Photo by Jeff Nycz, Mid-South Images
  
Erin Crew will be a defender on Grace College's women's soccer team.
Photo by Jeff Nycz, Mid-South Images Erin Crew will be a defender on Grace College's women's soccer team.
WINONA LAKE - The national reputation for Grace College’s women’s soccer program has been established. Now, the Lady Lancers are hungry for more.

Under the watchful guidance of head coach Michael Voss, the Lady Lancers have taken monumental steps as a program. Voss, now in his 15th year as the winningest coach in program history, has led Grace to a perennial ranking in the NAIA Top 25.

Beyond that, Grace has earned a spot in 12 national tournaments over the past 12 years. The Lady Lancers have reached the NAIA National Championships in each of the past three seasons, winning three matches in the tournament against the NAIA’s elite.

This fall, Voss has assembled a daunting schedule to test the Lady Lancers against the best of the NAIA once again. Grace will play seven of the 40 teams who qualified for NAIA Nationals last year. Five of Grace’s opponents finished the season ranked in the top 12 of the NAIA poll.

The Lady Lancers, who ended last year ranked No. 14, will play marquee nonconference matchups at home against No. 6 Southeastern (Sept. 4) as well as No. 11 Columbia (Sept. 18).

“We chose to play a challenging schedule because we don’t want to hide behind our ranking or mathematically protect our spot in the poll,” Voss said. “We don’t want to rest on a win or tie from a year or two years ago. Our unified program wants to play big games.”

Voss stated the team’s goal was to be in the final four, a feat that could only be accomplished by beating traditionally strong teams. “We’re of the mindset that programs who play tough games will be rewarded. We want to play against top opponents. We invite the challenge,” he added.

Grace returns an enviable array of firepower this fall. The squad brings back five All-Americans to the pitch, including JJ Aalbue, Bethany Blackwood, Lea Moessinger, Victoria Lucido and Alexis Larimore.

Aalbue (8 goals, 5 assists) and Larimore (8 goals, 2 assists) form a dangerous pairing in front of goal, and Lucido produced five goals and a team-high eight assists in her first season with the Lady Lancers.

Moessinger and Blackwood anchored a strong defensive unit for Grace. Moessinger started every game and scored two goals with four assists, including a goal in the NCCAA national championship game against NCAA Div. II No. 1-ranked Dallas Baptist.

Blackwood has been Grace’s primary goalkeeper since stepping foot on campus three years ago. Now in her fourth year, Blackwood leads a three-player unit protecting Grace’s goal. She is joined by freshmen Libby Stratton and Sofia Lerro to give the Lady Lancers tremendous depth at the position.

Amber Meade, Erin Crew and Anna Kuhl also have experience starting as defenders for Grace, forming a veteran, stingy lineup across the back.

Voss described the midfield crew as intelligent, poised and aggressive. With a number of players figuring into the midfield mix, Voss has the ability to be creative and find new combinations to utilize throughout the season.

Madison Tuma joins Larimore and Aalbue as proven goalscorers among Grace’s forwards. Tuma tallied three goals and two assists in postseason play last year.

In some respects, Grace felt like it battled on two fronts last year -- one front against the always-daunting Crossroads League and the other against COVID-19. Players seemed to cycle in and out of contact trace quarantines, and the team was challenged physically and mentally as a result, according to Voss.

So far during this preseason, however, the Lady Lancers seem refreshed and rejuvenated in Voss’s eyes as COVID restrictions have significantly diminished.

“We are a team that loves to spend time with each other. Last year's challenges limited us in that respect. We’re like-minded in faith, football, academics and adventure. I’m already seeing a lot more personality and craziness out of the players this year. It’s been super refreshing to be together so much more and just have a blast doing what we love,” Voss added. “The new players have seamlessly become part of us and are operating on mission. Our players do the work, they’re dedicated to playing good football and are just straight up fun to be around. It’s a fantastic team dynamic overall.”

Grace will need to remain consistent if the program is to achieve its lofty goal. The team will need to display consistent effort every day, according to Voss, while maintaining a consistent focus on the program’s mission.

“We want to win in our pillars every day. We desire to live stoked. It’s a mentality that’s not simply about winning football games. We want to grow as footballers, teammates, students and in our faith. We see life as an adventure where God allows us to use football as a platform to share Christ with others,” Voss added. “It’s a privilege to be stoked about playing football and about being a member of this program.”

The Lady Lancers will have an exhibition at home on Friday against IU Northwest at 7 p.m. before kicking off the season at Cedarville on Aug. 18. Grace’s first home game is Aug. 21 against Saint Mary at noon.