SOCCER: Fresh chance to jump start program

Cards open season Friday at home vs. Xavier

Two consecutive losing seasons doesn't offer much pride, but it has generated motivation and a willingness to buy into winning for the Ball State soccer team.

As it prepares to open its season at home against Xavier on Friday, Ball State has 11 freshmen and two transfer players on the roster, along with a new coach. Craig Roberts, who coached at Tennessee-Martin last season, replaces Michael Lovett and brings a different philosophy.

Senior captain Cortney Coombs said Roberts made an immediate connection with her and her teammates on and off the field.

"[The team] got to be involved in the interviewing process and see that he wants us to be both good soccer players and good women," Coombs said. "He is strict and has his own philosophy, but it helps us succeed. He came in and laid down the law, and we all jumped on board right away."

Roberts inherits a program that won the Mid-American Conference regular-season championship in 2007 but hasn't had a winning season since. To get back atop the conference, Roberts said he will start from the ground up.

"Last year we gave up a lot of goals, but we have made positive steps in fixing that problem already," he said. "In addition, our players need to maintain the highest fitness level. We currently have players not passing the fitness test, and they will not be available to play if they don't."

Anyone doubting Roberts' ability to improve the Cardinals soccer program should talk to the players who followed him here. Sophomore Aubrey Buehler and senior Danielle Rogers transferred from UT-Martin to stay with Roberts.

"He doesn't sugarcoat anything," Rogers said. "He treats girls differently and knows how to distinguish between players. I knew he would come here and rebuild this program."

Finding a starting goalkeeper is one of Roberts' first and most important tasks. Neither keeper from last season's squad is on the team. Newcomers Buehler, Sammy Scaringelli and Layne Schramm are expected to compete for the starting job.

"Everybody is really battling it out for the spot, and I have been very impressed with the way they have competed on a daily basis," Roberts said. "They are making the job harder on me to pick, but at this point each player still has an equal opportunity to claim the spot."

Senior Tina Vannatta said adjusting to a new coach and new teammates is a positive challenge.

"He is a totally different coach than [Lovett], and he has definitely turned the program around in the few months he has been here," Vannatta said. "He knows the game very well and knows how to relate it to each of the girls. We have a lot of solid players in freshman, so we will be very deep."

Ball State's schedule is perhaps its biggest challenge this season. The Cardinals play nine of its first 12 games on the road, including three of their first four conference games.

"We have a very competitive schedule because I took over the scheduling so late," Roberts said. "We will modify the best we can, but these are all games we can compete in to have positive results."

Beyond the desired results on the field, Roberts wants to bring back the energy and passion of the fans.

"We are trying to revamp the soccer hooligan club and get people to come down and be involved in the games," Roberts said. "I am also creating an e-mail list for anyone who wants to reach out to me and the program."