University of Maine women's soccer players midfielder Kristina Kelly (from left), goalkeeper Kira Kutzinski and midfielder Delaney LaBonte hope the team can exceed last year's breakthrough season. Credit: Larry Mahoney / BDN

The University of Maine’s women’s soccer team did something last season that no team in America East had done since 2012: it went undefeated in conference play during a regular season.

The Black Bears won four and tied four to earn the third seed for the tournament.

UMaine beat No. 6 the New Jersey Institute of Technology 4-1 in the quarterfinals before losing to eventual champ and second seed New Hampshire 2-1 in the semifinals.

It was the first time since 2015 that the Black Bears qualified for the postseason in America East.

It was also UMaine’s first winning season since that year, with a 9-3-5 overall record.

UMaine was picked to finish third in the America East coaches preseason poll behind last year’s tourney finalists, No. 1 Binghamton and No. 2 UNH. And despite losing 11 players, 24th-year head coach Scott Atherley and his players feel this year’s team is potentially better than last year’s.

The Black Bears have 21 returning players from their spring season, including transfers Kristina Kelly from Central Connecticut State University and who hails from Lincolnville, and Lara Kirkby from the University of Oregon who is originally from Adelaide, Australia.

“In terms of talent, the corps that was here in the spring puts us in a very good place to compete. I feel very good about where we are,” said Atherley, who thinks this team has more depth than last year’s squad.

“Having quality depth is important, especially during our two-game weeks. You really have to have quality depth and it also makes training more competitive and that really works to our advantage.”

soccer team prospects

Atherley said the team felt good about last year’s season but the players have “unfinished business.”

“The bottom line is we want to win a championship,” said Atherley, whose team has never won the America East tourney. Doing so would earn his Black Bears their first-ever berth in the NCAA Division I playoffs.

Senior midfielder Delaney LaBonte from York said the team set a good foundation last year but that the playoff loss to UNH still stings.

“We want to do better this year. We have a chance to go way beyond third place. We have a lot of depth. That is one of our biggest assets,” said LaBonte, daughter of former UMaine quarterback Rich LaBonte.

“Depth will be really important,” said reigning America East Goalkeeper Kira Kutzinski. “We sub a lot and that helps us keep up the speed of play.”

The speedy Kelly, who was a first team All-Northeast Conference selection when she was at Central Connecticut State, said she has watched UMaine games from the 2022 season and said the team was really good.

“But we’re going to be even better in a completely different way with our speed and fitness and how we will be able to interchange [positions],” said former high school All-American Kelly, who scored 159 goals at Camden Hills High School in Rockport and was chosen the country’s top girls soccer player in 2019.

UMaine did lose three of its top five scorers, including leading point-getter Saylor Clark (7 goals, 2 assists) and No. 3 point producer Birte Speck (3 & 2).

But it does return the Kraemer sisters, junior Abby and senior Kayla, who were second and fourth in scoring with 6 & 2 and 2 & 3, respectively.

Abby Kraemer was a second team All-America East pick.

Sophomores Julie Lossius (2 & 1), Jodane Pinette (1 & 2) and senior Tegan Morrison (1 & 1) are also talented, experienced forwards who should figure on the scoresheet this season.

Pinette was chosen to the America East All-Rookie team.

LaBonte (1 assist) and Kirkby will be the catalysts in the midfield and Atherley said sophomore Madison Michaud (1 & 3) from Gorham, and freshmen Abbey Thornton from Windham and Luise Reinwald from Munich, Germany, have been impressive.

Thornton scored a school-record 34 goals for Windham High School last season.

“If you were to ask me a year ago what was my biggest concern was for this season, I would have said the midfield but now I feel it is where we have the most depth,” said Atherley, who had to replace players like Speck (3 & 2) and Hannah Bamford (1 & 1).

Freshman Victoria Dungey is also in the mix in the midfield.

In the back, Atherley has to replace All-America East and All-Region selection Halle Rogers (2 & 1) along with reliable Susannah Gaines (3 & 0) and Amanda Sandberg (no points).

“But that is where we have really strengthened our corps,” Atherley said.

Hartford transfer Doireann Fahey from Ireland has been “fantastic” so far as the left back and Memphis transfer Rebecca Grisdale will also figure prominently on the back line along with the Schneider sisters, juniors Myla and Emma, fellow juniors Melina Peloteau and Elle Vermilya, and freshman Grace Johnson.

Emma Schneider scored a goal last season and Atherley considers her “our dangerous outside player” in the back line.

There are six Maine natives on the team. Along with Thornton, LaBonte, Michaud and Kelly are Hermon freshmen midfielder Michaela Saulter and senior defender Sophia Santamaria from Kittery.

Kutzinski, who had a 0.59 goals-against average and .817 save percentage with seven shutouts a year ago, is backed up by two capable transfers in Rachel Ross (Rider) and Jessica Kasacek (West Virginia).

“It would be great to be the Goalkeeper of the Year again this year but I would rather win a championship. A ring is nicer than a trophy,” Kutzinski said.

Atherley’s team will again pressure the ball all over the field, looking to create turnovers that lead to scoring chances.

“Twenty-six of our 32 goals last year came in transition less than 10 seconds after winning possession of the ball,” Atherley said. “We’re pretty balanced. Our mindset is we want to win the ball as close to the opponents’ goal as we can so we can capitalize on transition.”

UMaine will play exhibition games at Northeastern in Boston on Aug. 11 and at home against the University of New Brunswick on Aug. 15 at 4 p.m. before opening the season against first-year Division I program Le Moyne College on Thursday, Aug. 17 at 1 p.m.