Defense wins championships.
That saying has been around in sports for years ever since legendary college football coach Bear Bryant first uttered it.
Although it is one of the most overused sports cliches, Griffon soccer coach Chad Edwards’ team will look to ride its basic premise to an even better season in 2015 than they enjoyed in 2014.
Boasting a defense that allowed less than a goal a game, Western finished the season with an 9-8-1 regular season record, the first winning season in program history and first MIAA tournament appearance.
“Our expectation was always to do what we did last year, it was just a matter of getting that accomplished,” Edwards said. “Now that we’ve accomplished that, certainly that’s the expectation to get back to the MIAA Tournament, but now let’s win a game. We’ve always said that our goal is to win a conference championship and if you’re not in it for that, then you shouldn’t be playing.”
Leading the Griffon defense is junior goalkeeper Sarah Lyle. Lyle is coming off a sparkling season of her own, as she allowed .85 goals per game. This was the 60th best team average in all of Division II and good for the fourth best in the MIAA.
“It always makes a soccer coach feel really, really good when you have a good goalkeeper,” Edwards said. “(She’s) a great leader and a great kid.”
Lyle’s 2014 performance earned her Second-Team All-MIAA honors.
The Duluth, Minnesota, native has been a key for the Griffons the past two seasons, and now with two years remaining in her eligibility, she will be even more relied upon as a leader.
“Her first year, we had a scrimmage game with Avila and she did really, really well in that game and the Avila coach at the time said, ‘that’s an all-conference player’ and low and behold in her sophomore year she’s all-conference,” Edwards said. “So she was an upperclassmen when she started from a playing-ability standpoint.”
Of the Griffons’ nine wins in 2014, eight of them were shutouts by Lyle and the other talented defensive players on Coach Edwards’ squad.
Three defenders in front of Lyle also found themselves with all-conference recognition. Junior Taylor Gant joined Lyle on the MIAA’s second-team.
Senior Sydney Andrews represented the Griffons on the third-team while sophomore Paige Phipps finished her first season in St. Joseph by earning honorable mention honors.
“Its really helpful to (have them back) because then I know that my job behind them is to communicate and control the field from the back where I can see everything, but having those girls in front of me has been such a great opportunity for me to be able to succeed,” Lyle said.
With so much talent returning to prevent opponents from putting the ball in the back of the the net, Coach Edwards knows the next step for his program is to develop a consistent offensive attack.
“That’s the big thing: we’ve got to find a way to score more goals. We’re always going to defend really well, but now it’s a matter of keeping the ball and giving ourselves (chances),” Edwards said. “We gave ourselves a lot of chances last year. We broke the school record for shots on goal, but now we have to break the records for goals. So we’ve got to create those chances again and execute. It’s about that final product.”
Unfortunately for Western, they will have to attempt to do that without star forward Tara Russell who graduated after serving as a starting forward for the past two seasons. The second-team all-conference selection in 2014 led the Griffons with four goals last season, including three game winners.
The Griffons also must replace their second-leading scorer in K.C. Ramsell, who scored three goals from her midfield position.
The legacy of players like Russell and Ramsell continues to affect the winning culture they helped develop, and has impacted recruiting.
“Winning breeds winners and that next-level type of player and we’re raising the expectation of the player that comes in competing for a job,” Edwards said.
One of the high-level recruits that will look to change the offensive woes the program suffered from last year is Iowa State transfer Cassidy Chappell.
“She’s done some nice things,” Edwards said. “We’ve only been (practicing) together for a day as a group and she’s done some nice things.”
The forward comes to Western with two years of eligibility remaining. She was a highly-decorated high school player at Owasso High School in Oklahoma, earning first-team all-conference honors three times.
Anchoring the midfield for the Griffons will be a pair of seniors Katie Kempf and Drew Mantio, along with the sophomore duo of Bridget Blessie and Sydney Cluck. Kemp will be looked to to lead the group.
“Katie Kempf is a fifth-year senior and understands what it takes to have success at this level,” Edwards said.
All four of the premier midfielders for the Griffons registered a goal last season, with Blessie knocking in two. The four combined for 62 starts in 2014 and with that much experience returning, the team hopes to continue setting new program bests in 2015.
“We just want to take that ball and keep rolling, because once you get it started it’s much easier to keep continuing with it, but it still won’t be a light season,” Lyle said. “We really are going to have to push hard and keep continuing with what we have.”