(Editor’s note: I’d hoped to preview both of the local teams in Friday’s season opener, but only heard back from Coach Michner. dc)
The women from the College of Charleston closed out the book on their Southern Conference era in early November with a 2-1 loss in the conference semi-final Furman after finishing 7th in the conference (6-11-1, 5-5-1 SoCon).
On Friday they’ll begin their fourth season under Coach Christian Michner in a showdown with crosstown rival Charleston Southern (7 p.m. Patriots Point), the first step toward what promises to be a challenging first season in the Colonial Athletic Association.
But before their conference season begins on Sept. 27, the Cougars must claw their way through a brutal non-conference road schedule: Aug. 30 at the University of Illinois, Sept. 1 at DePaul, Sept. 13 at Auburn, Sept. 15 at Georgia, and Sept. 20 at UNC-Charlotte.
That road schedule brackets the College of Charleston Cup at Patriots Point, which features matches against Virginia Commonwealth on Sept. 6 and Kent State on Sept. 8.
All of which means that by the time the eight-game CAA schedule begins at Patriots Point against Northeastern on Sept. 27, the Cougars will already have been baptized by fire against some big-time programs. After hosting Northeastern, the Cougars travel to Long Island, NY, to play Hofstra on Sept. 29, and host Towson University on Oct. 6. They go on the road for their next three ( Oct. 11 at UNC Wilmington, Oct. 20 at William and Mary, Oct. 20 at James Madison in Harrisonburg, Va. The final weekend of the conference season gives them home matches against Delaware on Oct. 25 and Drexel on Oct. 27.
“We expect to play against some great teams,” Michner said. “There are some historically wonderful teams and Top 25 programs. Hofstra. William and Mary over the years has been fantastic. Just up the road, UNC Wilmington, I know Paul (Cairney)’s done a great job there. And James Madison not so long ago was in the Sweet 16 out in Portland.
“So it’s a conference that’s gotten multiple bids into the NCAA tournament. We know it’s a well-respected conference that’s going to be physical. There are going to be teams that play all different styles, and we’re going to have to be ready to adapt, but also to win home and away in different fashion.”
The Cougars season will ultimately be judged by its performance within the conference, but the program’s ambition to punch above its weight as a feared mid-major school may be defined by its non-conference opponents.
“We’re not one to shy away from playing the top teams in the country,” Michner said after practice Wednesday. “We pride ourselves on wanting to play at Illinois, wanting to play on the road at Georgia, at DePaul, at Auburn. We’ll get those teams coming to Charleston over the next few years as well, so they won’t always be road matches.”
Playing in the Colonial, with its roots deep in the Mid-Atlantic, means traveling farther to play away-games. But Michner doesn’t think the distances will change much. “The mode of transportation will be different. I don’t think the time on the road is going to be that much different.
“We’ll be flying mostly. We’ll drive to some of the schools, but we’ll be flying to New York, we’ll be flying to Boston, we’ll be flying to Philly, to DC. We’ll drive to Wilmington and to William and Mary, but those aren’t any different than our Southern Conference trips, really. So we may be going to New York, but it’s a two, two-and-a-half-hour flight versus a five-hour bus ride to Elon.”
The team had a solid spring, split its preseason exhibition schedule with a 0-2 home loss to the University of South Carolina and a 3-2 road win at Georgia State. Michner added goalkeeping coach Eliza Bennett-Hattan to a staff that already featured Assistant Coach Tracy Chao and volunteer Hallie Briggs. And the Cougars have generally gotten through preseason in good health.
“I think a lot of it is the kids came in fit,” Michner said. “When you come in unfit and we’re doing two or three sessions a day, that can lead to muscle strains and injuries as your body breaks down. And we’ve been able to avoid that, largely.”
This summer’s edition includes five incoming players. One of them — forward Kelsey McQuaid, a sophomore transfer from the University of Tennessee — has already flashed considerable talent.
“She played in the spring for us, did very well, scored some great goals for us over the spring,” said Michner. “We expect she’ll step in either in the midfield or up top and help us in the attacking third.
The squad also adds five freshmen: Lauren Killian, a goalkeeper from Blythewood, SC.; midfielder Danielle Mellem, from San Clemente, Calif. (“a graceful, tall, strong center-mid, with a great first touch”); center forward Maria Zecca, a Bostonian who spent the summer playing for the Italian U-20 national team but is currently battling a hip issue that will keep her out of the lineup into mid-September; and attacking wing Riley Narum from Clearwater, Fla.
“She plays out on the right,” Michner said. “She’s flashy, attacking, fast… a super-athletic player who will be flying past players on the wing.”
The Senior Class
Michner sounds happy with his five-woman senior group, which includes his top players and team captain.
“We’ve got Sara Cardamone in that group, and she’s a redshirt player, so she does have another year of eligibility. We’re going to see if she can stay and play another year.”
Along with Jade Reynolds, a center back from England, and goalkeeper Jena Mohr, a former Clemson transfer who is recovering from an ACL injury, the class also includes team captain Victoria Fichman, a forward from Charlotte, and Eli Sarasola, a goalkeeper from Spain.
“We thought we going to have her for four years, (but) ended up only having her for two due to NCAA rules and eligibility issues,” Michner said. “She played for FC Barcelona in one of the top leagues in the world before coming here. Spanish youth national team player as well.”
And in goal…
Michner typically speaks about his team with the gathering momentum of a rock on a downhill trajectory. Until you ask him whether he’s settled on a goalkeeper.
“We haven’t,” he said, drawing breathe through his teeth.
“I tell you. Eli has come in and done very well. She was the No 1 for most of last year, but Taylor was injured for eight weeks of the season and was out all spring. So Taylor has been out for almost 11 months. With an injury… (and) she’s done really well.
“And (freshman) Lauren Killian has come in an exceeded expectations. Early. We knew she was going to be a great goalkeeper for the future, but we’re pleasantly surprised at her development in such a short fashion.
In making his decision, Michner will have to balance talent, experience and intangibles.
“It’s a fine line that you walk. You need someone that’s comfortable back there, that’s confident, that the team trusts. But it’s also (got to be someone who is) confident in organization and communication with the players. Someone that reads the game very well.
“We play against a lot of teams that play different styles. So every game is a little different. We play against a lot of teams that are very direct, and you need a goalkeeper who is good at coming off her line to get balls. We’ll play against a team that’s going to pass the ball around, you need someone that can organize and keep us tight defensively. And in this day and age, goalkeepers have to be great with their feet. They’ve got to be the first line of our attack a lot of the time.”
Sarasola may have the inside track on the job, but the competition continues.
Formation and style
Michner’s teams have traditionally used the 4-3-3 as their go-to formation. But Michner rattles off three others they’ve used in preseason — the 3-5-2, the 4-4-2, the 4-2-3-1.
“The difference between this team and any team I’ve coached in the past is versatility of players,” he said. “We’ve got players who can play in multiple positions and can give us different looks. And some of that will be based on who’s healthy who’s in form, and some of it is based on who we’re playing, and where we think we’re going to have an advantage. So we’ll look at things, without changing things from week-to-week too much, because you lose consistency there. But I really think my team can play in two or three formations pretty easily.We’re not married to (one).”
As for style of play…
“We want to keep the ball. We want to possess … in the attacking half. We don’t want to be a team that possesses in our defensive half. Teams are liable for turnovers in that half, and it can lead to goals.
“I love the game. I grew up playing the game, and it’s still in my blood. And if we were sort of a kick and run team, I wouldn’t have much to do, except for throw a ball out there and let them play and kick each other. It would certainly be easier. My practice plans wouldn’t take nearly as long.
“And when we recruit, we want to find players that are comfortable on the ball, that can beat players on the dribble, that can beat players in combination. Players that aren’t, that their first touch lets them down, are probably going to find that College of Charleston isn’t their spot.”
Three players to watch
If you’re new to watching College of Charleston soccer and you’re looking for three players to keep an eye on at home matches, these are Michner’s suggestions:
“Eli Sarasola as a goalkeeper, if she’s playing and starting, is a phenomenal talent. I honestly believe she’s one of the top five goalkeepers in the country. She’s unbelievable. She had a great summer playing out in Colorado with the Rush in the W League. She’s in form and she’s playing very well.”
“In the midfield, Sarah Cardamone is our engine. There’s no one who plays with more passion and heart than she does. She puts it all on the line, and she’s very skillful. She led our team in scoring last year, she led the conference in assists her freshman year and was an All-Conference player.
“And up front, McCallie Jones is a senior. She’s got blinding pace. She’s got a flip throw that she can chuck 65 yards, which is a sight to see. And she’s unbelievable in the air. So she’s a player that’s got so many threats.
TOP IMAGE: Fourth-year head coach Christian Michner speaks to his crew at the end of training on Wednesday. Dan Conover photos. Equipment courtesy of Modern Media Works.