The Lee University women's soccer team began this month with a trip to the United Kingdom and begins its season tonight in the Pacific Northwest.
But Matt Yelton's Lady Flames are used to going far. After several seasons of deep NAIA playoff runs, they've won the national championship the last three years and begin this season ranked No. 1.
They'll find out soon if they belong there. At 10 EDT tonight they face third-ranked Concordia University in Portland, Ore., and Saturday they play No. 2 Azusa Pacific on the same field.
"We didn't make it easy on ourselves," said Yelton, who is 233-71-11 as a college coach and 179-31-6 in nine years at the Cleveland school. "This is a good opportunity to find out early where we are and where we need to be. Facing the toughest teams is part of the preparation for our ultimate goal of a championship."
The trip to England, Scotland and Wales helped the Lady Flames get some experience together. They went 4-1 in exhibitions there, and the freshmen were blended with older players both on the field and in other activities.
"It was my first interaction with most of the team, and everything was great. Everybody had an amazing time," said Kathryn Healy, one of two 2011 Notre Dame graduates who have joined former high school teammates Darcy Brannen and Danielle Ciabattone as Lady Flames. "We started out going to Europe. How can you beat that?"
Said Ciabattone: "I thought it was a great combination of playing soccer, bonding as a team and being tourists."
Michelle Spangler, who had been to London as a fifth-grader, is the other freshman from Notre Dame. Junior Clair Lanter from Soddy-Daisy is one of the three captains, and goalkeeper Leah Wilson from Chattanooga Christian and midfielder Caroline Scales from Baylor by way of Georgia Southern University are other local juniors in key roles.
"We'll have probably a rotation of 16 players, and we'll start at least five from the Chattanooga area," Yelton said. "We have potentially seven starters out of the state of Tennessee. While we have had some very good international players, we try to recruit the best locally and regionally."
The other captains are senior All-American Jamie Achten from Franklin and junior Kim Conrad from Murfreesboro. The sole senior besides Achten is Jordan Woody from Asheville, N.C., who transferred for her final season from Liberty University, where she was a part-time starter.
Woody's sister Chloe also transferred from Liberty but is redshirting as she continues her recovery from ACL surgery. She started every game at the NCAA Division I school before tearing the knee ligament.
Although the Lady Flames lost a couple of good Scandinavian players, many of the juniors and sophomores were key components of past championship teams and will provide added experience this year. And another group of talented freshmen will help in the program's continuity, Yelton believes.
"I love this team," said Achten, who has a three-year record of 67-5-3 and has totaled 61 goals and 65 assists. "The freshmen who came in are very sweet and work very hard, and they have blended well, and our returning players worked hard this summer."
The coaches and players seem eager to see how that translates to another run at a championship.
"This weekend will definitely be a good test for us," Scales said.
"We know every team wants to beat the team that keeps winning," Lanter said, "so that makes us keep working. I think we've worked hard and we're ready to get started."
Achten said her main goal is to keep practices intense and everyone hustling to get better, and freshman Healy said she learns something new in every session.
As Spangler said, "It's a little intimidating to get here and know you're playing against the No. 1 national team in practice, but everybody is still humble."