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Is third time charm for Lightning conference title?

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Casey Melilli can only laugh when she talks about it. But it’s not a laugh of joy by any stretch. It’s one more borne out of frustration — the frustration that comes from reaching the City University of New York Athletic Conference women’s soccer championship game in two of the past three seasons, and coming away empty each time.

It’s now been nearly 10 months since that 2-0 title-game loss to the College of Staten Island in the final, yet the sting still lings with Melilli.

“Last season I had a core group of seniors who went through losing in the finals (in 2015) and losing in the semifinals (in 2016), and last year was going to be their last opportunity,” Melilli said. “So we had some pretty good motivation going into that title game, and we thought maybe it was going to be our year. But we came up short, again. I feel like it’s a plague on us.”

So now with a roster hit hard by graduation, Melilli turns her energies into some heavy-duty recruiting with the hope of finding the right combination of players to finally push the Lightning over the top in the CUNYAC.

“I recruited some girls that I think are going to make an immediate impact,” said Melilli, who has earned conference coach of the year honors in two of her four seasons at Lehman. “Then there are some girls who will definitely learn their way and help us out as the season goes on.”

One area particularly hard-hit was on the defensive end where Melilli lost three of her four starters.

“I graduated almost my whole backline, so I basically have to build my defense from the ground up again,” she said. “We’ll definitely miss the Sanchez sisters (Gredia and Pamela) because they were such a staple on the field. But I do get Daisy Gomez back because she had another year of eligibility, so she will be a great asset for us. 

“But when you lose so many players from one position, it definitely hurts you a bit.”

But the Lightning also return a fair share of talent from a team that earned 10 victories last season, including a 4-2 mark in conference play. 

And that should have them in the thick of the CUNYAC title race again this season. Chief among those returners is a former first-year player who made her mark last season, Melanie Siranaula.

“She did a very good job for us last year, and I think she’ll make a big impact this season,” Melilli said. “And I have a few seniors including Julieth Noguez — who is the only one remaining from my backline — coming back, so she’ll definitely have to step up and show the freshmen who we do things. Emily Herrera is also back, and I expect a good season out of her. Our goalie, Rebecca Gritz, is also returning, so that should help us out.” 

Melilli, who teaches math at P.S. 187 in Manhattan before racing up to Lehman every day, thinks having an almost blank canvas with which to work with might be exactly what the program needed after stumbling in the two championship games.

“I’m kind of excited because I’ve gone through the last four years with the same core group, and now I have a new group to work with, so I’ll see what they can do for us,” Melilli said. “It’s like a new clean slate with a few veterans on it.”

And with the new season about to open, the sting of last year’s title-game defeat will now be replaced with the hope of another run as the Lightning set to open against Rutgers-Newark on Aug. 31.

“We have a good mix of seniors and a few freshmen, but we also have some transfers coming in that I think are going to help us,” Melilli said. “Maybe this is what we needed. We needed something fresh, something new, maybe a different outlook. Maybe that’s what we need to get us a championship.”

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