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SEASON PREVIEW: Veteran core returns as Knights kick-off 2018-19 season

SEASON PREVIEW: Veteran core returns as Knights kick-off 2018-19 season

With the calendar recently turning over to September, the Niagara Knights women's soccer program is getting set to open their 2018-19 season. After finishing in the middle of the tough OCAA West division a year ago, the Knights will look to make improvements on the field and push their way past the top competition to try and secure a berth in the final eight of the 2018 OCAA Women's Soccer Championship.

Last season the Knights finished with a 4-4-2 regular season record. The record was good enough for 14 points and a playoff berth, but their dreams of an OCAA title were cut short with an early playoff exit courtesy of the Seneca Sting. However, Head Coach Rob Lalama is optimistic that his team is on pace to take strides forward and outdo their performance from last season.

"I think this year's team is more talented and deeper," said Lalama. "I hope to build on last season's accomplishments."

However, the season will have its challenges. One of those challenges will be learning to play without one of their former stars. Former team captain Shannon Halliday, who played four seasons with the team, has graduated and will no longer be with the Knights when they suit up for their season opening match against the Mohawk Mountaineers. Lalama agrees that it is extremely difficult to lose a player of Halliday's skill and leadership but is confident that the returning depth can make up for that loss.

In particular, Lalama and his coaching staff will look for veteran leadership from returning players such as last year's OCAA West Rookie of the Year Michelle Maecker (Fonthill), goalkeeper and OCAA West Defensive Player of the Year Alexis Hebert (Waterdown), Lauren Frasca (Welland) and newly appointed team captain Kara Latham (Welland). 

Latham, who was the team's most valuable player in 2017-18, will look to keep making improvements in what will be her third year with the team. So far in her two seasons with the Knights, she has three goals and her high motor defensively makes her a solid two-way player.

Other returning players to the team this year include defenders Samantha Macsai (Port Colborne) and Chelsea Hay (Ottawa), and midfielders Ashley Bruzzese (Welland), Amanda Borowski (Welland) and Renee LaFrance (Burlington).

An exciting feature of the Knights roster this year will be the new faces added to the team over the offseason. 

"I feel we have taken a big step in changing the culture and expectations of our soccer team," said Lalama on this year's rookie crop.

In total, Niagara will welcome nine new faces to the team, and Lalama hopes that two of these rookies in particular will make an immediate impact. Sophia Al-Kayed (St. Catharines) and Katelyn Mix (Gilford) can help add an extra element of offense into this year's lineup. Other first year players joining the Knights are defenders Sarah Robert (Fort Erie), Madison Crowe-O'Brien (Campden) and Madison Harley (Milton), midfielders Samantha Paley (Burlington), Kennedi Risi (Thorold) and Daniela Aguire (St. Catharines) as well as goalkeeper Jasmine Reddecop (Tilsonburg).

If the Knights want to improve on their record from a season ago, they will have to jump into the top tier of the OCAA West division. The Fanshawe Falcons (7-1-2) finished at the top of the table with 23 points, followed by the St. Clair Lancers (7-2-1) with 22 points and then the Mohawk Mountaineers (6-1-3) with 21 points. Niagara's only wins last season came against the Lambton Lions (2-8-0) and the Redeemer Royals (0-10-0), so if they want to make their way to the top of the standings they will need to defeat the division's top teams.

One thing that the Knights will look to improve on if they want to compete with the top in the west is their goal scoring. They managed just 1.3 goals per game, while teams such as the Lancers and the Falcons finished with 3.6 and 2.9 goals per game, respectively. Alongside their new recruits, Niagara will look to last season's OCAA West Rookie of the Year, as Michelle Maecker set the single season Niagara Knights record for goals, netting six goals in 10 games.

On the defensive side of the field, Niagara found great success in keeping the ball out of their own net, as they only allowed 0.8 goals per game, which can be thanked in many ways to the play of Alexis Hebert. In her rookie season with the team made 58 saves en route to a 0.53 goals against average in eight games. Over the course of four games between September 26th and October 11th, she didn't allow a single goal, picking up four of her five clean sheets on the season.

Entering into his second season as head coach, Lalama will look to keep the Knights moving in the right direction. In his first season as head coach the team's goals against average dropped from 1.4 to 0.8 goals per game, while the goals for average also lowered from 1.6 to 1.3. If the team can continue to develop together and strengthen themselves offensively, they will have a good chance to improve on their record once again.

The Niagara Knights will host the Mohawk Mountaineers when they open their season on Saturday, September 8th at Youngs Sportsplex (570 River Road, Welland). The game will be a double header with the women playing first at 2pm, followed by the men at 4pm. Admission is free for all spectators.