FIU WOMEN’S SOCCER

FIU women’s soccer banking on experience in conference tournament

 

FIU women’s soccer team enters this week’s Sun Belt Conference tournament with the advantage of being able to say, ‘Been there, done that.’

dneal@MiamiHerald.com

There’s a sense of rerun about the FIU women’s soccer team that has nothing to do with three Michael Jacksons and two Imperial Stormtroopers being among the Halloween costumes worn to Monday’s practice.

The defending Sun Belt tournament champions roll into Wednesday’s Sun Belt Conference tournament opener against Troy on a seven-game unbeaten streak just as they rolled into last year’s tournament with only one loss in their previous 12 games. Junior forward Chelsea Leiva, the Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Week, leads the team in goals and scoring, as she did last year. Senior Kaitlyn Savage, who backstopped the championship game shootout win, is in goal again.

And they’ve got the asset of having been there and done that.

“You have to think it does,” FIU coach Thomas Chestnutt said. “You don’t ever want to be complacent and I don’t think we have been this season. There is no replacement for experience and a good core of our team has had that experience and know what it’s about.”

Leiva said, “Just the whole atmosphere of being in the tournament, your mentality, your adrenaline pumping before the game. It’s different during the tournament.”

Junior midfielder Nicole DiPerna said, “It’ll help us stay positive throughout every game, especially because we came back in that Denver game last year [3-1 in the semifinal], so even if we do go down, I feel like with the experience of coming back in the tournament, we should be fine through anything,”

FIU (11-5-2, 8-1-1 in the Sun Belt) goes in as the No. 3 seed after finishing in a three-way tie for the regular-season title with North Texas and Middle Tennessee State.

FIU got shuttled to the back: North Texas beat Middle Tennessee, and FIU lost to Middle Tennessee (the Panthers’ last loss) and tied North Texas (the only tie in the current unbeaten streak).

Since that 1-1 tie, FIU has put up 19 goals in five wins.

“I think we’ve improved in the final third,” Leiva said. “We’d get to the final third and we couldn’t do anything with the ball. Now, we’ve created a lot of opportunities on goal.

“Also, our back four have been doing really well keeping their shape. It wasn’t that great in the beginning.”

Chestnutt said that while Leiva and sophomore forward Scarlett Montoya kept scoring consistently, a number of players got going offensively: DiPerna, sophomore forward Ashleigh Shim; sophomore Caroline Hernandez; junior midfielder Kim Lopez; freshman midfielder Madlen Weinhardt (the team’s assist leader), freshman defender Jazmin Jones and sophomore defender Nikki Rios.

“I think we’ve done a good job of moving the ball around and getting organized in our attack,” DiPerna said. “And working our way up from the defense forward.”

Though Chestnutt said he wasn’t aware of the streak until he read about it, “I think we are in a good place.”

The team’s motto is “One More” and, he said, “right now, “One More” means one more game. Play one more game.”

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