Round Two

Keith Farner

Wearing a thick five o’clock shadow, women’s soccer coach Jason Neidell looks like a coach who’s wearing the growth of his second-year program.

After going 14-5 in its inaugural season in 2001, Western is preparing for its first game of Year Two, tomorrow in Birmingham, Ala.

“Following up on last year and accomplishing what we accomplished last year, and more is going to be very, very difficult,” Neidell said.

Last year, Western came out of the gates smoking, with a 12-1 start. But with a team primarily consisting of freshmen, the Lady Toppers faded a bit late in the season. Nevertheless, of the seven new Division I women’s soccer programs last year, Western became one of only two to have winning records.

“As freshmen they didn’t know any better and they went out and played really, really hard and that’s what made us successful last year,” Neidell said. “And what we’re trying to make sure is that we have that same attitude and work ethic this year.”

While the team remembers last year, it is focused on building a foundation of success so it can become a consistent top-25 performer. The newest Lady Topper class will be a big part of that.

“We have more speed this year, we’re tougher and more physical,” said sophomore forward Allison Nellis, last year’s leading scorer.

That was Neidell’s goal after last season and, as a result, three of the fastest players on this year’s squad are freshmen – the coach’s second wave of talented recruits.

“They’re going to add to us winning,” Nellis said. “I don’t think they’ll be a setback to our team. They all bring something to the team that maybe someone else didn’t have.”

The newcomers have allowed Neidell to change his offensive mentality from a two-forward attack to three, in an attempt to put even more pressure on opposing defenders.

Among the speedy freshmen is Bowling Green High School product Katherine Hunt. Her wheels are setting her apart.

“That’s one thing that I can bring that not many other people can,” Hunt said.

With less than two exhibition games of college experience, Hunt already has made an impression. Her game-tying goal in the 89th minute helped Western tie Tennessee Tech in last Friday’s exhibition.

Another freshman Neidell said is making strides through preseason workouts is midfielder Kati Tamanaha. She has been waiting to join the program since Neidell first contacted her as a high school junior. Now she’s ready to contribute.

“People are going to be gunning for us now,” Tamanaha said. “People know who we are now, so they’re going to be ready for us.”

Neidell brought in eight freshmen in part because he lost six players from last year’s squad. He called it “natural attrition” with a growing program. The players lost were mainly backups who accounted for just four goals and two assists.

Those who remain look to prove last year wasn’t a fluke.

But while many will associate more wins with improvement for the team picked to finish fourth in the Sun Belt Conference, Neidell said that is not necessarily the next step – especially with a tougher schedule on tap.

Road games at Oklahoma State and at conference powers Denver and North Texas will make the schedule harder. It’s the other games, however, that they’re worried about. Unlike last year, Western will have to cope with being the favorite in many of their games.

“The teams that are going to pose the biggest threat to us are the teams we think we’re supposed to beat,” Neidell said.

But he believes his team has the potential to build on 14 wins, even if it won’t be as easy as last year.

“We really improved in the spring last year, so we have the potential,” Neidell said. “But there will be a lot of obstacles to overcome.”

Reach Keith Farner at [email protected]