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A new season, meet the Columbus Eagles

Columbus won its opening match of the WPSL season.

Ken Tishenkel

Columbus Eagles head coach Mark Wise was grinning ear-to-ear before his squad took the field against Dayton Dutch Lions on Saturday, and with good reason. Columbus entered its fourth season of play in the Women's Premier Soccer League, which was founded in 1997. This year’s team being perhaps the best that Wise has ever fielded.

For those unfamiliar with the WPSL it is one division below the National Women’s Soccer League, which is the league that boasts the likes of United States Women’s National Team stars Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd, and Christen Press.

Wise started the Eagles in 2014 with the hope of bringing a competitive women’s team to Columbus, a feat that had never been done successfully before. The roster contains 15 or 16 players who are permanent fixtures with the club and another 15 who are NCAA athletes and are available during the summer.

This year, the Eagles boast a tremendous crop of talent. They are lead by a charismatic goalkeeper in Shauni Kerkhoff. She previously attended Temple University and is a Westerville, OH native.

Kerkhoff was under tremendous pressure all night from the Dayton attack, but she maintained composure and helped the Eagles keep the defensive shape. She had five or six key saves that came after conceding the opening goal off a set piece in the fourth minute of the match. Dutch Lions attacker Jordan Pauley found the back of the net as she made a far post run off of a corner.

Wise admitted that communication and set piece defending must improve.

“We haven’t worked on that much,” he said. “We’ve been working on other tactical things. We need to get to know each other a bit better. There were times we put the ball into space and we wouldn’t make that run.”

The Eagles would then equalize in the 25th minute when Kelly DeNiro capitalized on a Dutch Lions turnover and hit a shot from the top of the penalty box past the Dayton goalkeeper Anna Hall.

The Dutch Lions began the second half running a high press against the Columbus backline but Kerkhoff kept the Eagles steady. The team weathered continuing attacking sequences from the Dayton.

In the 77th minute, the Eagles won a corner off of a counterattack and Larissa Najjar scored the go-ahead goal after the Dutch Lions failed to clearly the ball out of their own area. This late strike gave the Eagles the team’s first win of the WPSL season and sent the fans home happy.

DeNiro and Najjar were the stars on the score sheet, but the unsung hero for the Eagles was Kerkhoff.

“She [Kerkoff]’s great in goal...the girls feel comfortable with her in the back.” Wise said. The head coach contributes a “tremendous” save that Kerkhoff made on a penalty kick in the preseason to be one of the reasons the team places an incredible amount of trust in her. Hearing Kerkhoff’s vocal reassurance and listening to her command the defense leaves little doubt as to why she is one of the leaders on this team.

The Eagles improved to 1-0-0 on their season and will be back in action next Saturday, May 20th, taking on FC Pride at Otterbein. You can buy tickets at the Columbus Eagles website or watch their games, as they are streamed live on YouTube.

Ken Tishenkel