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Derek Burton, the women’s soccer coach at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, can’t help but be excited about his team’s depth entering this season.

“It can be a game-changer for us, at least that’s the hope,” said Burton, who’s in his 12th season with the Cougars. “I’m excited about this group and a lot of that is because of our depth. Playing a lot on Fridays and Sundays, you need to have a roster of 15 or 16 strong players who can step in and contribute over the course of the season and we have that this season. We have a good mix of experienced and younger players and we’re looking forward to seeing what kind of season we can have.”

The Cougars, who finished 7-10-2 overall and 4-5-1 in the Ohio Valley Conference a year ago, open the season this weekend with road games against Northern Colorado on Friday evening and Colorado State on Sunday afternoon. After a Sept. 1 game at Indiana State, SIUE will open its home schedule with a 2 p.m. game on Sunday, Sept. 8, against Missouri State.

In the preseason, the Cougars went 1-2, losing 3-0 at Illinois State and 2-0 at St. Louis University before posting a 4-0 win over visiting Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) last Saturday.

In that contest, the Cougars received goals from Edwardsville High product Mallory Mushill, Andrea Frerker (Collinsville), Allison Wendt (Triad) and Myah Diekema. In goal, Bella Henderson (Fort Zumwalt East) played 60 minutes and Kelli Fink (Summit) played the last 30; each recorded three saves.

“It shows the progress that we have made so far both offensively and defensively,” Burton said after the match. “We were able to keep a steady flow offensively while still keeping them off the scoreboard as well.”

Burton, a Vianney High product who played four seasons of soccer at Arkansas-Little Rock, feels the Cougars’ success this season will be aided by its work with Mark Jamison, the school’s Director of Athletic Performance.

“It all works together, the soccer and the training, on and off the field,” the coach said.

The Cougars look to be solid in all areas of the field. Frerker, a junior who earned All-OVC second-team honors a year ago, returns in the midfield and will run the Cougar attack. A year ago, she led the team with nine points on four goals and one assist.

“Andrea’s a strong player and a real student of the game,” Burton said of Frerker, who has started 35 of 36 games since joining the Cougars. “We look for her to set a tone for us in the middle of the field.”

Up top, the Cougars return three experienced players. Attacker Courtney Benning, who starred at St. Joseph’s Academy, is back for her fifth season with the Cougars. A year ago, she started all 17 games, finishing with a goal and a team-leading four assists. In her Cougar career, she’s contributed five goals and six assists.

After redshirting a year ago, sophomore MacKenzie Litzsinger (Summit) returns after being named to the conference All-Newcomer squad in 2017, when she appeared in 19 games and finished second on the team with nine points (four goals, one assist).

The third key returnee up top is senior Becca Jostes, who started 16 of 17 games a year ago and finished second on the team with seven points (two goals, three assists).

“We have some good depth in our attacking players,” Burton said. “Hopefully we can use that to try to wear our opponents down.”

On defense, the Cougars will rely on a sophomore Megan Danielson in the middle and junior Emma Ehrsam on the wing. As a freshman last year, Danielson was one of three Cougars to start all 17 matches. Ehrsam started 16 of 17.

“It’s great having a couple of experienced players like Megan and Emma back there to give us some stability,” Burton said. “Playing in the back can be tough, especially for the younger players, so having some experience there should help.”

In goal, the Cougars will look to sophomore Henderson, a transfer from Akron, to lead the way. She went 2-1 and made six saves for the Zips a year ago. Last year’s starter, junior J.J. Schoh (Eureka), has been slowed this fall by injury.

In the preseason OVC poll, the Cougars were voted fourth behind Murray State, University of Tennessee-Martin and Eastern Kentucky. But that doesn’t mean much to Burton.

“It’s nice to be near the top, but I feel like polls and rankings are mainly for the fans,” the coach said. “For us, it’s about going out and playing the way we know we’re capable of playing. I like the makeup of this team and I expect to have a successful season. It’s not about polls or rankings, it’s about going out and getting the job done on the field.”

Joe Lyons is a sportswriter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.