Missouri Southern’s soccer team hits the road for a pair of matches this weekend to open the season.

The Lions play tonight at 7 against Southern Nazarene in Bethany, Oklahoma, before heading north to face No. 25-ranked Minnesota State-Mankato at 1 p.m. Sunday at the Swope Park Soccer Village in Kansas City, Missouri.

“We’ve been working hard, dealing with the heat,” new head coach Aaron Tilsen said. “We’re very young, and we have a very small roster for our level. Twenty-two players, I bet we have the fewest in the conference, and one of those is a senior goalkeeper (Luz Galindo) who jus had surgery two weeks ago and will be out for the first two or three weeks.”

The Lions return three seniors — Galindo, defender Brianna Smith and forward Jessica Edwards — from last year’s team that finished 7-8-3 last season. There are also six juniors and four sophomores back, including sophomore forward Bailey Belcher who scored a team-high six goals last season.

“Belcher is a workaholic out there,” Tilsen said. “I’m sure she is going to score a bunch of goals for us. Carina Calderon, junior center midfielder from California, I think she’ll be a rock in the midfield. The defense is going to be solid with Bri Smith and Rylie Johnson.

“We have some great kids, some talented kids. We have a good number of players who have played a lot. We have four of our top five scorers back from last year.”

While Galindo is sidelined, freshmen Alex Dimel and Riley Laver will play goalkeeper.

“Both are from California,” Tilsen said. “Riley is probably going to start the first game, and from then on we will have to play it by ear. I’m sure there will be a lot of bumps in the road as they go forward. I’d like to see them both develop and see how that goes.

The Lions’ game on Sunday against Minnesota State certainly will be emotional for Tilsen. He spent the last three years as the Mavericks’ goalkeepers coach, helping them win three Northern Sun Conference tournaments and extend their streak to eight consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances.

“I guess I’m looking forward to it because I’ve set some high expectations and lofty goals, coming from a place where literally every season the goals are to win the conference, win the regional and try to win a national championship,” Tilsen said. “Our goals are not at that level yet, but being able to compete with the best teams in the conference is what I want them to do. I haven’t ruled out the possibility of us making the conference tournament, finishing in the top three or four in the conference and making the NCAA Tournament be our goals.

“Last year’s team at Missouri Southern tied Central Missouri, and Central Missouri beat Minnesota State 1-0. We have a good nucleus back. It will be fun to see some girls I’ve known the last few years play, and also I want us to try to win the game and show we can play with one of the best teams in the country.”

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