By Josh Neuhart
Grace College Sports Information
WINONA LAKE – Hopes are high for Grace’s women’s soccer team this fall after an impressive season in 2019.
The Lady Lancers ended last season as the No. 14-ranked team in the NAIA. Grace posted a 16-5-2 record and won two matches in the NAIA National Championships.
While Grace has aspirations of hoisting a national championship banner, the Lady Lancers are also preparing for what could be the longest season in team history.
Grace has the unique opportunity to potentially play an eight-month season. The Lady Lancers will play their exhibition opener this Saturday, but the NAIA National Championships are scheduled for April 2021 because of adjustments due to COVID-19.
Head coach Michael Voss was confident his team was built to handle a grueling campaign.
“This is a group that can go that distance. They have both the quality and the work ethic to not just last for an eight-month season but to flourish,” Voss said. “We have consistently been very productive through winter and spring. I believe the duration of this season suits us. We’re stoked.”
Last year’s senior class was an instrumental one — a group which included five starters. But the Lady Lancers still return a strong core of returners to fill those gaps.
JJ Aalbue is the most notable returner. Aalbue caught fire during her freshman year in 2019, pouring in 17 goals and 18 assists. She was named the NCCAA National Player of the Year, Crossroads League Offensive Player of the Year and Crossroads League Newcomer of the Year, setting a program record for assists in the process.
But Aalbue is far from alone in attack. LSU transfer Alexis Larimore enters her second season with Grace; the crafty winger scored six goals a year ago. Sacia Hanson distributed seven assists as the opposite winger, giving Grace a formidable three-person attack.
Returning forwards include Savanna Tate, Ashley VandenBoom and Rabea Haarmann, who have all worked hard in the offseason, according to Voss.
“Obviously, we aim to create many goals and to play an exciting brand of futbol. At this point, our intelligence and aspirations for play are high. We are currently moving the ball and playing in a manner that is very effective for us,” Voss explained.
Defensively, the team will again be anchored by All-League goalkeeper Bethany Blackwood. The junior had nine shutouts in 2019 and helped Grace to four nationally ranked victories. Kimberly Aalbue and Madison Putman give Grace depth at the keeper position.
Anna Kuhl, Brooke Kohler and Lea Moessinger also return after playing key roles for Grace’s defensive line. Liz Aalbue and Paiton Miller have impressed so far this fall and have made “dramatic improvement” during the offseason in Voss’s eyes.
The midfield provides the greatest question mark entering the fall; three midfield starters from 2019 have graduated, setting the stage for a new crop of midfielders. Returners Riley Koch, Sarah Casteel, Taylor Binkerd, Adelee Gartner, Rebecca Steininger and Ellie Harlan will aim to stabilize the middle.
Grace brought in several transfers who are hungry to play, including a trio of players from Union University (Amber Meade, Erin Crew, Victoria Lucido) as well as Valparaiso transfer Madison Tuma.
Overall, 13 new players appear on Grace’s roster this year. Helena Vieira Rijo, Lea Fricke, Emily Jay, Autumn Anderson, Tori Calizo, Emma Chambers, Izzy Fenn, Betsy Wertman and Elli Short ensure Voss has a wealth of options at his disposal.
Voss said one of his goals during the preseason was to develop depth; the 2020 campaign could see any number of curveballs thrown its way, so Voss desires the flexibility of a deep roster to adapt on the fly.
While COVID-19 has made preseason training and practices challenging — wearing face coverings, social distancing when possible — Voss was pleased with how the team had persevered so far.
“Our biggest thing this year is to stay healthy. In some ways, we have to fight just to get on the pitch for practices and games,” Voss said. “We have to make right decisions off the field in order to keep everyone safe. But we have a very positive group, and we are totally bought into the safety protocols.”
The pandemic has also made a dramatic shift in the schedule. Gone are all the overnight trips; instead, Grace’s regular season this fall consists of one nonconference match (vs Point Park, Sept. 12) as well as 13 Crossroads League matchups.
And while COVID-19 has changed many things, the strength of the Crossroads League is sure to remain. The 2019 season saw perhaps the finest collective effort by the league. Six league teams were consistently ranked in the NAIA Top 25 with all six earning a bid to NAIAs.
But Voss is eager to see his team tested against such elite competition. He said whichever league teams advance to the national tournament will be “battled tested” and ready for a deep run at NAIAs.
“Our team would rather play against top teams when we get the chance. We want to be the best we can possibly be, and we want to test ourselves against the best. We are embracing the challenge,” he said.
To watch all of Grace’s home games, visit www.gclancers.com/live.
The Lady Lancers’ exhibition opener on Saturday is at home against IU East at 5:30 p.m. The first countable contest is Sept. 12 at home versus Point Park at 6 p.m.