LOOKOUT MOUNTAIN -- With 18 returning players, including six starters and eight seniors, the Covenant women's soccer team is poised for another successful season in 2016.
23rd-year head coach Mark Duble and his squad open the regular season on Thursday, Sept. 1 at Berry in Rome, Ga. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.
After another double-digit win season in 2015, Duble is looking for his team to compete in the ultra-competitive USA South West Division. The Lady Scots went 8-3-1 in conference play a year ago, the best mark since joining the conference, but will face perennial conference contenders in Piedmont and Maryville twice this season.
"The west is a tough side with Maryville, Piedmont and now Salem," Duble said. "We are going to need to play well, but we're excited about what we've seen so far in the preseason."
The majority of the Covenant squad has been together since the beginning of August as the team took a mission trip to Costa Rica. That trip allowed the Lady Scots to practice and play some competitive matches before heading into the traditional preseason.
"That trip was good for us. Team chemistry is always good, but that trip bolstered that even more," Duble said. "But aside from the soccer experience, it was a great opportunity to come together as a team and spend time serving others. And then we played four matches in four days against some good teams and I think that will help us in preparation for this year."
Over the past three years, one of Covenant's strength has been on the defensive end and that trend should continue in 2016.
Seniors Andrea Hunt Roylston, Natalie Smith and Kaitlyn Winking have all played together on the back line since their freshman year and will anchor those spots once again this year. Sophomore Rachel Lemay will be in her second year as the starting keeper after having a tremendous rookie campaign.
In the midfield, senior Gabby Powell is the lone returning starter of the group. "Gabby was a consistent player for us last year, and was really the glue that held us together, so we're looking for her to be strong again," Duble said.
Senior Anna Porch tied for the team lead in goals a season ago and is looking for another breakout year. "Anna has looked really good both in Costa Rica and in practice," Duble said. "She can be so dangerous out there."
"The seniors know that this is it for them, so there's a mindset with the group about leaving it all on the field this year," Duble added.
Covenant also returns juniors Rebekah Gravitt, Grace Bartelt and Landry Jenkins along with sophomores Carter Steedley, Gina Hungerford, Grace Buys, Hannah King, Callie Bader and Taylor Winking. Two sophomores, Abbi Carey and Daelyn Houser, join the team for the first time.
Five freshmen, including Riley Battenfield (Mission Viejo, Calif./Capistrano Valley), Ashlyn Franks (Simpsonville, S.C./Southside Christian), Abby Gienapp (Cheyenne, Wyo./Cheyenne Central), Lizzy Hightower (Huntsville, Ala./Westminster Christian Academy) and Anna Robertson (Augusta, Ga./Westminster Schools of Augusta) comprise the class.
"The freshmen are coming in ready to contribute," Duble said. "Ashlyn, Anna and Lizzy put up some impressive goal totals in hhigh school and are relentless on the attack. Riley can play up front and in the back and Abby is a natural and I expect her to do well."
Duble also noted that the class gives the team a multitude of weapons on the offensive side and more depth overall as all five players could make an impact right away.
Covenant will face five tough teams to begin the year. After playing Berry on Thursday, the Lady Scots host 2015 NCAA Tournament participant Sewanee on Sept. 7 at home before traveling to Birmingham Southern on Sept. 13. USA South play opens with Piedmont and Salem, two of the top three teams in the West Division of the conference preseason poll, on Sept. 16-17.
"We'll know where we stand after the first five games," Duble said. "Those five are tough to start, but if we can pick up some wins there and then a few on the road during the year, we should be in good shape."
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