KU Fall Sports Preview: Healthier soccer team hoping to fulfill high potential

photo by: Photo courtesy of Kansas Athletics

The Kansas women's soccer team celebrates a second-half goal by Shira Elinav in the Jayhawks' 1-0 win at Iowa on Thursday, Aug. 25, 2022.

By the end of last season it might have been easier to count the Kansas soccer players who were available to play, rather than those who were out.

Forgive the hyperbole, but in truth KU suffered eight season-ending injuries in 2022. That meant that by the end of the year the Jayhawks were missing eager newcomers (Mackenzie Hammontree and Hallie Klanke), promising returnees (Mya Sheridan, Magali Gagné and Kennidy Tallman) and seasoned starters (Moira Kelley, Brie Severns and Grace Wiltgen) alike.

The result was a downward trajectory after a string of promising nonconference results, and an eventual seventh-place finish in the Big 12 Conference at 2-5-2 (9-9-2 overall).

With the intervening months to recover, and a full summer of work with strength coach Taylor Hynes, KU head coach Mark Francis believes his team will benefit from “the ability to start over fresh and start a new slate, (with a) different group, different preparation going into it.”

“I think as a whole group, we’ve learned that through especially last year that we need to really listen to our bodies,” said senior striker Shira Elinav, who led the team with eight goals last year.

Kansas sent two of its most accomplished players, forward Rylan Childers and defender Kaela Hansen, on to professional soccer, but returns a choice group of young standouts who saw extended time during the 2022 season. That includes players like reigning Big 12 all-freshman selection Lexi Watts, who tallied six goals and three assists with 15 starts and is back with Elinav this year.

“I think for us as a staff, it’s going to be just continuing to push her,” Francis said. “I think Lexi’s got a ton of ability and has a ton of potential, and our job is to make sure that we help her fulfill that potential.”

Defenders Assa Kante (once a conference freshman of the week) and Maree Shinkle (a 19-game starter) also saw extended time, with Shinkle playing 1,243 minutes last season. In all, 26 of 30 players saw the field for KU.

“Some of the younger guys, I mean, they probably would have played anyway, but I think because of the injuries there were a lot of players that played a lot of minutes,” Francis said. “And I think we saw the benefit of that in terms of confidence and just being comfortable in the spring, and then I think going into the fall, I think those young players, I think it’ll really help them in their sophomore year.”

They will continue developing as they rejoin a group of experienced contributors that also includes defender Mackenzie Boeve, midfielder Raena Childers, defender/midfielder Kate Dreyer and midfielder Avery Smith.

This year’s freshman class is expected to make its own fair share of contributions. Francis has touted the new group, which features goalkeeper Sophie Dawe, defenders Caroline Castans, Siera Herbert (also a midfielder) and Olivia Page, and attacker Jocelyn Herrema, for its athleticism.

“I think they’re going to make a big impact on the team, on and off the field, from what we’ve been practicing during our captain practices,” Elinav said. “They’ve been showing off, and it looks like they’re going to fit the system that we’re about to play.”

Kelley, who said she’s made a point of trying to take the freshmen under her wing, added that preseason has featured an atmosphere of competition.

One area of particular interest is at goalkeeper, where the Jayhawks have no clear-cut starter following a year that saw them rank near the bottom of the conference in save percentage and goals allowed. Melania Pasar played the majority of the 2022 season, with Hayven Harrison starting five games, and the pair is joined by Dawe and her older sister Gabbie, a fifth-year senior. Francis said it’s the largest number of goalkeepers he’s had.

“It’s just going to be a matter of who makes the position their own,” he had. “It’s really going to be up to them.”

The stretch of KU’s nonleague schedule includes matchups against teams like Arkansas State (Thursday) and Washington State (Sept. 10) along with regional foes like Missouri (Sept. 3) and Kansas City (Sept. 7).

“We typically tend to do pretty well in nonconference,” Kelley said. “It’s fun because you get to travel to different areas and experience different places that you wouldn’t in the Big 12 … It’s also kind of a learning curve.”

KU will have plenty to learn about the new-look Big 12 as well this year — “The strength of the conference is going to be better,” Francis said — and it faces two of the incoming schools in Central Florida and Houston.

Kelley said that one key to improvement this year is “not becoming complacent with where we’re at, focusing on where we want to go.”

In 2019, the year before Kelley came in and one for which only two current Jayhawks (Pasar and Gabbie Dawe) were on the roster, Francis’ team embarked on an 11-game unbeaten stretch and made it all the way to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16. He said the team was then hampered by the pandemic in 2020, its youth in 2021 and injuries in 2022.

“It’s a clean slate,” he said. “The ability and the potential of the group is high as it’s ever been in any group we’ve ever had, I think. Our job as a staff is to get the most out of the group.”

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