WILLIAMSTOWN, MA — The Williams women's soccer team's senior class has an extra person in it this season: head coach Michelyne Pinard.
The 18-year veteran announced in late July that 2019 would be her last at Williams, and while that could prove unsettling to other programs, Pinard is taking a very simple approach.
"My focus isn't "this is my last year,'" she stated. "I'm treating it like it's my senior year and we'll handle it like we handle all years for the seniors: We will focus on our task at hand, and deal with the emotions tied to that at the end of the season. My focus is on trying to create the best possible experience for our 2019 team. I'm so excited about what is possible with this group, but what I'm most excited about is how hungry they remain as a group."
The Ephs return 15 from the squad which won the program's second consecutive Div. III national championship last December — and it's third in four years. Like all 400-plus women's soccer teams in the country, the Ephs have challenges to overcome and distractions to vanquish. Eight student-athletes graduated and four others have retired for various reasons. But Pinard does have 13 players back who saw action in the national title game, and a 10-person first-year class ready to assist the upperclassmen.
"One area we've focused concentrated on is recent years is the difference between being good individually in contrast to playing your best for the team," Pinard said. "I think the tendancy for anyone is to come in and try to give 100 percent of yourself to improving yourself, but does that benefit the team? Not necessarily. We talk a lot about trying to win as a unit instead of being good and have found that this is a lot more fun."
Williams went 19-1-4 last season, and is No. 1 in both the USC preseason poll and the preseason d3soccer.poll.
Pinard will have a senior class of seven — six active — for the fall campaign. Back Sarah Kelly was an All-American last season and other regular contributors include midfielder Erika Jung, back Nkem Iregbulem and forward Sarah Scire. Forward Alison Lu — the Ephs leading scorer in 2018 — returns after missing last season with an injury, and goalkeeper Whitney Lincoln is in line to battle for time in net. Senior back Liz Webber is on the roster but injured and will not play.
Webber, Jung and Scire will be the Ephs captains for 2019.
The Eph junior class is all midfielders who can play forward or vice-versa. Georgia Lord, Aspen Pierson, Ilana Albert, Mikayla Kappes and Victoria Laino will be instrumental in how well the squad develops this fall. And all of the sophomores save for one saw significant time on the field last year: midfielder Liz Girvan and Rain Condie, back Maria Chapman and versatile Brianna Binder (back, midfielder and forward last season) also will be critical to the team's success. Chelsea Taylor will vie for time with Lincoln in the Eph goal as they search for a replacement to standout Olivia Barnhill, who graduated.
"Perhaps the best thing that came out of last season was all the experience they gained," Pinard said. "They were able to combine great grit with great play. They realize they have it in them. They know the quality of soccer they can play."
Ten first years hit the ground running in the preseason, working toward transitioning from the high school game to the collegiate level. The group includes Tess Belnap, Jaquelin Nordhoff, Mirabai Dyson, Gabriella Lowe, Leyla Kahshand, Delaney Soble, Emma Lynch, Claire Tolliver, Avery Mohan and Jasmine Moore.
"The class is really going to help bolster our depth," Pinard said. "They are capable, the question is who will transition to the college game the quickest. We have to figure out who can help us, and where on the field they can help us the best."
Williams scored 38 goals in 24 games last season and has seven of its top nine scorers back. The Ephs did lose All-American forward Sydney Jones, who led the team with 22 points (10 goals, 2 assists). But Lu's return — she led the team with 12 goals in 2017 and finished second with 29 points — could help balance out that loss. Scire (6), Lord (4) and Pierson (4) found the back of the net most often after Jones last season, while Girvan topped the team in assists with five. The 2018 Ephs excelled at goal prevention, allowing just 12 goals over 24 games and compiling a 0.48 goals against average. Of course, Barnhill was a big part of that, so determining who (Lincoln or Taylor or both) will play in goal will be key component for the 2019 season.
"We're not really going to focus on it," Pinard said. "Our current goalkeepers are really good, and they just need to mature into the role. The experience in front of them (in the back) will allow them to develop. As a coaching staff, we know they are capable of coming up with the big save in the big moments."
Of course, the Ephs schedule will be challenging. Four conference teams, including Williams, are in the d3soccer.com preseason Top 25 poll. Middlebury won the NESCAC Tournament title at Williams in 2018 and fell to the Ephs in the national title game.
"Of course, we'd like to win all our games," Pinard said. "But most important is the experience. Working hard, creating great chemistry, finding joy out there during practice and in matches and empowering women. Ultimately, that is what we're trying to do. Excel in the little moments and the result will take care of itself."