North Texas lost a half dozen of its key players after winning the Sun Belt Conference regular-season soccer title last year.
What the Mean Green didn’t lose was the respect of the Sun Belt’s coaches, or its desire to make its last go-around in the league a memorable one heading into its season opener today at Oral Roberts.
UNT will leave the Sun Belt for Conference USA in 2013.
The Sun Belt’s coaches picked UNT to finish second in its final season in the conference before moving on.
Florida International won the Sun Belt tournament title and the NCAA bid that went along with it last year and was picked to win the regular season title this year over UNT, which lost to Western Kentucky in the Sun Belt tournament semifinals.
“FIU won the tournament last year, so it’s understandable,” UNT defender Kelsey Hodges said of the Mean Green being picked to finish second. “But it also gives us a little grit going into our last year in the Sun Belt. We are here to win it all and show that we deserve that top spot.”
That spot is a familiar one for UNT, which has won the Sun Belt regular season title four times.
The Mean Green would have a few more titles in its collection if it had not been for its longtime nemesis Denver, which left for the WAC after last season.
UNT knows that even without the Pioneers, the path to the conference title won’t be an easy one to travel, not after losing so many key players.
Nikki Crocco and Ellen Scarfone combined for 14 goals last season and were among the six seniors who completed their careers.
UNT’s coaches and players are confident about their chances, despite those losses, largely because two of their other top players return.
Senior forward Michelle Young was named the Preseason Sun Belt Co-Offensive Player of the Year with FIU’s Chelsea Leiva, while Hodges was named the Defensive Player of the Year.
Goalkeeper Jackie Kerestine was a first-team preseason All-Sun Belt selection.
“I feel good about what we have,” UNT head coach John Hedlund said. “We are awfully young, but it’s exciting to have this group of players.”
UNT is hoping that what Hedlund described as a standout incoming recruiting class will help fill the void.
A trio of freshmen — Jackie Moreau, Amber Haggerty and Karla Pineda – scored in UNT’s annual game against its alumni. UNT’s current players won 4-1.
Those young players have impressed UNT’s veterans.
“I’m very excited and ready to get back to work,” Kerestine said. “I feel confident about the way we look with the new faces. We are starting to click. It’s coming together well.”
UNT will lean on Kerestine, Hodges and its defense early in the season, while its offense develops.
Young scored 13 goals last season but will have several new players around her on the offensive end.
Hedlund believes that once those players begin to feel comfortable playing on the Division I level his team will have everything it needs to make a run at another Sun Belt title.
“We are continuing to progress,” Hedlund said. “We have to make sure we are playing our best when conference gets here. We want to make the NCAA tournament. That is our goal even though we are young.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .