September 7th, 2019, Waltham, MA; Merrimack College athletics is entering into it’s first year as a division one school this fall. The Women’s soccer team is part of the first wave of Merrimack teams facing competitive play at the highest level of NCAA sports. They move into this new challenge for the program with six alumni from Global Premier Soccer on the roster.
Four of the alumni are not only new to division one soccer, they are freshman experiencing the collegiate level for the first time. Vanessa Wainwright, from GPS Albany, has jumped right in and started all three games for the Warriors so far this season. Brianna CoCo is one of two GPS New Hampshire alumni and has two starts to her name already as well, including playing the full 90 minutes to open the season against Hartford.
Emma O’Leary, another freshman, is expected to contribute meaningful minutes this season as she joins the program having played for GPS North Shore. Emma has been out with an illness to start the year and has been back in training over the last week. She expects to be ready for game action as soon as next week. Becca Harty is one of two sophomore GPS alum who have started all three games thus far and also came to Merrimack from GPS North Shore.
The GPS contingent also includes freshmen, Alyssa Bernazani, from GPS Massachusetts. Alyssa has come on as a sub in each of the Warriors’ three games and logged 118 minutes of playing time already. Meg Blanchette, a sophomore, hasn’t come off the field yet this season. She has three starts and played the full 90 minutes in each. Meg also played for GPS New Hampshire.
Brianna and Meg have formed the centerback partnership so far this season in two of three games. They were unable to keep that partnership going in the Warriors’ third game of the year as Brianna picked up an ankle injury. The team expects her to be back as soon as Monday.
Merrimack started off their first division one season with a narrow 0-1 loss at home to Harford. After that, they played two games at the TD Bank Classic in Burlington, Vermont. In the first game of the Classic they came up short against the University of New Hampshire, losing 3-1. Just two days later on September 1st, Merrimack defeated tournament hosts, the University of Vermont, 2-1 and earned the program’s first victory as a division one team.
The winning goal against Vermont came in the 79th minute and was scored by Harty from a right back position. Bernazani is also playing as a fullback this season in a transition from her youth career where she played as a midfielder and forward.
The move to the NCAA’s top division comes after 35 seasons of success at the division two level under the guidance of head coach, Gabe Mejail. The program had 34 winning seasons in those 35 seasons and captured 8 Northeast-10 Conference regular season championships, six NE10 tournament titles, two ECAC titles and 11 trips to the NCAA tournament.
The only coach with more seasons at the helm of a NCAA women’s soccer program than Mejail is Anson Dorrance, the University of North Carolina’s head coach and former coach of the US Women’s National team. Like Dorrance at UNC, Mejail is the only head coach in the history of the Merrimack women’s soccer program.
Coach Mejail has been delighted with the hard work and level of play from all the GPS alumni on his roster. He cited Becca Harty’s willingness to try a new position as a positive boon to the team as she has good attacking intents from the fullback position having played further up field in her youth career.
The GPS New Hampshire centerback pairing featuring Brianna CoCo and Meg Blanchette have impressed Mejail already, stating he has two of the best players to come from GPS NH’s NPL program.
Gabe has been in the college coaching world for 40 seasons now, long enough that he is now coaching the daughter, Becca Harty, of a former player. Mejail said he plans to keep going for the foreseeable future and won’t think about retiring until he “stops getting nervous” before games.
Mejail said what he loves the most about the GPS alumni in the program is that they all choose Merrimack College because the school, not just the soccer program, was the right fit for them. He said that’s one of the most important aspects of finding a college, making sure a player gets the right fit, on the field and off it.
The Warriors next face three consecutive games away from home, travelling to face Maine, Bryant and Saint Bonaventure before returning home on September 19th to face Sacred Heart.