Lee University's Coach Chris Hennessey begins his fourth season of directing one of the university's most successful athletic programs. Over the past three seasons the former Lee men's soccer defender has led the Lady Flames into D2 national tournament play in all three seasons. His 2017 squad was 17-4-2 and reached the Sweet 16 of the D2 tournament, eliminated by Gulf South rival West Florida after two overtimes that finally resulted in a shootout. His overall coaching record is 42-12-8.
Despite losing a number of seniors, the respect the Lady Flames have garnered in a short-period of time in the NCAA was evident as the United Soccer Coaches released their preseason Top-25 poll with Lee ranked No. 9 in the country. The Lady Flames were the highest ranked GSC team, one spot ahead of West Florida.
"We lost a number of key players down the spine of our team and at the back," said Hennessey, "It will be important to fill those holes and find our identity quickly."
Four-year starter Summer Lanter was a leader in her team's mark to the program's first GSC championship. She was not only named the GSC Player of the Year but also collected GSC Female Athlete of the Year. A D2 All-American, Lanter tallied 20 goals in starting all 23 games.
Other key players gone from last year's impressive squad are McKenzie Bricker, Suzanne Arant, Katie Cloud, Meagan Newman and goalkeepers Haley Gribler and Erin Olson. Bricker and Newman landed spots on the All-GSC first team while Arant was a second teamer. Lee's back line helped Hennessey's unit hold opponents to a remarkable one goal or less in 22 of its 23 contests.
"I will be looking at our seniors, Kate Carney, Mia Hollingsworth, Anna Leslie, and Lauren Peters to step up this year," said Hennessey. Carney, a midfielder who transferred from Austin Peay, appeared in 15 of 23 matches last season. Midfielder Hollingsworth made her presence felt in 22 battles and joined Bricker in dishing off a team-leading six assists. Forward Leslie tallied a pair of goals and forward Peters put three shots into the back of the net.
Sophomore midfielder/forward Riley Engels powered her way to eight goals and four assists last season. Sophomore Anna Lanter will carry on the tradition of the Lanter sisters firmly established in Lee soccer. Anna, named to the 2018 All-GSC Preseason Team, worked at midfield and as a defender much of last season, but could see more upfront action this year. "I'm really happy for Anna," said Hennessey. "She had a great freshman year and it's nice to see her hard work recognized by other coaches in the conference."
"This year we have 11 freshmen joining the program. There is no doubt that this class possesses a lot of character and quality," noted the coach. "They will all have big roles to play during the season. My goal now is to integrate them into our team as quick as possible."
"I think one of our strengths coming back will be the character of the team. The returning players gained a lot of experience last season and they will be able to show the incoming class what it takes to compete on a weekly basis," Hennessey acknowledged.
Junior defender/midfielder Carly Smoltz and junior goalkeeper Taylor Green will serve as captains for the 2018 squad.
Hennessey said his team will have to be more clinical around the goal. "We won a number of games by a single goal last year (10) and missed chances to put teams away earlier, so that will be one of our focuses throughout the season," he added.
"Last year in my opinion was the most competitive season in the GSC since I have been a part of the program," related the Lee coach. "There are no easy games. West Florida, Mississippi and Valdosta I believe will be right there or thereabouts when is all said and done."
In the Preseason GSC Coaches Poll, West Florida was the No. 1 pick and Mississippi College No. 2. Lee was third followed by West Alabama and Valdosta State. The Lady Flames will test both Mississippi College (Sept. 30) and West Florida (Oct. 5) on the road.
"We have another very challenging non-conference schedule. It will certainly let us know where we are and what we need to work on preparation for conference play," Hennessey was quick to point out. He will take his Lady Flames to Winter Park, Fla. and challenge Sunshine State Conference opponent Rollins College to open the regular season on Aug. 30. Rollins defeated Lee 1-0 in Cleveland last season.
The Lady Flames will host Trevecca (Sept. 3) and be at Peach Belt Conference power North Georgia (Sept. 6). The Lady Flames return home (Sept. 8) to meet Carson-Newman, a team that marched all the way to the NCAA National Championship semifinals last year before tasting its first defeat and finishing with a 21-1-1 record. Lee will entertain Emmanuel before traveling to Rome, Ga. and opening GSC play against Shorter (Sept. 16). "It is important that we don't overlook any teams and take it one game at a time," the coach concluded.
Hennessey admits he is very fortunate to have his staff. "They are extremely hard workers and go above and beyond for the team." Luidgi Beauzile has been a member of the women's soccer staff for five years and was a teammate of Hennessey on the men's side. "We have a new graduate assistant joining us, Nicole De Medeiros. She will bring a lot of experience and help out primarily with our goalkeepers," De Medeiros is a native of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and played on the Brazilian National Team. She was a standout keeper at Young Harris College. De Medeiros is joined by Sami Rutowski, who returns for her second year as a GA. "Sami will continue to do a lot of the behind the scenes logistics for the program. She brings a tremendous amount of energy to the program," explained Hennessey.