By Justin Stephenson
Coming out of their first and only year of AAC play better off than they started, the Lady Cards, 12-5-1, 8-1-0 in AAC, might not be rulers of the roost, but they certainly will be staking their claim in the seasons to come.
“Of course you want to win a national championship, but you have to get into the dance first,” Coach Karen Ferguson-Dayes said.
And dance they did, as the Cardinals made their second NCAA tournament appearance in the last four years, losing to a veteran Illinois State squad in a double overtime PK shootout.
“I think losing in penalty kicks is devastating, we had the chance to win the game in regulation and did not take advantage of it, and that’s where I’m most disappointed,” Coach Dayes recalls.
The season was not all in vain though; as the Cardinals posted signature wins against conference heavyweights Memphis, Connecticut and Cincinnati. A sign of promise and future potential as the rising program makes its leap of faith to the ACC.
“The ACC is a top two soccer conference, if not the top soccer conference in the country,” Coach Dayes explained. “Eight of their teams made the NCAA tournament. This is a conference that will prepare us to win a national championship. We are looking forward to the challenge.”
And a challenge it will be, as the team loses phenomenal forwards Christine Exeter and Charlyn Corral, whose 66 pts, 22 goals, and 22 assists combined this season accounted for 50 percent of the team’s total offense.
“The team really relied on them more than we thought, it was almost subconscious. Even when we had players in a position to win games for us down the stretch, they were mentally unable to; partly because of our reliance on Charlyn and Christine,” Coach Dayes reflected.
Being the strengths of the team also proved to be the Cardinal’s demise, as the team as a whole was unable to step up when the big two weren’t able to.
“We’re taking a different approach next season; we’ll have to be more of a unified team with regard to sharing the offensive responsibility,” Coach Dayes said.
Although stressing the team concept, Coach Dayes looks to homegrown heroes Shannon Dennehey and Casey Whitfield to bear the torch of leadership next season.
“They were in the shadows of Christine and Charlyn all of this season,” Coach Dayes recalls. “They are awesome players.”
Another player to watch for will be rising star and dominant defensive back Devin Ciotti, whose .714 shot on goal percentage leads the team by more than 20 percent.
“Her goals and assists in conference play had a profound effect on the team’s offense; more so than I even think she realizes,” Coach Dayes said.
Complementing the returning starters will be a slew of incoming freshman talent.
“I’m excited for next season and for our lineup changes; it’s going to be a fun mix,” Dayes exclaimed.
Mimicking the changing tone on offense will be a new look in the backfield, with Goalkeeper Taylor Smith starting in the place of Paige Brown, who started all but one game last year, which was, ironically, the last and one of the most important.
“We made a change at halftime of the Cincinnati game; we felt that there were a couple goals that Paige should’ve done better with. Taylor came in and did a good job, Taylor’s prowess put a lot of pressure on Paige to do better, and she started showing a lot of progress in training, towards the end of the year the competition got healthier as a result,” Dayes explained. “I think that it’s going to be neck and neck between them for most of the season, and with the incoming freshman, that’s only going to make us better by the end of the day.”
Although pinned more as a Cinderella than a contender for most of this season, the Cards look to have one heck of a ball in the seasons to come.