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Resilient Gulley, young forwards, savvy recruiting have Niagara women flourishing

Aside from maybe the Canisius men, no other college program has been more ransacked by injuries than the Niagara women's soccer team. Over the last three years, roughly a dozen players have suffered long-term ailments, leaving head coach Peter Veltri frequently with a short bench and few alternatives in his rotation.

While the approach to preseason, time for recovery and training staff are all key to avoiding such a calamity, sometimes squads are simply unlucky. One of the major criticisms of college soccer in America is the frequency of games; NCAA Division III has it the worst, with back-to-backs on a fairly regular basis, but Division I sides often play two matches in a weekend, which is barely better.

Red-shirt senior co-captain Amelia Gulley can relate to long spells on the sidelines. The Hemel, England native - who grew up playing for the Chelsea Ladies Academy - suffered a severe patella injury in 2016, causing her to miss all but three games. While she did receive a medical red-shirt that year to give her an extra season of eligibility, adversity proved a useful teacher.

"[Being hurt] teaches you to be mentally tough and [gives] you have a chance to sit on the bench and watch from afar," Gulley said earlier this season. "I was always playing so I never watched from the bench, so just learning about how being on the bench can support your teammates and that 12th man, and how that can affect how we play.

"I realized how much it means to be playing and how fortunate I am to be on the field."

Wearing protective tape on her right knee due to a patella injury suffered in 2016, Gulley is a model of resilience and persistence. (Ben Tsujimoto/Buffalo News)

 

Gulley was healthier last season, missing only three matches while starting regularly at center back, but her knee requires regular attention still. With no cartilage left around her kneecap, the captain receives gel injections to ease the bone-on-bone grinding and wears protective tape to keep her kneecap in place. She endures the pain and tolerates the soreness because she loves the sport.

Now stationed as the primary distributing midfielder and the Purple Eagles' on-field general, Gulley has thrived in her role - the first time she's played it since her freshman season in 2014 - even though the statistics don't reflect her influence. The graduate student understands spacing better than many of her peers, and her vision on the field - especially in finding passing lanes behind defenders for her attackers to run on to - is elite.

[Related: Committed captains form backbone of Niagara men's soccer]

"I love being back in the middle because I feel like I can give more to the team and can contribute a lot more than being at center back," Gulley explained. "Just opening up and switching play and finding these great forwards - Kelsey [Araujo], Annie [Ibey] and Hailey [Bicknell], who move so much. Without their movement, it's impossible to switch the ball so well.

"We're playing bigger and wider, and keeping the ball on the deck and playing good soccer rather than previously when we were just a long ball team."

Even with memories of the 2014 team that won 11 games and lost in the conference semifinals in penalty kicks to Fairfield, Gulley believes that this year's Purple Eagles are special.

"I've been here five years and I think this year is the most talent we've ever had," she claimed. "If there's every a year I thought we could really do it, this is the year. Obviously the goal is to make that top six and do well and keep winning."

[Related: Look back at 10 things to know about NU women from 2017]

How much does a culture matter?

Almost every single program we've covered the last four years has discussed its team culture, often unprompted. While the topic may elicit a media eye-roll because it breeds cliches and can often mask a simply not-very-good team - "we've won two games all year but we still get along!" - we've reluctantly concluded it's important.

When you spend so much time with the same people over the course of several semesters - in study halls, on bus rides, at the trainer's and at meals - the ability to co-exist well is actually vital to success.

While not always accurate, the strength of a team's culture is most apparent after conceding a goal, especially late in a close game. Are the exchanges between teammates positive? How's the body language? Are fingers pointed immediately? The answers to these questions matter.

"I think this year we focused a lot on team culture, chemistry and working together as a team and being positive and showing up to practice every day with the right mindset and the right mentality, even if it's early and you don't want to be there," Gulley said. "[It's about] putting in the right effort, showing a brave face and setting an example for the team."

Center back Hadley Bucken is part of a veteran defense. (Ben Tsujimoto/Buffalo News)

Co-captain Tuesday Jordan, a red-shirt junior, is part of an experienced back line that keeps the Purple Eagles' young midfielders and attackers even keeled. Senior center back Breanne Guevara, junior Hadley Bucken and junior transfer Selena Mangoni are all key cogs as players and personalities.

There's no doubt winning promotes a positive team culture and, at 7-5-2 overall and 3-2-2 in the MAAC, Niagara is in a good place. Will the leadership efforts of Gulley and co-captain Tuesday Jordan pay off as conference play becomes even more heated? Time will tell.

[Related: 5 things to know about Canisius women's soccer]

Raising the level

Youth clubs throughout America are trying to abolish the kick-and-run, long ball strategy that sometimes plagues even NCAA Division I teams. With creative influences such as Laura Ortiz and Eva Bachmann able to keep the ball and set up teammates in recent years, the midfield wasn't always passed over, but it takes more than one or two creative types to play a possession style.

After some patience, Veltri has assembled a team with the requisite skills to play good soccer.

"We know what our identity is, we know how we want to play," Veltri explained. "We want to always move the ball - we don't want people just putting their head down and dribbling. Everyone has bought in to that - from our seniors to our incoming freshmen."

A number of underclassmen midfielders have helped implement the style, with Ida Miceli, Ashley Lofranco, Veda Hensel and Bayley Sullivan all poised enough to make smart decisions under pressure. Half the battle of possession is working to provide passing angles for teammates, which flows nicely into the culture aspect.

While there are still choppy stretches of play, Niagara can produce pretty passing sequences and actually appear to have a plan to break down the opposition.

Freshman Ida Miceli, left, is part of a young crop of talented Niagara midfielders. (Ben Tsujimoto/Buffalo News)

Niagara's improved style affects recruiting, too: many top high school products will be impressed by a team that keeps the ball, builds from the back and plays selflessly. With Veltri already encouraged by his verbal commitments, a bright future should lie ahead for the Purple Eagles.

"I'm ecstatic because the incoming kids we have coming in next year and the year after, we've really increased the level of kids coming in and contributing right off the bat," Veltri explained. "Starting with this year's class, we have five freshmen ... and they've all played and all contributed. I think that trend is going to continue, because we have the kids we have coming in who look really good."

[Read more: Composite schedule for women's college soccer matches]

Ibey makes early impression

From just over the Canadian border in Niagara Falls, Ont., striker Annie Ibey put the MAAC on notice with a stellar start to her first season, scoring five times in her first eight matches and earning three straight conference rookie of the week honors.

Although she was quiet in the match we saw her - against conference title contender Quinnipiac - the Bobcats were well-prepared for Ibey's threat, often surrounding the freshman with several defenders and forcing other Purple Eagles to beat them.

Freshman forward Annie Ibey won three straight MAAC rookie of the week awards to begin the season. (Ben Tsujimoto/Buffalo News)

"She's very good," Veltri said of Ibey. "She's a lefty and she's crafty in front of the net, but what has really helped her is her teammates have put her in a position to succeed. While she's a good player without a doubt ... I think sometimes that gets lost, so a lot of the credit goes to her teammates."

The freshman's production has tapered off; she's scored just once in six matches since her last conference recognition, and some of that's due to increased attention from the opposition and, perhaps, the drain of the college season.

Ibey's pace, stride and finishing ability create space for her dynamic forward partner Araujo, another standout who lost a season to injury, who ranks second on the team in points, with 15 (five goals, three assists), and junior Bicknell, third on the team with four goals.

Junior forward Hailey Bicknell ranks third on Niagara in goals, with four. (Ben Tsujimoto/Buffalo News)

Concerns moving forward

While Niagara is certainly a contender, it would be a stretch to call them a MAAC Tournament favorite - and let's not get too far ahead of ourselves, the Purple Eagles haven't clinched a berth yet.

They may not have completely melted down in the Battle of the Bridge draw to Canisius, but Niagara did blow a 2-0 lead and squander several opportunities to ice the game. Missing the chance to pull two more points from that rivalry clash could prove costly in the MAAC standings.

Veltri points to the team's youth and inexperience as a concern, if not a lasting one.

"We depend on a lot of young kids to play big minutes, and when you're down in a game, that's when you see true colors at times," the head coach explained. "It's good to see it now and then try to fix it. It's not the end of the world."

The Purple Eagles' errant shooting is a problem, too. Niagara has fired a whopping 240 shots but placed just 84 on goal, good for a shots-on-goal percentage of 35. Most programs hover around the 50 percent range, and NU put 47 percent on frame last year.

Email: btsujimoto@buffnews.com

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