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Somerset, NJ -- After 110 scoreless minutes of play, it took an additional five rounds of penalty kicks before Saint Francis U prevailed over perennial rival Fairleigh Dickinson for the 2017 Northeast Conference (NEC) women’s soccer crown. Heading into the 2018 season, only one first-place vote separated the two teams in the preseason coaches’ poll, where four teams received first-place nods. The Red Flash landed at the top of the preseason rankings, earning four first-place votes among nine teams in the conference. Saint Francis U is the two-time defending NEC Tournament champion, and has earned a share of the regular season title in five of the last seven seasons, including the previous two. Fairleigh Dickinson was edged out by Saint Francis U and arrived at the number two position, tallying three first-place votes. The Knights also staked a claim in the 2017 regular season title, finishing the conference season 6-1-1. Central Connecticut and Bryant each grabbed one of the two final first-place votes, and are ranked third and fourth in the preseason poll, respectively. Both teams also earned NEC Tournament bids last fall. Sacred Heart comes into the 2018 season sitting at the number five spot in the preseason poll, and Robert Morris finds itself at sixth. Empire City foes LIU Brooklyn and Wagner finished the poll at seventh and eighth, respectively, and Mount St. Mary’s rounded out the poll in ninth place. The NEC Tournament will be held at the venue of the highest seed on November 2 and 4. Looking to keep its foot on the gas pedal, the Red Flash are looking to separate from the pack in 2018. Returning to Loretto, PA is standout junior forward and NEC Offensive Player of the Year Alyssa McGhee (Altoona, PA/Bishop Guilfoyle), who led the conference in goals (10), assists (10) and total points (30). Along with McGhee, seven starters return to the pitch, including All-NEC second teamers Aubrey Suydam (Lancaster, PA/Manheim Township), a sophomore defender, and senior midfielder Sarah Suler (Hermitage, PA/Hickory), a two-time all-NEC honoree. The Red Flash were red-hot facing NEC foes a year ago and finished the regular season undefeated at home. Saint Francis earned its fourth NEC Championship under head coach Brenda van Stralen, who will be on the sidelines for her 15th season. SFU will be challenged once again by FDU however, which was the top seed in last season’s NEC Tournament. Freshman forward Sofia Albertsson (Stockholm, Sweden/Bromma Gymnasium) turned heads in 2017, scoring nine goals and adding four assists in her first collegiate season to earn NEC Rookie of the Year honors. The Knights’ offense was one of the best in the conference, as FDU posted marks of first in shots per game, tied for first in goals per game and second in points and assists per game. In addition to Albertsson, FDU returns two all-conference selections ­– junior defender Samantha Roff (Canberra, Australia/Radford College) and junior goalkeeper Amanda Fitzgerald (Holbrook, NY/Sachem East), as well as fifth-year head coach Eric Teepe, who took home the NEC Coach of the Year award in 2017. Central Connecticut will be without defensive stalwart Jennifer Cafferky, who became the first player to win the NEC Defensive Player of the Year award for four consecutive seasons. The Blue Devils will still have defensive prowess, however, as senior goalkeeper and reigning NEC Goalkeeper of the Year Ashley Cavanaugh (Belchertown, MA/Belchertown) will be back in the net for the blue and white. She led the NEC with nine shutouts, which also put her in the top-20 nationally in that category. Bryant tallied a school Division I record 11 overall wins in its 2017 campaign. The Bulldogs had one of the stingiest defenses last season, tying with CCSU for the least amount of goals allowed per game, at 0.83 and just 15 throughout the entire season. Sophomore defender Jamie Irwin (Succasunna, NJ/Roxbury) was an all-NEC First Team selection, and will return to Smithfield to lead the Bryant back line. NEC-toids * One of the top attackers in the NEC from last season will return to the pitch in in 2018. Robert Morris forward Kristina Kelley (Halifax, PA/Halifax), an all-NEC first teamer and ranked second in the league in goals (9) and points (25), and third in assists (7). * A total of 13 all-conference selections will be back for their respective programs this season, including six first-teamers and seven second-teamers. Saint Francis leads the way with five all-stars in the fold. * Sacred Heart returns senior forward Melanie DaSilva (Bristol, RI/La Salle Academy), a two-time all-NEC selection who also ranked in conference top-ten in total points with 12 (five goals, two assists). * St. Francis Brooklyn will begin sponsoring women’s soccer in the Fall of 2019 to become the tenth team in the conference, as all schools will be represented. * Bryant, Mount St. Mary’s, Robert Morris and Wagner will be seeking their first conference title in program history in 2018.

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