BRIDGEWATER, Va. – Some may look at the upcoming women's soccer season as a year of rebuilding for Bridgewater College. Don't count Eagles' head coach Mike Van Horn among that group.
Retooling may be a better way to describe the upcoming season. "We're going to have a different look for sure," said Van Horn. "But, I think we might be able to surprise some people."
The Eagles are coming off one of the most successful seasons in program history. The 2017 team finished with a 16-5-1 overall record and advanced to the ODAC championship game where the Eagles fell to Lynchburg 1-0 in overtime.
Of the seven seniors on the 2017 team, six earned All-ODAC honors at some point doing their playing careers. The graduating class included Keri Rager, the program's all-time leading scorer, and Sarah Breennan, an all-region defender.
"Obviously, we had very good talent in that senior class, but we also had great leadership from that group," said Van Horn. "Good senior leadership resulted in a very good year us. Replacing that experience is not easy."
The current team was picked fourth in the ODAC preseason poll and has enough talent to compete with the top teams in the conference.
"We lost a lot for sure, but talent-wise we're going to be OK," said Van Horn. "Starting this past spring, we began preparing our returning players to step into new roles. Add in a very good recruiting class and we have good players."
Despite the losses to graduation, the Eagles return four all-conference caliber players.
Headlining the group of all-conference returnees are seniors Isabella Krider and Bailey Kratz. Krider was a first-team All-ODAC pick and a third-team all-region selection. Kratz scored nine goals to rank 11th in the conference and was a third-team pick.
Those two will be expected to fill some of the leadership void left by graduation.
"Bella and Bailey have been starters and key players for us. They have to step up and show that experience," said Van Horn. "They're going to be the ones who can hold their teammates accountable and let them know the level of play we expect in practice and in the games."
"This is one of the most talented midfield groups we've had, but we lost a couple players to injury on our trip to Europe, so we don't have a lot of depth," said Van Horn.
Kratz will be the focal point up front for the Eagles. "Bailey is going to draw a lot of attention, Teams in the ODAC know what she is capable of doing," said Van Horn. "We need her to be the Bailey we saw the last three weeks of last season. She scored in every big win we had. We're going to need her to be that player."
The other two forward positions are up for grabs with several players vying for playing time.
The back row should be strong for the Eagles. Two-year starter Savannah Cowan returns along with junior starter Maddie Grim. The Eagles also get Sydney Ryan back in the mix. Ryan, who missed all the 2017 season, was an all-conference performer as a freshman in 2016. Two first-year players – Jordan Davis and Taylor Dudley – are vying for the fourth spot on the back line.
"Savannah is our anchor back there," said Van Horn. "This will be her third year starting and she understands the game and what we want done. Maddie had a solid year for us and she's continued to grow as a player."
Van Horn is also excited about the return of Ryan. "Sydney is hungry and she looks ready to go."
The Eagles must replace Hayley Talbott, a three-year starter in goal, but Van Horn is upbeat about the potential sophomore Sydney Davis and freshman Jessica Touve bring to the position. "Those two are very talented and they're pushing each other really hard. We've been getting some very good goalkeeping during our practice sessions."
"Team depth is a concern. Staying healthy will be key for us," said Van Horn. "That, plus how fast we can get the freshmen up to game speed.
"The talent is there," he continued. "This is one of the most fit groups we've had at check-in to start the season. The key is getting them to play together and getting them to play fast. We're not there yet, but we're excited about the possibilities for this group."
Van Horn expects the ODAC to be as tough as ever and he expects his team to be in the mix.
"It's not easy at the top of this conference. Lynchburg lost an All-American defender, but they have most everyone else back. Virginia Wesleyan returns a lot. W&L is probably a little like us, they lost some good players, but they have some good players returning. Roanoke has the best goalkeeper in the conference returning. They just don't give up goals," said Van Horn.
The Eagles will be tested early as the team travels to New Jersey this weekend for games against NJAC (New Jersey Athletic Conference) powers Rowan and The College of New Jersey. Rowan was picked second in the NJAC preseason poll and made the NCAA Division III tournament field a year ago. TCNJ, the conference's preseason favorite, advanced to the 2017 Division III Final Four.