BUCKHANNON - Coach Patrick Holguin and his West Virginia Wesleyan Bobcats are embarking on the 2012 season with a chip on their shoulders.
Last season included a strong 10-4-3 record and a top of the league finish during the regular season, but a disappointing 2-0 home defeat at the hands of Davis & Elkins in the semifinals of the WVIAC playoffs has left a feeling of revenge hanging over the program's offseason.
A strong recruiting class and the return of some key veterans has added a little additional respect as well. The league coaches voted Wesleyan as the preseason favorites in the recently released preseason poll.
"Yes, we are the favorite, but after last season's loss in the semifinals, we are playing every game with something to prove," Holguin said. "We have a long road to travel, so we are starting by focusing on one game at a time."
Senior Aleisha Rees leads the returnees. The first team All-WVIAC defender is complemented by fellow captains Emma Levin Neilsen and Jade Smith. Levin Neilsen was a second team all-conference performer, while Smith garnered honorable mention with the postseason accolades.
"All three of the captains are excellent leaders and players," Holguin said. "So is Abbey Lindblad, Jessica Hong and Shae McNamara. They are also going to make a big impact on our season."
Lindblad scored three goals last season, while Hong was a key contributor, appearing in 15 games mostly as a reserve. Unfortunately for Holguin, a big part of the offense is gone. Rachel Ritchey, last year's freshman of the year is serving a medical redshirt after recently undergoing knee surgery. Ritchey was second in the league in scoring, and her 10 goals accounted for half of the team's 20 goals on the season.
Defensively, the Bobcats were stellar throughout the 2011 season. They only allowed a total of 18 goals on the campaign, and the key components of that defense is back with the captains.
"We will be a young team again but the year under last year's freshmen has helped in the maturation process," Holguin said. "We need to be more consistent this year. The defense should be strong with Rees and Neilsen anchoring the back and Smith directing the midfield."
Several freshmen are being counted upon to contribute. Especially with the absence of Ritchey, the staff is looking for other quality minutes from the youngsters.
"Forwards Kristen Hoo and Heather Sanders along with Kristie Dalton will all be battling for starting spots, and bring a much needed impact on our style of play," Holguin said. "All are athletic, have great attitudes, and work extremely hard."
Wesleyan opens up this weekend, hosting Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference member Edinboro.
The Bobcats league opener is Sept. 8 against Concord.
"The conference will be the strongest in years as A-B (tournament champions) returns 10 of 11 starters," Holguin said. "Charleston has increased scholarships and had an excellent recruiting season, so they will be immediate contenders. Davis & Elkins always does a great job recruiting and returns a number of seniors. Every game will be tough as all the teams seemed to have improved."