BEMIDJI – Nearly half the players on the Bemidji State University soccer roster this season are freshmen – 12, to be exact.
But that doesn’t concern Jim Stone.
“We have a really good freshman class coming in,” the BSU head coach said. “It’s a real deep class, and we also have a lot of depth with our returning players.”
Stone isn’t the only one who thinks his freshmen can make an immediate impact. Junior captain Tiffany VanHaaften also likes what she sees from the youngsters in the first week of practice.
“They’re all really smart freshmen,” the midfielder said. “They’re getting used to things already. They’re doing really well, so we’re all happy with what coach brought in.”
The fact that 12 out of the 25 women on the roster are brand-new makes the Beavers’ projected finish in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Athletic Conference coaches poll even better. The coaches ranked the Beavers sixth out of 16 teams a year after BSU finished sixth in the conference at 6-4-3.
Minnesota State Mankato and Winona State ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in the poll, respectively.
“The conference is really good this year again,” VanHaaften said. “It always is. Mankato will be tough this year… they’re returning pretty much everyone.”
MSU won the NSIC playoffs last season and made it to the NCAA tournament, while Winona won its eighth-straight regular season title before being upset in the first round of the conference tournament by Upper Iowa.
If BSU wants to compete with the Mavericks and Warriors, the Beavers will need to find replacements for Kirsten Erikson and Bri Scanlon, who scored 12 of the team’s 20 goals last season.
Sophomore Mary O’Brien is the team’s top returning scorer, netting three goals last season, and junior Jessie Voeller scored two.
“Scoring is always difficult in this league, unless you’re fortunate to have an All-American in the wings,” Stone said. “But we think that Mary (O’Brien) and Jessie Voeller are going to be good. I think some freshmen are going to be heavily involved, too.”
Forward Hillary Arechigo scored 12 goals for Monticello High School last year and was among the top scorers in the Twin Cities metro area according to the Star-Tribune. Megan Castro is a dynamic midfielder from Winnipeg who Stone said can score from anywhere on the pitch.
VanHaaften acknowledged that the Beavers underachieved on offense last season. But they’ve taken steps to increase scoring after finishing 10th out of 14 in goals scored in 2011.
“We kinda struggled last year overall with scoring, but I think a lot of girls will be able to contribute more this year,” BSU midfielder Tiffany VanHaaften said. “I think we’re going to score more. A lot of the girls said they worked on shooting this summer and really focused on wanting to score more, so I think it will be a lot better.”
Defensively, the Beavers look strong once again. The back line was third in goals against in the league in 2011 (23) and returns mostly intact, including junior Sam Lumberg and sophomore Mari Wallestad.
What’s more, sophomore goalkeeper Sonja Barr got starting experience last season when Abby Kjonaas broke her hand. The Beavers are excited about her first full season in net.
“We’ve always had a great defending team,” VanHaaften said. “Coach recruits great defenders and we’re really organized in the back. Both our center-backs are back this year so I think we’re going to be really good again.”
The Beavers usually play a 4-3-3 formation, with two holding/defensive midfielders – including VanHaaften, who redshirted last year after injuring her ACL.
“We’re excited to get Tiffany back,” Stone said of his top midfielder. “Emily Olson is a freshman that is really talented, and (sophomore) Rachel Scheller will also be in there. So our midfield, I think, will be as good as it gets. We’re really excited about our midfield.”
BSU opens the season with three exhibition games next weekend before hosting Northern Michigan in its official home opener Sept. 1.
It will be good preparation for the NSIC season, which begins Sept. 9 at Minnesota, Crookston. Ultimately, the Beavers want a shot at dethroning Winona and Mankato and possibly making it to the NCAA tournament.
That’s not an impossible task. The conference champion gets the automatic bid to the D-II regional tournament. Upper Iowa upset WSU in the NSIC tournament last season.
What’s more, BSU played Mankato to a scoreless tie in the regular season in 2011 and before losing to the Mavericks 1-0 in the first round of the NSIC playoffs. Not bad against a team that scored nearly three times as many goals (56) as the Beavers did a season ago. BSU also held Winona to one goal in a loss in the regular season.
“I’m hoping that we can avenge the loss in the playoffs last season, especially since I didn’t get to play against them last year,” VanHaaften said. “We really want to make the regional tournament. […] We’ll have to grow throughout the season. I think we will be peaking at the end when the playoffs start.”