Minot State women's soccer made a habit of playing sound, fundamental defense in 2013, a trend which carried the Beavers into the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference tournament as the eighth and final seed.
Attaining postseason soccer is priority No. 1 for MSU again this season, but coach Jason Spain is abundantly confident. His sights are set even higher.
"If we believe in what we're doing, the goals will come. If those two things happen, I don't know about being perfect, but I think we can go unbeaten," said Spain, entering his fifth year with the Beavers. "Our conference is the toughest conference in the country. If we get a home game, we're going to the national tournament."
Minot State finished seventh among Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference teams in goals
allowed last season, averaging 1.33 concessions per game.
The Beavers kicked off their 2014 campaign at 12:01 a.m. Monday with their annual “midnight madness” intra-squad scrimmage.
The Beavers must finish fourth or better during NSIC regular season to clinch a home playoff game. They'll also require more goals.
MSU ranked 10th out of 16 conference teams in goals scored (19), averaging just over a goal per game (1.06).
Spain understands that if postseason success on the MSU agenda, quality in the final third will be key.
"We need to get some goals early," Spain said. "We have that grind-it-out system where we try to get those one-goal wins, and when the goals weren't coming (last season), we just lost a little bit of confidence. We've gotta get some goals early to boost our strikers."
Goals were few and far between for MSU early last fall. With just six goals scored in their first eight games, the Beavers slumped to a 2-5-1 start in NSIC play.
But an increased goal output (10) and four shutouts over the final seven conference games propelled MSU into the conference tournament, a stretch which saw the team go 5-1-1.
The Beavers are keen to avoid the stress of postseason qualification. They want to establish themselves as a playoff team from the start.
"We didn't score enough goals last year," said Chloe Melton, MSU's second leading point scorer in 2013. "We drew a lot of games, and we need to score more so we can win those games and not lose silly points."
Melton was one of three MSU strikers to finish with four goals and over 10 points. Another was Emilie Rebelo, who operates in central midfield.
Of the 19 league goals the Beavers registered last season, all but six are returning.
"I think there's a lot more than 19 goals in this group," Rebelo said. "Everyone is really pushing each other hard in training, and we're getting things done. I think we're going to be in 100-times better shape this year, too. We're much more prepared."
Rebelo and Melton won't be the only MSU forwards expected to regularly score.
After red-shirting last season, senior Jamie MacFarlane returns as the team's starting left midfielder.
She hasn't lost her goal-scoring touch, either. Monday's "midnight-madness" intra-squad scrimmage stands as proof.
With the second half of the practice game winding down and the match still scoreless, MacFarlane rifled a right-footed shot from 25 yards out. The shot bent, found the underside of the crossbar and caromed into the back of the net. It was the final kick of the scrimmage.
Spain tips MacFarlane to be an All-America selection.
"I thought we laid back and were more defensive last year. A key for us will be going after teams with our speed that we have on the outside," said MacFarlane, already with eight career MSU goals. "I think having the wingers on the outside and with the finishers we have in the middle, I think we'll have a lot more chances and score a lot more goals this year."
MSU heads to Idaho at 3 p.m. today for a pair of exhibition contests.
The Beavers open their NSIC schedule with an away clash against the University of Mary on Sept. 15.
Joe Mellenbruch covers high school sports and general assignments. Follow him on Twitter @Mellenbruch_MDN.