Cardinals looking for change of pace

FAIRMONT – “A change of pace gives you space.”

Matt Nielsen has embraced that mantra entering his ninth season at the Fairmont Area girls soccer program’s helm this fall.

Nielsen, however, faces the dilemma of paring his varsity lineup to the maximum 22 players from a roster jam-packed with 53 eligible candidates.

“It’s great to have those kind of numbers, but figuring out which 22 to suit up for varsity, and then trying to get playing time for the other 31 at the junior varsity level will definitely be a challenge for our coaching staff,” Nielsen said in reference to varsity assistants/junior varsity mentors Lael Luedtke and Emily Lueck, along with C-squad coach Abbey Smith.

With a highly-skilled nucleus of players who generated 95 percent of the Cardinals’ goals in 2013 returning to Kot Soccer Complex this fall, Nielsen has a good starting base to build around when Fairmont Area opens the season against New Ulm at 2 p.m. Friday at the Martin Luther College Fields in New Ulm.

Senior striker Sierra Schultz, a two-time all-South Central Conference selection, and senior striker Lexi Johnson, an honorable mention all-league choice in 2013, literally packed a 1-2 scoring punch for Fairmont Area a year ago.

Schultz delivered a team-best eight goals to complement four assists to top the red-and-white’s points charts with a dozen, while Johnson paced the Cardinals with five assists to go with four goals.

Senior tri-captain Alex Christianson returns to handle the goalkeeping duties on a full-time basis after splitting time last fall to anchor a retooled defensive unit.

Senior tri-captain Sierra Schrader laces up her spikes for a fourth straight season and will play her familiar hybrid position of defender/ midfielder/striker, while senior tri-captain Kayley Shoen provides vast varsity experience, leadership and scoring potential from her midfielder/striker position.

Junior Logyn Cone, the Cardinals’ most improved player in 2013; fleet-footed junior Sydney Leichtnam; junior Riann Dietz, Fairmont Area’s rookie of the year last fall; and strong-legged senior Hayley Jones all return to the midfield after logging numerous minutes a year ago.

Juniors Marisa Nelson and Emily Kloeckner, sophomore Myah Lytle, senior Koral Hargan and Kristin Hansen – a foreign exchange student from Norway, will round out the red-and-white’s midfielders.

While senior Marissa Naab and junior Sophie Brau return to the defense for another season, Nielsen will look to revamp a back line depleted by graduation with hard-working junior Brooke Lemon, sophomore Sadie Sandersfeld and junior Taylor Wolf. Nielsen anticipates Lemon and Sandersfeld also playing some midfield at times during the season.

Sophomores Brytni Drevlow and Brianna Shriver, along with junior Claire Gerhardt, will round out the front-line attackers.

Ironically, the offseason merger between the former South Central and Southwest conferences into the new Big South Conference will have little effect on the league race in 2014.

“We added Worthington as an official member of the Big South, but it didn’t change much since we’ve historically played them twice a season every year since we became a varsity program,” said Nielsen.

Nielsen expects 2013 co-SCC champions Waseca and St. Peter to represent the top challenges within the Big South.

“St. Peter has traditionally made strong playoff runs, while Waseca’s youth teams had a lot of success in the summer traveling leagues, including a couple of state champions,” said Nielsen.

So, what has Nielsen and his coaching staff been focusing on during their preseason practices to improve upon last year’s 6-6-4 mark?

“We’ve spent far more time focusing on footwork than in the past. Oddly, an increase in that area leads to a sneaky kind of improved conditioning, too,” said Nielsen. “We’re also doing more filmwork this year. Players don’t always like to watch themselves, but there’s no better way to figure out what you are and aren’t doing correctly than to see it on film.”