Heading into last season, the Jaspers were coming off two near back-to-back appearances in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship game.
Because of that, there was sky-high optimism the Manhattan College women’s soccer team was primed for another run at the title.
Sure they lost Erica Modena, the 2017 MAAC offensive player of the year, to graduation. But there was still an abundance of talent on the Jaspers roster, not the least of which was the tandem of Emma Saul and Arianna Montefusco.
The 2018 season? Bring it on, the Jaspers said.
But what happened to Manhattan’s fortunes over the course of two days last summer changed the whole complexion of its season.
“Emma, who was a senior last year and has now graduated, tore her ACL three days into the preseason,” Manhattan head coach Brendan Lawler said. “Then five days into the preseason, Arianna needed ankle surgery. So on the day that Arianna and Emma were both announced as preseason second team all-conference picks, they were both out for the entire year.
“So between losing them and Erica graduating, we lost probably 80 percent of our returning goals. That was the story of last year.”
What followed was a frustrating season that saw the Jaspers post a 3-8-4 overall record with a 2-5-3 mark in the MAAC. More frustrating? Seeing seven matches decided in overtime or double overtime.
“We couldn’t score goals,” Lawler said. “And aside from our game against St. Peter’s (a 2-0 win), all our other conference games were either 1-0 or 1-1. We were right there in every game, we just couldn’t finish. Literally a handful of goals — two, three, four more goals across two, three, four more games — and we would have been in the playoffs. It was hard not to be frustrated.”
But with so many closely contested matches last season despite being undermanned, Lawler said there is once again reason for optimism.
“We took as the silver lining that it wasn’t going to take much to turn this around,” the 10th season coach said. “We just have to continue to do what we do defensively, but we have to get better at creating more chances and then finishing them on offense.”
The Jaspers were an elite defensive unit last year as they allowed just 16 goals on the season, the second lowest allowed in program history, finishing second in the MAAC in goals against average.
Manhattan’s defense should be quite stout again this season with senior Camryn Nici back in goal for her senior year. Nici posted a stellar 0.45 goals against average last year.
“Cam came here as a third-string goalkeeper, and every day she just worked to get better,” Lawler said. “She’s just a competitor who slowly got better. She’s a great example of when your goal is to improve, it pays off for you long term.”
Lawler also points to his junior class as a key to this season.
“When they were freshmen, they came in and played a major supporting role to the upperclassmen and made it to the championship game in their first year,” Lawler said. “Then in their second year, when they had to take on a bigger role, the injury bug hit us and they learned how fine a line there is from being in the championship game to eighth place.
“I think we all learned the razor-thin difference between a really good season and one that you don’t want to be a part of again.”
And yes, part of that junior class includes the return of Montefusco.
“Arianna is a finisher,” Lawler said. “It’s gives us great confidence with her back and not having any worries about her ankle. Having that kind of player — who you know, when she gets the ball in and around the penalty area, can finish — it makes everyone more confident. She’s also going to draw more defenders and draw that attention, which then creates the space and the opportunity for others as well.
“So not only does she make us better, but she makes others around her more dangerous, too.”
After opening the season with a hard-fought 2-1 loss at Hartford, are the Jaspers — armed with a healthy roster — ready for another run at the MAAC title this season?
“Absolutely,” Lawler said. “Being healthy makes a giant difference. So the first thing on the to-do list is to make the playoffs, and I think there’s no reason — so long as we stay healthy — that, that is not a realistic goal.”