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Women’s Soccer: Undefeated Centre eyeing return trip to Final Four

Last season’s Final Four appearance has the Centre College women’s soccer team itching to return to the NCAA Tournament.

The Colonels, ranked No. 5 in the coaches’ national preseason poll, have done nothing to slow the hype. After winning two games in the Washington & Lee classic, Centre is a perfect 6-0, conceding just one goal while scoring 11.

“You always want to start out the right way, and I knew that this weekend would be our first real big test,” Centre coach Jay Hoffman said. “Washington & Lee is a very good team and Bridgewater is very good as well. They’re two teams that compete for the top position in their conference. To be able to come out of there with two wins, I’m very, very pleased.”

The second game, against Bridgewater, was particularly sweet — freshman and Boyle County grad Meghan Paynter scored her first goal for the Colonels.

“It’s a breath of fresh air for her,” Hoffman said. “I know that she’s been really wanting it the past few games and it just hasn’t been going in. It came at a critical time in the game, where Destinie (Graves) got to the end line, crossed and she was there and made a very hard goal look easy. Couldn’t be more happy for her.”

Despite the strong start, Hoffman said his team isn’t firing on all cylinders yet.

“There’s a lot of unknown factor with this team,” he said. “We’re starting five new players from last year’s team. We’re still really trying to click, trying to figure things out with timing, better possession on the ball, a little bit quicker play, better movement. As much as I wish it would come quicker, we’re having a hard time with that. Our players are going to have to really buy in to work extremely hard in practice to try to find another level of play, because that’s what it’s going to take for us to get to places that we want to continue to go.”

Graves is a player who Hoffman said can take her game to the next level. She was a first-team All-American last year after scoring a school-record 27 goals, made the preseason All-American team this year and has already tallied four goals and three assists to lead the team through six games.

“When she wants to turn the corner, she can turn the corner. When she wants to play at a whole other level, she has the ability and the talent to play at a whole other level,” Hoffman said. “Yesterday we needed a big goal, and she was able to score in the last two minutes for us to beat Washington & Lee. Today, we needed some way to get behind the defense and she was able to turn the corner and slot the ball and Meghan put it in. She’s playing like a senior that wants to end her career the way that anybody would want it. That’s winning a lot of games and scoring a lot of goals.”

Fellow senior Tori Dillard was named a preseason All-American as well, finishing last year as a second team All-American and SAA defensive player of the year. She will lead a defense that gave up a conference-low 14 goals last season.

Hoffman said senior Olivia Alford has stepped up in goal for the Colonels so far this year “Already this year, Olivia has had to make a back-to-the-ball save, she’s had to make a one-vs.-one save, she came up twice or three times this weekend where the game could’ve easily been 1-0 them instead of us,” he said. “She’s playing extremely well.”

Senior Katie Downing could be another boost to the team, Hoffman said, after coming off of an injury last year.

“I think the big unknown factor is Katie Downing,” Hoffman said. “She played a lot of minutes this weekend. But can she get her groove back and the confidence to start putting the ball in the back of the net, giving us a little more help offensively.”

The schedule so far has given the Colonels plenty of time on the field. Conference play kicks off on September 24th, and the Colonels won’t have a weekend off from there till the end of the season. That leads to the Colonels loading up their schedule early in the season.

“You’ve got to find games early on, because once conference starts, every weekend is taken, and there’s two weekends taken for the conference tournament,” Hoffman said. “Right now, our players need a lot of rest. We’ve had a lot of pulling injuries, a lot of soreness. Players are extremely excited about having a day off.”

Playing such a tough schedule will help the team get back to the NCAA Tournament, where Centre has become a piece of the furniture. The Colonels have made the NCAA Tournament in each of the last five years and have won four conference titles.

Centre is hoping to take another step toward the national crown this year, after making the Final Four last year and the quarterfinals in 2014. But first, the Colonels have to take care of business.

“Everybody’s goal in the country is just to make it to the NCAAs,” Hoffman said. “… But you can’t get selfish, you can’t look at it that way, you just have to get back in it, and when you get in it, you have 64 teams who can go and win it. They’re all good at that point.”

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