Above photo by Russell Marwitz/True To The Cru/russellmarwitz.com
ABILENE, Texas- UMHB head women’s soccer coach Barry Elkins had plenty of confidence in his team entering Thursday night’s season opener. There was a good reason for it.
Nine of the Cru’s 11 starters in last year’s ASC Tournament are back, forming a core of nine seniors, and for the first time in program history, an All-American has also returned in forward Maria Rico. UMHB has not reached the NCAA Tournament since 2017, and never won in the national tournament. But this could be the year that changes.
“Pretty much, the majority of kids we have out there played in the conference tournament last year,” Elkins said. “So we’re not even trying to build on it. We’re just trying to reload and keep going.”
They took a step forward on Thursday night, downing non-conference opponent Wisconsin-Whitewater, 3-0, on the home field of league rival Hardin-Simmons. Kelsey White found the back of the net in the 21st minute, putting the Cru in front, before Mackenzie Worthy and Constance White, a true freshman, added second-half goals.
White was the only freshman to see action, playing 20 minutes, and even the sophomores who saw action logged significant minutes in 2021. That group includes goalkeeper Reagan Williams, who played all 90 minutes against Whitewater, tallying one save. This advantage cannot be overstated, especially because three of UMHB’s starters are in their fifth collegiate seasons. Having more experience does not always yield results on the field, but it is often a major contributor, more noticeable early in the season.
“Each year has its own ups and downs and the challenges we face through the season, and we’re looking forward to seeing what those are going to be,” Elkins said. “But we have the kids who have been there and done that. They’ve seen it all at this point. I think that helps us going into the year. We have people that know what to expect.”
That was evident in the season-opener, as the Cru played with tremendous poise, and kept Whitewater’s offensive attack at bay. The Warhawks managed just five shots to UMHB’s 19, and of those Whitewater had just three on goal; UMHB had 11.
Taking two of those shots on goal was Rico, the ASC Preseason Offensive Player of the Year. There is a certain pressure that comes with being a returning All-American, which is sometimes a challenge to manage. But Elkins has no doubts about Rico’s ability to perform under the weight of the heavy title that is All-American.
“One of the fun things for us is this is the first All-American we’ve had come back,” Elkins said.’ The others have been seniors, and it’s great that it caps off their senior year. Maria comes back with a little more pressure on her shoulders to do it again.
“The thing about it, she’s such a driven individual. Most people probably don’t know that she is a 4.0 pre-med student that has finished all of her major core classes as far as pre-med goes in three years. She’s done what she’s done on the field while completely killing it in the classroom. I say that because she knows what pressure is. And she’s willing to take it on.”
UMHB has Friday to rest before returning to the field for a Saturday evening duel at 5:30 p.m. against College of St. Scholastica, a D-III program in Duluth, Minnesota. Playing opponents from over 1,000 miles away on a league rival’s home field may seem a little uncharacteristic for UMHB. But, after being left out of the NCAA Tournament in 2021, Elkins, like a number of other West Region coaches, was forced to evaluate his schedule. The aim was to play out-of-region opponents, which looks good to the tournament committee on a team’s resume, if the opponent is “regionally ranked”. Time will tell if that proves to be the case with Whitewater and St. Scholastica, but it is a starting point.
“We’re cognizant of how the NCAA views our entire region,” Elkins said. “Because of that, we need to get out of our region a little more. To get the contests with Whitewater and St. Scholastica, which are good programs, the hope is that we can get a little bit of notoriety outside of our region. Like it or not, the NCAA hasn’t viewed Region 10-as far as soccer goes- with the same respect as the schools in the northeast.
“With the schedule the way that it is, it’s set up correctly. Now we just have to win some soccer games.”
Tomorrow’s matchup marks the first time UMHB has battled St. Scholastica. The Saints lost to Hardin-Simmons on Thursday, 2-0. HSU is hosting this crossover-type schedule, with the two northern teams facing each of the two southern teams, and vice versa.