DURHAM N.H. — With goals in the first five minutes of both halves, University of New Hampshire (UNH) women’s soccer (4-6-2, 2-2-1) found a new mantra: Strike early, and let the defense handle the rest.
Fifth-year senior and co-captain Francesca Picicci led the Wildcats, scoring the first two goals of the afternoon. Her first goal came in the fifth minute of the game. First-year forward Meghan Guarente found Picicci about seven yards outside the box with three defenders in her area. Oddly enough, none of the UMBC defenders made a play to stop Picicci. The Retrievers instead allowed her to pivot toward the center of the field and shoot the ball from 25-yards-away. The shot hurdled towards the upper 90 of first-year goalie Abbey Cowles’ near post and found its way to the back of the net.
Three minutes into the second half, Picicci struck again. Sophomore Emily Bini got things started when she laced a pass from the right corner and found fellow sophomore Anna Hewlett at the top of the penalty box. Hewlett passed the ball through a pair of defenders and found Picicci who was all alone in front of the net. Cowles slid to her right to no avail as Picicci powered her shot over the goalkeeper’s body to extend the lead.
Hewlett scored the third goal of the afternoon 16 minutes later to run the tally up 3-0. This newfound offensive success for the Wildcats runs in contrast to how they opened their season. Coming into last week, the offense had only notched five goals over their last eight games if you discount the season opener. Over their last two games, however, they’ve surpassed that total with six goals scored.
Part of this new rhythm is due to a schematic change the team has made recently according to Picicci.
“We’ve changed our formation a little bit. We’re going into 4-4-2 diamond. So, once we changed that we’re finding more rhythm, we’re controlling the middle of the field, and it has been a real success for us, and we’re going to go with it.”
Welham mentioned that utilizing the diamond has given UNH more runners and options in the box, something that paid dividends against UMBC.
“Finding those seams was really nice for creating more scoring opportunities so it’s good to see that and we’re really pleased with the effort.”
Picicci has been one of the benefactors of these formational changes, scoring four goals over her last two games.
“[The formation change] is allowing me to get the ball at my feet and try to take players one-on-one. So, I think it’s been helping me a lot personally,” she said. “Working with the diamond and even the outsides that are making those forward, it’s easier combined. We’re getting more chances in the middle of the field, and that’s been really helpful for us.”
With four games left in the conference, the Wildcats appear to be peaking at the right time after a tough start to the season. Back-to-back wins have given UNH six points in the standings, vaulting them to sixth in the America East which would be good enough to earn a playoff berth.
“We had a little bit of a tough beginning of the season like we weren’t getting the results we wanted. We got very unlucky sometimes and we’re not putting our heads down,” Picicci said. “We took those, we understand that some of them were unlucky, some of them we had to work on. And we’re just going up and up trying to peak at the right time, make it to the championship game, and win the whole thing.”
One question coming out of Sunday’s game is the health of UNH graduate student and co-captain Casey Peterson who suffered a quad injury. However, Welham said she was day-by-day.
Peterson suffered the injury toward the tail end of the first half, which saw her subbed out with five minutes left. The fifth-year forward headed straight for the athletic trainers and had them examine her lower leg. Before the second half started, Peterson was still bothered by the injury and didn’t seem to be 100%. While she attempted to play through the pain, she was subbed out 10 minutes into the half and did not return to the game.
Losing Peterson for any amount of time would be a blow to the Wildcats. She has started all 12 games this season and, her 1037 minutes played is fourth-most on the team. Additionally, Peterson has been a stalwart defender and leader for this young team.
“She does so many really important things for us. The intangibles that don’t always get noticed by the casual observer or general fan. But there’s a lot of things she does on the field that is really important to us,” Welham said. “Not only her leadership but winning 50-50 plays and making the team better by picking up defensive duties when the other plays may or may not see it. We need everybody tip-top and healthy so hopefully, [Casey] will be ready to go.”
The Wildcats will look to make it three-straight wins when they resume their border battle with the University of Maine (3-5-2, 1-4-0), Thursday, Oct. 14 for a 7 p.m. kickoff.
Photo courtesy of Rick Wilson.