By CHRIS MACKOWIAK
After a 1-6 start to the season, the Salisbury University women’s soccer team entered a five-game road trip that spanned the end of the non-conference slate and into the beginning of Capital Athletic Conference (CAC). For a team that only tallied two road victories in 2016, away trips were not a welcomed sight.
That notion changed in the third week of Sept. in 2017.
“I think it shows the toughness and resilience of this team. It’s big if you can start any conference 3-0. 3-0 on the road shows you what they’ve built and what they’ve come out of to prepare,” SU head coach Kwame Lloyd said.
Five goals, three goals allowed and three clean sheets later, SU returned home for Homecoming Weekend with a 4-1 record in that road stretch. Returning to their classic four-player back line, the Salisbury defense posted a 0.60 goals-against average (GAA) over the five-match stretch, improving from their 2.00 GAA over their first seven games.
While the defense celebrated Halloween a month early, disguised as a wall, the Sea Gulls found success on the offensive side of the ball. Senior forward Ruthie Lucas found her touch again, tallying six goals over five matches. Her team-leading seven scores is the most in a season during her SU career.
“It’s definitely been encouraging to me to be able to put some balls in the back of the net. I still have to do a lot better. I know that there are chances that I should have put away, and I think I should have a lot more than six,” Lucas said.
The peak in play has come at a perfect time as Salisbury built a 3-0 perfect record in the CAC headed into their Homecoming match vs. Penn St. – Harrisburg this Saturday. All SU did was extend that conference record to 4-0 with a 2-0 win over the Lions.
“It’s like your hard work is paying off. I’m just happy to help get Hope [Knussman] the shutouts too because I know it’s important to her,” senior defender Jamie Tacka said.
The Keepers at the Gate
To find a Salisbury women’s soccer team that recorded clean sheets in their first three conference games, the Sea Gull archives must be turned to 2011. Under then-head coach and current SU women’s lacrosse head coach Jim Nestor, the Sea Gulls went 13-6-2 including winning their first six conference games and recording a clean sheet in each of the first four.
While it is not written in stone that the team is on their way to a conference championship like in 2011, they are on the right track, not allowing a goal in conference play three games in.
“I think the back line is doing a fantastic job. I think Hope [Knussman] is putting herself in great positions at times. We got lucky a few times, but I think our backline is playing really well,” Lloyd said.
Two senior staples lead the back line out on the field in center backs Rachel Anderson and Jamie Tacka. After starting the season with a back-three formation, the duo is back as the center back tandem in the back four.
Experience is the top attribute of this duo with each of them having at least 30 career starts under their belts. The duo has also displayed their discipline over the seasons combining for just one yellow card over their lengthy SU careers.
“I think our team chemistry is pretty good. I think our defense had some solid games,” Tacka said.
Aiding in the defensive effort are two younger defenders on the squad, freshman Kayla Homeyer and sophomore Alyssa Brady. Brady has started the last 10 games for SU, while Homeyer has started the last two. Expanding on her role from 2016, Brady had only six appearances last season which turned into 12 already this season.
Behind these four players and their fellow players is a wall in senior goalkeeper Hope Knussman.
“Hope’s been a beast. She’s had some really clutch saves to get us wins,” Tacka said.
In the last four games, Knussman has been forced to make 10 saves to provide three shutouts. Luckily, not too many of the 37 shots on the road trip have worried the SU goalkeeper, but when called upon, she has answered the call for Salisbury.
“She saves our butts so much. She definitely doesn’t get all the recognition she deserves, but it was really awesome for her to get [CAC] Defensive Player of the Week this past week because she deserves it for sure,” Lucas said.
With 33 career starts in her arsenal, Knussman’s experience has become a strength in her senior season. Her teammates watch her resiliency, succeeding in matches despite a few nagging injuries in 2017
“[The defense] is just keeping us in games. I mean Jamie and Hope pretty much clean up everything that happens. If we don’t put balls in the net, it’s almost unfair to them because they’re working so hard to keep them out of the net,” Lucas said.
As the keeper at the gate, Knussman might be a microcosm for a defense that has shown their own resiliency, dropping their GAA by 1.40 during this recent road stretch.
With a number of key offensive players returning in 2017, Salisbury looked to improve on their 1.53 goals-per-game from a season ago. One player was returning for her senior season that was at the center of that effort: Ruthie Lucas.
At the start of 2017, the senior forward was hungry for success following a 2016 season that she believed could have been better from a production stand-point. While the hunger grew in the Ellicott City, Md.-native, obstacles also rose in her path.
“I’m trying to hold myself to a higher standard this year, and it’s just encouraging to be higher [in goal total] than all of last season through our first three conference games,” Lucas said.
With a nagging injury in the days leading up to the start of the season, Lucas missed the season opener vs. Shenandoah. The 2016 All-CAC came on as a substitute in the next three matches, not finding the back of the net.
Her first start finally came vs. Roanoke on Sept. 9, and her first goal of the season vs. Catholic at home on Sept. 16. That game vs. the Cardinals was the start of a career stretch for the senior. After a brace that day, Lucas went on to score four more times over the next four matches for a total of six goals over a five-game stretch.
“It’s about her getting healthy. It’s about making sure other teams can’t only cue on her. If other players are a threat, that opens up one-on-two situations sometimes. In those situations, you have to put your money on Ruthie,” Lloyd said.
Most notably, two of those goals came in the team’s 1-0 CAC victories at Southern Virginia and at Mary Washington. Of her team-leading six goals, four of them were unassisted.
While Lucas can create opportunities with her ability to find the holes in the central defense, the rest of the offense has been right there with her. The senior’s success and confidence should radiate across a young offensive core, providing more opportunities deeper into the season.
“I just want to score goals. I just want us to win. That’s basically just pushing me to keep going,” Lucas said.
Sophomore striker Julianna Boller found the back of the net for the second time this season at St. Mary’s (Md.), proving to be another force in the SU arsenal. Her third then came vs. Penn St. Harrisburg over Homecoming Weekend. Lucas and the offense desire more than the five goals they scored over their five-game road trip.
The players will gain confidence knowing a sturdy defense is behind them.
The recent road turnaround may have started back on Sept. 16 vs. Catholic. An offensive revival for the Sea Gulls provided them with a Lucas brace and a 4-2 lead early on in the match.
However, a resilient Cardinal side fought back in the second half, climbing all the way back for the 5-4 road victory. It was an emotional loss, but the type of loss that can send a message to the squad.
“I think we know what we need to get done. It’s just a matter of us trying as hard as we can. We definitely have a lot of talent, but the effort [needs to be there],” Tacka said.
Following that match a few weeks ago, Lloyd talked of his love for his job, getting to work with the student-athletes each day. It was not the loss that told him much about his team but instead the way that Salisbury picked themselves up after the defeat.
“I think they realized that we let some things go. When you’re up 4-2 and lose 5-4, I think the leadership just stepped up, realizing that we won’t get that chance back again,” Lloyd said.
“With Hope, Rachel, Ellen [Anderson], Jamie Tacka, Ruthie, and Carliane [LaGuerre], they kind of collectively turned to them and said, ‘we can’t continue this trend.”
The following match was a tough 2-1 road victory at Rutgers-Newark which gave SU some momentum going forward. That win tumbled into three conference wins, with Salisbury’s only slip-up coming at Bridgewater (Va.) the day after the Southern Virginia win.
Selected fourth in the CAC’s preseason poll, Salisbury now is 3-0 in conference and tied for first with Christopher Newport.
While the season is far from over, it does say something that Salisbury went on the road, went 4-1 and defeated the team that knocked them out of the 2016 CAC Playoffs. On Saturday, SU welcomed in Penn St. – Harrisburg for Homecoming Weekend, shutting out the Lions.
“Going 3-0 into your home stretch, you can’t ask for a better time to do that. We’re playing well. We’re moving off the ball. Our game-changers coming off the bench are really starting to gain some confidence,” Lloyd said.
“When you have a deep bench that you can go to, we’re gonna to need them in the next few weeks, to see a training session like Thursday’s where they’re communicating, showing their vocal and physical desire for the ball, it vies well for us.”
For an SU squad fresh off a 4-1 road trip, confidence and chemistry is radiating from the team. The hope is that will continue deep into CAC play, just like in 2011.