By Garth Shanklin
As more and more teams were revealed during the USCAA Women’s Soccer selection show on Oct. 31, the UC Clermont Lady Cougars continued to patiently wait their turn.
The patience paid off, as the team earned the 12th and final seed to advance to the tournament for the first time in team history.
“We were very happy about it,” head coach Blaine Callahan said. “We worked really hard. We were the last team selected, so it was kind of stressful.”
The tournament started off rough for the Lady Cougars, who faced off against top-seeded University of Maine-Fort Kent in the opener on Friday, Nov. 11. The squad fell in that match 4-0 to the Bengals, who won their fifth straight women’s soccer title.
In their second match, UC Clermont battled NHTI, who entered the tournament undefeated before falling to UMFK.
UC Clermont won the contest 1-0, the only goal coming off the foot of Kat Richey on a breakaway at the 16:17 mark of the first period. Only the top team in each pool advanced to the championship bracket, and UC Clermont’s 1-1 mark was good for second place.
The team has only been around for three seasons, and getting to the national tournament that quick is a big boost in both morale and experience for the players on the team.
“I think it was a great experience for the girls,” Callahan said. “Now that they’ve been there, they know the expectations and level of play it takes to stay there. I thought it was very good experience for them.”
Over the first seven games of the season, the Lady Cougars weren’t quite where they wanted to be, sitting at 1-5-1, though that one win was a 13-0 shellacking of Andrews University.
After battling to a 3-3 draw with Holy Cross on Sept. 16, the Lady Cougars went on a roll. The team defeated seven straight opponents, including a 15-0 win over Central Penn on Oct. 15.
“I was happy with our progress throughout the season,” Callahan said. “I didn’t expect the season to go as well as it did, it sort of fell together for us after our game against Mt. Saint Joes. We started to play the game a little better, we started to keep the ball a little better. When we had the ball on our feet, good things happened.”
There are a few reasons for the team’s run through the end of the season, and the play of players like Maria Hessling, Cailyn Kleisinger and Samantha Gardner certainly helped boost the team’s chances.
“Hessling was absolutely instrumental,” Callahan said. “She allowed us to play some formations we wouldn’t have been able to.”
Kleisinger, meanwhile, got things done on the offensive side of the ball for the Lady Cougars, finishing the season with 15 assists.
“She was second in the nation in assist this past year,” Callahan said. “It seemed like majority of the goals we had somehow went through her.”
Anderson High School’s Sara Ventura also received high praise from Callahan for her play.
”She’s probably the best player on the field every time she steps on the pitch,” Callahan said. “It shows. She controls the middle of the field, she pulls the strings for us.”
One player, Bethel-Tate’s Gardner, showed improvement as the season went on to earn accolades from her coach.
“She was the most improved from beginning of the season to the end.,” Callahan said. “She’s the type of player who would go to the training session with the team, then by herself go for another hour to prove she could contribute to the team.”
With all the success on the field enjoyed by the Lady Cougars this season, it’s important to note that for the first time in team history, the squad actually had a field to call home.
The team played all of their home games at the former Amelia High School, now West Clermont Middle School. Add in a completed on-campus practice facility, and suddenly UC Clermont’s soccer teams were able to practice and play games much closer to home.
“It was huge for us,” Callahan said. “This was the first season where we had practice facilities on campus and a place to call home. In the past, we’d practice in parks and our home field was 20 minutes away. Having practice facilities was huge, it legitimized our program a bit.”
Another key impact on the program was made by volunteer assistant coach Richardo Israel, according to Callahan.
“He came on, basically, as a favor to me,” Callahan said. “He bought in to what we are doing and he’s worked extremely hard with these players. I don’t think we’d be where we are at without that man.”
Next season is already on the mind of the Lady Cougars’ coach, who will have a senior class for the first time in 2018.
“I’m excited about next year,” Callahan said. “Next year will be the first year we’ve had seniors on the team since we’re only in our third year. We expect to bring everyone back, which will only make us better, and we have a pretty good 2018 class coming in.”
Not all of the Lady Cougars are finished with athletics for the year. Ventura and striker Alyssa Demaris move from the pitch to the court to join the Lady Cougars’ basketball team for the remainder of the season.