After her team posted a 4-13-1 record in 2006 and finished last in the America East Conference, UMBC head women's soccer coach Tara Koleski knows one thing is certain.
"There's only one way to go from here and that's up," the second-year coach proclaimed. "We don't intend to finish anywhere close to where we did last year."
Koleski did not join UMBC until last July, long after the spring season had ended, and she did not see her team play together until preseason began last August. As the senior-laden team tried to adjust to a new coaching style, the Retrievers experienced growing pains, accumulating the fewest wins and most losses in program history and going winless in conference play.
"Last year was definitely challenging for everyone," Koleski said. "The players' mentality and habits were already built before I was here, so coming in with a new coaching style, and obviously a different personality than the former coach, it was a bit of a transition."
Only 15 players from that team return in 2007, and Koleski has brought in 10 highly decorated freshmen, many of whom will play key roles in their first season.
"We have a lot of great players coming in and there are a lot of players who left, so the players that are remaining all have the same mindset," she said. "They all want to be successful in this program and make it better than what it has ever been. We recruited strong personalities who are all work horses."
The Retrievers scored just 18 goals last season, so Koleski brought in several forwards with a nose for the goal. She is especially excited about the tandem of freshmen Ashley Singer and Meagan Rivera, both of whom come in with Olympic Development Program experience.
"Ashley Singer is one of the best players to come out of the state of Maryland in 2007," the coach said. "She's a great attacking player who has a lot of pace and she's not afraid of anything. She finds ways to score goals and she never quits. And Meagan Rivera, every time she gets the ball, she's looking to go to goal."
Singer and Rivera will team up with senior Jessica Young, sophomore Amanda Benedict and freshmen Erin Johnson and Morgan Warrington to form a fast attacking corps that Koleski believes will be the Retrievers' strength.
Young led the team in scoring last season despite a career-low five goals, and the speedy striker ranks fifth all-time at UMBC with 23 career goals. Benedict bounced around from position to position in 2006, but Koleski hopes to be able to keep the scrappy player up top this year. Johnson and Warrington are both quick and versatile and could be used all over the field.
"I think that with those players that have that go-to-goal mentality, one thing you'll see is we'll be scoring more goals as a team," Koleski said.
Other players that will see time on the front line include sophomore Michelle Worrest and freshman Sandra Vacarino. Worrest walked onto the team last year and scored one goal in eight games, while Vacarino is another fast and versatile recruit who can play several positions for the Retrievers.
Vacarino and Singer, along with classmates Elyse Bilardo and Megan McDonald, are among 24 players that were selected to the Region 1 Under-19 team in July and will compete for spots on the U.S. National Team in January.
"Megan McDonald is a crafty player," Koleski said. "She makes a lot of things happen based on her technical ability and desire to always get forward. Elyse is a fast, tough player. I think as a freshman she'll come in and bring us a lot of pace from a flank position or up top."
Morrison, who ranks 10th on UMBC's career assists list, tore her ACL in the third game last season, and she will miss the entire 2007 campaign after a second surgery.
The midfield also lost three-time team captain Mary Hearin, who will serve as a graduate assistant this year after four outstanding seasons on the field for the Retrievers. After anchoring UMBC's defense for the majority of her career, Hearin made a smooth transition to the midfield in 2006, where she scored a career-high three goals.
"Mary is a tremendous loss because of the way she is with the players, leading them on and off the field," Koleski said. "Because of her leadership, we've decided to add her to staff this year, and I think she'll be a great connection between the players and coaching staff."
Schwartz made the opposite shift in 2006, moving from her natural midfield position to center back, where she was the team's second-leading scorer with a career-high four goals, including UMBC's only two tallies in America East Conference play. This season, however, Koleski hopes the addition of lifelong center back Christine Sadowski will allow the versatile Schwartz to move back to the midfield, though she will likely see time at a number of different positions.
"Kali is our work horse," Koleski said. "She elevates our team's play because she has that never-quit attitude."
The Retrievers will have a physical presence in the midfield in 5-foot-11 sophomore Katie McKay and 5-foot-9 freshman Kathryn O'Leary. McKay started 10 games last season, primarily as a defensive midfielder, but she can play anywhere on the field.
"Katie McKay has a strong presence on the field and can win balls, and I think she had a great spring and developed as a freshman," Koleski said. "Kathryn O'Leary is another ball-winner who will be able to dominate in the middle of the field."
"Erin Johnson is extraordinarily fast," Koleski said. "She's one of the most physical players I've ever seen play. She's great in the air, but she can also serve balls in from an outside position. Caitlyn Slattery is a playmaker as a central midfielder. She sees the game very well. I think with the kind of pace that we're bringing in, she will be a pivotal component for our midfield because she will be able to play opponents into dangerous spots. She's great defensively, and she's just a solid player all-around."
If healthy, sophomore Ashley Woodrow will also see time in the midfield, as will Benedict.
Christine Sadowski, one of UMBC's two local recruits and an All-America nominee, will take on the considerable task of anchoring the Retrievers' defense as a freshman, but Koleski believes the first-year player is up to the challenge.
"Having Christine Sadowski in there I think will give us a lot of leadership in the back," the coach said. "She's been a center defender her whole life, so I think that alone will help us. She's a very smart, composed player on the ball, and I think her leadership in the back will help us be more organized defensively."
Sadowski will join forces on defense with sophomore Arielle Tagger, who started the first 12 games last year but missed the final six contests of the season with a knee injury. Tagger still ranked third on the team with three goals and seven points, and Koleski is excited to have her back and healthy.
Koleski believes this year's Retriever defense will be able to match up with its opponents better than its 2006 counterpart because of its additional speed. One player who will help in that area is Morgan Warrington.
"One word to describe Morgan Warrington is tough," Koleski said. "She's an attacking defender in that she gets out of the back and goes forward a lot. She will bring a lot of pace to our back line. She'll elevate our game as a team, and she'll allow us to be a more physical team than we were last year."
Senior captains Alexis Rogowsky and Morgan Sacchetti will provide leadership in the back. Other players who will see time on defense include Schwartz, Bilardo and sophomores LaShawna Epps and Naomi Opaleye.
Despite the loss of team captain and starting goalie Robin Babaris, the Retrievers have two experienced goalkeepers who will vie for the starting job. Junior Catie Bukowski earned America East second-team all-conference honors as a freshman but struggled in a backup capacity last season and is coming off shoulder surgery. Junior Christine Bacinski has started nine games in her first two years and boasts a stellar 0.94 career goals-against average.
The duo should benefit from the addition of assistant coach Nicci Wright, the former Canadian National Team goalie who started 38 international games for Canada from 1996-2003, the most in Canadian soccer history upon her retirement. Wright aims to improve upon UMBC's 2.27 GAA last season, the second-worst in the league.
"We have two good keepers and we have a new keeper coach that will be able to help them get to the next level," Koleski said. "I'm pretty confident in the training that they'll get, and I think they'll definitely be able to produce a lot more than last year."
The Retrievers face a challenging non-conference schedule that includes the Patriot League's regular-season champion, Bucknell, and other top-150 RPI teams in N.C. State and Pennsylvania.
"We purposely tried to schedule a lot of tougher teams because our conference is getting better and better every year," Koleski said. "It will prepare us better for the conference, because ultimately we want to be successful in conference. If we can just use every non-conference game as a learning experience, I think we will be successful and better-prepared for our conference."
UMBC opens the season on Aug. 31 against cross-town rival Towson. The Retrievers open America East play on Sept. 30 at Stony Brook, while the league home opener is Oct. 4 against New Hampshire.