Fall sports preview: Kansas soccer counting on new faces in big roles in 2020

photo by: KU Athletics

Kansas soccer goalkeeper Sarah Peters grabs for the ball during a preseason practice on Aug. 5, 2020.

Replacing three key players from last season’s Sweet 16 team will be a stiff challenge for the Kansas soccer program, but coach Mark Francis isn’t interested in making it harder than it needs to be.

“There’ll be some new faces in the starting 11 just because there has to be,” Francis said two weeks into his team’s preseason practices. “Like I told the girls jokingly the other day, we’re not going to play with less players.”

Now in his 21st season leading the Jayhawks, Francis has been in Lawrence long enough to face some challenging rebuilding projects. But history has shown him that players tend to step up when opportunities present themselves.

The 2020 Jayhawks will have to find players to do that at all three levels of the field to replace defender Addisyn Merrick, midfielder Sophie Maierhofer and forward and leading scorer Katie McClure, who all graduated after helping lead KU to a Big 12 tournament title and a deep run in the NCAA Tournament a year ago.

“Those were three of the first names you put down when you were doing the lineup,” Francis said. “So we lost some people in some key spots, but we’ve got some returners that did a nice job at times last year, and then we’ve got a very talented group of newcomers, too.”

Few have Francis as excited as junior midfield Rylan Childers, who comes to KU after starting her career with the Kansas City Roos.

“I think she’s going to make a massive difference,” Francis said.

Joining the team’s top newcomer in leading the 2020 Jayhawks are seniors Ceri Holland, a captain in 2019, and Mandi Duggan, a fifth-year senior who has been a key part of the past few Kansas teams.

KU also returns junior goalkeeper Sarah Peters, who started all 25 games a season ago and tied the program record with 11 shutouts. Her 0.75 goals-against average tied for the third lowest in program history, and she earned a spot on the all-tourney team at the Big 12 tournament.

“There are some kids that have been around for a while that know the way that we want to do it,” Francis said. “And they’ve been a big help in kind of resetting that tone after being off for a while.”

While last season’s string of postseason success brought the program its first Big 12 tournament title and second trip to the Sweet 16, no such hardware will be on the line in 2020.

In mid-August, the NCAA canceled all fall sports championships because of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving the Big 12 regular-season title as the biggest prize for the Jayhawks to pursue this fall.

But Francis said his players weren’t disappointed for long after learning they wouldn’t be able to repeat what they accomplished last season.

“It is what it is, right?” Francis said. “You just go with it. I think the culture of the group is really good. Practices have been really intense. The fact that we still have an opportunity to play is terrific, and whatever we end up with, we just want to make the most of the chance to go compete.”

Francis said the unusual nature of the season, along with so many newcomers playing important roles, would take some getting used to.

“As coaches, we’re probably going to have to do a lot of work because you’re going to be dealing with people in some key positions who are going to be new,” he said. “It’s making sure they know exactly what their role is and what’s expected of them.”

One thing Francis doesn’t expect to spend too much time on is explaining to his players and staff members how to conduct themselves in the midst of the pandemic so the season can be played.

“You don’t really have to say a lot,” he said. “We have constant reminders out there every day, and at this point they know the protocol in terms of how to handle themselves around the facility and when they’re not in our environment. It’s just making sure they continue to keep making smart decisions.”

KU will open the pandemic-shortened season on Sept. 11 at Texas.

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