The University of North Alabama women's soccer team will open its 2015 season on the road Thursday (September 3) when the Lions travel to Lebanon, Ill., to take on McKendree University at 3 p.m.
Chris Walker, set to begin his third season as head coach at UNA, has 14 returning lettermen and six starters back from the 2014 team that went 14-4-1, reached the championship match of the Gulf South Conference Tournament and advanced to the NCAA South Regional Tournament for the fifth time in the last six years.
UNA defeated McKendree 3-0 in Forence a year ago in the season-opener for both schools and Walker says his 2015 team will be challenged right out of the gate again this season.
"We played McKendree last season at home and it was a close game," said Walker. "They are a well coached team with a lot of good players returning from last year. Plus we are playing them on the road and they know what to expect from us."
McKendree is the first of four non-conference matches that UNA will play to open the season. It's a tough slate that includes Belmont Abbey, Nova Southeastern and Palm Beach Atlantic, and Walker knows it will push and challenge his team.
"it's important that we do well in our first four matches before we get to conference play," Walker said. "We are playing very strong competition and we need to play well to be successful."
The Lions list of returning starters includes Daktronics Division II National Player of the Year Chloe Richards and All-Gulf South Conference selections Alyssa Bova, Eleanor Costello, Susan Lang and Beatriz Fernandes.
In the match against McKendree in 2014, Richards scored all three of UNA's goals to kick off a season that saw her lead the NCAA Division II in scoring with 26 goals.
UNA has competed against outside competition in two scrimmages during the preseason and Walker says those opportunities have helped his players.
"They have really helped with our fitness, the players working together and working on our shape," Walker said. "Our freshmen, Margarida Sousa, Kylie Huey and Paige Porter, have also stepped up and they are contributing right away."
Following the match at McKendree, the Lions will open their home slate on Saturday, September 5 against Belmont Abbey at 7 p.m. UNA's 12-match Gulf South Conference slate begins with a September 17 match at home against Alabama Huntsville.