Flyers women’s soccer preview: familiar faces lead the way in first exhibition match

The 2021 Dayton Flyers women’s soccer team after Tuesday’s 3-0 exhibition win over Eastern Kentucky at Baujan Field. Photo courtesy of @daytonwsoccer on Twitter.

Peter Burtnett
Sports Editor

The regular season kicks off Aug. 19 for the University of Dayton women’s soccer team, but Tuesday’s 3-0 exhibition win against Eastern Kentucky at Baujan Field was a chance to put their first week of preseason training to work.

For head coach Eric Golz, the short timeframe was utilized by focusing on the “defensive side and set pieces.”

“I think we saw some translation with that today,” Golz said. “Limiting their dangerous opportunities, getting a shutout as a team, and then being dangerous off of some of our attacking set pieces.”

None of the three goals in Tuesday’s exhibition match came directly from a free kick, but the second came from a corner kick cross sent in by senior wide midfielder Gill Losey in the 71st minute. The Colonels attempted to clear the ball, but instead sent it ricocheting off junior winger Jessica Sheldon’s back and into the net. 

Picking right up where she left off last season (5 assists and 1 goal in 14 starts in spring 2021), Sheldon was a constant threat for the Flyers from the left flank, and also was the catalyst for the Flyers’ first goal of the season in the third minute. Taking the ball from just past the halfway line, Sheldon burst past defenders towards the box, and sent in a cross that was knocked into the net for an own goal by a Colonel defender.

“That’s my usual,” Sheldon said. “I’m always kind of on the left flank, running down the line. So yeah, there’ll be a lot of that (this season) probably.”

With 14 starts during the spring season and 7 starts in 2019 (action in 19 games), Sheldon has plenty of experience and will be an important leader for the Flyers in 2021.

“She’s a young woman who’s logged a lot of minutes for us,” Golz said. “She’s coming off an all-conference spring season, and I think that our message to her has been evolution, just continuing to evolve, continuing to grow.”

“I’m just encouraging the team, being a strong leader and making sure we make it as far as we should, because I think we have a really special team. I just want to make sure I’m encouraging the team as much as I can,” Sheldon said.

A second important player and leader for the team is junior forward Laney Huber. Playing in the center forward position, Huber had seen her production drop off from 2019 (4 goals, 5 assists in 1152 minutes played, 7 starts out of 19 games played) to spring 2021 (2 assists in 464 minutes played, 3 starts out of 14 games played) in large part due to the addition of freshman forward Itala Gemelli, who scored 9 goals last spring.

But with Gemelli on the sidelines for undisclosed reasons (junior midfielder Alexis Goins also withheld from the game), Huber started the exhibition at the front of the Dayton attack, and consistently made runs and had the ball at her feet in dangerous positions, firing off a couple of shots. 

“I feel like we did a really great job, you know, our first game coming out, I’m really proud of how we came out and pulled it together,” Huber said.

Like Sheldon, Huber is a junior on a team heavy with sophomores and juniors (4 freshmen, 11 sophomores, 1 redshirt sophomore – Tennessee transfer Alicia Donley, who started at wide right midfielder Tuesday – 8 juniors, 4 seniors), giving her a chance to play a bigger veteran role.

“Definitely being a junior, it has its advantages,” Huber said. “You know the ins and outs of college soccer, and you can definitely help the younger (players) to be the best they can be and just offer advice to anyone below you.”

As a leading veteran on the team, Huber said the first week has been “really impressive.”

“They’ve really stepped up and they’ve been confident and they haven’t been holding back,” Huber said. “We’ve really been showing off what they can do and I’m really proud of them.”

In terms of expectations for the team, Huber didn’t list any specific goals, but said she is excited for the season both individually and for the team. 

“We have some really strong people on our team, we really gel together, so I think we can really make it far,” Huber said.

Sheldon, meanwhile, said she wouldn’t label it as “expectations,” but agreed that the team can go “pretty far.”

“We all want to win an A-10 Championship, so I think that’s definitely in all of our hopes and wishes.”

Aside from Huber and Sheldon, the Flyers return all but one goalscorer (graduate Kara Camarco) from a team that finished second in goals scored (23) in the Atlantic 10 (VCU, 40). 

Gemelli’s health status will be a key factor after scoring a third of the Flyers’ goals in the 2021 spring season, but the Flyers will return production from Sheldon (1 goal, 5 assists), sophomore midfielder Madison Wilson (3 goals, 2 assists), junior midfielder Marlee Taylor (2 goals, 3 assists), sophomore midfielder Diana Benigno (2 goals, 1 assist), sophomore midfielder Mia Perri (1 goal, 1 assist), junior left back Audrey Steiert (3 assists), Huber (2 assists), junior midfielder Yaiza Navarro Leon (2 assists), senior right back Lexy Kidd (1 goal) and sophomore defensive midfielder Elle Lovdal (1 goal). 

Defensively, the Flyers return junior center back Mackenzie Lutz (13 starts), who was flanked by Steiert (14 starts) on the left and Kidd (11 games played, 2 starts) on the right in the exhibition match. Navarro Leon and senior midfielder Hannah Osland (10 starts) started in defensive midfield roles in front of the back three on Tuesday, and should line up the same this season unless Golz needs to make an adjustment.

Katie Houck’s transfer to Saint Louis will need to be addressed, as the freshman defender started all 14 games for the Flyers and bagged 2 assists as well. 

Supported by Sheldon and Donley or Losey on the wings, and defensive midfielders (Navarro Leon, Osland, Perri, and sophomore Adriana Alonso-Gomez) in front of a back three, the job of sophomore goalkeeper Madelyn Dewey is made much easier.

Splitting time with now-graduate Carly Becker, Dewey made 10 starts, saving 46 shots and conceding 16 goals in 1116 minutes between the posts. 

Outside of the returning players, the Flyers also bring in freshmen Noel Blain (forward), Taylor Thomas and Ashley Stewart (midfielders) and Maddie Crosbie (goalkeeper). Blain plugged in immediately, scoring the Flyers’ third goal on Tuesday by heading a cross from sophomore winger Liana Yara in the 82nd minute.

“It’s been great just to have a preseason for the freshmen to be able to acclimate and get to know people off the field, and get acclimated on the field,” Golz said. “Almost 60 percent of our team has never been through a preseason because of Covid last year. I think that it’s been really important for us to work on building connections. In terms of relationships and connection and understanding, to work on creating an identity. 

“And Noel has certainly come in and been versatile in terms of where she can play. (She is) dangerous in wide positions or center positions, but all the freshmen, Maddie, and Ashley and Taylor have all done a really good job of just stepping in and not really missing a beat. So we’re encouraged and excited by what we’ve seen.”

The Flyers will have one more exhibition match (6 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 14 at Cincinnati) before opening the regular season with two games on the road at Akron (7 p.m. Aug. 19) and Kent State (1 p.m. Aug. 21). Baujan Field will be home to the Flyers’ home opener Thursday, Aug. 26 at 7 p.m. against Northern Kentucky. 

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