By JJ Duke
The women’s soccer team has officially completed its non-conference schedule and looks to continue making positive strides as it begins to face conference opponents. The team’s challenge begins with Fairfield University (3-3-2) followed by a game against Iona College (2-5-2).
After starting out the season with a 5-1-2 record, the Broncs will open the MAAC season by welcoming Fairfield tonight at 7 p.m. and Iona on Sunday at 3 p.m.
Head Coach Drayson Hounsome believes that the lessons learned throughout the non-conference schedule have prepared his side for the upcoming games.
“We finished with the best non-conference record in the program’s history: only one defeat in eight games and five wins,” Hounsome said. “Every game has been close and we have been tested throughout. Most importantly, each game has highlighted areas we needed to work on that has enabled us to improved from one game to the next.”
While the non-conference matches may not be as significant for teams like Rider — traditionally, the MAAC is a one-bid conference for the NCAA Tournament — senior midfielder Claire Thompson believes there is a bigger purpose for those games.
“We set really specific goals for ourselves this year,” Thompson said. “We evaluated our strengths and weaknesses and aimed to be 10 percent in every category. For example, last year we gave up four goals off corners, so we wanted to make sure we gave away less corners this year and defended corners better. So far, we’ve done that. No goals against have come from corners yet this year.”
During the first eight games of the season, freshman midfielder Tara Ballay and senior forward Abi Cottam have led the Broncs offensively. Ballay, twice named MAAC Rookie of the Week, had two goals and one assist for five points. Cottam scored one goal and notched three assists for five points as well. In net, senior goalkeeper Jenn Nichols has a goals against average of 0.81, including four shutouts.
The Broncs will have to face strong teams with Fairfield and Iona. Both teams have not started the 2012 season well record-wise, but will provide intriguing matchups for Rider this weekend. Fairfield lost last year in the MAAC Semifinals in penalty kicks to the eventual champions, Marist College. Hounsome hopes to compete well against Fairfield this year.
“They are a good team who expect to be in the conference tournament, but we match up well against them,” Hounsome said. “We had multiple season-ending injuries last year when we played them so it will be a totally different lineup this year. The plan is to focus on playing to our strengths and denying their dangerous players any good opportunities.”
The recovery time won’t be an issue in the Broncs’ minds, especially after taking on Iona 48 hours after Fairfield, according to Thompson.
“It’s tough to know what to expect from Iona this year. Every year the matchup with them has been a different kind of game,” Thompson said. “I think we are prepared to play a Friday-Sunday schedule though. Most of that comes from the depth of our experience in doing so.”
While the MAAC Conference play is ready to begin for Rider the goal since day one hasn’t changed.
“The expectation is to finish the job from last year where injuries held us back from achieving our goal: to be playing for a conference title on Nov. 4,” Hounsome said.