LSU soccer vs. Rice

LSU sophomore midfielder Emma Fletcher (10) passes the ball Sunday, August 31, 2014 during the Tigers' 0-1 defeat in LSU Soccer Stadium.

LSU soccer coach Brian Lee has made a concerted effort in recent years to expand the borders of his recruiting patterns.

In the past two recruiting cycles, Lee’s acquired the services of seven players with international descent, and his new approach led to the program’s first top-ten recruiting class in 2014.

But it was the 2013 class — headlined by sophomores Summer Clarke, Emma Fletcher and Megan Lee — that proved Brian’s expanded search wasn’t in vain.

The Tigers’ dynamic trio of scorer, facilitator and defender made an immediate impact on the LSU soccer program. Clarke, Fletcher and Megan were awarded with Second-Team All-Southeastern Conference honors as freshmen, which was the first time in conference history three freshmen on the same squad earned All-SEC recognition.

Brian wasn’t surprised at all by their early pedigree, and he expects the group to be even more lethal with a year of experience now under their belts.

“The talent level was never in question with them,” Brian said. “It was just how quickly could they meld into the college environment on and off the field. But all three of them are very mature student-athletes, so I knew they’d handle it well.”

Unlike her coach, Fletcher wasn’t sure how her and her classmates would perform when they arrived at LSU, but achieving All-SEC status as a freshman certainly never crossed her mind.

“I didn’t know any of the awards, so I definitely didn’t expect anything like that to happen,” Fletcher said. “We just came here wanting to play our best and help the team as much as we could.”

But the questions lingering in Fletcher’s mind were quickly put to rest as the three seamlessly meshed into the Tigers’ lineup.

Fletcher and Clarke, two veterans of the Canadian

Women’s National Team system, had no trouble bringing their deep-rooted chemistry in the attack to the collegiate level. Fletcher had an SEC-leading 12 assists during her freshman season, and seven resulted in goals for Clarke, who finished her freshman campaign with a team-high 10 goals.

For Clarke, last season’s offensive success was just the beginning.

“Our freshmen class last year had a really good season, but it was only a start,” Clarke said. “We’re just looking to improve. I already feel more comfortable with it being my sophomore year. All three of us who made All-SEC are more comfortable with the team. We know everyone now, so we’re all meshing well together.”

On the other side of the pitch, Megan proved to be the Tigers’ most versatile defender despite missing nearly half of her freshman campaign.

The New Zealand native was inactive for eight games during her freshman season — six due to an ankle injury early in the year and two more when she was called up for international duty toward season’s end.

But Megan made the most of her limited opportunity, helping the Tigers’ back line prevent opponents from creating quality scoring chances. With Megan in the lineup, the LSU defense held the opposition to a .391 shot-on-goal percentage, the lowest since 2002.

Megan’s early success made her choice to attend LSU seem more sensible after she initially desired a different location.

“Originally, I was looking for a team on the west coast because it’d be easier to get home,” Megan said. “Then Emma told me she was planning to go to LSU, and our dads started talking. After that, LSU emailed me because they had seen my soccer video on YouTube. I talked to the coaches, and they seemed like they had a good vision.”

Brian’s vision has now made LSU a new hotbed for international talent, and the Tigers are hoping the team’s results will match their skills, especially after the six-game losing streak that concluded the 2013 season.

Clarke said the Tigers have learned from last season’s discouraging finish, and they aren’t going to let their aspirations slip away again this year.

“We were obviously disappointed with how last season ended because nobody likes to lose like that,” Clarke said. “Some things just weren’t working, but we learned from that mistake. We’re looking to move past that. We have more goals set for this season, so we’ve pushed last season behind us and just focused on what’s coming in the future.”

You can reach David Gray on Twitter @dgray_TDR.

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