The St. F.X. X-Women will start defense of their Atlantic University Sport (AUS) crown this weekend.
“I want to temper the expectations because we lost nine players,” head coach Graham Kennedy said.
“Not only did we lose nine good players, we lost nine players that were, kind of, the foundation of the leadership on our team, so to come back from that will take some building.”
He added that group brought “a lot to the table” – not only playing skills, but also elements of “leadership and culture building.”
“I don’t want to say that we are rebuilding, because we are not totally rebuilding, but we have to do some work on back-filling in for those players who have left, especially in terms of having people step up into leadership roles, so that will be a major focus for us,” Kennedy said.
Last season, Kennedy said, particularly in the second half, they “clamped down defensively.”
“We were really hard to score on and, in large part, we were hard to score on because we could take care of the ball when we had it,” he added.
Because teams have improved and “they are on to us,” when it comes to their ball possession game, Kennedy said the X-Women plan changes, including in formation.
Last season, they played a four-diamond-two formation, a variation of 4-4-2.
“We will be playing with a back three, so instead of four defenders we will be playing with three central defenders,” Kennedy explained.
“If we can get our new system in place, sooner rather than later, then I think we will have a good chance to have the kind of ball possession we had last year and, hopefully, improve on making better use of that possession.
“I think if I look back at what we are good at, it is keeping the ball; what we are not good at is taking that possession and converting it into opportunities to score goals,” Kennedy added.
He noted improvement must come in the final third of the pitch.
“Can we get penetrating runs, can we get penetrating passes and can we get in behind the opposition – that’s something that we have got to improve upon,” Kennedy said.
“I would be willing to sacrifice some possession to gain more position in a more advanced place on the field.”
The returning core includes forward Dani Makar, who missed last season after ACL surgery.
“She is a tremendous asset to the team. We are really lucky to have her back,” Kennedy said.
“Dani is one of the most optimistic, enthusiastic and positive people that you are ever going to meet, so she brings that energy to the team.
“She is also a terrific passer and receiver of the ball and she has tremendous courage when she plays,” he added.
Defender Olivia Wilkie, who returned for a fifth season, is recovering from a broken leg.
“Our goal, hopefully, is to have her back playing consistently in the second half of the season, but she has a little ways to go yet,” Kennedy said.
Junior Amy Rowe is another returning defender.
“She is a solid header of the ball. She is very smart, understands the game and we will certainly utilize that experience,” Kennedy said.
He praised fourth-year midfielder Olivia Czipf, noting she has started since “she walked in the door.”
“Versatile – can play anywhere in the back; can play anywhere in the centre of the midfield,” Kennedy said.
“She is a robust player, in the fact that she is durable, she is tough, she is skilled, she is athletic – she is an all-star in our league.
“In my opinion, she is one of the top players in the league,” he added.
Calling them ‘the Original Six,” Kennedy talked about members of a group that joined the program four years ago.
“Maybe the best recruiting class that has ever come in here for women’s soccer,” he suggested.
Midfielder Margaux Fraser, an all-star as a freshman, has battled injuries in her sophomore and junior campaigns.
“If she is healthy and capable of giving us minutes, she is one of the very best talents in the league,” Kennedy said.
“Her first touch and her ball control are exceptional; her ball protection is very good and she is great passer. She is also a fantastic striker of the ball.”
Midfielder Chloe Brennan provides “great versatility.”
“She can play anywhere across the front. She can play in midfield, if you need it. She is another player with a lot of athleticism, heart and guts,” Kennedy said, noting the “tremendous durability” of the 2016 all-star.
Her sister, Elise, is a key defender.
“She has been a mainstay for us,” he said, noting Elise had knee surgery during the summer.
“We are hoping to have her back – ready to play – in the second half of the season. She may start getting some minutes later in September, but she has a little ways to go yet,” Kennedy said.
Mercy Myles, a conference all-star in 2016, is back for her sophomore season.
“You can make a case that Mercy has the capacity to be the best player in the league – maybe one of the best in the country,” Kennedy said.
“The challenge that Mercy has is – she has gone from playing soccer in equatorial Africa to playing soccer in a northern climate, where there is a lot more pressing and a lot more running – making that adaptation.
“Offensively, she is an absolute force – she is a freak of nature in this league, actually – but, defensively, she has got work to do,” he added.
Kennedy said Myles not only has to develop her defensive game but also improve her fitness.
Between the pipes
Key newcomers include freshman goalkeeper Emma Kuznyk.
“We are really excited about her – she has a lot of talent. When I look at her, right now, I am thinking she, probably, is going to be our starting goalkeeper,” Kennedy said of the 6’0” athlete.
Although goalkeeping has been strong in recent seasons, Kennedy noted, she will provide an element that has been missing in defending set pieces, especially crosses.
Kennedy noted she also has “good feet.”
“She can distribute and she is a strong kicker of the ball, so I think it is going to be harder for teams to press us, because she can kick a ball 55, 60 yards, off the ground, which is something that we have not had here for the past 10 years, so that’s a big deal,” he said.
Claire MacDougall is a player with a deep Antigonish connection.
“She has been a provincial team player for four or five years in Nova Scotia,” Kennedy said, noting her height (5’9”) and “good fundamentals.”
“We are going to be able to count on her.”
Meg Mary Krawchuk is a “speedy, quick and explosive attacking player.”
“Not sure where she is going to fit [position] just yet – could be in a wide area, could be up front,” Kennedy said.
He added the program is “really excited” about Shayann Hedges.
“Not really big, but tremendously quick. Skillful – can penetrate out of midfield on the dribble and a tremendous ball winner,” Kennedy said.
“She is someone, I think, as a freshman, is going to play a lot of minutes.”
Melanie BeLong is “really athletic” and provides the X-Women with “a little more height” at 5’9”.
“She can really run, really move. She needs a bit of refining with her techniques, but we will work on that,” Kennedy said.
“I am really pleased to get her because I think she is not only a great athlete, but also a good student and tremendous in the character department,” he added.
X-Women newcomers include three NCAA Division 1 transfers.
“She is a right-footed player, who can play out wide, on the right, or out wide, on the left, where she is capable of coming in and taking long-range shots,” Kennedy said of Megan Frost.
“She is fantastically quick. In our testing she has come out in the top two or three in terms of quickness and speed – so we really like what she brings.”
He added Larissa White is a “very, very skillful central midfield player.”
“She has got big shoes to fill after losing Alix Bruch, but I think she is going to be a player in midfield who gives us that craftiness that we are looking for,” Kennedy said.
“She’s clever, she’s skilful and she is a good short-range passer, with excellent ball control skills.”
He added Emily Fleming brings “terrific game experience.”
“I think she is going to add to the team as well,” Kennedy said.
The 2017 recruiting class, he agreed, will help improve an X-Women offense anchored by the likes Myles, Chloe Brennan and Kelsey Ellis.
“We don’t have that one single dominant striker that we can focus our whole attack around, so we have to get better at encouraging multiple players to get forward, to get into the attacking penalty box and to take a bit more risk, perhaps, than we have taken before,” Kennedy said.
“I don’t know if we are that kind of team – I think we have to be able to win 1-0 games.”
The X-Women will start the regular season this weekend with a pair of games.
Saturday [Sept. 9], they will be on the road against the UPEI Panthers, while they will host the rival Saint Mary’s Huskies Sunday [Sept. 10].
Kickoff for the home opener, at Oland Stadium, is 1 p.m.