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Senior center back Kirsten O'Neil of Hampton leads the Wildcats' defense. (courtesy)

UNH women ready to defend their America East crown


STRONG DEFENSE helped the University of New Hampshire women's soccer team capture its first America East Conference title last year. With a little extra offensive firepower and continued defensive prowess, the Wildcats think they can repeat as champions this season.

UNH, which was projected to win the conference title in the preseason coaches poll, is 1-0-2 heading into today's contest at Siena College. The Wildcats opened the season with two scoreless double-overtime draws against the University of Rhode Island and UMass Amherst, respectively, before earning a 2-0 victory over Holy Cross Thursday. Kirsten O'Neil, a senior center back from Hampton, said Wednesday that UNH got off to a solid start by opening the season with two 0-0 results.

“Both have been ties but with two shutouts,” O'Neil said. “There's a lot of room for improvement but it's all uphill from here.”

O'Neil, junior goalkeeper Mimi Borkan and senior midfielder Gabby Sloan are the Wildcats' captains this season. The three lead a UNH team that boasts 18 underclassmen, including nine freshmen.

Second-year Wildcats coach Steve Welham said he thinks that defense will continue to be a strength for his team this year behind O'Neil, sophomore defenders Kendra Prince, Veronica Hardy, Jackie Feraco and Borkan in goal.

“We pride ourselves on being fit and sound defensively and putting ourselves in position to have success,” said Welham.

UNH ranked third in the nine-team conference in goals allowed last year, surrendering just 20.

One reason for the Wildcats' stingy defense is that the back line communicates well with one another, said O'Neil.

“I'd say as a back line, we're smart and I think that, right now especially, we're fit,” O'Neil said. “We work really well off each other and that makes a really good dynamic.”

Welham expects O'Neil and Prince, a transfer from Oakland University, to each have a big impact defensively this year.

“Kirsten is a gamer,” Welham said. “She leads by example with how she plays during games. When it's go time, it's go time for her and you see that transformation.

“At outside right back, (Prince) is a bulldog back there. That's the best way to describe her. She closes space well and narrowly missed scoring the game-winner against UMass.”

For the Wildcats to repeat as champions this year, though, they will need to make the most of their offensive chances to compliment their stout defense. UNH took the second-most shots in the division last year but finished tied for sixth in goals with 16 scored.

Sophomore Brooke Murphy recorded both goals in the Wildcats' win over Holy Cross and tallied 11 last season in her freshman campaign. She is complimented up front by seniors Morgan Smith and Caroline Murray.

“Last year, we were sound defensively and were able to get some key goals,” Welham said. “We want to be strong in the back and have that shut down mentality where nobody is going to beat us but we have to create good opportunities (on offense).”

As defending AEC champions, O'Neil and Welham both know that UNH has a target on its back going into each game. Despite that, Welham said he thinks this team can achieve its goal of repeating as conference champions and earning another NCAA tournament berth.

“For this season, we want to go for it,” Welham said. “It's on the front of everyone's mind to be champions again...the biggest thing is we always want to do the little things (right) and want to make an improvement every day.”

Women's soccer

University of Connecticut forward Rachel Hill was named the American Athletic Conference offensive player of the week this past week. The junior from Rollinsford recorded two goals and an assist in the Huskies' 4-1 triumph over Colgate University Aug. 21.

Franklin Pierce University was projected to finish fourth in the Northeast-10 Conference in the league's preseason coaches poll. The Ravens were predicted by the coaches to finish behind two-defending Northeast-10 champion St. Rose, Assumption College and Adelphi University, respectively.

Southern New Hampshire University and St. Anselm College were selected to finish seventh and eighth, respectively, in the conference.

Two-time defending North Atlantic Conference champion Colby-Sawyer was predicted to finish second in the conference this season in the league's preseason coaches poll behind Castleton State College. New England College was selected to finish tied for third with Husson University.

Men's soccer

UNH head coach Marc Hubbard announced the additions of four players to the team's 2015 roster, including Windham's Andrew Pesci. After spending one season at SNHU, Pesci will reunite with Hubbard, who coached the Penmen for seven seasons before becoming the Wildcats head coach in April. Pesci played seven games in goal for SNHU last season, recording a 0.53 goals against average.

SNHU was chosen to win its fourth straight NE-10 title in the league's preseason coaches' poll. The Penmen captured 13 of the possible 14 first-place votes. The team returns 17 players from last year's squad that went 17-1-2 overall.

Southern Connecticut State University, Merrimack College, Adelphia and Le Moyne rounded out the top five. Franklin Pierce was projected to finish sixth while St. Anselm came in 13th.

Keene State College was predicted to finish third in the Little East Conference in the league's preseason poll. Defending regular season and tournament champion UMass Boston was selected to win the conference, followed by Eastern Connecticut State University. The Owls went 12-7-1 overall and 4-2-1 in conference play last year.

The NAC coaches selected Colby-Sawyer College to finish third in the league in their preseason poll. Husson University and Thomas College tied for the top spot, both receiving 91 points.

Football

St. Anselm finished tied for fifth with Stonehill College in the NE-10 preseason coaches' poll. The Hawks finished fifth in the conference last year after going 6-5. It was the program's first winning season since 2000. St. Anselm returns four starters on offense and six on defense.

Defending champion LIU Post was chosen to win the NE-10 again this year, with American International College, Assumption and the University of New Haven rounding out the top four.

Swimming

Keene State swimmers Nate Shepard and Amber Long were both named Scholar All-Americans by the College Swimming Coaches Association of America. To be selected to the association's Scholar All-American team, athletes must have a GPA of 3.5 or higher and participated in either the NCAA, NAIA or NJCAA Swimming and Diving Championships. Shepard is a junior from Keene and Long is a senior from Dover.

Field hockey

Two-time defending LEC champion Keene State was picked to win the title again in the league's annual preseason coaches' poll. The Owls are undefeated in conference play over the last two seasons.

Plymouth State University was predicted to finish second this year after finishing second in the conference standings last season. UMass Dartmouth, Western Connecticut State University and the University of Southern Maine rounded out the top five.

Colby-Sawyer and New England College were projected to finish fifth and sixth, respectively, in the NAC preseason coaches' poll.

The Chargers went 7-10 overall and 1-4 in conference play last season. The Pilgrims went 0-19 last season and will be led by first-year head coach Kristen Gillis, who joins the program after two seasons as an assistant coach at Goucher College (Towson, Md.).

Women's tennis

SNHU was chosen to finished fourth in the NE-10 this season in the conference's preseason coaches poll. Defending conference champion Stonehill topped the poll. Adelphi, Merrimack, SNHU and Bentley rounded out the top five. St. Anselm and Franklin Pierce were projected to finish ninth and 12, respectively.

Colby-Sawyer was chosen to win the North Eastern Athletic Conference title for the fourth consecutive season in the league's preseason coaches poll. The Chargers received eight first-place votes and 64 points in the poll overall.

University of New Hampshire

The UNH athletics department is accepting nominations for the school's athletics hall of fame class of 2015, which will be honored in June. Nomination forms and the criteria for eligible individuals can be found at www.foundation.unh.edu/nomination-criteria.

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Alex Hall compiles the college notebook for the New Hampshire Sunday News. He can be reached at ahall@unionleader.com or on Twitter @AlexKHall.

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