ABILENE – ACU’s s soccer team – recognized as one of the Wildcats’ most successful programs since its inception six years ago – will forever hold the honor of playing the school’s first contest as a NCAA Division I institution when it visits Oklahoma City University Sunday for a 2 p.m. match.
The OCU Stars are one of the country’s very best NAIA establishments and were recently selected to repeat as Sooner Athletic Conference champions. Last year’s Stars posted an overall record of 20-2 and went 7-1 in conference play en route to its third-consecutive SAC regular-season title. The Wildcats, meanwhile, are coming off their first non-winning season since 2006 at 8-10-1 and 6-7-1 vs. the Lone Star Conference.
As first-year members of the Southland Conference, ACU has been picked to finish 10th in a 13-team league but that seems to be of little-to-no concern to head coach Casey Wilson who liked what he saw last Friday in an exhibition loss to TCU.
“I thought we played well for having so many new players and never once felt that anyone was overwhelmed,” he said. “We gave up a couple unfortunate goals, but the one Emily (Sumrall) scored for us was built up nicely. Andrea (Carpenter) laid it out for Emily and she finished it well just inside the 18.”
Sumrall, who joined the Wildcats following two years at Navarro Junior College, is one of 14 newcomers who have given Wilson and his coaching staff the added luxuries of depth and leadership. Not only is he discovering interchangeable parts across the offense and defense, Wilson also sees many of them taking the time to encourage others and lead in other areas.
“One of most positive attributes has been our senior’s constant efforts to welcome in the newcomers and get the chemistry and bonding activities going well before the start of the season,” Wilson said. “I’m always very proud of how intentional every one is each summer … but this year the leadership is a bit more spread out, and I think if anyone takes a chance to step up and lead it will certainly carry us further.”
Sumrall is one of four transfers on the Wildcats’ 26-woman roster along with San Diego Mesa products Nicci Nelson and Tiffany Ysassi and Rachel Shedd, who spent her freshman year with Colorado Christian. The team also returns two sophomores from last year’s squad, plus four juniors and a dynamic senior class comprised of Carpenter, Brie Buschman, Ashley Craig, Katherine Garner, Jacey Ferrara and Whitley Lindholm.
All five of ACU’s seniors have made a tremendous impact on the program since their arrival four years ago. An all-America honoree, Carpenter is the school’s all-time leader in points (95) and goals (43) scored, while Buschman – a defender with 63 starts under her belt – has been repeatedly honored for her work in the classroom and on the field.
Craig and Lindholm have contributed a combined 31 points from the midfield and attacking positions, and Ferrara – a central mid with 59 starts – earned immediate living-legend status after her golden goal in 2011 vs. Midwestern State pushed the Wildcats into the third round of the NCAA Championship.
Garner is back at full strength after missing a chunk of last year due to injury. She scored seven points off the bench as a freshman in 2010, but really made a name for herself the following year on defense as she combined with Buschman and others as ACU finished the year ranked first in the Lone Star Conference in goals allowed (15), GAA (.638), saves (118) and shutouts (11).
“There’s a lot of experience in this group, a lot of enthusiasm for winning games,” Wilson said. “And I’ve seen no sign that they’re even close to burning out. They bring a lot of fire to this team, which will carry us throughout the season.”
Carpenter received a considerable amount of help up top the past three seasons from the likes Ashley Holton and Krysta Grimm, each of who totaled 47 career points, but this year it appears she’ll be paired on the attack with junior Taylor Brown and freshman Natalie Throneberry, a 2013 graduate of McKinney High School who scored 29 career goals and 21 assists.
Craig will be positioned along the flank behind the forwards, while Sumrall, Ferrara and Nelson are anchored toward the middle. The team also expects to utilize the talents of freshmen Maria Gomez of Naples, Fla., and San Antonio’s Alyssa Gerner.
Lisa Tomenendal could also see time along the back line with Buschman and Kelsie Roberts, who was named Lovejoy High School’s Defensive MVP on four occasions.
In goal this season will be a combination of freshmen Kelsey Dombrowski and Sydney Newton. Dombrowski comes to ACU from Fossil Ridge High School in Fort Worth where she was a two-time District 7-5A Goalkeeper of the Year, while Newton made first team all-state, region and district in 2012 for Mansfield High School.
New goalkeeper coach Stephen Salas has worked extensively with each of the freshmen since the start of camp and said the competition between the two goalkeepers has been fairly equal as they continue to fight for the starting role.
“I’m excited to work with two goalkeepers whose background includes a high-level of playing experience,” he said. “Kelsey played for the Dallas Texans and Sydney for FC Dallas, so they’re consistently giving their all through every training session. The strongest aspect of Kelsey’s game is her leadership. She is blessed as a freshman to be so vocal on the field. She understands her position and shows no fear.
“Sydney also possesses a tremendous work ethic, and displays great strength and power in clearing the ball off the line on a goal kick or defending a corner kick.”
Salas joined the Wildcats last month following six years with Hardin-Simmons University as both player and assistant coach. Following a successful career in net, Salas was named tje Cowgirls’ goalkeeping coach prior to the start of the 2011 season and helped lead them to 38 wins, a pair of conference regular season and tournament championships, and an appearance in the 2012 NCAA Sweet 16.
Additionally, his goalkeepers allowed eight goals (0.36 GAA) per season and combined for 33 shutouts as HSU extended its regular-season conference unbeaten streak to a NCAA-record 157 matches.
Although there’s much excitement surrounding ACU’s first year in D-I, having no opportunity for postseason play for the next several years remains a major drawback of the NCAA’s mandated transition time for all schools looking to move up from D-II. However, ACU is immediately eligible to win regular-season conference championships in every sport.
The Wildcats have capture one regular season (2011) and one LSC postseason championship (2010) over the past three years, so to see their campaign end early regardless of record will surely be disappointing for those fans who have followed the program into the postseason every year since 2008.
With this in mind, all coaches Wilson and third-year assistant Ryan Spears want to see is their players performing to the very best of their abilities.
“We’ll have a winning season if all the girls play to their fullest potential in every single game,” he said. “Right now, that’s all we can ask – for them to play the way they know they can. We can deal with a loss as long as we know we’ve all played to our potential.”