for minutes. Vivian Wells is back off knee surgery and is the most experienced.
Freshmen Abby Aldrich and Jordan Lara along with Olson when she is not playing defender give the Cowgirls great scoring off the wing.
“Abby is one of the fastest players we have ever had and Jordan is the same way. Both scored over 30 goals at 5A High Schools last season,” said Wood. “We are excited about our potential on the wing. Even Sydney Cook, McKenna Mangold and Haylee Foster have made statements so far in the preseason that they want to play. We are very deep at the wing.
Kucera, who was a force at outside back, has taken her technical ability to the center forward position and is expected to be one of the top goal scorers for the Cowgirls.
“Julianne has been a huge find for us, we have been surprised how she has scored goals for us not only in Costa Rica but also in our two scrimmages. She has been outstanding, she is big strong and fast.”
Senior Kati McCarty and freshman Alexa Branum will add the depth. Both bring different assets as McCarty is a dribbler and can beat her defender and Branum can hold the ball.
The Cowgirls will be tested early and often in the non-conference slate. The Cowgirls have games against Puget Sound, California Lutheran, Chapman, UC-Santa Cruz and Luther. All have been to the NCAA Tournament in the last several years.
The Cowgirls catch UT-Dallas and UT-Tyler on the road this year and they have traditionally been the Cowgirls’ top ASC opponents.
“We have the potential to be a very good team,” said Wood. “We need to test ourselves against good teams and our schedule does that with Puget Sound and California Lutheran and Chapman all being NCAA Tournament type teams. Actually our entire non-conference slate will prepare us. Then we think the league at the top end is going to be really good.”
“I think we are as good as we have been, you just don’t know until you face other top competition.”
The Cowgirls will open the season against Puget Sound on Friday at 3 p.m. in San Antonio. HSU’s home opener is Sept. 14 at home against Chapman.