SOMERSET, N.J. — The Northeast Conference women’s soccer season is on the horizon and the league’s head coaches are seeing red again.
The Saint Francis U Red Flash, the defending conference champion, earned seven first-place votes to finish atop the annual preseason coaches’ poll. Head coach Brenda van Stralen’s team returns 10 of 11 starters, including 93 percent of its scoring, from last year’s championship roster.
Central Connecticut, which tied SFU for the 2016 NEC regular season title before falling in the tournament final, pulled in one first-place vote and finished second in the predicted order-of-finish.
Fairleigh Dickinson, which won its first NEC Tournament title in 2015, garnered the lone remaining first-place vote to finish third in the poll. Sacred Heart, which was one point out of first place in 2016, took fourth ahead of Bryant.
Robert Morris came in sixth place followed by Wagner in seventh. LIU Brooklyn and Mount St. Mary’s rounded out the selections in eighth and ninth, respectively.
All nine NEC teams will play an eight-game conference regular season schedule with the top-four finishers (determined by points) advancing to the NEC Tournament, which will unfold at the home venue of the highest seed on Nov. 3-5.
Saint Francis, which has qualified for the conference’s postseason event each of the past seven years, hosted the 2016 tournament. Securing its third NCAA Division I tournament berth since the start of the decade, the Red Flash posted back-to-back 2-0 wins over FDU and Central Connecticut.
All four women – Leah Hardin (Aberdeen, Md./Aberdeen), Abigail Tarosky (North Huntington, Pa./Norwin), Sara Suler (Hermitage, Pa./Hickory) and Alyssa McGhee (Altoona, Pa./Bishop Guilfoyle), who scored a goal for Saint Francis during last year’s NEC Tournament — are back. Reigning NEC player of the year Gabi Morales (Madrid, Spain/Colegio La Inmaculada-Marillac), who assisted on three of the Red Flash’s four postseason goals, is set from her senior season after leading the conference in shots (70) and points (19) as a junior.
Not only did van Stralen’s Flash boast the top-scoring attack in the NEC last season, SFU owned one of the stingiest defenses. The Red Flash held NEC opponents scoreless in seven of 10 contests last season and the bulk of that back line returns. Senior captain Allison LaDuke (Greensburg, Pa./Greater Latrobe) made a successful transition from forward to center back last fall and has an all-NEC first team selection to show for it. Two-year starter Shannon McGinnis (Macungie, Pa./Emmaus), who earned second team all-league honors as a rookie in 2015, also returns in front of sophomore goalkeeper Julia Hernan (Collegeville, Pa./The Hill School), who was a three-time NEC defensive player of the week last fall.
Poised to challenge the Red Flash, Central Connecticut returns two major NEC award winners from last year’s regular season co-champion squad. Nikki Turley, the 2016 NEC Goalkeeper of the Year has graduated, but reigning Defensive Player of the Year Jennifer Cafferky (Boras, Sweden/Sven Erikssons Gymnasiet) is back in blue as is Rookie of the Year Carla Jackson (Glasgow, Scotland/Dalziel). Cafferky anchored a back line that allowed a league-low four goals during the 2016 NEC regular season while Jackson tallied 14 points in 14 appearances as a freshman.
Like SFU and CCSU, Fairleigh Dickinson also returns multiple all-NEC first team honorees. Junior striker Elma Kolenovic (New York, NY/NYC Lab) tied for the league lead in goals (6) last season while German-born midfielder Jessi Reinhardt (Freidberg, Germany/Burggymansium), the 2015 NEC rookie of the year, has made 41 career starts.
1. Saint Francis U (7)
2. Central Connecticut (1)
3. Fairleigh Dickinson (1)
4. Sacred Heart
6. Robert Morris
8. LIU Brooklyn
9. Mount St. Mary’s
First place votes in parentheses