WINONA LAKE – A year after making history with their first Crossroads League championship, Grace’s women’s soccer team is gearing up for another title run.
The Lady Lancers posted an incredible 20-4-1 record during a storybook 2018 season. Grace hosted an Opening Round match for NAIA Nationals and ended the year ranked No. 16 in the NAIA Coaches’ Poll.
But head coach Michael Voss, the winningest coach in program history, maintained that the 2019 squad could not live in the past.
“I’m very proud of that group last year who achieved so much. All the pieces came together at the right time, and we were fortunate to win the league championship,” Voss said. “But the focus of this year will be doing the best we can do, to give our absolute best and see where it takes us. This crew is filled with quality people, good footballers and players who are serious about living a life of faith.”
The Lady Lancers enjoyed one of their best offensive seasons ever last year, racking up 70 goals in 25 games (13th-most in the NAIA).
While Grace returns leading goalscorer Liz Van Wormer (13 goals), the Lady Lancers will need to replace several key cogs from their attack. Grace graduated seven players from that 2018 squad, all of whom made at least one start. The graduated class accounted for 31 goals, meaning Grace will need new goalscorers in 2019.
Outside of Van Wormer, Corinne Villalobos (seven goals) and Joana Schimmel (five goals) were the top returning scorers from a year ago.
“A strength of our team last year was that everyone scored a handful of goals; the goals could come from anywhere,” Voss said. “Replacing the same amount of goals will be a challenge. While we want to score like last year, I’m not using that as our benchmark. We want to win each game and uniquely approach each opponent.”
As good as its offense was last year, the Lady Lancers had arguably an even better year defending the goal. Goalkeeper Bethany Blackwood broke onto the national scene as a freshman, posting 17 shutouts and a 0.55 goals against average. She will be joined by junior transfer Madison Putman for the goalkeeping position in 2019.
Grace’s 17 shutouts led the NAIA, and the team blanked eight of its nine league opponents. Anna Kuhl, McKenna Cruz, Liz Aalbue and Brooke Kohler were major components of Grace’s back line last year. The group will be bolstered by Hannah Tkacz’s return after a medical redshirt in 2018.
The Lady Lancers brought 30 players to training camp this preseason, the largest roster in program history. Among that group is 11 freshmen and five transfers, including Louisiana State University transfer Alexis Larimore.
Incorporating 16 new players into Grace’s system is no easy task. But Voss was encouraged by the progress made already in the preseason.
One aspect that made the transition easier for the newcomers was a team mission trip to Costa Rica in late July. Voss said the trip challenged the players but that “it was an absolute blast to work with them in a non-soccer environment. The trip helped install our pillars of faith, football, academics, relationships and adventure. The new players understand the direction we are going and are fully on board with us.”
The sheer amount of players on Grace’s roster is a change as well. Voss believes the team’s depth will be a strength this year, making for more competitive training sessions and positional battles.
“The transfers and freshmen are immediately challenging our returning players for spots. We’ve never had the luxury of being this deep with high-IQ, quality footballers,” Voss said.
Grace will be led by its strong senior core of Cruz, Villalobos, Van Wormer, Schimmel and Cassidy Wasson. The group has led well through preseason and demonstrated the team’s pillars, according to Voss.
“This crew is getting after it every day. I’m excited after a week together, and I can’t wait to see where this group goes,” Voss said. “This team knows what to do; it’s just the chemistry of putting them all together.”
The Lady Lancers will get their first taste of action with a home exhibition Friday at 8 p.m. against Ancilla. Grace’s season officially begins Aug. 19 with a home game against Rochester at 5 p.m.