Even though St. Bonaventure's two feared strikers - Lauren Hill and Abby Maiello - have graduated, the cupboard isn't bare for women's soccer in Olean.
Head coach Steve Brdarski has pieced together what's likely the top recruiting class among Big 4 women's teams, and junior captain Danielle Vis returns to help guide a group heavy on potential but light on experience.
"When you bring in 10 freshmen and you add the [preseason] injuries on top, we're still learning a lot about ourselves," admitted Brdarski, whose Bonnies open Atlantic 10 play on Sept. 29 at George Mason. According to the Atlantic 10 preseason coaches poll, St. Bonaventure is predicted to finish last in the conference for the second straight year.
Like at any rebuilding program, small signs of growth can spark major improvements over the course of time, which seems to be the Bonnies' focus over the 17 days before conference play.
"We're definitely trying to work on chemistry in the middle, and transitioning from the middle to attacking and transitioning on defense," Vis explained following a match earlier this year against UB. "We need to keep on working hard and working for each other, even when we go down."
Vis, who wears No. 16, has already proven her toughness as an upperclassman, playing through an early season thigh injury while posting two goals and two assists through six games, well on her way to matching - or even besting - last year's career highs of five and seven, respectively.
"It's hard for us to keep her off the field," Brdarski said, referring to Vis' nagging injury. "She'll be the first one to come up to you and say, 'I want on that field.'"
Fortunately for Vis, some of the offensive burden falls on the newcomers and the attacking group collectively, allowing the Canadian junior to pull the strings in the midfield, emphasizing organization and managing the match, whether it's by dictating tempo or adjusting to an opponent's formation.
"Her bigger role is not necessarily scoring the goals - I think our team will find goals - her bigger role is leading this team, getting them to play with energy and getting them to stay focused," added Brdarski, in his fourth year at the helm.
"Unlike last year where we scored goals through just a couple players, I think we're going to share that responsibility this year."
And the Bonnies have done well to balance out the attack so far. While Maiello and Hill accounted for 17 of the team's 24 goals last year, St. Bonaventure already has more variety on the score sheet in 2016.
Clarence High School and WNY Flash Academy alum Sydney Cerza has already earned the No. 9 role, and her ability to run powerfully through channels and finish with either foot draws attention from defenses, while Marley Jarvis (No. 10), with a team-leading three goals, has been a pleasant surprise in the offensive third.
Freshman Bella May (No. 14) and sophomore Jessica Scruggs (No. 18) round out Brdarski's primary attacking options, although first-year midfielder Sabrina Sousa-Sampson (No. 19) loves to charge forward from her spot in the central midfield.
Certainly Hill and Maiello will be remembered for their consistent goal scoring, especially over the last two years. But Bonnies fans can take comfort that goals will still come and that breaking out of the A-10 cellar should come sooner than later.
ST. BONAVENTURE WOMEN'S SOCCER - Early season look
2015 record: 6-11-2 overall, 2-7-1 in the Atlantic 10, RPI 257
2016 record so far: 2-3-1
Best result: Convincing 4-1 win over Big 4 rival Niagara, when Cerza scored her first collegiate goal
Head coach: Steve Brdarski, fourth season at Bona, also an assistant for the Haiti women's national team
Who's gone: Hill and Maiello both graduated, as did starters Stephanie Jenkins and Gabriella Balseca, plus occasional starting keeper Christina Sarokon.
Who's new: Freshmen Cerza, Sousa-Sampson, goalkeeper Lauren Malcolm, midfielder Bella Marra (No. 8) and attacker May are all integral parts of Brdarski's squad.
Top players: We've already written extensively about Vis, and it's impossible to leave out Malcolm, who's turned a trouble spot into an advantage between the pipes, securing 32 saves, posting a goals-against-average of 1.29 and earning her first college shutout.
Center back Jennifer Morris (No. 13) is the anchor of the back line. Sousa-Sampson could become an all-conference talent as she continues to develop.
Breakout potential: Brdarski is thrilled with what he's gotten from Malcolm. "I think we have one of the best goalkeepers in the country right now," he said.
"[Malcolm]'s not playing like a first-year player - she makes big saves look easy, she's always there, and she's not afraid of anything - she's fearless."
Unheralded star: Morris. While we haven't seen a ton of St. Bonaventure this year (or last), the senior defender is tough as nails and smart - against UB, she read plays well and got herself in good position to block shots.
BN Soccer likes: Cerza, one of Section VI's most prolific goal-scorers during her time at Clarence. Her father, Drew Cerza, is known around Buffalo as "the Wing King" because of his role as founder of the National Buffalo Wing Festival. BN Soccer really likes chicken wings.
St. Bonaventure will struggle if...: If the Bonnies played in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, they'd likely contend for a postseason spot, if not hang around mid-table. Unfortunately, the Atlantic 10 is a much different beast, closing 2015 with eight teams in the RPI Top 150. The MAAC had three.
Big matches: The Bonnies have already played the other members of the Big 4, stomping Niagara but losing to Canisius and UB. The first home conference match is at 7 p.m. Oct. 6 vs. Duquesne, while Oct. 20 vs. Davidson looks like a very winnable game. St. Bonaventure hosts conference favorite Dayton at 1 p.m. Oct. 23.
Email Ben Tsujimoto, who's never seen two players named Bella on the same roster before, at firstname.lastname@example.org