East Carolina coach Jason Hamilton envisions women’s college soccer looking different this year, especially in the month of August.
His senior class should help with any unexpected twists or turns.
It starts with energetic and steady goalkeeper Melanie Stiles, but the defensive unit also features seniors Erin Mikalsen, Jayda Hylton-Pelaia (who was granted a medical redshirt from last year), Kim Sanford and Carsen Parker. Redshirt juniors are midfielders Grace Doran and Melissa Fernandez and defender Morgan Dewey.
“Regardless of what sport you coach, a good senior class goes a long way,” said Hamilton, who is entering his third season with the Pirates after previously serving as an assistant coach at Mississippi State in the Southeastern Conference. “They’ve been through it for three or four years and they know how to get themselves ready, and you can’t coach experience. We’re excited for this year and we hope it goes off without any hiccups, because you basically have a back line with Jayda coming back for a fifth year and Kim, Carsen and Melanie as seniors and Morgan a redshirt junior who also is like a senior back there for us.”
ECU’s leading goal scorer from last year, forward/midfielder Tori Riggs, also is entering her senior year.
Not holding team summer practices is common for women’s soccer, but the major impact COVID-19 has had on this offseason is players not playing games in remote summer leagues. It is similar to college baseball players not participating in summer wood bat leagues to bridge the gap from the end of one season to the fall semester.
“It absolutely will be affected in some ways,” Hamilton said of this season. “There’s a difference between being fit and being game fit. Every program is going to be a little different, but we are not going to jump back into it because they haven’t had game contact since before spring break, so we’re not going to throw a ball out there and get after it on Day 1 (of the preseason).
“It’s almost a blessing in disguise that we have a very large roster because of the big senior group that is going out and the big freshman class we brought in to kind of offset that transition going into next year. You’re going to see a lot of bodies out there for the first few games and the first few weeks. A 90-minute player by the end of the season might be only a 60-minute player at the beginning of the season.”
ECU has its first exhibition match scheduled for Aug. 13 in Greenville against Longwood. The regular-season opener is one week later at High Point.
Stiles has started all 37 games for East Carolina since she joined the team as a transfer from Clemson prior to the 2018 season, including that year when ECU reached the semifinals of the AAC tournament for the first time since 2014. Stiles made five saves in regulation and one more in double overtime in a quarterfinal win over SMU that ended, 5-3, in penalty kicks.
Her 91 saves a season ago were the most by a Pirate since 2015 and helped her earn an AAC second-team nod despite a frustrating and injury-riddled season by the Pirates.
ECU finished with a breakthrough 10-6-3 record in 2018 and followed with a 5-10-3 mark a year ago, which also serves as motivation for another uptick this year in the final campaign for Stiles and other seniors.
“Becoming a Pirate is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” Stiles wrote in a recent #OnePirateNation Twitter post by ECU athletics. “I couldn’t be happier to be a part of Pirate Nation.”
Hamilton added that Stiles evolved naturally into a leader at ECU after her transfer from Clemson, including serving on the Pirates’ student-athlete advisory committee.
“Whether it’s a transfer or even just a recruit coming out of high school, she is really exactly what you want in college sports,” he said. “She’s all in. She’s a 4.0 student who has already graduated as an undergrad, and she’ll graduate with a master’s this year. She helps with as many areas as she can and is a great representative of ECU athletics and ECU as a student.”
The preseason is scheduled to start Aug. 3. That date could change as the NCAA is looking into creating an extended preseason for fall sports.
“We’ll have plans for whether it’s July 15, July 20 or Aug. 3 or whenever. We’re going to have plans in place of how we want to introduce people back into things and how we want to ramp them up and get them ready,” Hamilton said.