The Pitt-Bradford women's soccer team was on the cusp of the NCAA tournament in 2012. When the Panthers open the new season Saturday at home against Geneva, the goal from day one is to finish unfinished business.
Back-to-back 13 win seasons have established the women as arguably Pitt-Bradford's top athletic squad. No team in the AMCC has more wins over the last two seasons, and the Panthers were represented a school-record seven times on the all-conference team a year ago, including four first-teamers.
But all of that really means nothing to this year's group, especially those who were on the field last November in Erie, Pa. It's championship or bust.
Sixth-year head coach Mike Idland is throwing around words like "legacy" and "dynasty" this preseason. Those are the expectations, establishing Pitt-Bradford as an elite program, including within the AMCC.
"I would like to put measurable distance between us and our nearest competitive rivals in the conference," Idland said.
Pitt-Bradford has ranked as the top defensive team in the AMCC the last two seasons, but it was the offense that took a big step forward in 2012.
The sophomore scoring duo of Maggie Boehler and Tess Follman accounted for 27 goals last year. Boehler was named the league's preseason Player of the Year after earning co-honors as a freshman. Follman will see a larger role on the defensive end where the Panthers must replace several key figures, but a player of her caliber can impact the game in so many facets.
The biggest addition up front will be freshman Melissa Smith, who quickly connected with Boehler to score two goals in the team's first scrimmage against Alfred State. Idland believes her club team experience will make the transition to the college game seamless.
"Her experience leading a club team that competed in some of the most challenging and prestigious competitions in the northeastern United States should help her to establish herself in the college game relatively quickly," Idland said.
Sophomore Taylor Perkins and freshmen Krista Burdett and Paula Herbet will add depth to the Panthers' attack.
Seniors Andrea Gundlach and Vicky DeLong and junior Casey Schimpf return to anchor the midfield. Gundlach and Schimpf were second-team all-AMCC selections last year, and DeLong is just as skilled but lacked the counting stats. Their pressure last season led to many easy scoring opportunities.
Senior Ursula Maillet, junior Paige Wallace and sophomore Victoria Pearson provide experience in the midfield, and freshmen Kayla Stayer, Catherine Mammoser, Ashley Parks, Shaytra Ewell, and Cherrymay Ortiz will compete for playing time. Ewell, who brings the same physicality to the game as Gundlach and DeLong, will also see time at forward.
Defensively, the Panthers enter the season with a few question marks. They must replace the 2012 AMCC Defensive Player of the Year in goalkeeper Alisa Cornell. Also gone is Linsey Stack, a two-time first-team all-league defender. Both played a big role in setting the defense within the game, serving as an extension of Idland on the field.
Sophomores Jamie Christensen and Sarah Turner will step in to fill the void. Christensen has taken on a more vocal role this year, and Turner was a first-team all-AMCC pick as a freshman. Follman and sophomore Molly Carson will fill out the rest of the backline. Carson saw extended time in the AMCC championship match last year, an indication of Idland's faith in her ability. Second-year players Emily Hendricks and Gabrielle Neuhof will provide experience.
Adjusting to new personnel in net will be the biggest challenge for Idland, but he has confidence in newcomers Danielle Erdley, a senior, and freshman Brooke Redfern.
"I'm looking forward to working with them and to seeing the part they'll play in our team's success this season," Idland said.
His biggest recruit in the offseason will never touch the field this season. Amanda Shaw, a former player under Idland, takes over as assistant coach for Sarah Wolcott, who is now the head coach at NCAA Division III Cedar Crest in Allentown, Pa.
"Amanda was of the very top cut of leaders during her playing days at Pitt-Bradford," Idland said. "She embodies so much of what we're about: a beautiful blend of ability, heart, killer instinct and loyalty."
Idland beefed up the schedule this season, adding matches against Allegheny and William Smith, an NCAA tournament team from a year ago. Saint Vincent, Juniata, Buffalo State and Houghton are also on the schedule once again. The Panthers were 0-4 against those teams a year ago and hope to atone for those setbacks.
Pitt-Bradford was picked second in the AMCC preseason coaches' poll and will host its most important match-Penn State Behrend-Oct. 23. That match may potentially determine the top seed for the conference tournament.
The women have never won the conference regular season crown outright. If they were to do so this year, it would pave an easier path to the NCAA tournament and that's the ultimate goal.
The Panthers are supremely talented and are aware of it. It's just a matter of settling some unfinished business.