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CLAREMORE — After one of the largest turnarounds in Heartland Conference history, the Rogers State women's soccer team expects to take another step forward in 2018. 

The Hillcats return nine starters from the 2017 team that went 13-4-3 and advanced to the Heartland Conference championship game for the first time in program history. Under first-year head coach Yolanda Thomas, the goal for 2018 is to outdo the success achieved in 2017. 

"The girls and I together said what they were able to do last year when I wasn't here was a start, Thomas said."They are really proud of it; however, they recognize they are better than last year. The team has more experience; they are used to playing together. They had a hugely successful year, but that was the bar. The bare minimum is to get back to where they were. We want to be better so we are going in to win every game and focusing on the process." 

RSU put together the best defensive season in school history in 2017 as the navy and red conceded only 12 goals in 20 games. The navy and red bring back two All-Heartland Conference selections from the back line along with one of the top goalkeepers in the nation last season in senior Taylor Sargent. Sargent was selected all-region by both the United Soccer Coaches and Division II Conference Commissioner's Association (D2CCA). In front of Sargent returns defenders senior Melissa Cardenas, an all-region pick by the United Soccer Coaches as well, and sophomore Alex Wynn, an All-Heartland Conference selection. The trio started all 20 games last season and totaled 11 shutouts, a single season school record. Cardenas led the Hillcats with six assists in 2017, and Wynn netted two goals. Sargent totaled 81 saves for an 87.1 save percentage and only allowed 0.58 goals per game. 

"Sargent in goal is huge for our team," Thomas said. "She's just clutch. She shows up at the right time at the right place. That's a big returner for us. Melissa Cardenas is our captain and moved into the center back role for the 2018 season. Alex Wynn is another returner as a sophomore, but started in every game as a freshman. So we definitely trust those two to keep us safe along with Sargent back there." 

In the midfield, RSU will once again count on Bria Salazar, the 2017 Heartland Conference Freshman of the Year, along with returning starter Eva Matarang. Salazar appeared in 17 games with 12 starts in her freshman season while Madarang played in 18 games with 14 starts as one of the most versatile players on the team.  

"Eva Madarang didn't have as much as a touted year last year, but she is probably one of our best players right now," Thomas said. "She can play anywhere on the field. She's given us time already in two games on the backline, in the midfield and as a forward. In the midfield we have Bria Salazar who was freshman of the year last year in the conference. She is just a sophomore, but she definitely holds our midfield together." 

Returning to lead the offensive attack are sophomore Hannah Mushisky and senior Jordan Downing. Mushisky garnered all-region honors by the United Soccer Coaches as she is the top returning goal scorer for RSU with 10 goals in 2017. Downing, an all-conference pick, started 17 games as a forward and posted four goals and five assists as a junior. She brings experience to the RSU offense. 

"Hannah is always scoring goals," Thomas said. "She's a bit unconventional. It's hard to know what she is going to do. She just shows up at the right place at the right time. Jordan Downing she might not have had the stats last year, but she adds stability in the attack. She's a senior now and knows what it takes to finish games." 

The Hillcats will count on two sophomores to take on larger roles in the 2018 season. Janell Hernandez, who appeared in all 20 games as a freshman midfielder, transitions to a different position in 2018. Maggie Brown will be counted on to be a playmaker after starting in 19 contests in her first season in the navy and red. 

"Janell is a great example of stepping up in her role this season," Thomas said. "On accident she was moved to defense in the spring to fill in time, and she did so well we just kept her there. She will frequently appear on the back line. Most people who have watched her play love watching her play. She can run for days, and she's hard to beat. We will rely on her to create even though she moved backwards in the team. She gives us a fire and a fight." 

"Maggie Brown started in a lot of games last year, but I think her role in the midfield will increase," Thomas said. "We are relying on her to create goal scoring opportunities whether she's actually taking the shots or creating for other people." 

The 2018 team added 11 newcomers to the squad. The bunch includes two college transfers ready to make immediate impacts in their first season on College Hill. Miranda Campos comes to RSU from California Lutheran for her senior season, and Bailey Jarvis moved closer to home after starting her collegiate career as a two-year starter at Northwestern Oklahoma State. 

"Miranda Campos is coming in to play her senior year," Thomas said. "She just brings experience and calmness. She just knows how to create opportunities, and she can finish on the attack, but I think her biggest asset is her experience. She has a positive impact on our younger players. Bailey Jarvis came from Northwestern Oklahoma State, the team we play to start the year. She just puts her head down and grinds. That brings a lot of comfort to our team that is still young even though there's a lot of experience." 

A trio of freshmen will add another dimension to the RSU offense. Laurelle Theodore, Madi Jones and Kori Watters bring speed to challenge opposing defenders. Theodore comes from Arouca, Trinidad and Tobago where she saw time with the Trinidad and Tobago Women's National Team. Jones joins the navy and red from nearby Oologah High School, and Watters comes from Ponca City High School. 

"Laurelle Theodore adds pace and athleticism that other teams are just going to have to handle," Thomas said. "It's just a matter of scoring one goal and the floodgates will open. That's someone we are counting on to probably come off the bench to begin, but we have several forwards. Madi Jones and Kori Watters are other ones. They add more pace to our attack, and I think that alone will add something to our team. Those three newcomers at top will be hard to defend." 

The Cats went 9-3-2 in the Heartland Conference in 2017 to finish third in the regular season. In the preseason poll this year, RSU once again was picked third with defending league champion Dallas Baptist University in the top spot followed by St. Edward's in second, a team RSU defeated in 2017. 

"I think the Heartland poll that came out is pretty accurate and what people are thinking," Thomas said. "You have some teams that have established themselves as big-time teams every year. We had one great year so the pressure is on us with the bare minimum to repeat it. I think the expectation is that those same teams will be tough, but just like no one expected us last year there's probably a team in there that will come out and surprise people. The message we have to our team is that we respect every opponent, and we make sure to give every opponent our best. We believe that will take us to the top of the conference." 

The Hillcats open the 2018 regular season on Thursday (Aug. 30) at Northwestern Oklahoma State in Alva, Oklahoma. RSU starts its home schedule on Tuesday (Sept. 4) against Rockhurst at 6 p.m. at Soldier Field. Coverage of all RSU women's soccer home games will be available on the Hillcat Network. 

For more information on RSU soccer, go to www.rsuhillcats.com.