After reaching the America East championship game for four consecutive seasons, the University of Maine women’s soccer team was eliminated in the first round by Stony Brook 2-1 last season.

Maine finished 6-8-3 overall, 4-3-1 in America East regular season play. It was Maine’s first losing season since 2002 (7-8-1).

Injuries to key players and a subsequent lack of depth and experience proved costly.

Maine had 16 freshmen and sophomores last year.

But 10th-year head coach Scott Atherley and his Black Bears are eager to bounce back and feel they have the players to contend for their first America East title.

Maine opened its season with a 3-0 nonconference win over Sacred Heart (Conn.) on Saturday.

“Our depth and athleticism are significantly improved,” said Atherley. “We return a group of players who have a lot of experience and we’ve brought in five athletic freshmen from very prestigious clubs who have a good understanding of the game. And they all have a bit of an edge to them.”

“That will make our situation much more competitive,” added Atherley.

“We didn’t have the kind of year we expected last year, but we learned from our mistakes,” said senior goalkeeper Jasmine Phillips, who owns the school career shutout record with 28. “The new kids will give us a lot of good competition [for playing time].”

“We have way more depth this year and, based on our fitness test results, we have much more speed and a lot more strength,” said senior striker Christine LaBelle.

Injuries to strikers Laura Harper and Laura Martel and midfielder Veronique Fleury hurt the Bears’ attack and depleted their depth.

Maine averaged just 1.17 goals per game, and the Bears should be much more prolific this season.

“Last year, we played 12 players if we were lucky. Some games we’d use 11 players for 90 minutes,” said Atherley, who noted that some of the players he used had nagging injuries.

“Now we’ll be able to play 15-16 players [without a significant dropoff],” added Atherley.

“We’ve played real well as a unit so far,” said senior attacking midfielder Kim Stephenson of Hampden. “I don’t know if we have any glaring weaknesses. I haven’t noticed any.”

The Bears will certainly be solid in goal with workhorse Phillips returning.

“She’s as good a ’keeper certainly in the conference if not in the region and, arguably, in the country,” said Atherley. “She has the ability to not only block shots, for her size, she has the mobility and quickness and athleticism to cover the goal. And she is a great distributor of the ball.”

The backup goalie is sophomore Elizabeth Deletetsky of Portland.

Phillips will benefit from having a veteran all-junior back line protecting her with All-AE second-teamer Anjelica Hodgson at left back, Cristina DiIelsi in the middle and York’s Hailey Blackburn at right back.

Freshmen Sady Tobin, Courtney Harnais and Kaitlyn MacIsaac and sophomore Aly Johnson will get playing time in the back, although MacIsaac and Harnais could also get quality minutes in the midfield.

Stephenson, who had a goal and three assists for the second straight season, has been moved from holding midfielder to an attacking midfielder where she will be joined by sophomore Kelsey Wilson (1 & 1).

Sophomores Claire Robbins and Ashley Diver will also see action in the midfield along with Harnais and MacIsaac.

Lewiston junior Martel was hampered by back and knee ailments a year ago but still led the team in scoring with six goals and an assist.

And Martel’s 2008 debut was a gem as she scored all three goals in the first half against Sacred Heart.

The departed Harper, who broke her leg, was the only other Bear with more than two goals (4 & 2).

LaBelle had a pair of goals and hopes to add to that total. Freshman Carolyne Nellis, juniors Fleury and Alexandra Krous and sophomores Hannah Breton (1 & 0) of Greenville and Cari Gill will be counted upon to put the ball in the net.