A mystery wrapped in a riddle inside a women’s soccer team

Steve Lewis/Durango Herald
Madyson Wellcome, Brooke Milliet, Serena Mancha, Ashley Kniffen and other members of the Fort Lewis College women’s soccer team will need to replicate the energy of Thursday’s practice throughout the season in what should be a tight race for the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference title. Enlarge photo

Steve Lewis/Durango Herald Madyson Wellcome, Brooke Milliet, Serena Mancha, Ashley Kniffen and other members of the Fort Lewis College women’s soccer team will need to replicate the energy of Thursday’s practice throughout the season in what should be a tight race for the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference title.

Be more enigmatic.

Be less predictable.

By doing so, the No. 15 Fort Lewis College women’s soccer team hopes to claw its way to the top of what’s expected to be a top-heavy competition for the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference title.

Gone from the offensive attack is Hayley Hollenga, who graduated after last season as the holder of most major offensive school records.

But FLC head coach Damian Clarke said he doesn’t expect his offense to miss a beat. What he does expect is continued improvement from junior Emma Cannis, who had nine goals and a team-leading nine assists last season.

“Hayley left Emma with a whole ... toolbox to work with. I think she learned a lot from playing with Hayley, and I think she’s passing that off to Sam (Weiss),” Clarke said.

“We’ve got to kind of pick up where we left off and kind of improve on it. I’ll never forget the last game last year at (Colorado School of) Mines, those two having a heart to heart, where Hayley knew she was kind of passing the reins and telling Emma, ‘Hey, you go and do it, kid.’ ... And I think she will.”

She’ll be joined up top by Weiss, a sophomore who had a stellar freshman season with six goals and three assists – mostly off the bench. And the midfield should figure heavily in the attack, particularly outside midfielder Megan Striedel, who scored six times last year as a sophomore.

“Now we’re trying to get people to fill some different roles and have some different looks that ... teams haven’t seen from us before,” Striedel said. “Keep them guessing.”

There’s also the matter of filling the hole in the central midfield left by the departed Sara Egbom, who teamed with current senior Elena Benavides to form a potent 1-2 punch in the ball-control department.

Durango High School graduate and freshman Brooke Milliet, who scored twice in a recent exhibition contest against RMAC foe New Mexico Highlands, likely will see time there, as will senior Serena Mancha and sophomore Emily Walters.

“I ... think we’ve got a very good crop of freshmen kids who are going to contribute,” Clarke said.

“We’re not sure exactly what’s going to go there. There’s a good chance that it could be Brooke Milliet, the local kid, and she’s fitting in real well wherever we put her.”

Another added element this year is size, particularly that of 5-9 redshirt freshman Liz Hemminger. On set pieces, defenders such as 5-10 Molly Celler, 5-9 Grace Sheridan and 5-9 Laura Tita could find themselves in the box, as well.

The injury bug, however, has hit both the offense and defense fairly hard.

Offensively, sophomore Shea Haycock and freshman Jordan Hix both are out for the season with knee injuries.

Defensively, injuries may have taken an even bigger toll. Last year’s starting outside defenders, Nicole Schumacher and Ashley Kniffen, are out with a concussion and an anterior cruciate ligament tear, respectively.

Clarke said Kniffin probably could have made it back sometime this season, but the team has chosen to play it cautiously, instead hoping to rely on freshmen such as Sheridan and Tita and junior Rachael Budagher alongside junior center backs Lauren Riley and Madyson Wellcome, who return to give the FLC back four a strong center core.

“I’m very excited for the incoming freshmen. We have a lot this year that have to come in and fill some roles for us, and they’re really turning out quite nice and shaping into the team well,” Striedel said.

In goal, Amanda Raso returns for her junior year after compiling a 1.03 goals against average a season ago. She’ll be pushed hard by freshmen Caitlyn Espinosa and Dani Sheppard, who add an element of height to the Skyhawks’ goalkeeping corps.

“Two kids that add size and one kid that has a bunch of exprience. We’re going to fight that out,” Clarke said.

The fact that FLC is a possession-oriented team is no surprise. But Clarke’s hoping the depth of options on offense will live up to their billing in what should be a tight RMAC race. Defending regular-season champion Colorado Mines will be tough again, as will tournament champion Regis, while Metro State and Colorado Mesa have the potential to spoil the league’s expected three-team hierarchy.

“If we can stay a bit unpredictable ... realistically, I think we’ve got a different set of weapons. ... Brooke’s going to score goals from the midfield. Emma’s going to score goals; Sam’s going to score goals; Striedel’s going to score goals,” Clarke said. “So I think we’ve got more weapons than we did. We’re going to be more of an enigma than we’ve been in the last few years, I think.”

rowens@ durangoherald.com

Steve Lewis/Durango Herald
Shea Haycock and Jordan Hix are among a crop of key players whose services won’t be available for Fort Lewis College this fall because of injury. Included in that group are starting defenders Nicole Schumacher and Ashley Kniffen. Enlarge photo

Steve Lewis/Durango Herald Shea Haycock and Jordan Hix are among a crop of key players whose services won’t be available for Fort Lewis College this fall because of injury. Included in that group are starting defenders Nicole Schumacher and Ashley Kniffen.