In her first couple of seasons as the head women's soccer coach at the University of Louisville, Karen Ferguson-Dayes wasn't exactly sure where the program might be headed in the near future.
"I remember thinking that I couldn't really see the light at the end of the tunnel," Ferguson-Dayes said. "It was pretty dark. I really believe it could have been easier to start a program from scratch."
Now, Ferguson-Dayes is headed into her 13th season at the helm of the Cardinals and has turned the program into a national contender.
Louisville finished 14-7-3 last season, winning the Big East Conference National Division, and have lofty expectations heading into the new campaign. The Cardinals went 2-0 in exhibitions and open the regular-season Friday at Butler.
"Where we are today is the result of the time that Tom (Jurich) gave me to build this program," Ferguson-Dayes said. "We're at an all-time high from a confidence standpoint. The kids are motivated and the fittest I've ever seen.
"I am very proud, but I always knew if we could get the right players then good things could happen. We have a great group of kids right now."
Louisville has nine starters back from last year's squad, including Big East Preseason Offensive Player of the Year Christine Exeter and was picked to finish second in the National Division. The Cardinals advanced into the NCAA Sweet 16 for the first time in school history last season.
But Ferguson-Dayes said she hasn't been talking about the past, noting the target is now on the Cardinals' because of that success.
"We don't talk about trying to repeat from last year, our goals are always the same every year," she said. "We want to win a Big East championship. We won the regular season but we didn't win the tournament.
"We're trying to stay away from comparing last year to this year, but all the while making sure we take away the positives form last year. Sure, last year was great but we want to make a Final Four."
The Cardinals seemingly have the firepower to challenge for it.Exeter, a junior from Ontario, Canada, was the only unanimous preseason Big East All-Conference Player. She led the Cardinals with 14 goals and three assists, starting 23 of 24 games as a sophomore last season.
Exeter and junior defender Rachel Melhado will miss the first few games of the season. The two U of L stars are on the Canadian National Team and are competing in the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup in Japan.
The 5-foot-8 Exeter was recently named to the watch list for the Missouri Athletic Club's Hermann Trophy, the highest individual honor in soccer.
"She's better now than she was last year," Ferguson-Dayes said of Exeter. "All the games she is getting against that competition is keeping her sharp for right now. She's amazing in the air and one of the strongest, most powerful kids I've coached."
Melhado, who is the Canadian U-20 national team captain, started all 24 games on the backline last season and helped the Cardinals to nine shutouts.
"What we look like for the first six games will be different from what we look like at the end of the season," Ferguson-Dayes said. "It will give some other kid a chance to get some experience while they're gone."
Exeter and Melhado are part of what Ferguson-Dayes calls a "stacked junior class," that now includes the top newcomer – Charlyn Corral.
She is a native of Mexico City, Mexico, and has extensive experience playing for the Mexican National team. Most recently, she was a member of Mexican National team at the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup in Germany.
"Coral has some international experience that is uparalleled to anybody we have ever brought in," Ferguson-Dayes said. "She's exceptional."
Defender Chelsea Hunter is also a top junior and is the "organizer, leader and captain," while senior Chloe Kiefer is a "sensational" goalkeeper.
"Hunter is the backbone of this team for sure," Ferguson-Dayes said. "Her and Chloe have such a great connection back there."
Ferguson-Dayes said the Cardinals the Cardinals also have 11 freshman on the roster, including Irene Young. The forward and attacking midfielder from Troy, Mich., will likely see some early playing time.
The Cardinals have three of their first four games on the road, but play eight games this season at Cardinal Park. And Ferguson-Dayes is expecting the team to give the fans something to cheer about during the season.
"The experience we gained last year being in critical moments – we were nervous in final game against West Virginia – those experiences set us up for success," Ferguson-Dayes said. "I think it could be a very, very special year.
"The major piece is how our kids will handle having the target on their backs, and I think they'll be fine with that."