By John Torenli, Sports Editor
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
It's repeat or bust for the LIU-Brooklyn women's soccer team as they prepare to defend their 2011 Northeast Conference title.
Fresh off capturing their third league championship, and second under the guidance of 13th-year head coach Tracey Bartholomew, the Blackbirds are back at work in Downtown Brooklyn, gearing up for their 2012 opener at Seton Hall in South Orange, N.J., on Friday night.
“Our expectations are to go to the NEC Tournament and come out on top," Bartholomew intimated during a recent on-campus training session. "You’ve got to finish in the top four [in the league]. We would be disappointed not to be in the top four for that championship weekend [Nov. 2-4]."
Last season, the Blackbirds went 12-8-1 overall, 8-2 against NEC opponents, 6-1 at LIU Field and survived a pair of epic games with Monmouth and St. Francis (Pa.) in the NEC Tournament before emerging with their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2006.
LIU bested Monmouth, 2-1, in two overtimes in the NEC semifinals, advancing to the final on senior Ariana Calderon's penalty shot in the 105th minute. The Blackbirds needed to go to penalty kicks to knock off St. Francis (Pa.) in the championship match in Loretto, Pa., as NEC Goalkeeper of the Year Jennifer Bannon, who will be back for her senior season, came up with a title-winning save in the fifth and final round of the gut-wrenching shootout.
Calderon graduated along with fellow high-scoring forward Kayleigh Morgan following the Blackbirds' big season, which culminated in a tough 2-0 loss to No. 5 Virginia in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. But Bartholomew believes that her team's senior leadership and championship mettle will shine through in those players' absence as the Blackbirds try to capture the program's first-ever back-to-back titles.
“The girls came in really fit which is a tremendous start," Bartholomew noted. "They’re ready to go and have been working extremely hard. We have great leadership, a large senior class with 11 players and they’re really dictating what’s happening out there. We’re just trying to put the pieces in place right now. Unfortunately, graduation brings some tough openings in the lineup. When you lose such scoring touch, you need other players to step up."
Picked to finish second in the conference by a narrow margin behind St. Francis (Pa.), the Blackbirds will return some of the league's top players in All-NEC selections Katie Egan, Jen Spicer and Bannon, who will have junior Jessica Sexton backing her up in net.
Bannon was named NEC Defensive Player of the Week four times in 2011, recording 73 saves and posting a 1.09 goals-against average. Sexton, the 2010 NEC Goalkeeper of the Year, led the nation in GAA (0.23) and save percentage (.934) as a rookie before suffering through a number of nagging injuries last year.
Spicer was a second team all-conference selection in 2011 after scoring seven goals and ranking second on the team in scoring with 15 points.
Also back for the Blackbirds are a pair of NEC All-Rookie Team members in Sydney Ciufo and Shannon O'Conner. Ciufo played in 20 matches in her first season at LIU and tallied a goal and two assists, while O'Connor took part in 17 matches and logged 1,203 minutes along the backline.
Following their season opener at Seton Hall, the Blackbirds will head to Boulder, Colo., to participate in the Colorado Omni Tournament, facing the University of Colorado and the University of Denver from Aug. 24-26 before returning to Brooklyn for a matchup against the University of Maryland-Baltimore County on Sept. 2. Bartholomew's defending champs will begin their NEC schedule Sept. 21 against Robert Morris in Moon Township, Pa.
“I feel good about the standard of success we have built in the program,” Bartholomew said on the team's web site. “Our student-athletes have the dedication, desire and work ethic to win a title and they don’t want to settle for anything less.”
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Another LIU-Brooklyn team coming off a championship campaign, the softball team, announced a key addition to the coaching staff this week.
Head coach Roy Kortmann, who won his ninth NEC title last season, has added former volunteer assistant Andy Russo as a full-time member of the 2012 coaching staff.
Russo, who spent the past four seasons as an assistant at St. John's, was involved with recruiting, scouting opponents, reviewing game and practice film, monitoring the players' academic performance and maintaining the team's social networking presence with the Red Storm.
“We are thrilled to have Andy back at LIU-Brooklyn,” Kortmann said. “Andy mentored one of the top hitting teams in the Big East at St. John's, and I have no doubt that he will be a valuable asset to our program.”
Amuaku will work under first-year head coach Patrick Horne.
“I'd like to thank Athletic Director Bruce Filosa and all of his staff for giving me the opportunity to set high standards and add history to one of the most prominent academic institutions in New York City,” said Amuaku.
“I am extremely honored and excited for the opportunity to be a part of Brooklyn College's first Women's Soccer Program,” added the former PSAL scoring champ out of Brooklyn's Wingate High School. “I am also honored and excited to work alongside head coach Patrick Horne, who is one of the coaches I in large part owe my academic success to.”
Amuaku played for Horne at Concordia College in Bronxville, N.Y., from 2007-08. She also served as an assistant at Barza Academy for Girls from 2008 through last April. While at Barza Academy, Amuaku developed various drills to enhance dribbling, shooting and defensive skills.
“I enjoy a good challenge,” she noted. “With hard work and dedication, I am looking forward to an exciting and successful season. I plan to share with our student-athletes the important lessons about teamwork, leadership, discipline, dedication and having the right mental attitude on and off the field.”