5 things to watch in women soccer’s spring season



Eastern player, number 23 Kya Trejo, takes the ball downfield against Lindenwood player, number 18 Peyton Ganz. The Panthers and Lions tied 0-0 Thursday afternoon Oct. 20, 2022, at Lakeside Field on Eastern Illinois University’s campus in Charleston, Ill.

Nick Bays, Women’s Soccer Reporter

Dirk Bennett, newly appointed head coach of the women’s soccer team, has recently released the spring schedule for the Panthers. Matches this spring include an appearance in the Illinois 7×7 indoor tournament February 26th and three home matches in April.

As the spring matches approach, let’s take a look at five things to keep an eye out for in this preseason schedule.

1. Old Name in a New Role

We can’t talk about the upcoming Panther season without looking at what is potentially its biggest change entering the year.

A familiar face to the program, Dirk Bennett has recently been appointed as head coach of the Panthers. Bennett served as an assistant coach for six years, and now it’s time for him to step into the head coaching spot.

Needless to say, this is a program he’s familiar with. Helping coach the team to multiple OVC tournament appearances, he understands the culture and the players on his roster.

Bringing knowledge of the program combined with his emphasis on goalkeepers and defense, one thing to keep an eye on this spring season is how Bennett deploys his players on the field and in what role/formation.

2. Karima Rangel Potentially Bursts onto the Scene

2022 saw Karima Rangel score one goal, one of five Panthers to do so. What’s interesting, though, is that Rangel’s goal came in only 587 minutes of play last season, the least number of minutes played for any Panther that scored a goal last season.

Much of Rangel’s contribution came when making blistering runs on the edge of the field progressing the ball forward. Last season, she looked very confident on the ball. She was not afraid to take on defenders and use a combination of quick pace and technique on the dribble to move EIU’s attack down the field.

Players such as Nicoletta Anuci and Amanda DaSilva dominated on the flank for Eastern last season. However, with them now having graduated, there will be minutes on the edge that will need to be filled. And Rangel is in prime position to potentially fill those minutes.

Rangel’s continued development into becoming a genuine force on the flank these past few years has me excited for what her senior campaign could deliver in the fall. Whether it’s in a substitute role or as a starter, Rangel could provide an exciting spark for the Panthers on the edge.

So, this spring, it’s worth keeping an eye out for Karima Rangel. How she’s utilized this spring and how impactful she is could provide a sneak peek into what to expect from her senior campaign.

3. A Young Defense comes into its Own

Fun fact: no defender listed on Eastern’s 2023 roster will be considered a senior next season. That didn’t stop the defense from posting the best goals-against-average in conference last year only allowing 0.81 goals per game.

Naturally, some players have come and gone, but defenders such as Espi Logan, Morgan Rinker, Kya Trejo, and Morgan Goodman are returning from last season’s defense that frustrated OVC attackers throughout the year.

Another fun fact: all four of those previously mentioned will either be sophomores or juniors next season. So, they not only have experience on a sharp defensive unit from last season, but they will also have more time to continue and develop into a potentially even stronger defensive force in the coming seasons.

With new head coach Dirk Bennett known for being defensive-centric in his tactics while also having extensive knowledge of the roster already from his time as an assistant coach, this defense could be in position to enter a potential “golden age”.

So, keep an eye out this spring to see how the Panther defense maintains the back line. They will have some tough tests this spring as two of their matches in April include Indianapolis, who posted 22 goals in just 17 games, and Heartland Community College, who found the back of the net a whopping 69 times in 17 games as well.

If the Panthers defense can hold their own against such prolific scoring teams, the future will look incredibly bright for this young Panther defense.

4. Who will fill Jenna Little’s Big Shoes?

Jenna Little truly had a campaign to remember in 2022. With four goals and one assist in less than 900 minutes of play, Littlewas Eastern’s most prolific offensive weapon and was recognized for her contributions as she was named to the All-OVC team.

Patrolling the front line and hooking in sensational shots that painted the corners of opposing goal keepers, Little was always good for a shot or two on goal every match. Every defense in the OVC had to account for her and try to keep her from roaming the edge of the box.

However, Jenna Little is gone now. And even with Little’s impressive campaign, Eastern struggled as a whole offensively last season as they were last in the OVC in total offense only averaging 0.62 goals per match.

So, there’s going to be an offensive vacuum that needs filled.

That doesn’t mean one singular player has to account for all those goals. A balanced attack that sees multiple goal scoring threats could prove difficult for opposing defenses to deal with.

But the question still remains: who could possibly fill that role? Well, a few players come to mind.

Junior Midfielder Jenna Little shoots the ball, scoring the first point of Sunday afternoon’s game against the Purdue Fort Wayne Mastodons at Lakeside Field. Little had scored two goals within two minutes of each other during the middle of the second half. Little had three shots on goal and played for 56 minutes. The Panthers won 2-0 against the Mastodons. (Rob Le Cates)

When it comes to offense, Zenaya Barnes is no stranger. An injury would keep her sidelined in 2022. However, she’s making her return to the field this spring and will certainly be looking to re-establish herself as an undeniable offensive force.

In 2021, she had an impressive three goal campaign that saw her be named to the All-OVC Second Team. During her 2021 season, Barnes utilized a combination of accurate shooting as well as great positioning to bother defenders. Barnes had a knack for getting herself in prime position to receive the ball before making a turn or run towards goal that got her in prime positions to send a shot in.

With Barnes back this spring, she will have opportunities to re-establish herself as an offensive powerhouse. She’s used to playing the more central forward role that Little played and had great success with it in the past.

The previously mentioned Karima Rangel also comes to mind. While she operates more on the outside and less centrally, she could still provide some offensive reinforcements to help make up for Little’s departure.

Serra Pizano was one of Eastern’s goal scorers last year and will be a senior next season. She has been a part of the program for some time and has displayed creative dribbling and vision as a Panther.

Pizano doesn’t quite play that central forward, almost striker type role that Little did. However, her ability to scan the defense will certainly open up the field for the Panthers and potentially put herself and others in prime scoring positions.

While there are others who certainly could fill in offensively, one more player to mention is midfielder Cam Korhorn.

Another player who will be a senior next season, Korhorngrabbed a goal and assist last season. More impressively, she was doing this in a midfield role that saw her playing box to box covering much of the field.

Korhorn proved more than capable of progressing the ball down the field through the middle with some impressive dribbling. However, she also had the second most shots on goal last season with 10.

Once again, Korhorn doesn’t play that central forward role that Little played. However, if Bennett is looking to get as many players involved offensively as possible, Korhorn will be a must to make that vision come true.

If you’re looking for a player who will resemble Jenna Little’s “style of play”, Zenaya Barnes is most likely your best bet. However, all the players previously mentioned, along with some other players looking to establish themselves on the offensive end, could combine to make a truly difficult attack for defenses to scheme against.

So, this spring, watch for a combination of players to contribute on the offensive end to help improve Eastern’s attack. Bennett has a variety of players at his disposal and will certainly be looking to see which players and what scheme will work best to get the most out of this Panther offense.

5. Bye bye Bermeo; who’s next?

Goalkeeper Daniela Bermeo had a campaign to remember in her final year as a Panther last season.

In a season that saw her only allow 0.81 goals per game, Bermeo would leap high into the air to make acrobatic saves left and right. She was a constant communicator defensively and had a very high motor.

However, she’s now officially graduated and gone as well as former Eastern goalkeeper Faith Davies, who had an impressive 2021 campaign in goal for the Panthers.

That leaves the daunting question: who is going to fill the spot of Bermeo and anchor the defense for Eastern?

Well, Eastern has two goalkeepers listed on their 2023 roster at the moment, and the older of the two is redshirt junior Lexi Prusow.

Standing at 5’7, Prusow has been a member of the Panthers program for a few years now. While she has seen limited action in 2021, she has been waiting her turn to potentially lead the way defensively.

Goalkeeper Daniela Bermeo, a fifth year player, clears the ball during the Panther’s first game of the season on Thursday afternoon at Lakeside Field. The Panthers and Valparaiso University Beacons tied. (Rob Le Cates)

Dirk Bennett has worked with Eastern’s goalkeepers over the years producing impressive talents that have been able to handle the responsibility that comes with being between the sticks. With Bennett having worked with Prusow for some time now as an assistant coach, Prusow might be primed and ready to be the goalkeeper to help run Bennett’s defensive system.

The other goalkeeper is currently redshirt freshman Ashlyn Hoover. Entering her second year at Eastern, the young 5’9 goalkeeper provides a developmental option for the Panthers.

In getting Hoover experience while younger in her career, she could be the goalkeeper for the now and for the future of Bennett’s system. While having a veteran experience in goal has its positives, playing a younger goalkeeper could allow them to develop quicker and to potentially higher levels.

So, this spring, keep an eye out for who’s in goal for Eastern. Whatever direction Bennett goes in, there are certainly positives either way, and this spring season could help define who is in goal for the Panthers this fall.

This spring season is about rebirth. A new coach presents new, exciting opportunities for a Panther squad looking to get back to the OVC tournament after unfortunately missing out last year.

Not to mention, Bennett has the added benefit of having been around the team for years. So, while Bennett is technically a new head coach, he knows this program inside and out.

There are certainly some shoes that need filled from departures and graduations from last season. However, Bennett has a pool of talent at his disposal ready to go as he looks to forge a promising beginning to what will hopefully be a successful tenure.