FLORENCE — Upon suggestion from assistant coach Kerry Edwards, members of the North Alabama soccer team had a reading assignment as they got to campus this fall.
The book is called Wolfpack. Abby Wambach, the iconic former U.S. soccer player, wrote about how each member of a team — whether a star, reserve or someone in between — can use her individual skills to further the group’s cause.
“We’ve got 27 players on the team,” UNA head coach Chris Walker said earlier this month. “Every single one of them played virtually every single minute of every game in club and high school. They were the best players.
“Well, we’re not going to play 27 people in a game. It’s not going to happen. So it’s just buying into that role, and knowing your role can change from game to game.”
How well the Lions find and embrace their roles is an important early step to proving their strong ASUN debut was not beginner’s luck and instead they are set up for long-term Division I success.
UNA played its best soccer at the right time last year, finishing sixth in the league standings to earn the final spot into the conference tournament and then winning two elimination games before falling to host Lipscomb in the ASUN final. (UNA is not yet eligible for an NCAA tournament as it continues its transition to Division I.)
“Hey, let’s not get overconfident,” Walker said. “We’re still earning our right to be in this league and we still need to keep going. All right, let’s just try and show it wasn’t just a one-off. We know within ourselves we’re capable of doing it, but let’s go in and let’s show that we can keep doing it.”
UNA was picked sixth this week by league coaches in the ASUN preseason poll, but with most of last year’s top players back and several strong newcomers there’s reason to believe UNA can do better than that.
Senior defender Haley Yarber started every game last year and is UNA’s lone representative on the all-ASUN preseason team. She is part of an experienced back line featuring junior Kelsey Jones, sophomore Morgan Ebert and junior Mary Margaret Borden. Borden is a Florence High grad who injured her left knee and missed the rest of the season.
“It drove me insane,” Borden said. “I literally had to watch from my TV screen every time they traveled. It was hard, but knowing that they were doing so well was also rewarding on my part, too, because I was helping off the field.”
Borden is a team captain and hopes to not only be a better player but a better leader this fall. Walker acknowledged some players need a year to build confidence after a major knee injury, but he believes Borden when she says she feels ready.
“She’ll jump right back in,” Walker said. “She’s stubborn enough and confident enough to get back out there and say ‘Hey, no, I’m not happy sitting on the bench all year. I’m going to play. I want to play and do what’s best for the team.’”
The team lost two significant offensive threats in Kylie Huey and Margarida Sousa, but the Lions return senior midfielder Shelby Wall (team-leading 8 goals and 10 assists last year) and sophomore Anna Bove’ (six goals, two assists).
Senior Audrey Tanner, junior midfielder Tay Cavett, sophomore midfielder Kate Wiseman sophomore midfielder Grace Lensing could all see significant playing time as well, though several of the team’s ten newcomers will push their older teammates.
“When we went Division I we started recruiting players who were able to compete in Division I,” Borden said.
Walker said Charlotte Kellett, a sophomore forward from England, and Ines Freitas, a freshman forward from Spain, could be particularly impactful.
“Because we play Friday-Sunday, especially those Sunday games, we need to be able to sub more than what we were last year,” Walker said. “I’m looking forward to it. All ten of them could come in and really shake things up.”
As of mid-August, senior Savannah Stewart, senior Kate Webster and freshman Jordyn Spreck were competing to replace Shelby Thornton as goalkeeper.
UNA opens its season with nine-conference games – including the season opener Aug. 22 at Ole Miss – before starting conference play with a Sept. 26 home game against a Florida Gulf Coast team picked second in the league.
UNA hosts defending league tourney champ and preseason favorite Lipscomb on Oct. 27 just before the ASUN tournament begins.
“I think last year’s run was really good for us, building our confidence and maintaining our level of confidence,” Wall said. “I think it opened the eyes of, not really us, but other people from the conference. Just the teams around us that we have a little rivalry with. Like, yeah, we can actually compete with you. We’re not some D-II team.”