Only one NCAA Division I women’s soccer team is yet to give up a goal as the halfway mark of the season fast approaches and it not one of the usual suspects, either.
La Salle University, located in Philadelphia with an enrollment of just over 7,000, enters Friday night’s Atlantic-10 Conference opener against Temple with an 8-0-1 record and zero goals against.
This week the Explorers received three votes in the NSCAA National Rankings. They remain unranked, but for a program that has never been to a NCAA tournament, the progress is clear.
But the team starts on a clean slate on Friday when it hosts Temple University at 7 p.m. at McCarthy Stadium. Conference victories are all that will help La Salle live the dream of an A-10 championship. Friday’s match is the first of four straight home A-10 matches before the Explorers end the regular season with a daunting five straight conference road games.
La Salle Head Coach Paul Royal, who is also Paul Riley’s assistant on the Philadelphia Independence, said he is trying to ignore the buzz surrounding the team. Right now, their record is 0-0, he said.
“For us it is really just trying to stay focused,” Royal said. “I’m really just trying to deflect that kind of stuff because I don’t want it to be a distraction.”
Redshirt senior Melissa Sanger looks to continue her stellar form in net for La Salle. She has played every minute in goal this season for the unbeaten Explorers. Sanger is now the school’s all-time leader in shutouts and is on pace to finish first all-time in goals against average.
“Her confidence is just amazing right now and I think that she has a lot of belief in herself,” Royal said. “She has definitely polished herself up a lot over the last five years.”
The incredible shutout streak is not Sanger’s alone. She has faced just 26 shots in nine games this season, which speaks to how strong her back line has played.
Center back and captain Jess Hopton leads the defense alongside standout Diana Allen and defensive midfielder Jourdan McVicker. Hopton gets into the attack as well (she has five assists this season), but the key is good defending.
“It’s almost a personal insult if anyone runs by them,” Royal said of his defensive unit.
Sanger also praised her defense and said that the hard work really began in January when the team reconvened following the 2010 season, which brought its first-ever A-10 tournament victory in a 2-1 quarterfinal victory over Duquesne.
“Everybody put in the work last spring and during the summer and we really pride ourselves on defending, covering for each other and working hard not to give teams looks on our goal,” Sanger said.
Now the goal is to take that a step further and win the Atlantic-10 tournament and advance to the NCAA tournament for the first time. Royal was an assistant coach at Villanova in 2001 when the Wildcats made their first NCAA tournament. He said it was one of the best feelings of his life.
“I told the girls here, that was one of my top five moments in life and I have two kids and I got married,” Royal said. “So it really shows how special of a moment it is going to be for these girls if we are sitting there on a Monday night watching that selection show.”
The work begins on Friday against Temple (3-6-0, 0-0 A-10), but the biggest conference test will be a week out when the Explorers host Dayton in a heavyweight A-10 clash. Dayton (10-1-0, 1-0 A-10) is currently ranked No. 16 in the NSCAA National Rankings. The Dayton Flyers lead the A-10 in points (77), goals (27) and assists (23).
Watch the match vs. Temple at 7 p.m. ET here.
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