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CEDAR FALLS — Bruce Erickson gathered his 2018 Northern Iowa women’s soccer team around him Tuesday prior to the Panthers’ first preseason practice.

Erickson knew exactly what he wanted to say.

“This is not last year. It is a brand new year, so let’s make it better,” Erickson said.

A year ago, in Erickson’s first season at the helm of the program, the Panthers produced the best season in their 18-year history.

UNI went 14-5-1 while reaching the Missouri Valley Conference tournament final and setting school marks for wins, goals (34), assists (29), shots (309) and shutouts (11).

In order to match or better 2017, Erickson will have to find a way to replace six key graduates, four of whom played defense, as well as blend in 13 new players — 11 freshmen and two transfers.

“I think we continued during the spring,” Erickson said. “The spring was good because you change pretty quickly without having your seniors around.

“I think that sort of vacancy with them departing, you’ve lost talent, you’ve lost leadership, so the spring you begin that process of life without them and allow new leaders to step up.”

UNI will miss Marianne Gagne, Allison Bitter, Haley Kerns and Kelsey Hansen, four of the six players Erickson typically liked to use in a back-line rotation.

It helps to return Morgan Teel and the finally healthy Julianne Trizzino, who has suffered three ACL injuries.

Also cushioning the blow is the return of senior goalkeeper Jami Reichenberger.

“To have her back maybe relieves some of the anxiety of all those players we graduated,” Erickson said. “As far as the back line, in fairness as new as we will be back there and as inexperienced as we will be, overall we may have better options. We could have 10 real good options back there.”

Erickson added that because the bulk of UNI’s returning experience comes within his attacking group, there is a chance some veteran players will move to the back.

Leading that attack group is Brynell Yount, who led the team with 11 goals in 2017. Players like Sydney Hayden, Jamie Altheiser, Hannah McDevitt, Jenny Wick and Kelsey Yarrow were also key contributors.

That depth is further buoyed by the addition of Haddie Carlson from Central Michigan and the return from injury of Jordyn Rolli and Olivia Stearns.

“We are further along and more experienced in our attack,” Erickson said. “We have some very good attacking-minded kids there that we may have to move them around just to get them on the field.”

Erickson plans on challenging his team both internally and on the pitch before its season opener at the Cedar Valley Soccer Complex in Waterloo against Viterbo on Aug. 16 and before a tough, two-match road trip to Wyoming and Colorado State later this month.

The Panthers will face Nebraska-Omaha Monday in an exhibition in Ankeny and a tough Wisconsin-Milwaukee program in Rockford, Ill., on Aug. 11.

“They are going to test us and expose us in ways that will make us learn quickly on the go,” Erickson said.

The battle in camp will be just as important, Erickson adds.

“The level of intensity and training our newcomers will face is something new for them because they have been pretty comfortable,” Erickson said. “They were probably one of the better players on their high school team, club team. Here it is a whole different game.

“We have a flight to Colorado in two weeks, and we are taking only 20. So there are 13 pretty good players who aren’t going. The biggest challenge is knowing you have to come in every day and bring it.”

2018 schedule

Aug. 6 — vs. Nebraska-Omaha, at Ankeny, 6 p.m. (exhibition). Aug. 11 — vs. UW-Milwaukee, at Rockford, Ill., 3 p.m. (exhibition). Aug. 16 — Viterbo, 6 p.m. Aug. 19 — South Dakota, 1 p.m. Aug. 24 — at Wyoming, 5:30 p.m. Aug. 26 — at Colorado State, 1 p.m. Aug. 31 — at University of Iowa Tournament (vs. VCU), 4:30 p.m.

Sept. 2 — at University of Iowa Tournament (vs. Central Michigan, 11 a.m.). Sept. 7 — at South Dakota State, 6 p.m. Sept. 9 — at North Dakota State, 1 p.m. Sept. 14 — Northern Illinois, 7 p.m. Sept. 16 — at Iowa State, 2 p.m. Sept. 23 — Loyola, 1 p.m. Sept. 29 — Missouri State, 1 p.m.

Oct. 5 — at Evansville, 6 p.m. Oct. 9 — Western Illinois, 5 p.m. Oct. 12 — at Indiana State, 6 p.m. Oct. 17 — Drake, 7 p.m. Oct. 20 —Valparaiso, noon. Oct. 25 — at Illinois State, 4 p.m. Oct. 28-Nov 4 — at Missouri Valley Tournament, TBD.

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Sports Reporter

Sports reporter for The Courier

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