Redhawks eye OVC title, NCAA's automatic berth

Thursday, August 24, 2006
Sophomore Casey Kraft is Southeast Missouri State's leading returning goal scorer with seven tallies last season. (Southeast Missourian file)

Heather Nelson built the Southeast Missouri State women's soccer program from scratch into one of the most consistently successful in the Ohio Valley Conference.

But there is one thing missing from Nelson's resume with the Redhawks that she would love to add -- an NCAA tournament appearance.

Could this perhaps be the year that Southeast breaks through by winning the OVC tournament and earning the league's automatic NCAA berth?

Nelson and the Redhawks are hopeful as they begin the 2006 season Friday, hosting Arkansas-Little Rock at 7 p.m. The game is part of a four-team tournament, which features another Redhawks home contest at 6 p.m. Sunday against Evansville.

Austin Peay rounds out the tournament field. The Govs will play Evansville at 4:30 p.m. Friday and Arkansas-Little Rock at 2 p.m. Sunday. No champion will be crowned.

"I'm excited about our personnel," Nelson said. "I think we're capable, we have the talent [to win the OVC]. It will be a combination of coming together as a team, and staying fit and healthy."

Nelson, who started the program in 1999, has led the Redhawks to a seven-year record of 78-37-12, including six straight winning seasons. Southeast captured OVC regular-season titles in 2001 and 2002, but lost both times in the finals of the conference tournament.

"I'm proud of the program we've built. I think we're really recognized as one of the consistent programs in the conference," she said. "We would like to get over the hump and get into the NCAA tournament."

The Redhawks again are expected to be OVC contenders this year, as they were picked third out of 10 teams in the preseason poll.

Last year, Southeast was 13-6-1 overall and 5-3-1 in OVC play to tie for third, then lost to Eastern Illinois 1-0 in the conference tournament semifinals.

"I have a really good feeling," said sophomore Casey Kraft, the Redhawks' leading returning goal-scorer. "We have a lot of chemistry on and off the field. I think it's going to be a really good season."

Southeast should have the experience to make a strong run as the Redhawks return eight starters from last season, with three other players starting at least five games, although the squad is still relatively young with just two seniors.

Headlining the Redhawks' returnees is senior goalkeeper Lindsay Pickering, the 2005 OVC defensive player of the year after leading the league in shutouts (11) while ranking among the conference's top 10 in goals-against average (0.58), save percentage (.826) and saves (57). Her goals-against average was 14th nationally.

"She really provides a presence in goal for us," Nelson said.

Although leading scorer Lisa Schweppe graduated after recording nine goals and 20 points, the Redhawks return a trio of players who totaled at least 15 points.

Kraft, a member of the 2005 OVC all-newcomer team, scored seven goals and had 17 points.

Junior Alaina Lacopo matched Kraft with 17 points on five goals and a team-high seven assists.

Sophomore Nicole Bussman added 15 points, including six goals, despite starting just five games.

Senior Jessi Wuellner is also back after scoring three goals.

Other returning starters are senior Caitlin Huber, junior Margie Schaeffler, junior Blair Schuppan and sophomore Jessica Kaiz.

Juniors Lauren Costello and Megan Matter joined Bussman in starting at least five games, while sophomore Megan McGrath also returns.

"I'm excited about all the returning players," Nelson said. "They're all quality athletes."

Nelson will also be looking for contributions from her seven freshmen: Courtney Alexander, Cassie Brown, Amber Garner, Rachel Harrington, Stephanie Kulavic, Lauren Lacopo -- Alaina's sister -- and Nicole Monks from Australia.

"I think the majority of the freshmen will contribute," Nelson said.

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