GREENWOOD – If it truly is darkest before the dawn, the Lander women's soccer program believes the light will be shining upon the Bearcats soon.
On the heels of a 4-11-1 campaign last season, Lander enters 2017 with 16 underclassmen on its 24-player roster. However, the Bearcats return six of their 11 starters from last year's squad, and that mix of leadership and new faces has a promising glow surrounding the program.
"We excited about this group," said head coach Chris Ayer. "I'm looking forward to seeing what we do, how we play together and how we continue to mesh as the season progresses."
Gone are seniors Sara Ballante, Kayla Combs and Taylor Piorkowski, but the Bearcats have six battle-tested seniors stepping up to lead this season; Shannon DeSantis (Marietta, Ga.), Sara Flores (Kingston, N.Y.), Kari George (Tullahoma, Tenn.), Logan Lewis (Lexington, S.C.), Hannah Martin (Irmo, S.C.) and Kayla Walker (Lexington, S.C.)
"I think this group has done remarkably well," Ayer said of his seniors. "It's a great group of kids. They've worked really hard, they've dedicated themselves to the program and they've been able to build on the leadership they have to welcome the younger kids as well as the incoming freshmen.
Between the pipes, DeSantis and Hannah Cowan (Blythewood, S.C.) combined for over 700 minutes in goal and 47 saves last season. Freshman Sarah Owens (Lake Wales, Fla.) could also factor into the mix.
"We're looking for consistency," said Ayer, "somebody who can step in and get the job done and has the ability to lead the team."
Walker is the veteran on the back line and will be expected to lead the unit. Sophomore Emily Jermstad (Irmo, S.C.) tied for third on the team last season with three goals, while fellow sophomores Marie Drewno (Hickory, N.C.) and Hannah Sinner (Lake Wales, Fla.). Freshmen Kosovare Bela (Greenwood, S.C.), Kylee Eppl (Lake Mary, Fla.) and Brennen McCarthy (Clifton, Va.) round out the unit.
George and junior Victoria Lange (Bedford, N.Y) anchor the midfield, along with sophomore Lauren Shuba (Simpsonville, S.C.). Freshmen Devin Duhme (Cincinnati, Ohio), McKenzy Long (Matthews, N.C.) and Juliette Vidal (Lille, France) add depth.
Lewis, Flores and Martin lead the attack along with junior Antonella Monrreal (Miami, Fla.). Sophomore Rachel Kibler (Elberta, Ala.) is back for her second season, as is Brianna Taylor (Delran, N.J) who netted three goals in her first collegiate match before missing most of last year with an injury. The Bearcats can also turn to newcomers Macy Sinner (Lake Wales, Fla.) and Jordan Thomas (Lexington, S.C.).
With two-third of the roster comprised of freshmen and sophomores, Ayer says the chemistry of the team will be crucial to the results on the pitch.
"I think it's a testament to the upperclassmen that they've welcome the younger players with open arms," he said. "The freshmen have come in and they've worked really hard and everyone has gotten out there and competed every day. We expect them to come out and play as hard as they can. I think you're going to have a learning curve, but these kids are working really hard and are doing some good things.
The Bearcats open the season at home on Aug. 31 against North Greenville and travel to Newberry on Sept. 2. Lander then hosts rival Erskine and non-conference opponent Wingate before traveling to Emmanuel. The Bearcats begin conference play at home against Clayton State on Sept. 16. Lander also hosts Francis Marion, Columbus State, USC Aiken and Georgia College in PBC play, while traveling to Flagler, North Georgia, Young Harris, UNC Pembroke and Georgia Southwestern, with a non-conference match at Mars Hill included.
While Lander hopes to takes steps towards the program's first NCAA Tournament bid, Ayer says the season's progress won't necessarily be measured in wins and losses.
"I think every day, the program takes steps to get better," he said. "I think that's the important part. If these girls are focused and they're working hard and they're striving to get better, then I think we're doing some good things. I don't think you can put a number on wins and losses. If they get out there and compete, we know what they're capable of."