By Paul Freelend
Maverick head coach Don Klosterman and the UNO soccer team enter their 2002 season with two consecutive North Central Conference tournament championships, zero NCAA tournament bids and an eye on improving both numbers in the upcoming year.
“It is something that has nagged us a bit, but it has not changed our approach at all,” Klosterman said. “We have a competitive group of kids and they know that this can be the year that we show the NCAA that UNO deserves to be in the regional tournament. One of the things the team has learned is that every game is important and we have to approach it as such, especially the regional games.”
Klosterman’s team has won the NCC postseason tournament each of the past two years, but has yet to be selected to advance to the NCAA regional tournament.
Six high school recruits and two college transfers join the Mavericks this season. Ashley Grace, a Blair High School graduate, joins UNO from Northwestern College (Iowa) while 2000 Omaha Marian grad Anne Willrett returns to Omaha after transferring from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Freshmen Amy Price, Meghan Pile, Stephanie Balkovec, Jane Splittgerber and Rebecca Fritz signed letters of intent with the Mavs in the spring.
Midfielder Stephanie Kirby said the Mavs’ youth made it hard to judge the prospects for the upcoming season.
“It’s hard to tell with such a young team,” Kirby said. “It’s tough to predict just how the season is going to turn out. We have a lot of talent and athleticism, but it will come down to how well and how quickly we can gel as a team.”
Alongside UNO’s additions, however, the off-season was not without its losses. Forwards Brandy McSorley and Katie Hobbs will not return to the team. McSorley is academically ineligible for the 2002 season while Hobbs left the Mavericks for undisclosed personal reasons. In addition, defender Jenna Smith transferred to William Jewell College and midfielder Jessica Butler joined the coaching staff as a volunteer assistant coach.
Klosterman said his current roster of players is among the best he has seen in the program.
“This season could be a very good season,” Klosterman said. “It looks like, on paper at least, this is one of our best groups of players. We added a bit of size with our freshman recruits and our transfers and I think there will be three or four players who can come in right away and contribute. We don’t recruit players to come in and sit on the bench, we want players who can come in and play. Playing time will be wide open this season.”
Klosterman said this season’s NCC competition could be the tightest it has ever been and noted the international recruiting efforts of some schools.
“Northern Colorado and Minnesota-Mankato are always among the best in the conference and this year I think everyone in the NCC will be much improved,” Klosterman said. “Everybody seems to have done a good job in picking up players. South Dakota State could be very good this year as they went to the conference tournament last year plus they picked up some quality players from abroad.
Postponements reduced the Mavericks’ preseason run-up from three full matches to one. Scheduled scrimmages against Southwest Baptist and Baker University were both abandoned, leaving the Mavs with a match at Division I Drake University.
Akeisha Varnado had the lone goal of the first half, scoring in the 12th minute to put UNO up 1-0. Kirby, Stephanie Kruse and Lisa Ayers each tallied goals in the second half to set the final scoreline at 4-0. Goalkeepers Michelle Villanueva and Price combined to shut out the Bulldogs.
Kirby said she thought the schedule changes were not having an adverse effect on the Mavs’ preparations.
“We’re a pretty good practice team,” Kirby said. “The level of play at our practices is just as good as most of the teams we could play right now. We won’t really be able to tell anything until the real season starts on Saturday.”
Winona State will travel to Omaha on Saturday for UNO’s season opener. The meeting will be the second match-up between the two after the Mavs won 3-1 last season in Minnesota.