Restoring Tradition: Northwestern State could be on track with early-season success

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Senior Cassandra Briscoe is reminded of Northwestern State’s soccer history every time she walks into the Lady Demon Soccer Complex.

On a fence to the side of NSU’s home bench are five banners to signify the program’s Southland Conference titles – tournament titles in 1997, 2000, 2002 and 2005 and a regular season title in 2000.

The last nine seasons of NSU’s 20-year soccer history don’t have any banners, but early-season success for the Lady Demons (1-1-1) could signify a return to the championship tradition built in the early years.

“You come out to practice and you look at the (banners), and the last year it says is 2005,” says Briscoe, a member of the five-player senior class who hasn’t even played in a conference tournament at NSU. “That’s an extra push for me and motivates me in practice.

“I think (the early-season success) does a lot for this team. A lot of (Southland) teams have underestimated us and have kind of written us off, and I would like to see their expression when they see a 1-1 tie for us against a big school like LSU.”

NSU was in a scoreless deadlock with LSU on Tuesday until the 52nd minute, but freshman Kayleigh Phillips answered that goal in the 83rd minute that resulted in the 1-1 tie after two overtimes. The tie is the first non-losing result against a Power Five conference member in program history, which included 26 losses heading into this season.

After allowing three goals in the first 30 minutes (two goals in the opening 10 minutes) at No. 5 Texas A&M on Sunday, the Lady Demons held the Aggies scoreless for the final 60 minutes in a 3-0 loss. NSU won its opener 4-1 against LSU-Alexandria.

Coach George Van Linder tells his team that they’ve taken the first step in returning to the glory of yesteryear as Louisiana’s first program to make an NCAA tournament (2000) and the second-most in the state (three).

“We’re so proud of the program in its 20th year of soccer,” said Van Linder, who is in his fourth season at NSU after head coaching stops at Butler, Southern Methodist, Baylor and Stephen F. Austin. “We talk about restoring the tradition and the legacy that it has.

“To do that, you need to post results like the tie against LSU. To do something that’s never been done before in the program, it sure seems like a step in the right direction.”

NSU’s successful second half against Texas A&M and tie against LSU came with two different goalkeepers between the posts.

Senior Brooke Bourbonais started the first halves of both matches, holding LSU scoreless in the first half, which included a save on a penalty kick.

Sophomore Alex Latham, who started 17 matches as a freshman after Bourbonais suffered a severe finger injury that required surgery, held A&M scoreless in the second half and limited LSU to one goal in the second half and in the overtimes.

Even though no current player has played in a Southland Conference tournament, which includes the top six teams in a 12-team league, Bourbonais said the expectation is a conference title and NCAA tournament appearance. The Lady Demons haven’t appeared in the SLC tournament since 2008 after the program made three NCAA tournaments (2000, 2002 and 2005).

“I think we’re coming. The preseason polls said we were going to be 10th, but we’re coming for (the title),” Bourbonais said. “Everyone is so pumped and our confidence is so high – we feel like nothing can stop us.

“I talked to a girl that plays for LSU, and she thinks we can win conference the way we played (Tuesday) … I think we can play even better.”

Bourbonais mentioned the rarity of an equal timeshare between goalkeepers even in big matches, and Latham said the competition between the pair is beneficial.

“Competition is good for everybody. Knowing that we’re so close, it brings out the best in us,” Latham said. “(The team) came in early before school started, and we’re in better shape.

“We are taking extra steps to being like the team (NSU) used to be – restoring the tradition.”

The back line deserves credit for its improvement, and anchor Patry Carrion (junior) has meshed with sophomores Allison Palomo and Amy Renteria along with freshman Ysmina Smith.

A competition exists between a deep corps of NSU goal scorers for attempts, and Phillips has made the most of her opportunities with two goals and one assist.

NSU flaunts sophomores Esdeina Gonzalez (team-high seven goals in 2014) and Cache’ Haley with others like Briscoe, junior Camila Ardila and freshman Brittany Caserma. Briscoe, Ardila and sophomore Shelby Drope have been the leading ball distributors in the midfield.

“I’m honestly really blessed with opportunities my teammates have given me,” Phillips said. “I had just entered the game (in the last 10 minutes of regulation against LSU), and (Briscoe) gave me a beautiful through ball that completely split the defense.

“I was there to finish it … but I’ve never seen a more perfect ball than that.”

Now Van Linder must refocus his squad for the six matches before conference play, starting with a trip to Jackson State on Sunday at 1 p.m. NSU, which has three matches left on a five-match road swing, will return to its home stadium Sept. 8 to host Alcorn State.

“We haven’t had to worry about handling (success) and to build on it, so that’s a great problem to have,” Van Linder said. “Our players have the ability to do big things against big-time programs.

“I think that the coaches believed it for a while, but the players are believing that more and more. We’re talking about our legacy and what we want to do, and we have to approach every game like its LSU or Texas A&M.”

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