WOMEN’s SOCCER: Sun Belt Conference starts true season

Beth Wilberding

After playing nine games, the Western soccer team was ready when its season began last Sunday.

It wasn’t until the team had walked onto the field for its first Sun Belt Conference game that players said their season had officially begun.

“A lot of us look at the games up to conference as preseason,” sophomore Jenny Dalby said. “You have to step up to a whole different level. Record doesn’t matter – in conference play, anybody can beat anybody on a given day.”

With one conference win behind them, the Lady Toppers (6-4) are excited about their conference road trip to face both Arkansas State (5-6) and Arkansas-Little Rock (4-8-1) this weekend. Last season, the Lady Toppers defeated both teams 1-0.

“If we play like we know we can play, I think both teams are very beatable,” junior Leslie Anderson said. “I think last year we may have underestimated them. This year we’re definitely not going to do that.”

Coach Jason Neidell said the team should win both games, but this weekend’s games are the focus.

“(Everyone) wants to know about North Texas and Denver,” Neidell said. “But the important games are (this weekend).

“The sense around the league is that North Texas and Denver are the teams to beat, but that only becomes important if you beat the teams you’re supposed to beat.”

And success in the conference is key to the Lady Toppers’ ultimate goal this season – making it to the NCAA tournament for the first time in team history. With a conference championship comes an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament.

“The game is more physical,” Neidell said. “Pressure mounts … how you deal with pressure affects where you’ll be at the end of the season. There’s more at stake.”

Western plans to use freshman forward Jenna Silverberg to pressure its opponents. On Tuesday, Silverberg was named Sun Belt Player of the Week after posting three goals and an assist last weekend.

“It’s an honor,” Silverberg said. “Especially me being a freshman. I was shocked (since) there are so many awesome players on the team and in the conference.”

The last time a Lady Topper received this honor was two years ago when then-freshman Allison Nellis was named the first week of the regular season.

As the team focuses on its upcoming games, the coaches are still trying to decide who the starting goalkeeper will be.

Sophomore Becky Kasper started the season, but in recent games, junior Amy Uhlman and senior Melissa Bailey have been splitting time.

“Right now, Bailey and Uhlman are fighting it out for starting goalie spot,” Neidell said Tuesday. “That’s today. It could change tomorrow.”

But the keeper position is not alone.

Junior Erica Baker and freshman Tara Tidwell are also competing for a spot on defense.

“We’re having a really hard time getting everybody on the field who deserves to be on the field,” Neidell said. “It’s a nice problem to have.”

Reach Beth Wilberding at [email protected]