WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. - A new chapter begins on September 7th for the Ephs women's soccer team. After a 14-season journey for head coach Michelyne Pinard's maiden National Championship, she now has an entirely new challenge to contemplate: defending it.
Naturally, the veteran woman-in-charge is taking a slightly different perspective this time around after her second 21-win campaign in-a-row (21-1-2 last season) produced a NCAA Final victory, rather than a heartbreaking penalty shootout loss.
"I think we learned a lot last year, last fall," reflected Pinard on the start of the 2015 season. "Our mentality was we wanted to start where we ended between 2014 and 2015 cause they really bled into each other, in some ways that was really great and in others that were really paralyzing."
Pinard will be trying to steer away from those aspects that were paralyzing last time around, forcing her to consider the coming challenge as an entirely separate venture than her previous two.
After what she may consider the biggest accomplishment of her professional career, the good news for Pinard is that she will not have to face down this new challenge alone. Although not unaccustomed to the yearly turnover in her team, there has been quite the reshuffle, not only due to the Class of 2016's graduation, which included the 2015/2016 NSCAA Scholar Player of the Year Mai Mitsuyama and defensive stalwart Zoe Trutner, but also because of a completely new roster of assistant coaches for the 2016 campaign.
"All of our assistant coaches last season were amazing and added a component of comfort and knowing," praised Pinard of Laura Wann and Alex McInturf, players themselves on Eph teams past before helping guide the Ephs to their program's first NCAA Title.
But as the new season looms, Pinard's anticipation has built in excitement over the potential her two new assets may provide on the practice field and on the sideline, especially their fresh, outsider's perspective on the Williams women's soccer program as a whole.
First, Sarah Raymond, a native of Australia and a veteran of both professional soccer and coaching, joins the Ephs with a focus on sustaining the Ephs' strong defensive performances over the last two seasons.
"With Sarah Raymond coming in, already having coaching experience, we're able to talk soccer at a level that a young professional isn't quite able to. So she's going to be able to do things with our team defensively that I haven't had time to because we've always been trying to work on everything else."
Raymond played for the Australian women's national team in both the 1995 and 1999 World Cups, captaining the Socceroos in 1996, before she went on to the head coaching role of Skidmore's women's soccer program and then Clarkson's more recently, establishing the most successful period in the Golden Knights' history during her 5 year tenure there.
Also joining Pinard on the sideline will be new goalkeeper coach, Erin Cummings, a 4-year member of the Division I Colgate women's soccer team. Cummings won a Patriot League Championship in her maiden season with the Raiders, before starting every game her senior year.
With her new assistants alongside her for her 15th season in charge of the Ephs, Pinard will also rely on the two senior captains, Audrey Thomas and Tressa Palcheck, to help piece together this new-look Eph team both on the field and off rather quickly.
In spite of the Ephs losing 5 invaluable seniors at the conclusion of their championship, they are returning an impressive 19 players to their roster, almost all of whom played valuable minutes last season.
Other seniors on this year's team, along with Thomas and Palcheck, include the Ephs' leading scorer among active players, Kristi Kirshe, as well as Katie Wardlaw, Maddie Swarr, Gabz Amos-Grosser, and Gabby Suarez.
Undoubtedly each senior will contribute in her own way, whether it be on the field or off, but Thomas and Kirshe will assuredly be the focal point of the Ephs' offense on the field, as they again led the Ephs in goals last cycle with 12 apiece. And the duo will likely be hungrier than ever when they take the field to kick off their final season in a purple and gold jersey next week.
Although Thomas and Kirshe will likely garner the most attention, the Ephs have more to offer in attack in the form of Kristina Alvarado, whose 5th and final goal of 2015 was the game-winner in the National Final, and Natasha Albaneze, whose pair of goals in the National Semifinal secured the Ephs a second appearance in the National Championship in as many years.
Even though no other returning player scored more than 2 goals, the Ephs will still likely field 8 others who inked their names on the scoresheet last season, making the team just as multi-faceted in attack as ever, in spite of their star front 2's billing.
Similar to the beginning of last season, just as the Ephs' attack looks the most promising, defense may be the area with the biggest question mark. Although only losing one player in that department, Trutner, the Californian will be sorely missed, playing nearly every minute at the heart of the defense and always operating as a calm, reassuring presence at the back.
Trutner is a big loss, but the Ephs do return last year's standout goalkeeper, Palcheck, for her senior season, after she started all but 1 game in 2015 and logged just shy of 2100 minutes in the process. And although less established after only playing 144 minutes, sophomore Olivia Barnhill will still push her more veteran counterpart for game time, especially after her impressive performance in the Elite 8 penalty shootout against William Smith, when she prevented any of the Herons' penalties from finding the back of her net.
The Ephs also welcome back Amos-Grosser, Danielle Sim, Katelyn Long, and (more infrequently) Wardlaw from last year's rotation, but the Ephs will need more depth to realize Pinard's vision, which likely will mean opportunities for first-years to step up from the outset of the season.
That just leaves the midfield, where the Ephs will look to find a way to plug the Mai Mitsuyama-sized hole left after the departure of the award-laden midfielder.
"Mai [Mitsuyama] was on the field for almost every minute of every game for 4 years," recalled Pinard when asked about how her team would miss the Natick, Massachusetts native. "It's almost hard to know what we're missing in some ways until we start."
For the Ephs, it may end up being less of a replacement task and more of a reinvention gig, but in the interim, Pinard will likely rely upon the presence of Swarr and Evan Gancedo in the engine room of midfield to provide continuity and gravitas from last season.
That, combined with the burgeoning potential of Madison Feeney and Natalie Turner-Wyatt, two sophomores who put in solid performances last season when called upon, as well as the more experienced presences of Wardlaw and Suarez, make the Eph midfield still a formidable unit to pass through for opponents.
"That's one of the challenges in collegiate sports," opined Pinard about overcoming the loss of last year's senior class. "Each year, you lose amazing human beings and amazing players, and each year people have to step up. You see things both technically, tactically, and with leadership that come out of younger players that didn't the year before…I have full faith in the younger players and [this year's] seniors to fill the gaps that we'll feel right away."
Unfortunately for the Ephs, their start to the season provides little time to figure things out, a repeat of last year's schedule that gave the Ephs only 7 days of preseason preparation before squaring off against Hamilton, a tough NESCAC foe, on opening day. Unlike last year, however, the Ephs will not be hosting the Continentals; rather, they will be making the journey west to Clinton, New York.
When asked about playing away from Cole Field to start the season, Pinard theorized that traveling before the normal school schedule has begun could be a positive wake-up call for her team.
"Since we won't be missing class, in some ways, going away might be a little easier, a little more real," insisted Pinard. "It feels almost like a scrimmage when we're playing at home during that time [before classes begin], but when you go away there's a sense of purpose and urgency."
That is not to say, however, that the trip will be easy for the Ephs, something Pinard made sure to point out, explaining that it makes preseason all the more challenging to ensure everyone is ready for that first game.
"Going to Hamilton is a tough midweek trip, no matter when you do it, and it will be tough at the end of preseason. So we have to balance preseason between working hard, getting after things, and not being too tired to start the season."
No matter what this 2016 team does end up creating for themselves over the next 3 months, Pinard must surely be hoping that it can be as successful and rewarding as 2015.
When asked what she thought it would take to defend the NESCAC and NCAA Titles her team won, Pinard was first to acknowledge how hard it would be.
Last year, fitness was a constant question for the Ephs, in spite of their considerable depth, with Audrey Thomas losing a good portion of her season to injury and with a multitude of other players occasionally on reduced minutes because of niggling tweaks suffered here and there over the course of a long and sometimes brutal season.
In spite of those injuries, however, the Ephs always managed to be resolute at the back, touting a formidable 0.49 goals-against average in one of the toughest conferences in Division III women's soccer.
Without a doubt, health was one of the major keys that Pinard pointed to when explaining what it would take for her team to be successful, but maintaining strong and consistent defensive performances were another, as she and Raymond try to synchronize another defensive unit that will look virtually impenetrable to opposition attackers.
However, the last piece of the puzzle, and the most important in Pinard's mind, harkens back to not wanting her team to be paralyzed by their success last season.
"I hope that we can play with a lightness and a freedom while still having our drive and intensity and desire to be excellent," beseeched the Ephs' head coach. "There is a balance there, and I think that is what is going to be a the x-factor for this team: can we stay light and enjoy things while we're super intense and working towards something pretty special."
And in the words of the National Championship winning coach, "only time will tell if that happens."
The Ephs' season kicks off away at Hamilton on Wednesday, September 7th at 4:30 PM EDT.