An exhibition match against Oklahoma State in Stillwater, Okla., Saturday at 7 p.m. is the next step for Ole Miss soccer's preparation for the fall season.
Ole Miss opens regular season play in Oxford on Fri., Aug. 26, against Tennessee Tech at 7 p.m.
As the preseason winds down and the regular season comes into view, team captain Hillary Beckman thinks this year's Rebel squad has what it takes to be a championship team.
"This has probably been the best preseason I've been a part of," said the senior midfielder from Anchorage, Ky. "Everybody has been working really hard and we are all excited."
Head coach Steve Holeman, who enters his 11th season as the only head coach in Ole Miss Soccer's history, is also eager to see his talent-laden team suit up against another school, but knows there is much to learn between now and the Aug. 26 season opener against Tennessee Tech.
"We only have about a week of practice under our belts, so we are trying to sort things out just like every other school at this point," Holeman said. "Oklahoma State will be a great first test for us. They are a very talented team and will expose our weaknesses. We should have a better idea of what we need to work on after this weekend."
The Rebels will be facing an Oklahoma State squad that returns 16 letterwinners, including six starters, from a team that finished 12-6-2 a year ago.
Although Ole Miss returns 13 letterwinners and eight of 11 starters from last year's team, the Rebels lost 10 letterwinners, including six valuable seniors, over the offseason.
But Holeman and assistant coaches Derek Greene and Melinda Smith have brought in a large freshman class with loads of talent. Ten new faces will wear the Red and Blue this fall, and Holeman has plenty to praise about them.
"After seeing them in practice, I can now say that this is the best freshman class we've ever had," Holeman said. "I think you could see four or five of them in the starting lineup. They've come in and made this program better already. They're unbelievable."
One of those talented freshmen is Texas native Jennifer Hance. The Rebels' tallest player at 5-foot-10, Hance has impressed the coaching staff and could crack the starting lineup in the central backfield or as a defensive center mid.
"The upperclassmen are really helping out the freshmen," Hance said. "They make sure we are keeping updated, that we run instead of jog. They are helping us see our mistakes and recognize them so we don't make them again.
"This season will be really tough," Hance continued. "The other teams are training hard too, and it's going to be hard. Our freshman group is so deep, though, that when we sub on and off, there's not really a difference in talent. Hopefully we can handle it well and win."
Though the game does not count as a regular season win or loss, the Oklahoma State exhibition will be key to the Rebels' preseason preparation.
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The 2005 soccer season brings with it a familiar scenario for the Ole Miss Rebels - high expectations. After several successful seasons, fans, coaches and players alike can only expect more big things from this year's squad.
Last year's finish shows how the team's standard of excellence has progressed.
After blanking tournament host and nationally-ranked No. 9 Auburn 3-0 in the first round of the SEC Tournament, the Rebels finished their season in the SEC semifinals for the third time in four years.
"It was a great accomplishment to finish as one of the top four teams in one of the top conferences in the country," said Holeman, whose 2002 and 2003 squads made the school's first two NCAA Tournament appearances. "Yet we look back and say it was a disappointing season. That is a reflection of the standard we have set for our program. I think it shows we have come a long way."
High expectations and high program standards create the need for lofty goals, which are exactly what the Rebels have.
"We always shoot to win the SEC West, and we have fallen short of that the past couple of years," Holeman said. "I really believe that right now we have a team that can win the entire conference."
And it does not stop with the SEC. "Another goal is to get back to the NCAA Tournament. One thing we base our success on is 'Can we make it to the big dance?' So there is no question that this is one of our goals for this season," Holeman said.
The Rebels seem to have the players to make a run at these goals. Leading the charge are All-SEC forwards Brittney Potts and Kelly Renie and All-SEC defender Lyndsey Williams. They headline a group of 13 returning letterwinners, including eight of last year's starters.
The loss of last season's six seniors, including three-time All-SEC performer Kristal Menard and four-year starter and team captain Lindley Beckman, means this year's squad is younger and a little less experienced.
"They (last year's seniors) are going to be hard to replace," Holeman said. "But it is going to be good to have some new faces come in and reestablish what got us to the top - hard work and effort and just grinding it out every day. The difference between this year's team and last year's team is that we have a lot more depth. Even though we will be a little younger with 10 freshmen, overall we have more talent. It's going to be real competitive for a starting spot this year."
Ole Miss' high expectations will be put to the test with a demanding non-conference slate in addition to an always-tough SEC schedule. Key non-conference matches are visits to Oxford by Big 12-member Iowa State and perennial national power Florida State from the ACC, while the Rebels will travel to Orlando to play UCF, who last year defeated every rival from the talented state of Florida. Ole Miss will also look to avenge last year's upset loss to Saint Louis when they travel to Oxford.
With a one-game-at-a-time approach, the Rebels appear to be up to the task of further establishing themselves as a premier national threat.
Sophomore Ann Shelton returns after starting all 21 matches of her freshman season, playing in all but 20 minutes. After recording six shutouts, a 1.07 goals-against average and 77 saves, she was named the goalkeeper on the SEC All-Freshman Team.
"Ann's experience this summer (with the Central Florida Krush of the W-League) is definitely going to help her game this fall," Holeman said.
Hot on Shelton's heels is sophomore Megan Vickery, who has worked hard over the summer and was selected to the U-19 ODP Region III pool. Vickery will be competing with Shelton for the starting job.
"I really think it will be a very tight race between Megan and Ann, even though Ann started all of last year." Holeman said. "And that will make both of them better, having to compete for a starting spot."
The Rebel defense features several players with the versatility to play a variety of positions, and the staff is taking advantage of that by experimenting with a few new alignments. These include a 4-4-2 with four defenders, four midfielders and two forwards, and a 4-3-3 with four defenders, three midfielders and three forwards, after utilizing a mostly 3-5-2 approach in 2004. With the likelihood of four starting spots in the backfield, depth will be more critical than ever.
The Ole Miss defense starts with returning All-SEC performer and team captain Lyndsey Williams, who Holeman says "could be the best overall player on our team." The junior is a two-time recipient of the team's Defensive MVP award, and with just two seniors on the team, Williams will be looked upon for her leadership.
Junior Elise Karlowicz returns after starting 11 games a year ago at left back.
"She is very dominant in the air," Holeman said. "She was injured during most of the SEC season and came back and probably had her best two games of the year in the SEC Tournament."
Also returning for the Rebels is junior Ashley Ferree, who stepped in as the starter last season after Karlowicz was injured.
"Ashley is probably one of the most physically fit players on our team," Holeman said. "She has a cross country background, and is also one of the hardest workers on the team."
One incoming freshman that has the coaching staff very excited is ODP Region III team member Jennifer Hance from Sugar Land, Texas, who will likely play center back for the Rebels, but could also see action as defensive center mid.
"Jen is one of the most dominant headers in the women's game," Holeman said. "At 5-10, she is phenomenal in the air and very good with the ball at her feet. She's going to be very good."
Another freshman for Ole Miss in the mix for backfield playing time is heralded newcomer Christine Breaux. Rated among the top 100 recruits in the nation by Soccer Buzz, Breaux is the reigning Louisiana Gatorade Player of the Year and has playing experience with the ODP Region III team.
"She's not your typical freshman," Holeman said. "She's been to ODP National Camp and has already played at a high level. She will be another freshman with a chance to be a starter, either as a defender or at defensive center mid."
Austin Brown is one of the Rebels' most athletic and talented freshmen. The Lucedale native is the only player on this year's roster from the state of Mississippi, and Holeman is eager to see her develop, noting that "her best soccer is ahead of her.
"Austin is a phenomenal athlete. She is a great defender with an exceptional ability to attack out of the backfield."
In addition to the Rebels' lone Mississippi player, the defense also features the team's one European athlete, Stacey Emmonds, who hails from Mirfield, England.
"Stacey is a very talented player with a very good left foot," Holeman said. "She reads the game on a different level than most American players because she grew up with soccer all around her."
Providing depth in the backfield will be freshmen Brook Thebeau from Charlotte, N.C., and Amanda Verkin who along with Hance hails from Sugar Land, Texas.
The midfield positions could become the key to the Rebels' success in 2005, as they will need to try to fill the large holes left by the departure of all-star center midfielders Kristal Menard and Lindley Beckman.
One of this season's two seniors, Hillary Beckman is one of the Rebels' more versatile players and could see action at outside midfielder, forward or defender. She led last year's squad with seven assists, including five in conference play, which tied for the league lead.
"Hillary has done a great job of just being a leader," Holeman said of this year's team captain. "She's really helped the chemistry of this team."
A pair of returnees who will be counted on to establish themselves as consistent starters are sophomores Chrissy Strini and Cori Mehan.
Strini was in and out of the starting lineup last season, and Holeman has stated that her work this summer will make her a key component of this team's success.
"Chrissy is very competitive and has been working really hard in a summer league and in the Region Pool. She is one of those players that can break into that Kristal Menard/Lindley Beckman role," Holeman said.
The coaches are working on a transition for Mehan from outside back, where she filled in last year, to a defensive center mid.
Sophomore Amy Gill played in all 21 matches as a freshman and started the team's two SEC Tournament matches.
"She is kind of a utility player for us," said Holeman of Gill. "Because of her speed, she can play up top, but she can also play as an attacking center mid. She is very feisty and tenacious."
A club teammate of Breaux and fellow Louisiana native, Leslie Robichaux, is another Rebel with ODP Region III team experience and a candidate for a starting midfield role.
"Leslie is very gifted technically," Holeman said. "She's one of the most accurate passers that we have on our team, can possess the ball well and can score from 30 yards."
Freshman Kellye LaVera from Lousiville, Ky., will be counted on to provide depth in the midfield.
Once again this season, the Rebel scoring should come from the speedy and talented legs of forwards Kelly Renie and Brittney Potts.
Renie, who was the 2002 SEC Freshman of the Year and Freshman All-America, posted eight goals last season and moved up to fifth all-time with 28 goals scored. She is a candidate for a sixth year of eligibility in 2006 due to two season-ending knee injuries in her career.
"She has certainly proven herself, even though by her standards she had an off-year last year," Holeman said. "I think she showed in the SEC Tournament, when she scored two goals against Auburn, that you cannot take your eyes off her. She has unbelievable speed and an ability to score goals, and I think she is ready to come back and do it again."
Although Potts struggled through injuries late in the 2004 season, she finished as the team's top goal-scorer with 10 and currently stands at ninth all-time with 17 career goals.
"She is extremely dynamic," Holeman said of Potts. "She is great on the ball and can beat players one-on-one. It's fun as a coach to see players develop like she has."
With the probability of three starting spots at forward this year as opposed to two, the Rebel coaches will be looking for a player, such as sophomore Christine Liberto, to step into that role.
"Christine has been working really hard in the off-season and had a great spring, scoring several goals. I think she is one of those players that is looking to make her mark, and she is competing for a starting spot," Holeman said.
The coaches are excited to see how incoming freshman Amy Bayles can contribute. Holeman describes the 5-foot-7, Florence, Ala., native as a "power forward," in that she is very strong and can strike a ball extremely well.
"I think she is going to compete for a starting job and provide us with great depth," he said.
Also providing depth at forward is sophomore Morgan Reichel and incoming freshman Caitlin Mizell.
UM soccer season starts Saturday at Okie State
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