The Loyola women’s soccer team (2-2-0) kicked off its fall season before the school year. The Ramblers have four games under their belts, including one win against University of Massachusetts at Lowell.
Coming off a 13-7 season in which two players scored in double digits, junior midfielder Sienna Cruz said the the team is anxious to see what happens. She said she thinks it’s going to be a big year for the team.
“I’m very excited. I know that we did super well last year, so I feel like we can keep getting better,” Cruz said. “We have very athletic girls coming in and still on the team. I definitely feel like we can do big things this year.”
In the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) preseason poll, the coaches voted the Ramblers to finish first in the conference. Cruz and senior forward Jenna Szczesny were named to the preseason all-conference team.
Being the preseason favorite puts a target on Loyola’s back, according to head coach Barry Bimbi. Bimbi said winning the MVC was always the plan, but this more pressure.
“Obviously, that was our goal anyway, coming into the season with all the senior leadership,” Bimbi said. “It was very clearly laid out from day one to the returning players that our goal is to win the conference.”
Bimbi said he doesn’t think the Ramblers are a clear favorite. He said the MVC is a deep conference and it has the potential to be anyone’s game.
“Just looking at what teams returned from last season, I think Missouri State is going to be a tough challenge,” Bimbi said. “They won the tournament last year and they returned a decent amount of starters. So, if I was going to pick one it’d be Missouri State.”
Bimbi said with eight starters returning and six first-years joining the roster, the team is optimistic about their chances of winning the conference. Players are starting to stand out and show what skills they bring to the team, according to Bimbi.
Bimbi said to keep an eye on junior defender Madison Laudeman and sophomore midfielder Lindsay Hardiman because he thinks they’ll have a bigger role on the team this year.
“[Laudeman] had a really good year for us last year on defense so, with another year of experience, I think she’ll be good for us,” Bimbi said. “[Hardiman] had an outstanding freshman season, starting every game for us, and I just think that with that experience she’s going to be even better for us this year.”
Bimbi also brought on a strong recruiting class, headlined by Bella Lestina and Abby Swanson. In only 12 minutes of action against Notre Dame, Lestina socered the Ramblers’ only goal. Swanson played 88 minutes of her first college game against University of Massachusetts Lowell and notched an assist and three shots on goal.
The Ramblers have already been challenged by No. 14/19 Notre Dame. The Ramblers were able to keep the Fighting Irish close but ultimately lost 2-1.
“We are off to a really good start,” Szczesny said. “We played really [well] against Notre Dame and University of Massachusetts Lowell. We came out really hard against them and I’m really excited to see everything that we’re going to do this season.”
Goal scoring is going to be a constant from last year, according to Bimbi. Last year, the Ramblers scored 61 goals to their opponents’ 29. So far, the Ramblers have nine goals on 22 shots on goal this season. Bimbi said getting a goal against a top-25 team gave his team more confidence, but the players still have much work to do.
“A goal for us this year: Don’t get shut out. We lost a handful of games 1-0 last year and some really important games,” Bimbi said. “A major emphasis for us during our preseason this year is ‘Can we tighten up the defense a little bit?’ From where we were last year, I think the girls are making good strides towards that.”
Szczesny said all the players are fully invested this year. She said while they still need to work on their communication and defense, they’re ready to meet their goals of winning the conference and hopefully making the NCAA tournament.
“As a team, I feel like we’re really tuned in and focus on everything that the coaches have planned for us,” Szczesny said.
The Ramblers are scheduled to play Purdue Fort Wayne Aug. 31 at Loyola Soccer Park.