By Joel Delgado ’12, MS ’17
The 2013 season for the FIU women’s soccer team was a turbulent one.
Not only were they forced to play without their top scorer from the year before, forward Chelsea Leiva, they also lost the team’s second-leading scorer (midfielder Scarlet Montoya) and their top defender (Nikki Rios) all to season-ending injuries before the season even began.
Sitting out for an entire season is always difficult for an athlete at any level, and Leiva was no exception.
“The injury was the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through,” said Leiva, who went to rehab twice a day almost every day in preparation for this fall. “The difficult part was sitting and watching, it takes an emotional toll on you.”
The trio didn’t play a single minute last season, but all three will exchange their crutches and bandages for cleats when the Panthers host the Arizona Wildcats in their home opener on Aug. 22 at FIU Soccer Stadium. And Head Coach Thomas Chestnutt is glad to have all of them back on the pitch.
“They each bring leadership and ability and bringing that back with the experience we gained last year and the new players we have coming in, we’re excited with what the possibilities are,” Chestnutt said.
Despite the unfortunate rash of injuries suffered last season, there was a bright spot that served as a positive sign for this season: the play of forward Ashleigh Shim.
With Leiva and Montoya out, the Panthers needed someone to step up and find the back of the net and Shim answered the call. She finished with a team-high eight goals, three of them game-winners, and was named to the Conference USA All-Preseason Team going into this season.
“I don’t think I’ve seen a player more balanced and agile as her,” Chestnutt said. “She’s honed her skills very well and we look for her to take a step forward from last year. She stepped up when the team needed her and that huge for us and it was a breakthrough for her. If she can continue on that path we’ll give some teams some trouble. ”
Leiva will rejoin forward Ashleigh Shim up front, and with Montoya back in the midfield, the Panthers have the potential to be a potent goal-scoring team.
“It requires trust when you work together up top and I think we have that, especially off the field, we’re really tight,” Leiva said of her relationship with Shim both on and off the field. “She has quick feet and she wants to take the ball on a dribble and as soon as she gets her head up, hopefully I’m there for her and vice versa.”
But Chestnutt has also placed more of an emphasis on improving the team’s defense, installing a new defensive scheme that he hopes will keep opponents off the scoreboard.
Shim and Leiva have also embraced their importance in this new defense-minded approach.
“Defense starts with the forwards,” Shim said. “We don’t just go to the goal, we have to go back and defend. We are the front line. If the ball gets by you in a spot that it shouldn’t have been and it ends up being a goal, it all started with you.”
- Now in their second in Conference USA, the Panthers are predicted to finish fourth in the conference according to 2013 C-USA Preseason Poll, as selected by the coaches in the conference. “We’ll come back fighting harder than we did last year,” Chestnutt said. “It’s a competitive conference, and if you’re not on it during a game, you’ll get beat.”
- Including their home opener against Arizona on Aug. 22, the team’s home schedule consists of 11 home games. Other teams FIU will be hosting include non-conference opponents Oregon State, Stetson and Long Beach State and conference foes Rice and Marshall. “We want to be well-prepared for our conference schedule. The only way to get stronger is to play against strong teams,” Chestnutt said of the team’s non-conference schedule. “We have some great opponents coming in so it should be a great home season.”