2016 men’s and women’s soccer season preview- Croup’s Corner

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It was possibly the longest two minutes of Louise Delaney’s life. After all, she was about to score arguably the biggest goal in Point Park women’s soccer history.

With less than 13 minutes remaining in regulation time of the Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (KIAC) Tournament championship game at Highmark Stadium, West Virginia Tech junior defender Alex Blumer battled Point Park sophomore midfielder Noel Hartle inside the penalty box in front of Golden Bear’s net, creating enough contact for the referees to take notice.

The referees blew the play dead, charged Blumer with a penalty, awarded Point Park a penalty kick and sent the Point Park fans sitting in the bleachers at Highmark stadium into a frenzy.

The Pioneers called on Delaney to take the penalty kick. Only sophomore goalkeeper Martha Reyna stood between her and a conference championship. Senior Beth Millican had no doubt in her mind her teammate was about to make Point Park women’s soccer history.

“We knew she had it,” Millican said after the game. “We knew it was good.”

She placed the ball on the ground 12 yards in front of the goalkeeper and anticipated her strike. Reyna made a move to her right as Delaney’s shot went to the goalkeeper’s left side and into the back of the net.

She had it. It was good.

Delaney’s successful penalty kick lifted Point Park past West Virginia Tech 1-0 for the first conference championship in program history. Point Park advanced to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) National Championship Opening Round for the first time and fell to No. 1-ranked Lindsey Wilson (Ky.) 5-0.

The Pioneers finished last year 12-7-2 overall with a 6-2 KIAC record, good for second in the conference behind Asbury (Ky.). This year, they look to return to glory and repeat as conference champions.

The Pioneers were picked to finish third in last year’s preseason poll behind Rio Grande (Oh.) and Asbury. This year, Point Park claimed the second spot in the crowded River States Conference Preseason Coaches’ Poll behind Asbury.

Asbury, Point Park, Rio Grande and West Virginia Tech all received first place votes in the 2016 preseason poll. Yes, I know these polls are meaningless. What this tells us is we really have no idea who is going to win this conference.

Point Park opens conference play on Sept. 29 at home vs. Asbury. The Pioneers will square off with West Virginia Tech and Rio Grande in consecutive matches on the road with two days of rest in between on Oct. 20 and 23.

All bets are off when the River States Tournament begins Nov. 5. If the Pioneers learned anything from last season, it’s the importance of home field advantage in the post season.

If they want more playoff games at Highmark Stadium in November, they’ll have to prove themselves against tough competition on the road this year and win their matches they’re supposed to against teams at the bottom of the conference.

It’s not going to be easy by any stretch.

Point Park lost seven seniors to graduation, including Millican and goalkeeper Erica Roney, who were both first team all-conference selections. Point Park also graduated four second team all-conference players in defenders Jillian Evilsizer and Jasmine Meichle and forwards Leeza Tokarski and Alyson Joyce.

The 2016 Point Park team looks a lot different from the 2015 squad. Along with a plethora of fresh faces, the Pioneers return 2015 all-conference defender Paige Manning, the speedy 2015 second team all-conference forward Erin Gilmartin and a number of high-potential upperclassmen.

To make it even more challenging, the Pioneers will get thrown into the fire right from the start with a tough non-conference schedule that will test them in September.

Point Park’s first home game is against NAIA No. 1-ranked Spring Arbor (Mich.) Sept. 3 at noon. Ten days later, the Pioneers travel to Georgetown (Ky.) who was in the “receiving votes” category of the NAIA Preseason Top-25 Coaches’ Poll. Point Park lost 6-0 to then-No. 8 Spring Arbor on the road last year and escaped with a 1-1 tie vs. then-No. 24 Georgetown last season.

It’s not supposed to be easy.

It won’t be easy for the men’s soccer team, either.

For starters, Point Park will have to go through the No. 1 team in the country in Rio Grande in order to win a conference championship. The RedStorm rolled through their regular season schedule last year going undefeated in conference play and won their second straight conference championship en route to a national championship.

Rio Grande brings back three NAIA All-Americans to a team that defeated Point Park 4-0 in the regular season last year. Point Park will visit the defending national champs Oct. 23.

Three days before Point Park plays Rio Grande, it will travel to West Virginia Tech in a rematch of last year’s KIAC Tournament Semifinal match on Oct. 20. West Virginia Tech, which is in its second year in the conference, defeated Point Park 2-0 in both the regular season and KIAC Semifinals last year. The Golden Bears are in the “receiving votes” category of the NAIA Top 25 preseason poll and made a national tournament appearance last year.

Point Park graduated All-KIAC First Team midfielder Dominic Canello and All-KIAC Second Team goalkeeper Zak Borzovoy and midfielders Max Flick and Zach Rafalowski. The Pioneers had a record of 10-7-1 and a 4-2 KIAC record last year and saw their streak of three straight KIAC Championship come to an end.

The Pioneers do, however, return senior defender Paul Carr, who led the Pioneers with seven goals in 2015 and junior defender Josh Williams for his third straight year as a starter. The duo from Sheffield, England will captain this year’s team.

Alan Ramos returns to the Pioneers for his junior season after leading the team in scoring in 2015 with his 11 goals and two assists. Ramos picked up this season where he left off last season with a game winning goal 31 seconds into overtime of the Pioneers’ season-opener against Washington and Jefferson College.

Ramos’ goal put the Pioneers ahead and sealed the victory, but freshman Roberto Whitley started the scoring in the 23rd minute with his first collegiate goal. It was hopefully the first of many goals for the Liverpool, England native on the year.

We also got a chance to watch the new freshman goalkeeper Manuel Pajzer from Germany last week. Pajzer, who replaced the two-year starter Borzovoy, allowed one goal in each of the teams’ first two games, totaling seven saves.

Pajzer has big shoes to fill. Ramos set the bar high for himself in 2015 and other teams now know about Point Park’s secret weapon. Who knows? Maybe Whitley will turn into this year’s secret weapon for the Pioneers.

The men’s team is going to have to play the role of the underdog in 2016 and will rely on the strong mix of veterans and freshmen to carry them past strong West Virginia Tech and Rio Grande teams.

The question is, can they step up to the challenge?