Lee University already has done something no other NAIA school has done in women's soccer -- win four consecutive national titles.
The Cleveland school is leaving the NAIA after this school year, and Matt Yelton's Lady Flames intend to drive for five as they depart.
With 10 of 11 starters back from last year's national champions -- and several other players capable of taking over positions -- Lee is the clear-cut favorite to win it all again. But this is soccer, where close games are the norm in the postseason and even the dominating team on a given day can lose, which makes the Lady Flames' four at the fore all the more remarkable.
They open their season later than most, facing 19th-ranked Northwood on Friday and fifth-ranked Embry-Riddle on Sunday in the Habitat for Humanity Classic in Daytona Beach, Fla. Each of those teams has played four games already, whereas Yelton made tried in vain to schedule games last week, even offering "substantial guarantees."
It's when they finish that matters, though -- not when they begin.
"Training's been very, very good with this group," Yelton said. "We have a really, really deep team -- the deepest team I've had, and we've had really good intrasquad games."
The depth is clearly a blessing from a coach's standpoint. It also can be a curse, with talented players not happy about playing time, but Yelton also likes the Lady Flames' attitudes and chemistry.
"I think that's been one of the keys to what we've been able to do," he said. "Our players have bought into making the most of what they're getting, and so far this group is showing the same thing. One of the pivotal things down the stretch will be everybody buying into their roles.
"I really, really like this group of girls -- good quality and character, and they're fun to be around."
The one missing 2011 starter is Jamie Achten, the two-time NAIA player of the year who was instrumental in all four previous national titles.
"Losing her is a huge loss for any team," Yelton said, "but we've always said one player doesn't make a program, and I know our team wants to prove that."
He said a "lot of players" are going to step into her on-field and leadership roles. Freshman forward Christina Bovbjerg, who was on Denmark's under-19 national team, is one newcomer expected to make an early impact.
Yelton praised seniors Clair Lanter, Caroline Scales and Kim Conrad and junior midfielder Leah Fortune, a second-year Lady Flame from the University of Texas, as outstanding leaders. All confirmed their pride in the program's string of NAIA titles and their determination to keep it going.
"It starts with practices," said defender Lanter, a former Soddy-Daisy star. "I know I don't want to go out on a loss."
Said midfielder Scales, a Baylor graduate who began her college career at Georgia Southern: "We do think about it. This is our last last chance ever.
"No one's going to replace Jamie, but a team changes and roles change from year to year."
Said Fortune: "One of the best parts of soccer is that each person has different qualities and skills, and each team is going to be different as people move in and out of the lineup."
Their success and memories aren't limited to championships, they emphasized.
"There's a lot more to each player on the team than the 90 minutes on a field," Fortune said. "We don't define ourselves by a win or a loss."
Said Conrad, who's from Siegel High in Murfreesboro: "For me the best part is the people. I've been on teams with people who weren't committed. Here I've made some of the best friends I'll ever have."
"I don't think any of us like being here just because of soccer," Lanter said. "It sounds corny, but this team really is like a family -- our family away from home."
The Lady Flames include eight players from area schools, including past All-American senior goalkeeper Leah Wilson from Chattanooga Christian, sophomore Brianna Prugh from Walker Valley and junior Danielle Ciabattone, senior Darcy Brannen and sophomores Kathryn Healy and Michelle Spangler from Notre Dame.
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