The St. Bonaventure women's soccer team finished last season in 12th place in the Atlantic 10 -- well out of a conference playoff spot with a record not even close to .500.
There was cause for some tempered optimism when coach Manoj Khettry brought in the 16th-ranked freshman class in the Northeast, according to SoccerBuzz.
But now, there's just plain old optimism around Bona as the talented freshman class has gained experience quickly, carrying the team to a 3-3 A-10 mark that has the Bonnies in a tie for the sixth and final playoff spot.
The Bonnies are just one of several impressive local women's soccer teams this year either continuing traditions of success or creating new reasons for excitement.
Niagara, which went to the NCAA tournament in 2006, is 2-2 in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference and 9-4-1 overall. Rival Canisius is tied for second in the MAAC at 3-1 and 8-2-3 overall.
Division III D'Youville is 3-1-1 in the North Eastern Athletic Conference while Buffalo State is undefeated in its last five games with a 3-2-1 mark and is tied for fifth place in the State University of New York Athletic Conference.
At Bona, success has come with a roster that features 11 freshmen, seven sophomores and two juniors.
"The only frustrating thing is in the way of inexperience," Khettry said. "They don't know what it's like to be in the grind of a conference battle and you really have to experience that firsthand to understand it.
"One intangible we tried hard to tap into was to recruit players from winning backgrounds and winning cultures. Inexperience you can't account for, but the will to win and the belief that you can win can take you far. I think our players feel that just because they're young doesn't mean they're not good players. We have players who can compete with anyone in the conference. We just have to do a better job of understanding the intensity, commitment and consistency we need."
Canisius has found some consistency in goal scoring this year. The Golden Griffins are averaging 1.85 goals a game -- second-best in the MAAC. They are led by freshman Kelly Reinwald, who has 18 points (7 goals, 4 assists).
"The kid is talented," Canisius coach Jim Wendling said. "She has a lot of speed and she's getting in spots where she's one-on-one and a lot of times she's talented enough to beat her opponent. She's always by the goal. She never gives up. Sometimes she'll get a goal when the goalkeeper drops the ball or if it's just knocked around the box, she's there to finish it off."
While the Griffs are looking for their first MAAC title and first trip to the championship game since 1994, Niagara has some experience on the conference stage.
Winning the title and NCAA berth in 2006, the Purple Eagles have been in the championship game two of the last three years, losing in the semifinals to Marist last year, with plenty of players back with that postseason experience.
Niagara has suffered through a bit of the injury bug this season, but continues to perform at a high level with impressive team chemistry. Senior Stephanie Gartley leads the way in that regard. She leads the team in scoring (8 goals, 5 assists) and is second in the conference in points per game (1.50) but does more than just provide offense.
"She's just truly amazing. She's the heart and soul of our team," Niagara coach Peter Veltri said. "She will do whatever it takes for us to win. She's not necessarily always going to score the winning goal for us. At some points we ask her to play the midfield. One game we put her in the back as a defender. She's just an absolute team player 100 percent of the time."
This weekend's women's soccer schedule:
St. Bonaventure is on the road for Atlantic 10 games at Dayton on Friday and at Xavier on Sunday.
Canisius hosts Saint Peter's at 7 p.m., Friday in the Demske Sports Complex and Manhattan at noon Sunday.
Niagara hosts Manhattan at 7 p.m. Friday at Niagara Field and Saint Peter's at 1 p.m. on Sunday.
Buffalo State is on the road for two SUNYAC games, playing at Potsdam on Friday and at Plattsburgh (tied for second in the conference) on Saturday.
D'Youville hosts Cazenovia at 4 p.m. Saturday at the Tri-Town/EMW Soccer Complex in Elma. The Spartans are in third place in the NEAC while Cazenovia (4-0-1) is in second.
Can't get enough Little Three action? On Saturday, Canisius and Niagara face off in men's soccer at 7 p.m. at the Demske Sports Complex. The Griffs are 1-1 in the MAAC, 5-7-1 overall, while Niagara is 1-1 in the MAAC and 7-3-2 overall.
The annual Little Three cross country meet will take place Saturday at Veteran's Park in Niagara Falls. The women's race will begin at 11:30 a.m. with the men at 12:15 p.m. Canisius is the defending champion.