“A good offense starts with a great defense.”
First-year head coach Rick Stainton looked at the current state of his program when he took over in December and liked what he saw. A stacked senior class had left to graduation, but Stainton embraced the idea of taking over a program with rising talent.
“While we lost an experienced group, we know going into this year that we’re going to have to play above ourselves,” Stainton said of his team. The Pirates only return three goal scorers from last season, but will be led by a defense that Stainton sees as being the starter of the team’s attack.
“There are two ways to look at this year’s team,” Stainton, who was a former assistant at Seton Hall from 2011-12, said. “We can say ‘who’s going to rise up and score for us?’ or we can embrace that fact about our youth and run with it. There’s no question, our defense has to be the start of creativity on the other end of the field.”
In the back line, the Pirates can go eight to 10 players deep. Last season, The Hall took fifth in the Big East, giving up 1.22 goals per game. Junior Melissa Blevins will anchor SHU’s defense after starting in 17 games last season. Blevins played in all 90 minutes of SHU’s final two games of the 2013 campaign against St. John’s and Georgetown. One of the most impressive players in the preseason has been Emily Hansinger. The junior only started in four games in her second season with Seton Hall, but has risen into quite a weapon in the back line. “Not only has she (Hansinger) developed into a player, but as a team captain,” Stainton said.
Along with Blevins and Hansinger, the first freshman to receive All-Big East honors since 1999, Cathy Chukuka, is expected to contribute in major ways for SHU once again. Graduate student Alyssa Stipcak, who made one appearance in all of 2013, is expected to play a solid role in the back line. Stainton has been very pleased with his freshman class. First-year Andrea Palermo has not looked like a newbie to the program. The Ontario native has contributed in ways the coaching staff did not think were possible out of such a young player, but Palermo has continued to rise above expectations. But she has not been the only newcomer to rise on the scene in South Orange. As part of a defense that has allowed just one goal in two preseason matches against Central Connecticut State (1-1 T) and Wagner (3-0 W), Jackie St. John has also exceeded expectations. “Jackie has reflected what this team is filled with – versatility,” Stainton said.
Freshman Morgan LaDuca, who will come off the bench and had a goal in Sunday’s preseason win over Wagner, figures to be a viable option in the rotation as well along with sophomores Sarah Fiorino and Meg Larsen.
Versatility is reflected from a player who was strong defensively last year, but has moved into more of an attacking role for this fall. Team captain D’Yonna Riley has made the progression into a winger for SHU, according to Stainton. “D’Yonna’s been more than willing to play anywhere we’ve tried to put her,” he said. “It’s been special to watch her grow.” Riley scored in Sunday’s win over Wagner as well. With nearly 50 starts in her career, senior Kristina Meier is also back for Seton Hall after making 17 starts last season, and is one of the critical pieces to getting a counterattack started. “She represents composure to the fullest,” Stainton said.
A key piece to how the blue and white will perform offensively, especially when this team could have some growing ups and downs in the early going of the season, is Frankie Maier. The sophomore comes off a solid rookie campaign in which she made eight starts. Her presence in the middle could be the spark to get the offense rolling. Classmate Sarah Cortes is expected to take the next steps in her career after compiling six points in her freshman season. Cortes’ big moment came off a game-winning goal at Providence in her first career Big East game last season. She was a Big East Rookie of the Week winner as well in 2013. Another winger for The Hall that returns with a plethora of experience is senior Angie Shehaj. In a new-look attack with fresh faces, there are those that don’t remember the 5-11-2 campaign in 2013. Shehaj had to endure through the tough season, and will try to use that as one of “many motivating factors” that this team can build on, according to Stainton. While she only made one start in all of 2013, one wouldn’t know that based on what Amanda Gulli has done in the preseason. The junior forward not only scored for SHU in the preseason, but has created many chances in the box for a team that is trying to find a rhythm in penetration. Seniors Mikayla Hickey and Kristen Kosch are also expected to get playing time as well up top for the Pirates.
“I am very pleased with this team’s progression in the preseason,” Stainton said. “One thing I’m looking for is consistency to begin to occur. In the preseason, we saw some good things, but it’s sustaining them which is important. What I’ve learned about this team is that we have several options to look for to score. Just look at the preseason. All four goals were scored by different players.”
As for the goalkeeping for The Hall, the job is Gina Maiorana’s to lose. The junior appeared in one match last season, playing behind Jennifer Pettigrew, who graduated last spring. In 2012, she led the team with four shutouts. Sophomore Illissa Blackshear, who has impressed Stainton and his assistants in the preseason, is in waiting as the back-up keeper.
The Pirates were selected to finish seventh out of 10 in the Big East Preseason Coaches’ Poll. Marquette, which is undefeated in its last 28 Big East games, was the unanimous choice to win the league. The Golden Eagles went a perfect 9-0 in conference play last season and have been ranked No. 15 in the NSCAA Preseason Poll. Georgetown took second in the poll after a 7-1-1 mark in Big East play in 2013.
1. Marquette – 81 points (9 first-place votes)*
2. Georgetown – 72 (1 first-place vote)
3. St. John's – 64
4. DePaul – 56
5. Butler – 48
6. Villanova – 42
7. Seton Hall – 27
8. Creighton – 24
9. Providence – 22
10. Xavier – 14
The Pirates will take on a road test in their opener on Friday at Marist. The Red Foxes return a solid midfield of All-MAAC Preseason Team honorees. Marissa Mertens, a captain in her junior season in 2013, was an All-MAAC Second Team player, starting 17 games for the Red Foxes. Amanda Epstein tallied a goal in last year’s meeting between The Hall and Marist before the Pirates won 2-1 in South Orange in double overtime. Epstein has been recognized in the preseason as well. “They’re going to be a team that tries to put defensive pressure on us from the start of the game,” Stainton said. “We need to keep composure and find consistency.” Kick is at 7 p.m. in New York on Friday.
The culture has changed in big ways to the program. But on Friday, that statement faces its biggest test, because whether the upgraded attitude for the program can produce consistent, winning soccer or not still remains to be seen. With a man who calls Seton Hall his home back at it again for the Pirates, there’s a lot of positive energy surrounding Seton Hall Women’s Soccer. If it can produce results, the idea of getting into the highly competitive Big East Tournament in Jamaica, NY, in November could be just the start of a refreshing road for the program. The saying goes that “defense wins championships.” The Hall certainly has a lockdown, tough group to get score upon. If this team can find some flashiness in the scoring column Stainton said it best. “There are no limitations for this team.”
John Fanta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org on twitter @John_Fanta. For complete coverage of Seton Hall athletics, follow @setoniansports.