EMU field hockey coach E.A. Jackson doesn't try to sugar-coat the 2015 season.
"Last year was a rebuilding year," said Jackson. "Our goal was to lay the foundation for growing our program this season. I really give credit to our athletes from the 2015 season for not giving up on our team and program. They gritted it out and never ceased to strive towards improvement."
The women finished with a record of 3-14 and missed the ODAC Tournament for just the second time in the conference's 34-year history with the sport.
But entering her second season at Eastern Mennonite, and bringing in her first full recruiting class, Jackson said her women are ready to disrupt the recent pattern of ODAC field hockey results.
"Our theme for the year is 'Rise Up!'" Jackson said. "Our athletes have really embraced this in their preseason preparation. They are working diligently to prepare their bodies, minds, and fine-tuning their skills in order to shake things up in the ODAC this year. We are striving to improve every day, together."
The Old Dominion Athletic Conference coaches picked the Royals for eighth place in this year's ODAC Preseason Poll, ahead of only Sweet Briar College, which is returning to league play after a one-year hiatus. After a winless trip through the ODAC in 2015, Jackson said she isn't fazed by the voting.
"Past failure or success is not an indicator of future success or failure," she explained. "Our athletes are currently focused on cultivating a healthy 'soil' for this program to continue to grow and thrive. We are really focused on our personal growth, not outside opinion."
With a positive ratio of incoming players to players lost, roster size alone could push the Royals into the hunt to return to the six-team ODAC Tournament. EMU lost a pair of four-year contributors in Melissa Cox and Brianna Kauffman, but Jackson's first recruiting class bumped the roster to 18 women, the largest size this millennium.
"We are super excited about our incoming class this season," said Jackson. "We know that last year we struggled to finish (score), so our recruiting efforts were really focused on finding a few players that could contribute to our program in that way."
Nine women will don an EMU jersey for the first time this fall, meaning the leadership of the nine returners is key.
Both of the Royals' All-ODAC players are back in junior Emily Augsburger (Lancaster, Pa./Lancaster Mennonite) and senior Lorraine Armstrong (Greencastle, Pa./Greencastle-Antrim). Augsburger, who was All-ODAC First Team also VaSID All-State Second Team, excelled as a versatile defensive player, adding one goal and two assists. An All-ODAC Third Team midfielder, Armstrong led EMU with four goals and ten points.
Jackson said those two women set an example for the rest of the team.
"She is just an all-around phenomenal athlete," the second-year coach said of Augsburger.
"She's very creative on the ball and a versatile player. And Lo is a natural leader on the team. She sets the tone during training sessions, she led the team with physical training in the off season, and she's motivated to continue the journey she started last year with rebuilding this program."
Also back are regular starters Janae Kauffman (Harleysville, Pa./Christopher Dock), Mariah Martin (Greencastle, Pa./Greencastle-Antrim), Mikayla Martin (Colorado Springs, Colo./Lewis Palmer), Emily Musselman (Telford, Pa/.Souderton), Hannah Daley (Lothian, Md./Southern), Kelsey Troyer (Lancaster, Pa./Lancaster Mennonite) and Julie Burkhardt (Perkasie, Pa./PA Cyber).
With a roster of 13 in 2015, the Royals had a razor-thin margin to provide healthy bench players during games. Jackson said this year's roster size will result in a noticeable difference for the 11 on the field.
"Last year, there were games when we didn't have any substitutes," she said, "and we did not have fresh legs during games. We were a very fit team, but we were never afforded the luxury of getting breaks during the games. We have numbers this year, which is exciting because we will have the opportunity to rotate fresh legs into games as needed."
With such an influx of new faces, one key to the new campaign will be how quickly the players adjust to each other.
"Our team chemistry has really been a focus of ours this preseason," said Jackson. "With nine new players we've been intentional with providing our athletes opportunities to get to know each other for starting to form meaningful bonds with each other."
The Royals will get to test those bonds early, as they start their year with two games at home over opening weekend: York (Pa.) on Sept. 3 and Ferrum on Sept. 4.
Although most home games will feature a free live webcast, note that due to staffing issues there will not be a webcast of the game against York.