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Women's Soccer Season Preview: Finally

UB Athletics

It's not as famous as it could be, but when interviewing for the Women's Soccer head coaching position, Shawn Burke told Danny White "This isn't a rebuilding project. The players are here to compete."

All his team did was open the season on a five-game shutout streak, roll through the MAC winning 12 of 14 games and losing none, and setting a host of program records in one of the greatest seasons any UB team has ever had, MAC era or otherwise.

Key to UB's success was a good deal of injury luck, contributions from upper and underclassmen, a particularly impactful position change from the season prior, and a schedule that let them face Miami, WMU, and Ball State all at home. It's unlikely that the first three come together so serendipitously again, and the fourth has flipped to the total opposite, but Buffalo now has a winning pedigree rather than a playoff drought in their rearview mirror.

Key Departees

Katie Roberts

With 12 goals on the season, Roberts wasn't only UB's leading scorer but the highest-scoring bull in 12 years. Her season-long battle with Miami's Kelsey Dinges for the conference scoring lead ended with the MAC Offensive Player of the Year Award, but the intangibles speak even louder: six of her scores were game-winners, including three straight to open MAC play as the Bulls got into gear. I suspect that Buffalo's play in the attacking third is going to look different this year with Roberts' ability to fend off defenders while receiving the ball.

Courtney Mann

Buffalo's holding midfielder was the first line of defense last year (when the midfield surrendered possession), and had a knack for turning a loose ball quickly upfield to UB's attackers while providing critical senior leadership and earning First Team All-MAC honors. She's remained with the program as an assistant coach.

Sophie Therien

Therien was just Second Team All-MAC, a victim of the First Team's unconventional 3-3-4 formation, and even then I think she had a strong case. Either way, at central defender next to Jackie Hall, Therien was in the heart of UB's greatest strength, while also regularly contributing to the offense on free and corner kicks. The question of who replaces Therien and Mann is the biggest uncertainty coming into this season.

Key Returners

Laura Dougall

It's amazing that the Bulls still have three years of Laura Dougall, the MAC Freshman of the Year who held down the fort all season long. Considering that when she went out midfielder Ashley Evans was forced into duty, Laura's role could not have been bigger in 2014. One of, if not the, tallest players in the MAC, her height and quick decision making ends many chances in her gloves before the ball even gets anywhere dangerous.

Fall Sports Player Preview: Get to know Women's Soccer's Laura Dougall

By season's end Dougall had set new program records in wins (16), shutouts (13), and minutes played (1985:24), and bettered Wheldon's D1-era GAA mark (.54). On the UB career books she's already fifth in shutouts, tied for seventh in wins, and holding down the top spot (with a long way to go) in GAA.

Celina Carrero

No one in the MAC can guard Celina Carrero one-on-one. There might be one or two faster among the Bulls, but none uses her speed better than Carrero, who was honestly unlucky between offsides calls and near-misses to score only six goals while leading the conference in assists, with seven.

Fall Sports Player Preview: Get to know dynamic forward Celina Carrero - Bull Run

Of course, in 2015, Shawn Burke may need to ask Carrero to fill a different role; in 2014 the uber-creative sophomore made a living on the edges, dribbling to create space and finishing the regular season on a five-game run that saw her pot three goals and assist on four more. From 17 October against CMU to 2 November against Toledo, Celina had a hand in seven of UB's twelve goals, including the game-winner in that MAC playoff match against the Rockets

Jackie Hall

Hall's move from midfield to centerback changed everything, as the redshirt-junior became one of the best players in the conference, maybe the best unequivocally. Named MAC Defensive Player of the Year and earning more awards than you can shake a stick at, Hall's return makes the losses of Mann and Therien much more bearable. If she can match her knack for finding loose balls in front of the net and score four more goals in 2015, all the better.

Fall Sports Player Preview: Get to know Third Team All-American Jackie Hall

Hall is one of those players about whom there's no doubt for 2015. She'll start in the same spot, once again in every game, and likely once again play nearly every minute (She only saw the bench thrice in 2014). The only concern of any sort is the loss of Sophie Therien to her left in the formation, but considering Hall put together last season on no experience at the position, it's safe to say she'll be ready.

Newcomers

After bringing in just four freshmen last season, it's a larger group this year, though two of the eight are transfers with experience in college programs. It's unlikely that UB once again finds three freshmen who make such an impact as Dougall, Julia Benati, and Alex Lambert did, but transfers Carissima Cutrona and Moira Petrie look a good bet to start.

Among the rest, I wonder if Brianna Shingary's move to and start at defense in the exhibition against Cleveland State is an attempt to find a spot for someone who's shown she deserves to be on the field, though I remember that Lambert started in the same spot against the Vikings last year and played the season as a forward sub. I had hopes that Meghan Simmons would be the starter next to Hall, but against Cleveland State a pair of veterans started in the middle. The rest of the group is hard to puzzle out for now, but the inset to the right has more info on them all, and our lineup and depth chart post will run this afternoon.

Schedule 

21 Aug @ St. Joseph's
23 Aug @ Drexel
30 Aug @ Canisius
1 Sept @ St. Bonaventure
6 Sept Syracuse
8 Sept Niagara
11 Sept Binghamton
18 Sept @ West Virginia
25 Sept Ohio*
27 Sept Kent State*
2 Oct @ Eastern Michigan*
4 Oct @ Bowling Green*
9 Oct @ Western Michigan*
11 Oct Northern Illinois*
16 Oct Toledo*
18 Oct Central Michigan*
23 Oct @ Miami*
25 Oct @ Ball State*
29 Oct @ Akron*

Last year UB sought out a challenge in Virginia Tech; this year they'll travel to West Virginia for a road match against a ranked team (and a pair of Canadian World Cup stars). The nonconference schedule has one more game than last year, but is roughly the same: a pair of Pennsylvania schools, the local rivals, and Syracuse and Binghamton.

The MAC schedule is less forgiving than last year, as the Bulls flip and have five home games instead of six, while also drawing Miami, Western Michigan, and Ball State all on the road.

Outlook

Before this part year the program's best ever showing was the MAC semifinals, so it feels weird to set expectations higher than that, but looking at the roster, and the losses from the other three squads in the conference's top tier, is there a compelling reason, other than the flighty nature of single elimination tournaments, to rule out a repeat? Coach Burke has a system in place, is returning a ton of experience on top of some instant-impact newcomers, and even with a bullseye on their backs, this team showed plenty of times in 2014 it had the mettle late in games to grind out wins.