Niagara Gazette — LEWISTON — The sports climate in Niagara County changes seasons today, with Niagara University set to host its first sporting event of the 2013-14 calendar year.
NU's women's soccer team will get the honors when it plays Youngstown State in a non-league match at 7 p.m. at Niagara Field.
After compiling a 15-19-3 record over the last two seasons, head coach Peter Veltri enters his 15th season at the helm aiming to teach a young roster that has only two players in their athletic senior seasons.
"We're a very young team again this year," Veltri said. "We brought in a big (recruiting) class last year and a decent size this year, and we'll look to bring in a decent-sized class for '14. But the most important thing is that those classes are going to be here for a while."
This year presents a unique challenge and opportunity for NU. At the end of the regular season, each of the 11 teams in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference will travel to the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. to take part in an expanded conference tournament — something that happens every four years in an attempt to ensure each MAAC student-athlete gets to experience the trip once.
In normal years, the tournament is held at a MAAC campus and only the top four teams are invited.
Veltri, who led the Purple Eagles to their first and only MAAC championship in 2006, said his goal is to help his team peak at the end of the season.
"When you come to a year like this year, it's not about your record," he said. "It's about making sure you're peaking at the right time.
"I've been to (Florida) three times, and I've seen how once you get there, rankings mean nothing. It's about the team that's playing the best at that time, so our goal is to make sure we continue to improve from today until we're down there. The fact that we're young and growing, it's probably a great year for that."
The Purple Eagles will be led by a trio of returning starters in captain Danielle Kennedy, senior Breanna Catipovic (Kenmore/Mt. St. Mary) and 2012 MAAC Co-Rookie of the Year Haillie Price.
Kennedy, who stands 5-foot-7, chipped in four goals from her position as a defender last season, and Veltri expects her to anchor the back end again.
"She's without a doubt the leader on the field for us," he said. "She doesn't say much but leads by example, and the way she goes, we go."
Kennedy will be aided on defense by Lewiston-Porter alumna Hayley Besaw. Both were selected by the conference's coaches to the Preseason All-MAAC Team.
Catipovic and Price will lead the attack. Price, another Preseason All-MAAC selection, tied for the team lead in points last season with 11, while Catipovic added seven. Veltri said he'll need the girls to work together to produce.
"(Catipovic) has been here and done it. She knows what's expected," Veltri said. "(Price) is a tall girl (5-foot-10), fast, very smart, and she's played in a lot of big games. She came from a club system in Canada which was highly touted and had some stints in the Canadian youth program, so she has a lot of experience. She understands what she's doing and she does it well.
"Hopefully they can combine and make a good pair for us."
In net, the Purple Eagles will feature sophomore Claire Feiertag, who started 14 of 18 games as a freshman.
"She's back, she's a little more confident, and we're obviously expecting her to play a little bit better," Veltri said.
Joining Besaw and Catipovic on the team's local contingent will be Jeannie Taylor (Grand Island), who will start at defender, and Bianca Marrara (Lewiston/Lew-Port).
The Purple Eagles are 9-0 all-time against Youngstown State, including a 2-1 overtime victory last season.
Follow Gazette sports reporter Mike Meiler on Twitter @mikemeiler for updates on your local teams.