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11:46 PM Tue, Sept. 18th

Preview: National title conversation not out of the question for 2018 Eagles

College Soccer

Breanna Larkin passes the ball against Mesa Community College on Aug. 14, 2017, in Prescott. The Embry-Riddle women’s soccer team begins the 2018 season Saturday, Aug. 18, against No. 8-ranked Westmont. (Les Stukenberg/Courier, file)

Breanna Larkin passes the ball against Mesa Community College on Aug. 14, 2017, in Prescott. The Embry-Riddle women’s soccer team begins the 2018 season Saturday, Aug. 18, against No. 8-ranked Westmont. (Les Stukenberg/Courier, file)

PRESCOTT — It took 10 years, but the Embry-Riddle women’s soccer program has at last built a contender on the national stage.

An NAIA member, the Eagles in 2017 won the Cal-Pac Conference with an unblemished 8-0 record and qualified for nationals before losing in the Round of 16 to eventual national champion Spring Arbor (Michigan) in Orange Beach, Alabama, Nov. 28.

Embry-Riddle finished with an 18-4 overall mark and a No. 15 ranking in the NAIA, which was impressive considering that the Eagles had only two seniors on their 27-player roster.

For the 2018 fall season, Embry-Riddle returns 10 of its 11 starters and seems as confident as ever under 11th-year coach Todd Poitras, despite the strength of the Eagles’ early schedule. Embry-Riddle opens the season at 6 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 18, versus Westmont of Santa, Barbara, California, at ERAU’s campus field off North Willow Creek Road in Prescott.

2018 Embry-Riddle Women’s Soccer

Affiliation: NAIA

Conference: California Pacific

2017 Record: 18-4 (8-0 Cal Pac)

2017 Playoffs: NAIA Nationals’ Round of 16

Coach: Todd Poitras, 11th season

2018 Players to Watch: F Riley Martinson, Soph.; F Krista Lee, Sr.; MF Breanna Larkin, Sr.; F Maddy Markham, Sr.; GK Caitlyn Aaron, Jr.

2018 Schedule:

Date Opponent Time

8/18 Westmont 7 p.m.

8/20 Midland 7 p.m.

8/24 Eastern Oregon 7 p.m.

8/30 Arizona Christian 7 p.m.

9/3 Trinity International 11 a.m.

9/8 Grace 7 p.m.

9/13 vs. Marian^ 4 p.m.

9/14 vs. TBA^ TBA

9/15 vs. Spring Arbor^ 4 p.m.

9/20 Antelope Valley* 5 p.m.

9/27 at Soka Univ.* 7 p.m.

9/29 at Marymount* 5:30 p.m.

10/4 Simpson* 5 p.m.

10/6 UC-Merced* 1 p.m.

10/11 at Sierra-Nevada* Noon

10/13 at UC-Maritime* 11 a.m.

10/18 La Sierra* 5 p.m.

10/20 at Providence Chr.* 1 p.m.

11/3 Benedictine-Mesa* 1 p.m.

^ Spring Arbor Invitational, Spring Arbor, Mich.

  • Cal Pac Conference Match

“We’re very capable of continuing on the same path, the same journey that we’ve been on the past couple seasons, and that’s included a little bit of improvement each year,” Poitras said. “Led by this group of [seven] seniors who’s had so much experience and success, they’re excited and ready to go and leave their last mark on Embry-Riddle women’s soccer.

“This is the deepest team we’ve ever had, by a long shot.”

Embry-Riddle senior forward Krista Lee of Las Vegas said she and her teammates are particularly looking forward to a rematch Saturday, Sept. 15, at Spring Arbor, which went 24-1-1 last season. The Eagles were the only opponent at nationals to score on Spring Arbor in a 4-2 setback.

“Coming back, we’re really excited because we did lose to the national champions, but we’re not rolling over,” Lee said. “We’re going right back to their place and we’re going to play them again and show them that we can compete with them.

“And then, hopefully, we’ll make it back to the national tournament and leave our mark even better than the first time.”

2018 TEAM

Offensively, sophomore forward Riley Martinson of Deer Park, Washington, and Lee guide the attack.

Last fall, Martinson registered a team-best 30 points, scoring 13 goals and tallying four assists in 21 matches (20 starts). Lee wasn’t far behind with her 24 points on the strength of eight goals and eight assists.

“Last year we set goals for ourselves and we completed every goal we set,” Martinson said of the Eagles. “This year we’ll set bigger goals and complete every other goal that we set this year. Everyone’s working hard for each other.”

The most significant loss in the off-season was forward Jennifer Ruth, whom Poitras said decided to focus on ROTC and starting a family rather than play her final two years of eligibility. In 18 games last season, Ruth notched 20 points (eight goals, four assists), and she will be missed.

Minus Ruth, that should open the door for senior midfielder Breanna Larkin of Las Vegas (15 points in 21 starts, five goals, five assists) and senior forward Maddy Markham of Prescott (12 points in 19 matches, five goals, two assists) to pick up the scoring slack.

Larkin said she has high expectations for the Eagles because of the team’s experience and talent. Poitras recruited six freshmen and a sophomore for the 27-player roster in 2018.

“We have great competition in our games before we get into our conference play that will really show us either how much better as a team we need to be getting or where we’re at and what we can improve on before our chances of making it to the national round and seeing those top teams again,” she added.

Other starters in the attack include senior midfielder Holly Ross of Oro Valley, junior midfielder Andie Dean of Flagstaff, and junior forward/defender Erica Heil of Anchorage, Alaska.

Defensively, junior goalkeeper Caitlyn Aaron of Flower Mound, Texas, came on strong in 2017. In 16 starts, she compiled an 8-4 record and an .820 goals against average (13 goals allowed, 68 saves).

Starters at defender include junior Ally Leara of Rancho Santa Margarita, California, junior Maddy Mak of Renton, Washington, and senior Adri Jackson of Port Orchard, Washington, who have instilled trust in the forwards and midfielders. Junior defender/midfielder Parker Lee of Kennewick, Washington, provides important minutes off the bench.

“We’re really connected, from the starters to the people on the bench,” Krista Lee said. “We all have the same goals and we all want the same things – from the defense, to the forwards, to the bench, we’re a cohesive unit. And that’s what makes us so strong.

“Don’t count us out. We’re coming back.”

Doug Cook is a sports reporter for The Daily Courier. Follow him on Twitter at @dougout_dc. Email him at dcook@prescottaz.com or call 928-445-3333, ext. 2039.