Last season, the Arkansas-Pine Bluff soccer team reached the semifinals of the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament. This year they want more.
The Lady Lions began fall practice on Friday — just one week before they play their first game against South Florida in Tampa.
“We have a harder non-conference schedule than last year,” second-year head coach Rohan Naraine said. “We play some really tough teams.
“It will be good for us, though. It will let us see what we need to work on.”
Last year, UAPB struggled during the non-conference portion of its schedule as it worked to get several new players and a new coach all acclimated to one another.
The Lady Lions finally started to click when conference play began. They reached the conference tournament and upset the East No. 1 seed Alabama A&M 2-1 before falling to eventual champion Mississippi Valley State 9-8 on penalty kicks.
“The advantage we have this year is that we have a better idea of where everyone is going to play,” Naraine said. “Last year, we were trying to figure out what would work during games.
“And it took us a couple of games to finally figure out our lineup. This year, we have our defense set. We have one new midfielder and a new forward, but overall we have so much more in place.”
Undoubtedly, the biggest surprise to come out of last season was the play of goalkeeper Alyssa Cobbs.
“It was her first year ever playing the position,” Naraine said. “She has really good people working with her.
“She was just doing it for the team.”
On Thursday, Cobbs was named to the Preseason All-SWAC first-team and also tabbed as the SWAC Preseason Co-Defensive Player of the Year along with Prairie View A&M’s Deborah Arguelles.
“It means a lot,” Cobbs said of the honors, “because I didn’t play goalie until last year. …
“I had literally no idea what I was doing.”
The junior, who led the conference with a .805 save percentage and 153 saves last season, knows there is pressure on her to live up to the expectations.
“My goal is to do even better than last year,” Cobbs said. “I mean, if I did so good with no experience, then imagine what I should be able to do this year.”
Cobbs’ play last year really impressed her teammates, including fellow Preseason All-SWAC first-team selection Molly Stone.
“Alyssa was kind of our go-to-player,” the senior defender said. “No matter what she’ll do anything.
“She came out and surprised the entire conference. She raised the bar of what we expect from ourselves. She’s really an inspirational player.”
UAPB returns its top two scorers from 2012 in the form of senior twin sisters Celeste (six goals) and Czelene Carrera (four).
“We know a lot of twins that don’t get along when they play,” Celeste Carrera said, “we do, though.
“We just kind of know what the other is going to do when we’re out there.”
Their teammates have noticed that almost supernatural ability, too.
“It’s crazy how they can play off each other,” Cobbs said. “I think they just have that twin telepathy thing. …
“They fit in like two puzzle pieces. They work so close together. Celeste gives us exactly what we need at forward and Czelene gives us exactly what we need in the midfield.”
According to Naraine, Celeste Carrera suffered a torn ligament in her knee during the summer, but he isn’t expecting it to be a serious problem.
“It’s just something we’re going to have to really monitor,” Naraine said. “We don’t want to lose her in September when our most important games are all in October.”
Celeste Carrera isn’t the only Lion dealing with a knee injury.
Kelsey Every tore her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), medial collateral ligament (MCL) and meniscus in April while playing in a seven-on-seven tournament in Little Rock.
The senior had surgery in May, but will miss the entire season.
“I’m kind of the middle man between the players and the coaches,” Every said of her new role. “I’m someone the girls trust and they are probably more apt to listen to criticism if it comes from me, quite frankly.”
On Thursday, the Lions were picked to finish second in the SWAC Western Division behind Prairie View, but for Every, anything less than a conference title would be unacceptable.
“If we made it (to the semifinals) last year, we have no excuse not to do even better this year,” Every said. “We expect to go and show up and play for a conference championship.
“Anything less is not good enough for us.”
Every won’t get to play this season, but she will be with her team every step of the way.
“This is my family,” Every said. “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”