Women’s soccer looks to take next step after breakthrough season

Nine starters, 19 letterwinners return

Co-captain Kayla Saager finished 30th in the nation in points last season. Her 11 goals included four game-winners. Image Credit: Jonathan Cohen.
Co-captain Kayla Saager finished 30th in the nation in points last season. Her 11 goals included four game-winners.
Co-captain Kayla Saager finished 30th in the nation in points last season. Her 11 goals included four game-winners. Photography: Jonathan Cohen.

One year after making a dramatic last-to-first transformation, Binghamton women’s soccer coach Neel Bhattacharjee is now eying a smaller but perhaps equally challenging jump - winning the program’s first America East tournament title in 14 seasons.

The 2017 Bearcats parlayed their 11-win season into a share of the conference regular season crown but were nipped 1-0 in a home semifinal match in the America East tournament. With nine starters and 19 letterwinners back from that squad, Bhattacharjee, the reigning America East Coach of the Year, is steering his 2018 squad toward another successful season.

“This is a new team this year,” Bhattacharjee said. “We have to gel and that’s the exciting part of coaching … it’s a brand-new group each year … a new culture and vibe for our whole organization. But like last season, we expect by the end of the year to be in position to compete for both regular season and postseason titles. With our talent, mindset and work ethic, we feel these are reachable goals.”

The quest won’t come easy, as several of the top America East teams also return nearly all starters from a year ago. And while Binghamton returns all but two … those two played crucial roles in the team’s 2017 success. Filling the void left by three-year starting keeper Katie Hatziyianis and all-conference center midfielder Carly Barnett will be a chief concern to Bhattacharjee, who is also working around several preseason injuries that may render his early-season team a bit less potent than the October version.

Here is a position-by-position look at the 2018 Bearcats.

FORWARD

Any discussion of the Bearcats has to begin with redshirt senior striker and co-captain Kayla Saager, who produced a dominant season in 2017 that concluded with America East Striker of the Year and second team All-East Region accolades. Saager, who started her collegiate career with single years at West Virginia and N.C. State, made her presence felt in every game last fall. She tallied a point in each of her first eight games as a Bearcat and wound up with 11 goals (4 GW) and seven assists to rank 30th in the nation in points. She scored at least one point in 15 of 19 games played and despite heavy marking as the season wore on, Saager led the entire nation in shots with nearly six per game.

Saager will be flanked on the wings by a group led by junior Ryan Reilly (4 goals, 11 pts.) and sophomore Genna Michitti (3 goals, 8 pts.). Sophomore Essie Bonney (3 goals) and speedy second-year Sarah Dibble will likely make this a five-player rotation atop Binghamton’s 4-3-3 alignment. Junior Sydney Corda and freshman Stefania Piantadosi round out this unit.

“Kayla obviously had a successful year last year and she will again be a focal point of our attack,” Bhattacharjee said. “But we have a lot of good pieces around her … wide forwards who will add dimension to our attack.

MIDFIELD

Sophomore Dora Hayes had a strong first collegiate season last fall, netting three goals and earning second team all-conference and All-Rookie honors. Expected to see significant time alongside Hayes will be sophomore Chloe Tracy and junior defender-turned-midfielder Barbara Badeer, who helped anchor a back line that allowed a league-low 15 goals in the 2017 regular season. Junior Abby Wick will also be in the rotation. Senior co-captain Patty Loonie has played in 39 career games and started all 18 games in the middle last year. Talented freshman Nicole Scudero, sophomore Ivana Pjetri and junior Rachel Parsons are also in the mix.

DEFENSE

Sophomore Erin Theiller and junior Lauren Spinnato anchor this group in the middle. Thanks to eight overtime games last fall, both players averaged more than 93 minutes on the field.

Theiller had a breakout freshman season that featured second team all-conference and third team all-region accolades. She punctuated her season by scoring Binghamton’s biggest goal - an overtime winner in the regular season finale to give the Bearcats a share of the America East title. Much to Bhattacharjee’s chagrin, Spinnato was overlooked for all-star honors despite a stellar 2017 season.

“Erin and Lauren read the game very well and have a lot of strong traits of top center backs,” he said. “They are good ball winners, 1-vs-1 defenders and have good organization skills. What sets them apart is they are good on the ball and can start to generate our attack from center back. They both have come into camp in excellent physical condition and I think they are primed to have exceptional seasons.”

Freshman Kayla MacKenzie and sophomore Olivia Price are slated to occupy the outside spots. Junior Sam O’Malley, a two-year starter, brings an abundance of skill and experience. Senior Kaycee Pickard and freshman Gabby Piontkowski give the unit more depth.

GOALKEEPING

With the graduation of Hatziyianis, sophomore Mackenzie Hanna and freshman Haylee Poltorak are battling for the starting spot. Hanna played in six games as a freshman and made four starts when Hatziyianis was injured. She responded with a 0.37 goals against average and three solo shutouts. Poltorak was a first-team all-state keeper for a Massapequa squad that made three consecutive state finals appearances during her scholastic career. How quickly both players develop as vocal leaders and shot stoppers will play a key role in the fortunes of the 2018 squad.

“We are fortunate to have two very talented keepers,” Bhattacharjee said. “Mackenzie and Haylee both have multiple strengths: distribution, shot stopping, crosses and 1-vs-1 saves. They are competing very hard and bringing out best in one another and our team has good confidence in both players.”

OUTLOOK

The conference coaches slotted Binghamton third in the preseason poll and several other publications have the Bearcats among the top four but not the frontrunner. Bhattacharjee knows that with the preponderance of one-goal or tie games in league play (67%), the margin of separation is small. The Bearcats went 7-3 in one-goal games last year (4-1 in AE) so continuing that trend of finding the winning edge will be crucial. If the lineup gets settled with minimal lost time for injuries, expect Binghamton to be in the mix once again for a high regular season finish and postseason opportunity.

“We know how competitive the conference is,” Bhattacharjee said. “There isn’t a huge difference between the top and lower tier. There will be a big competitive battle just to make the postseason and then anything can happen. We saw that last year with the No. 5 seed beating the No. 6 in the final. I expect a lot of tight games and it will come down to being focused in key moments and not losing that focus during a set piece or key attacking moment. And then you need to take advantage of opportunities presented to you.”

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