Written by Student Assistant Christian Bond
TACOMA, Wash. – After winning its first Northwest Conference title since 1992, the Pacific Lutheran University women's soccer team was selected to repeat as conference champions in 2017 in the preseason coaches poll. The journey to do so starts this weekend in Pennsylvania as an experienced group returns to the field.
Seniors Machaela Graddy, Kaylie Rozell and Kelsey Hathaway have no problem finding the back of the net, combining to score 24 goals last season for the Lutes (16-1-4, 13-0-3 NWC in 2016), helping the team to its first undefeated regular season and NCAA Division III Tournament appearance in program history. Graddy, the reigning NWC Offensive Player of the Year led the conference in both goals (13) and points (34) while finishing second assists (8). Rozell, a First Team All-NWC selection, led the league in shots while finishing with seven goals and three assists.
"We are returning all of our offensive players which means we just get to hit the ground running from where we left off of last season," Graddy said. "Our playing styles all mesh in a way that makes our offense into a speed driven, crafty system that is hard for defenses to stop. It feels like we haven't skipped a beat."
The biggest question for PLU involves replacing All-American goalkeeper Takara Mitsui who graduated last spring. The 2016 NWC Defender of the Year collected 16 shutouts while yielding just seven goals all season. Upperclassmen Blakely Sanders and Natalie Robinson will vie for the job along with incoming keepers Cassidy Crosswhite, Ashton Huppert, and Ally Peterson.
The defending conference champions welcomed 14 new faces to campus this fall. The 14 first years look towards the 23 returning players for guidance as they experience new things. That guidance is something Head Coach Seth Spidahl, the 2016 NWC Coach of the Year, has instilled in his players.
"Seth always tells us we're stewards of the program and we must continue to make PLU a great program," Graddy said. "It's not about us, but the program and if we don't help the new players then we aren't helping the future of the program."
The season starts with a trip to the east coast for a pair of games. The first takes place on Friday against Franklin & Marshall College at 1 p.m. On Saturday, the trip concludes with a game against Messiah College at 4 p.m.
"We just want to be another great PLU team," Graddy said. "We want to be able to take a step further than we did last year and never go backwards"
Sept. 1: PLU vs. Franklin & Marshall at Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Series History: The Lutes and Diplomats have never met on the soccer pitch.
About the Diplomats: Franklin & Marshall (7-9-1, 2-6-1 Centennial Conference in 2016) is trending up after netting the program's highest win total since the 2011 season last fall. The Diplomats were picked to finish ninth out of 11 teams in the Centennial Conference preseason poll, owning a 13-point spread over 10th-ranked Washington College. F&M boasted a program best 0.80 goals against average last season but will be without the services of an Honorable Mention All-Conference defender and last year's starting goalkeeper.
Sept. 2: PLU vs. Messiah at Grantham, Pennsylvania
Series History: This will be the first all-time meeting between the Lutes and the Falcons.
About the Falcons: Messiah (22-3, 8-0 Middle Atlantic Conference Commonwealth in 2016) enters the season ranked second in the nation. The five-time national champion Falcons advanced to the NCAA Championship game last season before falling in penalty kicks to Washington University in Saint Louis. Messiah was a strong team defensively last season, yielding just 11 goals all season including just two goals in its eight game postseason run through the MAC Commonwealth and NCAA Tournaments.