NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Belmont head coach Heather Henson saw something in her players down the stretch of the 2017 season that had been missing for too long. The Bruins entered each game with an expectation not only that they could win, but they should.
That confidence helped Belmont to a 10-6-2 record and a berth in the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament. The competitive drive elevated the program as a whole in 2017 and Henson expects to see that edge even more prominently as the 2018 season dawns this week.
The Bruins host crosstown rival Lipscomb at E.S. Rose Park on Friday at 6:30 p.m. – with action streaming live on the OVC Digital Network – before traveling to Middle Tennessee State on Sunday for a 6 p.m. match in the team's first non-exhibition action of the season.
"Last year was an opportunity," began Henson, now in her eighth year leading the Bruins. "They began to not worry about if they can win; they started to realize they knew they could win. Their posture, their words and their mindset all started to change. We've got to continue to raise our expectations."
The Bruins expect to be a major player in the OVC after being voted fourth in the preseason poll. They expect to be back in the conference tournament after making the past two brackets. And they expect to improve on last year's finish, a premature exit in the quarterfinals against SEMO in double overtime.
"A lot of us remember that game and that day and how terrible it felt to end the season that way," said senior defender Sarah Bossung (Nashville, Tenn.). "I think we still have a lot of vengeance to get for that. We were not happy with how we played that game."
Bossung will anchor the back line while the offense will be more balanced than a year ago when the now-graduated Belicia Mendiola led Belmont with nine goals. The Bruins return five players who each scored four or more goals. Seniors Emily Whitcomb (Elmhurst, Ill.) and Megan Michela (Carol Steam, Ill.) and sophomores Sydney Cason (Hendersonville, Tenn.) and Halle Krebs (Lakewood, Ohio) all had four goals in 2017 and sophomore Julie Garst (Franklin, Tenn.) was second overall with five.
Garst especially appears primed for a breakout season after being named Second Team All-OVC.
"I just learned so much from her," Garst said of playing with Mendiola. "She was very good with the ball at her feet, a really technical player. I like to run, get the ball in space. When our playing types meshed, it was really nice bringing something new to the game."
Without Mendiola, a four-time OVC postseason honoree, the Bruins offense will focus more on speed than in years past.
"We'll have to play a little differently without Belicia. You take out that piece, who could slow the game down and take on multiple players, but the young players that we have now can go fast," Henson said. "We want to find out how fast we can go – how fast we can move the ball and how fast our attack can be."
After a solid sophomore season that featured five shutouts, goalkeeper Lily Herman (Springboro, Ohio) is back in net for the Bruins. She and fellow returner Abby Hunt (Surrey, B.C., Canada) split time early last season before Herman took over the starting duty for good in conference play.
The Bisons are coming off a 9-7-3 season that featured a third consecutive ASUN Championship game appearance. Lipscomb has a pair of returners who garnered All-ASUN honors in 2017, senior defender Justis Bailey and junior forward Olivia Doak.
ABOUT MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE
The Blue Raiders were 8-10 a year ago, but return one of the most dangerous players in Conference USA. Sophomore forward Peyton DePriest has been named the C-USA Preseason Offensive Player of the Year after leading C-USA in goals in 2017 with 13, tied for the nation's lead among freshmen.