• Lillie Burke

PREVIEW: Women’s soccer looks to start and finish stronger in 2014

The end of the 2013 season for the Belmont women’s soccer team could have been described in one word: unlucky.

Despite winning five of their last eight games, the Bruins still nearly missed out on the Ohio Valley Conference tournament based on a tiebreaker.

As the team switches gears toward the 2014 season, Coach Heather Henson hopes the team will start the season off stronger, in both the physical and mental aspects of the game.

“Moving into this year, it’s about how can we start games fueled more instead of having to come on late,” said Henson, who is entering her fourth year at Belmont. “The great thing is we progressed and got better as the season went on. But we want to start stronger, and that’s one of the big focuses for our team’s goals.”

Returning to the pitch for the Bruins are 18 letterwinners highlighted by the junior and senior classes, including postseason honor recipients Meredith Martin and Alison Alcott.

The two lead a strong class of eight seniors playing their final season in a Belmont uniform, a group that Henson said she is very proud of this year.

“Throughout the three years previous, they have earned those minutes and spots on the field,” said Henson. “The great thing is their experience of our two years in the OVC, and I think that’s going to be a big part of what they can provide not only during the game but in training sessions.”

Both Martin and Alcott recently garnered recognition from College Sports Madness  and were named to the OVC preseason second team by the website. Henson contributes the pair of defenders’ success to their hard-working nature and consistency.

“They are just two examples that quite honestly are going to bring it every day,” said Henson. “They’re consistent, hard workers, and they are going to break up play defensively. They also have that ability to help us begin and start that attack.”

In addition to the leadership of the upperclassmen, Belmont welcomes eight newcomers to the squad who continue to build team chemistry leading up to the regular season.

“I think this year our team chemistry is the best that we’ve had, at least since I’ve been here,” said senior midfielder Taylor Smith. “This freshman class reminds me a lot of our freshman class. So we’ve got a good balance going on.”

The team chemistry developed by Belmont will come in handy for the Bruins to be successful during conference play. In the preseason poll released by the OVC, Belmont was selected to finish seventh.

The Bruins hosts the top-four teams from the preseason poll at home, including the 2013 regular season winner UT-Martin and 2013 tournament champion Morehead State.

Martin believes Belmont has an advantage because of the turf surface at Rose Park.

“We have turf field so home advantage is that more important because not every team is used to playing on turf. So hopefully we’ll catch those teams off guard,” Martin said.

Junior forward Cassie Blasé agreed with Martin on the advantages the home schedule gives the Bruins.

“I think we were really good at playing at home. Our fans are here, we’re settled and we know how to play,” Blasé said.

In addition to the difficult conference schedule, Belmont will also face new competition, including Indiana State, Appalachian State and UNC-Asheville.

Henson said the new opponents provides them with the chance to build more team chemistry on the road but also to prepare the team for conference play.

“It’s nice to have brand new opponents because you don’t know what’s happening. It helps us because early in a game you have to see what the opponent is bringing, what their strengths and weaknesses are,” Henson said. “The quicker we do that with people we don’t know, the better we’re going to be in conference play.”

While the ultimate goal for the Bruins is to succeed in conference play and make it to the tournament, Martin said the team plans to take each game at a time and focus on the little things.

“We have a saying that we get one percent better every day. We don’t want to put too high expectations on ourselves but at the same time we want to know how high we can reach,” Martin said.

Belmont opens the season today as the team travels to take on Horizon League member Valparaiso for the first meeting between the teams since 2007. The match is set for kickoff at 7:30 p.m.

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