Look north to Monteagle Ridge, and you'll see an early success story in Western New York college soccer.
The Niagara University women's soccer team has jumped out to a 4-2-1 start before Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference play begins Saturday against Monmouth. That's a far cry from the 1-5-1 start to the 2016 campaign, but the explanation for the turnaround is relatively obvious upon a closer examination of Peter Veltri's squad.
2017 record so far: 4-2-1
2016 record: 5-10-1 overall, 4-6 in Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference play
Major losses: Spanish attacking midfielder Laura Ortiz, the side's leading scorer, as well as starters Kori Thorne and Amanda Gallo. Shawnique and Shangyne Samuels were other major contributors who graduated. Midfielder Assia Sidhoum did not return to the program.
Major additions: Six players recovered from season-ending injuries in 2016, so count them as additions for this fall. Transfers Lauren Testa and Selena Mangoni have been key cogs in the early going, while true freshman Bayley Sullivan thrived at home against St. Bonaventure.
2017 MAAC preseason poll: Ninth out of 11 teams
Let's get into the '10 things to know about Niagara women's soccer':
1) They were supposed to be this good last year: Due to circumstances beyond the team's control, the Purple Eagles had to wait 12 months before they could reap the rewards of a terrific recruiting class. A whopping six rotation players suffered season-ending injuries within the first handful of matches in 2016, eliminating any depth and leaving the side perilously low on offensive firepower.
"Last year was really frustrating because we didn't get as many wins as we thought we'd get - we had a lot of injuries - so coming into this season we have 14 new players, counting freshman and the returning injured people," explained Hailey Bicknell, a returning sophomore.
After dismantling St. Bonaventure, 2-0, Veltri addressed the unusual circumstances that precipitated the turnaround.
"The truth is that most of these girls were here last year but were injured," he said. "We had six kids miss the whole year last year. What you're seeing now is what we thought we were going to see last year. We're very excited - it's kind of like having new toys. We have all these different options. We're still trying to figure out what each piece can do."
2) Depth and the fight for spots is more than a cliche: One of the most eye-roll-inducing lines from a coach is that a team's depth is a strength and there's competition for every spot on the field. In instances where it's actually true, it can be invaluable.
The influx of players back from injury, plus two transfers and six first-year recruits have made Niagara's depth chart difficult to determine and minutes not taken for granted. The out-of-conference rotation has given several freshmen - like Bayley Sullivan, Alexis Horwedel, Veda Hensel and Lilly Stowell - a chance at making a meaningful impact without overextending themselves.
3) Araujo brings extra dimension: Canadian forward Kelsey Araujo's ascent was delayed by a season-ending injury suffered before she could appear in a match as a freshman.
The League1 Ontario "Next XI" pick in 2015 - who also appeared in a friendly with French professional club Olympique Lyonnais - has been a thorn in the side of opposing defenses so far, notching a goal and an assist while attempting a team-high 24 shots. When asked for a main difference in the offense between this year and last, Bicknell pointed immediately to Araujo as the player whose presence changed the dynamic.
Araujo's pace and long stride, as well as an advanced understanding of how and when to make runs, often gets her behind opposing defenses; if she can become more clinical in her finishing, a season of double-digit goals isn't out of the question for her career.
4) Bachmann is the model: It was a mild surprise Swiss midfielder Eva Bachmann was left off the preseason All-MAAC team; she posted two goals and six assists last year on a team with few offensive threats.
The senior isn't a dominant athlete like Araujo, but she puts herself in dangerous positions, has a knack for getting her shot off - an underrated skill - and is a cagey finisher around the 18-yard box.
With a team-leading six points - two goals and two assists - through seven games, Bachmann is well on her way to postseason recognition from the league.
5) Buzzing Bicknell: Bachmann is a tremendously smooth player with refined finishing ability, but Bicknell is probably the most fun player to watch on the Purple Eagles.
The 5'2 midfielder-forward blends tenacity and quickness to swarm around the edge of the attacking third, looking for channels to penetrate into with the dribble or serve a pass behind the defense.
There are moments during a match where it looks like she has a bit of a libero role, with the freedom to find the areas in the field where she's most dangerous.
6) A dynamic offense: Too often last season Niagara's plan of attack seemed to be "get the ball to Laura Ortiz and Bachmann and wish them luck." While that worked at times - the Purple Eagles' won three of their last four games with that tactic - it made Veltri's team rather easy to defend. That's not the case in 2017, as you can see from the previous five points.
"I think we have a lot more speed up front, so we can play faster balls and do through balls and make runs," said Bicknell. "Our midfield and forwards are doing really well connecting - I think last year we had a tougher time connecting the midfield and forwards, so we weren't getting the offensive pressure that we are this year."
7) Away from the Ridge: Niagara was downright miserable on the road last season, compiling an 0-6-1 record against from their friendly confines; all six defeats were in conference play.
It's not easy to say why there's a home-field advantage in a sport that doesn't have an abundance of spectators at the mid-major level, but exhaustion from travel, unfamiliar accommodations, different pre-game routines and adjusting to a new pitch all play roles in making life difficult for a visiting side. It's a big reason why unflappable, mentally tough teams are the ones who churn out points on the road.
8) Schedule worries: Keep an eye on the Purple Eagles between Sept. 23 and Oct. 7, where Niagara plays three away games against MAAC opponents, with the lone home date a Battle of the Bridge clash against rival Canisius College. The grind of the conference slate will test a young team, and if Niagara can survive without imploding, then playoff noise is not out of the question.
9) Impact transfers fill holes: Veltri deepened his pool of talent with two seasoned transfers, signing Canadian left back Selena Mangoni from the University of Memphis and midfielder Lauren Testa from Daemen College. Both players have appeared in every game so far, and they each have two years of eligibility left after the 2017 season.
10) Potential weaknesses: It's worth exercising caution in evaluating Niagara's rosy start; Saturday's match against Monmouth will be a good barometer for how well the out-of-conference schedule prepared the Purple Eagles. Their four wins so far have come against teams with RPIs worse than 250 (out of 334) in 2016, but like Niagara, teams' fortunes can change drastically in the course of a year.