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Season Preview: Women's Soccer Poised to Return to Postseason in 2009

After amassing 10 victories for the second straight season last fall, third-year head coach Ray Leone and the Harvard women’s soccer team will attempt to once again capture the Ivy League crown and reach the NCAA tournament.

The Crimson, which returns most of its starters and 83 percent of its offense, as well as all six All-Ivy League performers, including the last three Ivy Rookie of the Year recipients – Lauren Mann, Katherine Sheeleigh and Melanie Baskind, also welcomes an incoming freshman class of 10 players, which will add to Harvard’s versatility and depth in pursuit of another postseason appearance.

“Our goal is to once again be one of the top teams in the country and to make the NCAA tournament,” Leone said. “Winning the Ivy League title last year was a great experience and provides confidence, but this season has nothing to do with last year, and we need to continue to improve as a team.”

Harvard, which kicks off its schedule Sept. 4 in a home contest against San Diego State, faces four teams that reached the 2008 NCAA tournament on this year’s slate and will pair against several of the nation’s best squads. “Our schedule is very good this year and we are fortunate to have most of the games at home or nearby,” Leone added. “All of these teams are good enough to be at the top of their respective leagues.”

Between the pipes, Mann, the 2006 Ivy Rookie of the Year and three-time all-conference honoree, played 13 games a year ago, posting a 1.02 goals-against average and a 5-3-4 record with one shutout. Returning for her senior campaign, she has 13 career shutouts to her credit and will provide veteran leadership and experience to the Crimson goalkeeping corps.

Co-captain Lizzy Nichols, who has been named to the All-Ivy League team all three of her seasons at Harvard, will anchor the Crimson defense, which surrendered only 18 goals in 18 contests in 2008. Nichols, a senior, also tallied two goals last fall including the dramatic game-winning penalty kick in double overtime against Columbia, clinching Harvard’s first Ivy League title since 1999, as well as its first NCAA appearance since 2004.

Junior Katherine Kuzma, sophomore Lindsey Kowal and senior Kelli Okuji started a combined 51 games last year and will bolster the Harvard defensive unit. Kowal was an Ivy League honorable mention pick last season as a freshman.

Junior co-captain Gina Wideroff, coming off her second consecutive All-Ivy season, adds leadership at the Crimson midfield, possibly Harvard’s deepest position. She will be joined up front by senior Christina Hagner, junior Katherine Sheeleigh and sophomore Melanie Baskind, the reigning Ivy Rookie of the Year. Hagner led the team with seven goals last fall, while Baskind and Sheeleigh, the Ivy League Rookie of the Year in 2008, were first and second in scoring with 19 and 17 points, respectively. Sheeleigh is a two-time All-Ivy selection and has tallied 14 goals over the course of her first two seasons.

Through the first week of practice, coach Leone admits the team is enthused and the influx of freshmen, combined with the returning players that guided Harvard to the top of the Ivy League a year ago, has provided a positive atmosphere at camp.

“We have an exciting team with a lot of potential but all we are focused on now is improving our level of play and fitness as quickly as possible so we are ready for talented teams like San Diego State and beyond,” Leone said. “This will be a challenging season and I know our team is looking forward to getting back on to Ohiri Field and seeing what we can accomplish together over the course of the next three months.”

Harvard, which ended last year’s regular season with a 7-0-1 run, plays its first road game at Connecticut Sept. 5, before returning home to face New Hampshire Sept. 8 and Long Beach State Sept. 11. Two days later, Harvard travels to Hofstra for its furthest non-conference road contest and then plays road games against local rivals Boston College Sept. 18 and Boston University Sept. 20. The meeting against the Terriers will be shown live nationally on Fox Sports Channel.

The Crimson begins the Ivy portion of its schedule at home against Penn Sept. 26, faces Holy Cross at Cumnock Turf Sept. 29 and opens October on the road at Yale Oct. 3. Harvard’s final non-conference game of the regular season is scheduled for Oct. 6 against Fairfield, as the team closes out at Cornell Oct. 10, against Brown Oct. 17, Princeton Oct. 24, Dartmouth Oct. 31 and at Columbia Nov. 7. The Crimson was undefeated at home in 2008, posting a 6-0-2 mark at Ohiri Field and Cumnock Turf.

Photo courtesy DSPics.com.