Charlotte 49ers women’s soccer coach John Cullen and several of his top players say the team’s late-season surge into the NCAA tournament was not a fluke, and they feel capable of repeating this fall.
But Cullen says it will take rapid development by some young defenders for the 49ers to reach postseason play again.
“We have quite a few new faces in the back line,” says Cullen, whose 49ers have a pair of home matches this weekend against Power 5 opponents. “Those young players will need to step up.”
The 49ers, 1-1 on the season, entertain Georgia at 7 p.m. Friday and host Wake Forest at 1 p.m. Sunday.
Never miss a local story.
Charlotte finished a pedestrian sixth in the Conference USA regular season a year ago, then caught fire and won the league tournament, qualifying for the NCAA. The 49ers were dispatched in the first round of postseason play, 3-0 by powerful Duke.
“What happened last season shows them what we’re capable of,” says Cullen, in his ninth season as the program’s coach. “But we keep reminding them that it’s also history … that this is a different season.”
Much of the attention this season will be focused on senior midfielder-forward Martha Thomas, preseason conference offensive player of the year and an All-America candidate. She has three double-digit goal-scoring seasons to her credit, notching 10 goals and 10 assists a year ago.
She got off to a quick start in the 49ers’ season opener last Friday at South Florida, scoring two first-half goals. Charlotte eventually lost that game, 3-2 in double overtime.
“We try not to lean on her too much, but she’s the kind of player who steps up in the big games,” Cullen says.
Thomas says 2016 was “a bit of a roller-coaster season but adds that the returning players “know how to get there (NCAA) now. We need to be more consistent this season.”
If the defense is to develop, it might be behind the leadership of a sophomore – Riley Orr, of Lake Norman High. Orr was an all-freshman team pick in Conference USA last season and is regarded as one of the league’s best with corner kicks.
“We’ll have new faces in the back line, but we’ve been working on our communication,” Orr says. “I really believe the new players will step up.”
Senior midfielder Virginia Lingo, of Weddington, says last year’s team succeeded because of cohesiveness.
“That’s what it will take again this year,” she says. “We have a younger team, but we have some experienced leaders. Our job will be to build that cohesiveness.”
Friday: Georgia, 7 p.m.; Aug. 27: at Wake Forest, 1.
Sept. 1: at Gardner-Webb, 6; Sept. 3: at Western Carolina, 7; Sept. 8: Virginia Commonwealth, 7; Sept. 10: East Carolina, 1; Sept. 15: Marshall, 7; Sept. 24: Florida International, 1; Sept. 29: at UTEP, 9.
Oct. 1: at Texas-San Antonio, 1; Oct. 8: Florida Atlantic, 1; Oct. 13: at Louisiana Tech, 8; Oct. 15: at Southern Mississippi, 1; Oct. 19: North Texas, 7; Oct. 21: Rice, 1; Oct. 27: at Old Dominion, 7.
Nov. 1-5: Conference USA Tournament (at Boca Raton, Fla.)