The Minot State University women's soccer program has the attention of its fellow Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference members, and for good reason.
MSU finished 11-3-1 in the conference last season and won the NSIC tournament before falling to Southwestern Oklahoma State in the first round of the NCAA Division II Central Region Tournament.
The Beavers' first season in Division II earned them a considerable bump in the NSIC Preseason Coaches Poll. After being selected 10th in 2012, MSU was voted third this season.
Minot State University junior forward Zoe Fisher (10) steps over sophomore goalkeeper Gemma Biasetto during an intrasquad scrimmage Friday at Herb Parker Stadium. Fisher was voted the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference Preseason Offensive Player of the Year by the league’s coaches.
"We're not really the underdog anymore," said junior forward Zoe Fisher, who was tabbed as the NSIC Preseason Offensive Player of the Year. "They know who we are. We've been in this a year and we've shown what we can do, so I think they're gonna come out hard on us - every team."
Just as the league's expectations for MSU are higher, the Beavers expect more from themselves. Spain said his team will play up to 24 players per match and pressure the ball constantly, as it did last season.
"We're definitely more technically sound, we're bigger and we're a little bit faster," MSU coach Jason Spain said. "So ... theoretically, that should be better."
Opponents will likely key on Fisher, who led the league with 31 points last season (11 goals, nine assists). MSU is redshirting Fisher's top running mate at forward last season, Jamie MacFarlane, so MacFarlane can stay on scholarship until she graduates.
But Spain is confident the Beavers will be dynamic up front with the addition of freshman Jayden Montejano and transfer Chloe Melton. Spain said Montejano scored five goals on the starting defense during Wednesday's practice, and her teammates have taken notice.
"Her and Zoe work together up top just unreal," junior midfielder Emilie Rebelo said. "I think that'll help Zoe a lot because she's very known in the league. I think those two together up top will be pretty dangerous."
MSU returns the entire back line from a team that allowed just 15 goals in 22 games last season. Only two teams scored multiple goals on the Beavers.
The team's biggest losses to graduation are second-team all-conference goalkeeper Marie Torres and midfield mainstays Lexy Kidd and Tara McPartland. Sophomores Gemma Biasetto and Jimi Guibor are in a close competition for the starting goalie job. Rebelo - a sub who played starter's minutes last season - is expected to shore up the midfield along with redshirt freshman Kelli Creese and junior-college transfer Yuvitza Garcia.
"It's definitely not gonna be the same without (Kidd and McPartland), but I'm ready for it and pretty excited," Rebelo said. "The midfielders that we have coming in this year (are) workers."
The Beavers open the season with three exhibition games in Regina, Saskatchewan, beginning with a matchup against the University of Regina on Monday. Spain said his main goal for the early practices and exhibitions is to instill the same work ethic that defined last year's squad.
"We have a relentless attitude," he said. "We were very good at just being completely on the ball and putting pressure on the ball at all times at the end of last year. Right now, we brought a lot of new kids in and we gotta teach kids our attitude. We got kids taking plays off."
Although the team lost some senior leadership from last season, Spain said this year's bigger, stronger squad should be equipped for another postseason run.
"I'm really hoping that we can get out of the gates as good as we finished last year," he said. "We worked on each kid's weakness in the spring, so we're hoping it's just a better group. Tactically, they're very, very good."
Daniel Allar covers Minot State University athletics and assists with high school coverage. Follow him on Twitter @DAllar_MDN.