LEWISBURG, Pa. -- Ben Landis' ninth preseason training session as head coach of the Bucknell women's soccer team is underway, and the Bison mentor was thrilled to have all 26 rostered players actively participating in drills this week. After injuries sapped the team of some strength during the spring campaign, a return to health and the infusion of a quality first-year class have restored the team's depth.
"We are absolutely thrilled with the way preseason has started," said Landis. "For the most part we are healthy again and we did very well in fitness testing, which is a testament to how hard everyone has worked this summer. The first-year class has stepped right in and has already made us a better team in terms of depth and talent."
Bucknell returns nine starters and 18 letterwinners from last year's squad that finished 7-9-2 overall, 4-4-1 in the Patriot League, and qualified for the six-team Patriot League Tournament. Among the returnees are a pair of 2013 All-Patriot League selections in senior center midfielder Evelyn Nicinski and senior defender Courtney Nelson. Two-thirds of the team's goal-scoring production from a year ago is back this fall, as are all four starting fullbacks and two goalkeepers with starting experience.
For the third year in a row Nicinski will be leaving the team to compete with the Polish National Team during World Cup qualifying. She will miss Saturday's exhibition game at James Madison but is expected to be back in time for the Aug. 24 season-opener at Hofstra. Nicinski could be away for another match later in the season, but she is not expeted to be absent for any Patriot League games, unlike last season when she was overseas during Bucknell's double-overtime loss to Army.
Fortunately for Landis, center midfield appears to be a point of strength for the Bison, and there should be plenty of talent to compensate for the brief loss of Nicinski. After a rash of injures devastated the defensive back four for much of last year, Landis is also pleased with the abundence of depth there.
"We have six center mids who are all capable of playing major minutes," said Landis. "It's probably the most talented line that we have had. We are working on matching up personalites and playing to each other's strengths. In the back we were thin and injury-prone last year. We might have overcompensated this year, but that is a good thing. We feel that Courtney Nelson is the best attacking right back in the league, and now we can surround her with all kinds of depth and talent. All four backs that were starting at the end of last year have returned, and then you bring back three more who missed all or most of the year with injuries plus a couple of really promising freshmen. Everyone is pushing each other to be better."
The Bison will put that group to the test on Saturday when it visits James Madison for a 7 p.m. scrimmage at University Park. The Dukes finished 15-5-1 last year and advanced to the CAA championship game, where they fell to Northeastern 3-1.
"This is a perfect scrimmage for us," said Landis. "It is a quality opponent from the same conference as Hofstra, who we play in our opener. It gives us a chance to play under the lights in a game atmosphere on Bermuda grass. It is a great opportunity to see where we are and teach from a competitive situation."
The Bison will play their first four games of the season on the road, with the Emmitt Field debut coming on Sept. 2 against UMBC at 7 p.m.
A more detailed season preview will be posted next week.