Aug 20, 2013
OREM, Utah -- For four seasons the Utah Valley University women's soccer team was the class of the Great West Conference, claiming hardware in each year the league was in existence. The Wolverines claimed three of four GWC tournament championships, two outright regular season titles, and two division crowns, running its all-time GWC record to a remarkable 28-3-1. Twenty-eight all-conference performers emerged from those teams, including the conference's Offensive and Defensive Players of the Year in 2010, 2011, and 2012.
As with every season, the Wolverines will look to build on its past successes. But that progression carries added weight as UVU enters its first season in the Western Athletic Conference with sights on a new end goal: automatic qualification to the NCAA tournament.
"I expect that the success we experienced in the Great West will translate over into the WAC," said head coach Brent Anderson, entering his eighth season at the helm of Wolverine women's soccer. "In our time in the Great West we learned how to win games, we learned how to operate in conference play, and we learned how to advance in a tournament. There's a certain amount of confidence that is earned alongside those achievements. The WAC is a quality league with a lot of new faces and opponents for us, but I believe our past accomplishments and experiences have prepared us for similar success."
In 2012, the Wolverines grinded out a 9-11-1 record through a schedule that was rife with close calls that often found UVU on the wrong side of the score line. Of the Wolverines' 11 losses, five came in the overtime period and one in the waning seconds of regulation. In all, only one defeat came by a margin greater than one -- a 4-2 loss at fellow WAC member Seattle University. The Wolverines also battled hard at ninth-ranked BYU, the difference being a Cougar goal just seconds before halftime. Despite the ups and downs of the non-conference season, UVU found its footing in GWC play. A perfect 5-0-0 league record gave the Wolverines their second straight regular season title and plenty of momentum heading into the conference tournament. There, Utah Valley cruised through its semifinal and final matches by identical 5-2 score lines, winning its third GWC tournament title and closing the season on a high note that should resonate as the 2013 season draws near.
The Wolverines return 14 letterwinners from that 2012 squad, including six starters. Anderson, looking to reload following the departures of past lineup staples Regan Benson
(F), Jaime Lyons
(F), Shalayne Janis
(M), and Kelsey Kimball Cook
(D), also added 10 newcomers to this season's roster.
"We've got a lot of young players and a lot of newcomers, but they've all bought in immediately to the program," said Anderson. "They understand what is expected of them and they have met those expectations. I think they are challenging our upperclassmen and we are going to see some freshmen that have earned starting spots. That's big for our program and speaks to the ability and competitiveness of our newcomers."
Utah Valley's long run of success in the GWC did not go unnoticed by the WAC's head coaches. Released just over a week ago, the WAC Coaches' Poll picked the Wolverines to finish in a tie for second, alongside Idaho and just behind conference favorite Seattle. The Redhawks garnered six of a possible seven first-place votes with the only other first-place nod going to UVU. Coming off outstanding 2012 seasons, Utah Valley goalkeeper Lauren Sack (Reno, Nev.) and midfielder Lexi Robison (Orem, Utah) were named to the WAC's Preseason All-Conference team.
"We were happy to get that kind of recognition from the league's coaches and I think that gives the girls some confidence, but it's also a motivating factor," explained Anderson of the preseason poll. "Any time you are picked that high in the league poll you end up with a target on your back. We know that we're going to get everyone's best shot and that we are going to have to step up our game to prove ourselves worthy of that ranking."
With the departure of Regan Benson, the 2012 GWC Offensive Player of the Year and owner of a team-high 10 goals last season, it seemed the UVU attack would have a substantial gap in production to fill. On the contrary, the forward position looks to be one of the deepest on the Wolverines' 2013 roster. A quartet of veterans will pace the attack, while a trio of fresh faces with dangerous potential are primed to contribute.
Headlining the returning forwards is another former GWC Offensive Player of the Year -- senior Natalie Baker. The Springville, Utah, native had a record-setting 2011, tallying 10 goals and six assists for a single-season UVU record of 26 points. The monster sophomore season was enough to earn her the GWC's top offensive honor. But after an injury riddled season in 2012 left her with a total of only five goals, Anderson says the now healthy senior is looking better than ever.
"Natalie is going to be one of our most dangerous players and she's looking stronger than she ever has. She has great speed and is hungry to score. And she has been connecting well with (fellow forward) Haley Curtis all preseason, which I believe can be a deadly combination."
A senior captain, Curtis (Yakima, Wash.) is another key forward that Anderson will rely on in the attack. The 2012 second team All-GWC selection scored six times last season, and has been playing at what Anderson describes as a "mature" level, "showing for the ball at the right times and connecting her passes at dangerous angles to free other players" throughout preseason camp.
Juniors Maddie Adams (Sandy, Utah) and McKell Salmon (Orem, Utah) will also fill roles in the forward spot. Salmon notched two goals a season ago, one coming in the GWC tournament final.
Rounding out the depth chart at forward is Kali Stubbs (St. George, Utah), a sophomore who scored one goal in seven matches in 2012 and will challenge for playing time; Kristen Bailey-Yoo, a redshirt freshman from Irvine, Calif.; as well as true freshmen Sheridan Fox (Rescue, Calif.) and Taylor Kirk (Pleasant Grove, Utah), both of whom have shown a strong technical ability in the preseason.
Junior Robison, a first team All-GWC and preseason All-WAC selection, will be called upon to anchor what could be a very dynamic midfield for the Wolverines. The Orem product started every game as a sophomore in 2012, scoring four goals with three assists, and has been selected by her teammates as a captain this season.
Working alongside Robison is Kim Stratford (Springville, Utah), another junior that could fill a holding midfield role. Stratford will look to build on a solid conclusion to the 2012 season where she scored and assisted twice in the year's final three contests.
Said Anderson, "Kim has worked very hard over the last year and has improved her touch on the ball and her distribution abilities a great deal."
Riding a pair of goals in UVU's lone exhibition match last Saturday, sophomore Jamie Brown (Lindon, Utah) looks ready to fill the third midfield spot. Brown appeared in just two games last season, logging 66 minutes, before an injury sidelined her for the remainder of the year.
Sophomore Lexi Felis (Sandy, Utah), a strong ball winner with plenty of composure in possession, will continue to see time in the midfield after transitioning there from center back midway through 2012.
Among the newcomers who have impressed Anderson in the early going has been true freshman Chelsea Dunn (Kaysville, Utah). The younger sister of captain and center back Lexi Dunn, Chelsea has been described as "a sparkplug who works tirelessly in the midfield and is unafraid to challenge and hold the ball at her feet." Rylee Gritton (Sandy, Utah), another true freshman, has also shown tremendous potential in the midfield.
The back line may be the most inexperienced group of the 2013 Wolverine roster, with Lexi Dunn (Layton, Utah) the only projected starter with more than one season under her belt. Still, Anderson remains convinced that his defensive squad will be up to the task of stifling the attacking play of this season's opponents.
"We're going to have a young defense, but it's a group that is strong and athletic. Also, with Lexi back there keeping things organized and under control, I expect our defense to be a solid presence on the field."
Dunn has been a steady force in the UVU back line for the last two seasons, earning first team All-GWC honors both years and leading the squad in minutes played in 2012 with 1,871. She has also earned the role of the Wolverines' free-kick specialist as the bulk of her career goals and assists have come as the set piece triggerman.
From there, sophomore Caitlin Mortensen (Albuquerque, N.M.) will likely work alongside Dunn in the defensive center. Mortensen got 10 starts as a true freshman in 2010 and received high praise from Anderson for her fitness level coming into camp.
Anderson also expressed excitement about the ability of his outside backs, particularly sophomore Courtney Wilson (Sandy, Utah) and sophomore transfer Katelyn McLeod (Kaysville, Utah/Weber State).
"Courtney is probably the best athlete on the team," said Anderson. "She can get up and down all day long, endline to endline. She's willing to take players on and get inside the box to take shots. We're really excited about what we've been seeing from her early on. Meanwhile, Katelyn has shown a great understanding of when to get forward and attack, which is exactly what we expect our outside backs to do."
A trio of true freshmen has also found success through their first preseason, with Melanie Ostler (Kaysville, Utah), Sara Ranck (Sandy, Utah), and Kalli Suesue (Gilbert, Ariz.) battling for playing time.
Added Anderson, "Sara is a strong, athletic, and physical player. She's really begun to prove herself in the preseason workouts. Kalli is fast and disciplined and has stepped in and done a great job, outperforming my own expectations for her. And finally, Melanie is the type of player who could really play anywhere on the field, but we've thrown her in at outside back because that's where we need her. It might not be her most comfortable position, but her play there has just been getting better and better."
Two-time GWC Defensive Player of the Year and preseason All-WAC selection Lauren Sack is back for her senior year and will look to build on a career that has already splashed her name all over the program's record book. The career leader in wins and saves allowed just one goal in GWC play last season and dazzled in an eight-save performance at No. 9 BYU.
For her career, Sack holds a 23-17-2 record while posting 213 saves and a .772 save percentage.
Waiting in the wings is sophomore keeper Jessica Duffin (Smithfield, Utah). Duffin earned her first collegiate start in 2012, filling in for three games while Sack tended to an injury. She totaled 35 saves over four starts, picking up her first career win in a 3-2 victory over Sacred Heart.
A former goalkeeper himself, Anderson is pleased with the depth he has in goal: "Lauren continues to be solid for us and her career stats prove her quality as a keeper. But on top of that, Jessica Duffin may be the summer's most improved player. Lauren and Jessica are challenging and pushing each other, and I feel confident that I could put either one of them in goal and get great results."
Utah Valley will open the season on the road with visits to UTEP on Aug. 23 and Utah State, last year's WAC champion, on Aug. 26. The home season opens Aug. 29 when in-state rival Weber State visits Orem. The only other non-conference home game comes Sept. 15 against UC Davis. The Wolverines then open the WAC conference slate on Sept. 20th against CSU Bakersfield at Clyde Field.
In all, UVU will play nine opponents that it faced in 2012. The Wolverines went 2-7 against those schools last season with each loss but one decided by a single goal.
"The familiarity of this schedule provides us with a tangible ability to measure our progress from last season to this one," explained Anderson. "It's a schedule that will challenge us, but one that I believe sets us up for success in the WAC."