Despite their best efforts, the 2021 University of New Hampshire (UNH) Wildcats’ season came to an end in the America East Championship on Oct. 7. Now the question is no longer, “Who do the Wildcats play next?” It’s “What comes next?”  

For head coach Steve Welham, what comes next is a long offseason that will task him to replace three captain starters, including the team’s starting goalkeeper.  

“It’s a big hole, there’ll be big shoes to fill. There’s no doubt about it,” said Welham.  

While Welham said he already has players in mind who could take over the captaincy, he did not name any specific player who could fill that void. Though he did add that could change come this spring.  

“I think a lot of that could come into the light during spring season,” Welham said before clarifying while there’s no spring season that counts, the exhibition games played, and training will help determine who might get the nod. “We’ll see who steps up and then comes to the forefront.”  

That said, there is a chance Welham will retain one of his captains: starting goalkeeper Cat Sheppard. Sheppard, including other seniors on the roster could exercise an extra year of eligibility due to last season being shortened by the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, but as of now that is all up the air, Welham said.  

“We’re going to wait and see what’s going on,” he explained. 

Regardless, Welham is enthused about the newer crop of Wildcats arriving to Durham next fall, describing it as a “solid class” that will add “depth and talent” to the team.  

In addition to that, he said there are a couple who could be impact starters like first-year forward Meghan Guarente was this year.  

“We feel it’s certainly a couple in there. And we feel like it will be some surprises. Usually, every year there is somebody that will surprise you that you maybe didn’t think would do it. So, we feel that it’s going to happen,” said Welham.  

These newest members will join a team currently comprised of 16 underclassmen, who Welham felt were the biggest takeaway from this previous season.  

“I think the biggest thing is that a lot of our young players really came of age and excited to see them continue to build on this platform that they’ve created and take it to another level next,” Welham explained. 

To get to that next level, Welham said the team will need to finish higher than the No. 6 seed. Both to give themselves rest following a long season, along with home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Something he felt the Vermont Catamounts benefitted from in the America East Championship.  

One player who could help UNH realize that is junior forward Whitney Wiley, who suffered a torn ACL during the spring 2021 season and was sidelined this fall. Before her injury, Wiley was one of the team’s best offensive options. She tallied three goals, one assist and eight points through four games. Her absence was felt as UNH finished eighth in goals scored in the America East despite being tied for first for most games played.  

“There’s no question we missed [Wiley] and I think the team filled in for her admirably. It’ll be a huge boost to get her back,” said Welham. “We’ve said before she’s kind of like a metronome. Everything goes through her. She makes us tick. It’s going to be really nice to have her back and she’s going to help us create and score more goals overall in the big picture.” 

If she chooses to forego her extra year of eligibility, the Wildcats will be without Sheppard in 2022. Sheppard has been one of the best keepers in the program’s 36-year history through 37 starts. Her 16 shutouts are fourth-most in program history while her 0.98 goals-against-average is first in program history. 

While Welham acknowledges the difficulty of replacing a keeper of Sheppard’s caliber, he said he’s confident in sophomore Ashley Buchheit and first-year goalkeeper Sally Rainey moving forward.  

“Two very talented young goalkeepers and everybody’s going to have an opportunity in the spring to play. We think very highly of both of them, and it’ll be fun to see them continue to develop and compete for the spot,” Welham said.  

For now, Welham admitted there’s no front-runner between the two, and will look to see how things shake out in the spring and summer before naming a starter.  

Luckily, Welham and the rest of his coaching staff have nine months to find answers to these questions, and others.  

Photo courtesy of Rick Wilson