Very few coaches at any level finish the year with an unbeaten record but that was certainly the case for Lee Coach Chris Hennessey, his staff, and the Lady Flames after they failed to advance after a 1-1 tie in the second round of the NCAA DII National Tournament. Lee settled for a 19-0-1 mark, but the 1-1 tie to Florida Tech allowed the Panthers the opportunity to press forward after the 3-2 PK decision.
The Lady Flames, who walked away with the regular season and GSC championships last season, have been picked by the Gulf South Conference coaches to repeat as 2022 champs.
West Florida, Mississippi College and Valdosta State are predicted to challenge, but Hennessey sees the battle for top honors wide open this season. “The biggest challenge we will face is not comparing this season to last,” the coach said after viewing the prediction. “We know the hard work and dedication it took on a daily basis last year, so this year we must emulate it and more.”
When you have a program that has carved a named for itself over the years, it is usually never a case of rebuilding but reloading. However, there will be game changers missing when the Lady Flames open the 2022 season on August 25 against Ohio Dominican. Goalkeeper Jackie Burns, who allowed four goals and had 48 saves last year, is now with the Northern Ireland team that is playing in the Women’s UEFA Euro 2022 Championships.
The college playing career for Anna Lanter ended last season and she is now a graduate assistant under Coach Hennessey. It will mark the first time since 2009 that a member of the Lanter family is not on the pitch for the Lady Flames. Clair help pace Lee to three NAIA National titles and Summer was All-American, GSC Player of Year twice and named GSC Female Athlete of the Year.
Hennessey must replace Riley Henry, who was a do-it-all player for his unbeaten club. The All-American had 12 goals and five assists, but more importantly had six game-winning scores. Kelsey Yoder, a standout midfielder, who was extremely strong on the defensive side must be replaced. Catlin Dickson returned from a serious injury and was a key member of a Lee defense that opponents found it difficult to score against.
Due to COVID, three Lady Flames were awarded a fifth year. Sage Sammeli is a midfielder/forward from Kathleen, Georgia. Avery Engels is a lockdown defender from Signal Mountain. Lauren Weimer is a forward who was named to the 2022 All-GSC team. Jordan Blair, a sophomore defender who came on strong on both sides of the pitch late last season, was placed on the 2022 All-GSC team. There are two Lady Flames listed on the Preseason All-GSC Team. Katie Dirkse, a defender from Chattanooga and Mallory Hayden, a midfielder from Fort Myers, Florida should take on leadership roles.
“We have a lot of juniors and seniors returning who missed a year of playing experience due to COVID,” explained the leader of a coaching staff that was named the best in the South Region after last year. “We have several who played during the shortened spring season, but that didn’t help a great deal. We will get a chance to watch them play more this season. It will be an interesting year for sure. Hopefully, our upperclassman can continue to build on what worked well for us as we try to keep moving forward.”
When you lose your All-American goalkeeper, there is always pressure to seek another to step into the key position. Mollie Wheeler, a senior, played in four games last season and Haleigh Holland, a junior took part in five. Abby Whitcomb, a freshman, is also in the mix but Josie Taylor a freshman from Nobelsville, Indiana has already drawn some attention and is listed on the 2022 Soccer Newcomer Watch List. Also included on the same list are Juliana Lopes, a midfielder from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Alaysia Nye, a forward from Lemon Grove, California.
“We brought in a few new faces this year, and experience has shown that they will all settle in at different times. Last year’s freshman class really gave the team a boost, and I believe this class can have the same impact,” said the veteran coach after watching his new crop take part in its first day of drills. “Overall, the girls appeared to have reported in good physical condition. We only have a couple of weeks to get ready for the 25th.”
The coaching staff could easily point at having three veteran players back as a strong point and that is certainly true. But all three plus the rising juniors and seniors have already bought into what the coaches will preach – togetherness! A team does not beat clubs like West Florida, Mississippi College and other tough GSC opponents without a strong bond. “The togetherness of the team was our differentiator last year. This is something that carried us through the tough moments,” he explained. “On the field, we had a good balance in how we defended and attacked. Both functions of the team executed their roles well, so this something we will be looking for again this fall.”
Coach Hennessey was quick to the point, “No question we must score more goals in the important moments. Every team can always improve on this; it is part of the game, but the early focus will be on improving certain movements/techniques in the final third of the field.” Against what the coaching staff would call quality opponents, the Lady Flames were able to post only one or two goals nine times. In the National Tournament contest against Florida Tech, the visitors did everything to protect its own net and force the PKs. The coach says he will be looking on improving those certain movements and techniques and beating teams looking to just settle on their final third and playing defense.
The schedule begins with a pair of tough non-conference games against Ohio teams. Last year the Lady Flames traveled to Ohio and won 1-0 at Ohio Dominican and 2-1 at Cedarville, Ohio. On August 25 and 27, both of those teams will visit the Ray Conn Sports Complex. “It is going to be two rugged openers for our girls,” said Hennessey. “Cedarville took Grand Valley, Michigan (NCAA DII National Champion) to overtime before falling in the tournament.”
The Lady Flames host Emmanuel College before a non-conference assignment at North Georgia on September 1. The road adventures continue with GSC dates at Union and Christian Brothers on September 9 and 11. The Lady Flames host rivals Mississippi College (September 16) and West Florida (October 7). “As far as the entire conference is concerned, the strength of our conference has been on an upward trajectory for the last several years now, and I anticipate this year being the toughest yet. It’s not the case where there are just a few teams to be beat anymore, everyone is good,” noted Hennessey.
Said the head coach, “This will be mine and Luidgi’s (Beauzile) eighth year together. I have run out of superlatives to describe what he brings to the program on a daily basis. We are both looking forward to seeing what the season holds for this team.”