Lady Toppers set to open regular season against Belmont

Christina Bragado (left) Kaylyn Bryant (center) and Lyric Schmidt (right) deliberate during halftime of Sunday’s exhibition match against Austin Peay.

Elliott Wells

For the first time since 2015, the WKU soccer team is set to begin its regular season at the WKU Soccer Complex when they welcome Belmont on Thursday evening for a 7 p.m. kickoff.

The Lady Toppers are looking to start the regular season on a high note after ending the 2018 season with a 5-8-4 record. WKU’s five wins in 2018 were the fewest in program history.

WKU is coming off an exhibition slate the team finished 2-1-0, receiving wins against Ohio Valley Conference foes Murray State and Austin Peay.

“The exhibition schedule was put in place to try to figure things out,” head coach Jason Neidell said in a postgame interview Sunday. “I think we understand a lot more about our team now than we did five days ago.”

WKU defeated the Racers 2-0 on Aug. 14 thanks to a pair of goals from sophomore Ambere Barnett and junior Ashley Leonard. The Lady Toppers defeated the Governors 3-0 four days later after senior forward Chandler Backes scored two goals for WKU in the first 30 minutes of action.

WKU’s only exhibition loss came against Wright State on Aug. 16, a 1-0 defeat that saw the Lady Toppers fail to score despite several solid shots on goal.

After tallying a brace on Sunday night to help the Lady Toppers secure a win against APSU, Backes said the Lady Toppers are moving in the right direction to begin the season.

“You could ask anyone on our team right now, our chemistry, the vibes we have going on, it’s going to be a good team this year and a fun team to watch and play,” Backes said in a postgame interview Sunday.

A season ago, Backes proved to be one of WKU’s main offensive targets, as she finished with two goals, two assists and six overall points. In 2018, Backes ranked fifth overall in points scored for the Lady Toppers.

Barnett also returns to the helm for the Lady Toppers, as she was WKU’s top point-scorer from last season.

Barnett, who was selected earlier this month to the All-C-USA preseason Women’s Soccer Team, scored eight goals, contributed seven assists and tallied 22 total points last fall.

Forward Olivia Stanley also returns for her sophomore campaign after scoring four goals, assisting twice and tallying 10 points a year ago. Stanley — who only started four of 17 games last season — ranked third on WKU’s point-scorers list in 2018.

The Lady Toppers have welcomed 11 freshmen (10 true freshmen, one redshirt freshman transfer) to the program this year. Freshman forward Ansley Cate made her preseason debut on Sunday night against Austin Peay, where she scored her first career goal as a member of the Lady Toppers.

“We’re really excited about where we are,” head coach Jason Neidell said Sunday. “I think we had a lot of new faces — 11 freshmen and four players returning from injury, so really 15 new players to get into the fold this year. It’s been really fun to watch the freshman grow in front of our eyes, which they have over the last five days.”

In goal, redshirt junior Anne-Marie Ulliac and sophomore Bailee Witt — who made 16 starts last season — are set to battle freshmen Ashley Kobylinski and Afton Schraml for the starting job.

Ulliac suffered an ACL tear during WKU’s season opener last fall against Murray State, but Ulliac played 125 total minutes during exhibition matches without allowing a single goal.

Neidell said the Lady Toppers will need plenty of downtime during their preparation for the regular season opener against Belmont 

“We need a lot of rest,” Neidell said with a laugh. “Three games in five days at the end of the preseason is no easy task.”

Last season, the Bruins finished with a 6-8-3 overall record, earning its third straight trip to the OVC Tournament before getting knocked out by Southeast Missouri in PK’s. Belmont’s record on away matches last season was 2-4-1.

The Bruins are led by junior forward Julie Garst, who was selected to the All-OVC Women’s First Team in 2018. Garst started all 17 matches for Belmont last fall while recording seven goals and tallying 16 points.

In goal, senior Lily Herman returns for the Bruins after starting 16 games in 2018, making a career-high 70 saves while allowing 28 goals in 1,383 minutes of action for a goals against average of 1.82.

Belmont failed to score a goal in either of their exhibition matches. The Bruins lost 3-0 to cross-town opponent Vanderbilt on Aug 11. Just five days later, Belmont dropped its last exhibition match to in-state foe Chattanooga, 1-0.

The last time WKU and the Bruins met during a regular season contest was Sept. 17, 2016, in Nashville, when the Lady Toppers shutout the Bruins, 3-0.

The Lady Toppers have never lost to the Bruins — WKU leads the all-time series against Belmont 4-0-1 since 2008.

Reporter Elliott Wells can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected]. Follow Elliott on Twitter at @ewells5.