The fireworks over Walton Stadium weren’t the only thing that started with a bang Friday night.
Under the display, meant for the Mid-Missouri Mavericks’ fans next-door, the Missouri women’s soccer team opened the season with a win, routing Southwest Missouri State 7-2 in exhibition play.
The Tigers led throughout the game, jumping ahead four minutes in on a Jennifer Nobis header, then waiting to surge past the Bears, who scored two goals in the first half, late in the game.
“It was a tale of two halves,” coach Bryan Blitz said. “We scored some early goals in the first half and then we got a little complacent. And hats off to Southwest. They capitalized and scored two goals.”
Senior Kristen Heil tallied the first of her three goals about 22 minutes into the first half, bouncing Karen Bauer’s corner kick off the left post and into the net. Later in the second half, Heil earned the first hat trick of her career, scoring on Shea Swooda assist and an unassisted effort.
Despite holding the Bears to four shots in the first half, MU starting goalkeeper Laura Buehrig was beaten twice, once on a Kate Hercules header and again when Kate Blair slipped in a deflected shot.
Taking a 3-2 lead into halftime, Blitz pressed the team to improve.
“At halftime we said, ‘Hey, we want to get a shutout in the second half,’” Blitz said.
Missouri’s defense, led by Bauer and Elyse Nikonchuk, dominated in the second half, allowing two shots on goal. The Tigers scored four times in the second half, including an all-freshmen hook-up, when Jena Lind assisted on Beth Wheeler’s first collegiate goal.
Every Tigers player had game time, and Nikonchuk and Nobis praised the efforts of the Tigers’ bench.
“The newcomers did amazing for their first game,” Nikonchuk said.
Said Nobis, “We have 22 wonderful players that can come in and step in for any one of us. We have such a well-rounded team.”
Blitz, heading into his ninth season with the Tigers, said he was pleased with his team’s play, but knows the team needs work before regular season play begins Friday at Northwestern.
“We learned a lot of things about our team today,” Blitz said. “But, certainly, we saw a lot of things we want to work on, defending crosses, defending balls in the air, as a group. Team defending is going to be a theme for us.”
Despite an injury-laden 2003 season, MU finished 12-11-1 overall and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in the program’s history, losing 2-0 to No. 16 Kansas.
In the Big 12 Conference Tournament, the Tigers entered as the No. 8 seed but stunned No. 1 seed Colorado in the first round. It was the first time a No. 8 seed had beaten a No. 1. The Tigers advanced to the championship game but suffered a heartbreaking 3-2 loss to Oklahoma State in double overtime.
“We lost a tough game but just getting there was the best feeling,” Nikonchuk said. “Our team goals are definitely higher now. We know what we’re working for and how bad we want to get back to that game.”
The Tigers return seven starters, including Nikonchuk and Missy Peabody, who were named to the 2004 Preseason All-Big 12 team. All-Big 12 Tournament team selections Bauer, Heil and Erica Pusch are also back.
The biggest loss for the Tigers is at goalkeeper. Starters Megan Duncan and Stephanie Krawczyk have graduated, and Blitz said he is undecided on this year’s starter. Junior Kira Reyes, a Columbia native who tranfered to Missouri from the Air Force Academy, and Buehrig, a freshman, are competing for the spot.
“I think it’s probably two weeks away before we pick a starter,” Blitz said. “We’re still challenging them. They’re good at different things, so it will be kind of what we need at that moment.”
Missouri added two assistant coaches in the offseason. Amy Edwards joins the team after coaching Tulsa and serving as an assistant at Notre Dame. Derek Pittman comes to Missouri after two seasons as an assistant at Georgia.
Despite making it to the championship game last year, the Tigers have been picked to finish sixth in the Big 12 in 2004.
“We’re a little disappointed with the rankings, but that’s always good,” Blitz said. “It keeps us motivated. It keeps us on our toes.”
“The Big 12 is always brutal. Hopefully our nonconference schedule, being one of the toughest in the country, will prepare us for conference play.”
“Last season, we finished so strong,” Nobis said. “We overcame a lot of weaknesses, like all of the injuries, and that gives us confidence heading into this season.”