August 15, 2013

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Coming off the most successful campaign in UT Martin soccer history, the Skyhawks are primed to contend for their second consecutive championship and third NCAA Tournament appearance. The Ohio Valley Conference coaches and sports information directors have tabbed the Skyhawks as the preseason favorites for the second straight year, as UT Martin garnered 18 out of 22 first-places votes in the poll.

UT Martin will see their first opponent as they hit the pitch for an exhibition contest on Friday, Aug. 16 at Western Kentucky in a preseason tune up.

“It’s very much a credit to the program and players from previous years,” said fourth-year Skyhawk head coach Phil McNamara, who has guided the program to 27 victories and two NCAA Tournament appearances in the last two seasons. “The challenge for this group is to live up to the expectations of our past success. We’re excited about this year but we’re very mindful of the fact that history is very much against us in relation to winning so many tournaments back-to-back. We really need our returners to step up as we begin to look a little young in some areas.”

For the Skyhawks to continue making waves throughout the regular season and into postseason play, the team will have to replace nearly 50 percent of last year’s scoring output with the loss of seniors Kendyl Wilson and Midori Sera. Wilson leaves the program as the all-time leader in matches played (79) and with the distinction of being the only player in program history to have been a part of all the team’s championships (2009, 2011, 2012). Sera was one of the league’s top offensive threats in her illustrious two seasons at UT Martin. The Skyhawks also lose the experience of three-year starter Mary Thompson from the midfield and complications from a late-season knee injury have forced OVC Freshman of the Year Saphyra Coombs-James to sit out the 2013 season. Coombs-James led the team in goals with 10, points with 24 and game-winners with three. She ranked in the top-10 of the OVC in six categories: goals, goals per game, points, points per game, game-winning goals and assists last season.

With McNamara at the helm, the Skyhawks have won more OVC matches than any other coach in program history. “We possibly took a sacrifice in the first year trying to force our style of play but we’ve reaped the benefits of our style of play over the last two years to maximize our potential,” said McNamara. “There is a form of consistency now and a winning mentality that is hard to achieve unless you’ve actually been there. The benefit with this staff and style of coaching is that the players know the requirements, attitude and winning mentality that can only come from winning. This team now knows the fruits of labor available to them that no other team in program history has experienced. The players know why we push so hard, demand what we demand, because of the high rewards to play into November on the trot and to be OVC champions the last two years.”

Along with a successful foundation, McNamara has developed the program through successful recruiting, adding six newcomers to a solid nucleus of returners.  The Skyhawks have added the skills of five freshmen (Shelby Coleman, Haley Klages, Aiofe Lennon, Abby Masters and Ellie Myrick) and one Division I transfer in Michelle Calmeyn from USC Upstate of the Atlantic Sun Conference.

“This year’s class has all the credentials to not only support a conference championship team but the talent and ability to take us to a new level. These players offer all the assets required to prove successful at the college level. These players will force fantastic competition within our squad and therefore make us a better team. This class covers every position on the field, except goalkeeper.  This class is average in numbers but quality from top to bottom. I see four out of the five starting immediately this fall. I love what this class offers – excellent talent and ability, above-average athletic ability and simply good kids from great families.”

Despite the addition of newcomers, the key to a successful program is the depth of experience in returners. The Skyhawks return seven full-time starters for the 2013 campaign and 16 players overall.

“The returners are going to decide the outcome of the season,” stated McNamara. “Freshmen and transfers can only support so much of the scoring percentage. The returners have to shoulder the experience, quality and years play in the league. They know how to win on the road and close out games when trailing, a trait that only experienced players can know. Our returning players know what it takes to come from behind to win on the road, win games off of set pieces, force our own form of luck in a close game and it comes from good team spirit, lots of belief and no panicking which comes from experience.”

Amongst UT Martin’s returnees are four All-OVC performers in Mariah Klenke, Ashley Reveiz and Hannah McGowen garnering first team honors while Alyssa Curtis was tabbed to the second team. Senior Abi Sanvee joins teammates Dominika Conc, Curtis and McGowen on the list of members to eclipse the double-digit point plateau in 2012.

With the graduation of a pair of forwards and the injury to Coombs-James, there are three spots sitting wide open at the forward position. The Skyhawks look for transfer Michelle Calmeyn to come in and challenge for a starting spot immediately. Abi Sanvee should be looking to be a regular starter and the emergence of freshman Ellie Myrick gives the Skyhawks a true left foot on the left side for the first time in recent history. With the abundance of opportunity in the forward slot comes the ability to squeeze freshman Aiofe Lennon and Alyssa Curtis in with the depth at the midfield position.

Unlike the forward position, the midfield unit could see the return of three upperclassmen which can plug right into the starting lineup. Hannah McGowen is a three-year outstanding performer while Dominika Conc can take a game over in a minutes’ notice with her skill level, work rate and vision. Melisa Erturk will look to be an exceptional player with terrific passing ability. The Skyhawks have a comfortable core with the additions of Sam Dunn and Jaclyn Heckle coming back from injuries to provide versatility in the defensive/center-mid positions. Freshmen Abby Masters has great skill level and vision while Lennon can provide great size and vision to the midfield position.

"We’re looking for the midfield to be the engine room of this team if the returners produce the way we expect,” said McNamara.

The defensive unit returns three of the four defenders which should give the Skyhawks a quick jump start on the season. The back four will see the return of All-OVC and All-Newcomer member Ashley Reveiz alongside OVC All-Tournament selections Amy Maksimowicz and Lucy Pater. The trio will anchor the Skyhawk defensive unit which registered eight shutouts, including three consecutive clean sheets on two occasions.

“The back four is developing into a strong foundation for our team as we add a few pieces to our backfield,” McNamara said. “We’re trying to find the right fit for the back four as a group rather than individuals. Last year when we found our fit, probably midseason, we had the strongest back four we’ve had at UT Martin providing clean sheets, not conceding goals and gave us a foundation to start the attack. Once we put Reveiz into the defensive unit last year she just fit like a glove and played phenomenally and was a big reason in the success that we had.”

In goal, Mariah Klenke will look to continue her historic start to her career setting a new UT Martin single-season record with 12 victories, passing her previous record of 10 set in 2011. Her performance on the pitch in the OVC Tournament earned her Most Valuable Player honors. She ranked in the top-10 in the OVC in five categories: goals against average, shutouts, saves, shutouts per game and save percentage. Senior Sarah Tompkins made eight or more saves in two contests, including a career high 10 against Tennessee Tech.

"I’m very comfortable with our two goalkeepers,” said McNamara. “Mariah Klenke is regarded as the best goalkeeper in the league and has shown that quality in the preseason. The sky is the limit for her. She has natural size as we try to work on her technique, skills and speed. When she plays aggressively she’s one of the best in the country and the best in our league. She came out with big saves last year and can cause huge plays defensively, producing great saves.”

Another factor which will yet again come into play after winning their second consecutive tournament championship is being the primary target for your opposition. The season will see the likes of Big 12 foe Oklahoma State and new Conference USA opponent Middle Tennessee make the trek to Skyhawk Field for the opening weekend of the season. The Skyhawks will travel to Evansville and Lipscomb before catching a flight to Denver, Colo. to face off against Denver and Colorado. UT Martin will briefly return home to take on Georgia State before closing out the nonconference schedule on the road at Indiana State and Saint Louis.

“We only lost one game last year at home in the season-opener and that success at home will need to continue if we are to enjoy a successful season,” McNamara said. “I think a key factor in our success has been our lack of fear of losing games in the nonconference season. We look to learn and improve game-by-game before the added pressure that conference games offer. Five of our first six games in the conference are on the road and that is extremely difficult but every team has to accept the schedule that they have been given. That will be a major challenge for us but you have to just find a way to be successful regardless if you’re at home or away.”

“Teams now know that when they come to UT Martin no matter who they are that it is a very tough place to win,” McNamara continued. “That’s comfort in the quality of our crowd, support from campus and quality results on the pitch. Conference opponents are very aware that we are very difficult to beat at home. Teams come in half expecting to lose rather than half expecting to win because of the reputation that we have built for ourselves.”

“No question this is a very brave schedule and borderline excessive,” McNamara said. “The program’s recent success of back-to-back NCAA Tournaments have encouraged the above caliber of opponents and raised the need to improve the schedule in order to challenge our players. The incoming class is very talented but as we know from experience, titles are usually won or lost depending on the quality of your returners. We have an outstanding challenge this fall and we look forward to it.”

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