GRAND FORKS, N.D. --- The University of North Dakota soccer team's preseason got underway today as the team sat through a few meetings, took their individual photographs and had a preseason interview or two before officially hitting the field for the first time as a team Wednesday morning in preparation of arguably its most highly anticipated season in program history.
"Our expectation is that we did the work this past spring, but relying on our entire team doing the work this summer to put themselves in a position to compete right away in the Big Sky Conference," head coach Kristen Gay said. "We have a strong group of returning players coupled with a talented group of freshman and the thought of that is exciting in itself. A high energy, hard-nosed approach will be our focus for the preseason."
The 2012 season marks the first year in UND's new home in the Big Sky Conference and its first NCAA postseason eligible campaign. North Dakota is penciled in for 16 regular-season matches and will showcase its talents in Grand Forks with eight contests, including the return of both regional rivals of North Dakota State and South Dakota State for the first times since 2003 and 2000, respectively.
After taking to the field for the first time with its annual alumni match (Aug. 11), North Dakota is immediately put to the test opening its campaign on the road in the American Heartland. UND will open its regular season against a familiar foe in Northern Iowa (Aug. 17) and close out its opening weekend on the road with its first-ever match against the Big Ten's Iowa Hawkeyes (Aug. 19), who are coming off its best season in program history.
"Northern Iowa has been doing some great things as of late and it's a tough match every time we play them," Gay said. "The University of Iowa, a Big 10 power, is an atmosphere we need to experience and one we are welcoming and expecting a great result."
After the opening weekend, the schedule has a regional flavor as UND will host Minnesota, Crookston, (Aug. 24) in its home-opener before facing three historical rivals in the Summit League's South Dakota (Aug. 26), South Dakota State (Sept. 7) and North Dakota State (Sept. 9) - the last two at Bronson Field.
"South Dakota is such a great rivalry game," Gay said. "We have probably played them the most out of anyone the last four years so we know them well and you can always expect a hard-fought game. The two state schools are finally coming to Grand Forks and we couldn't be more excited for those matchups."
September looks to be a pivotal for UND as 5-of-6 games at home including the games against rivals NDSU and SDSU leading to the first two opening Big Sky games against Sacramento State (Sept. 21) and Portland State (Sept. 23).
"We definitely want to approach each game with the same focus, but I feel like having the first two conference games at home should set the tone for the remainder of the conference schedule," Gay said. "Home games are so important and we need to establish that home-field advantage mentality."
After the final nonconference tilt against Western Illinois (Sept. 16), the remainder of the schedule consists of nine BSC matches leading into the conference tourney (Nov. 1-4) where the qualified teams will compete for the auto-bid to the NCAA Tournament (Nov. 9-Dec. 12).
"The Big Sky tournament takes the top-4 teams, which is a little different approach than what we were used to in the Great West Conference, so we have to set ourselves up during the regular season for a chance to extend our season," Gay said.
Since entering the Great West Conference in 2009, UND's winning percentage improved each season through its transition to Division I while facing more difficult schedules each year. The squad will look to continue that way in 2012 as it returns eight starters from a year ago and brings in a large and talented freshman class. The three starters North Dakota will have to replace due to graduation are Rachael Loomis (Fargo, N.D.), Kelsey Zachman (Mahtomedi, Minn.) and Veronika Zischka (Calgary, Alberta).
"We not only lost three starters, but players that had a combined 12 years of playing close to 90 minutes each game, which is a lot of lost experience," Gay said. "We have some players that will have to step up and define what type of culture we will have during training and games. Our freshman class from top to bottom is pretty talented. I am excited to see what they can bring to our team, how fast they can adapt, and ultimately help put us in a position to compete and win close games."
North Dakota does welcome back over 50-percent of its goal scoring from a year ago, but it came between mostly two returners in senior Rhaya Ballon (Rogers, Minn.) and sophomore Megan Anderson (Rapid City, S.D.) and will be looking for addition secondary scoring.
"It certainly doesn't hurt if those two are putting the ball in the back of the net, but we have to be able to rely on other players and I think we'll see that this season," Gay said.
UND will be led by its 2012 senior captain Sheri Stapf (Lakeville, Minn.) on the back end who played every minute of every game in 2011.
The charge from the midfield will be led by co-senior Caitlyn Haring who started all 18 games and averaged 1.69 shots per game.
"Sheri is coming off her best season and we'll look to her for much of the same: consistent play and her leadership," Gay said. "Caitlyn needs to be a force in the air and control the middle for us to be successful. We will have some new faces on the backline, but we have to maintain our composure and stay organized as a group."
And heading into last season goalkeeping was definitely a question mark with lack of experience, but Kristi Hestdalen (Pierre, S.D.) had an outstanding freshman campaign where grasped a hold of the starting position. She led the Great West Conference with four shutouts, two coming in back-to-back games, and was second in the league averaging 6.12 saves per game.
"I believe the experience certainly helped Kristi," Gay said. "You definitely saw some great saves and then some freshman mistakes. A more confident goalkeeper is what we expect from her this season. We have two great goalkeepers in Kristi and Alex Ciaccio and that position will be the key to our success this season as they battle for the position between the pipes."
North Dakota concluded 2011 with a 6-9-3 record. Click here for the complete 2012 schedule.