July 31, 2003
Coming off a season that included a trip to the NCAA Tournament and a Top 25 national ranking-both firsts for the program-Utah soccer is aiming to cement itself as a national-caliber program in 2003 under second-year head coach Rich Manning.
After serving on the staff at Santa Clara the previous four years, helping to guide the Broncos to three national semifinals and an NCAA title in 2001, Manning was highly regarded in the coaching profession and gained insights on how to run a top-level program. The only question was how long it would take him to apply that formula successfully at Utah.
The answer came quickly. Leading the Utes to a 13-4-3 record, Top 25 rankings from both Soccer America and Soccer Times, and the second round of the NCAA Tournament, Manning wasted no time in taking Utah soccer to the next level.
Senior defender Jen Williams earned second team all-MWC recognition last season.
Senior midfielder Amber Brower has started 53 games the last three seasons.
Senior forward Missy Dennis was named second team all-Mountain West in 2002.
"Last year was very exciting," Manning recalls fondly. "The most exciting part was that the players bought into everything that we were doing so well, and so quickly. The players were putting the team first. For the coaches, the fact that we won was a bonus."
Now with his system and a winning attitude in place, the 2002 Mountain West Conference Coach of the Year is excited about the direction his program is heading.
"We're ahead of where we were last year in terms of the players understanding the level that we're shooting for," Manning explains. "I think the players really believe that they can do it now. I think there's a higher expectation within the group. We're starting to accumulate good talent, and they understand the type of soccer we want to play. If we can retain some of the things from last year in the areas of competitiveness, determination and teamwork, and add the skills that we improved on in the spring, then I think we will have made some good strides."
That is not to say the Utes don't have some holes to fill in the lineup heading into 2003. Gone are six starters from last year's team, including both goalkeepers. Also lost for the season is Katie Battazzo, a walk-on who blossomed into a first team all-conference defender as a freshman before suffering a severe knee injury in the last game of the regular-season against BYU. Junior defender/forward Lauren Field is also questionable due to a heart condition that surfaced during the off-season.
However, despite the losses and the task of assimilating nine newcomers, Manning will be able to rely on 12 juniors and seniors who made significant contributions to last year's success.
"This is not an inexperienced team," explains Manning. "I also think some of the freshmen are very talented and will push for playing time, if not start. We should have a nice mix of young and veteran players. The key is going to be how quickly everyone learns how to play together.
"Of the nine new players we've brought in, five or six of them can play multiple positions," Manning continues. "We can play them at certain places depending on the rest of the personnel and game situations, and that's a nice luxury. They're good and versatile soccer players."
Senior Missy Dennis, a second team all-MWC selection last season, is expected to be the leader of the three-forward lineup. Dennis led the Utes in goals (9) and points (21) last season.
"She is a natural soccer player," raves Manning. "She understands the game and she's very creative. She did a terrific job last year of putting the ball in the net, and that continued into in the spring season."
Senior Bobbie Benegas will play both upfront and in the midfield. She was second on the team in assists (4) and scored two goals of her own last season. "Bobbie is like the Eveready battery that never stops. Her energy is contagious," says Manning.
Freshman Amanda Feigt, a local product from Sandy, Utah, and Jordan High School, should battle for significant playing time right away. Feigt has played for the West Regional Olympic Development Team and will also run the 200 and 400 meters for the Ute track team. "She has speed that's as explosive as you can find in college," says Manning. "She also has a good feel for the game."
Junior Julie Herdic and sophomore Carisse Winegar will also contribute. Herdic, who simply finds ways to create scoring opportunities, scored five goals last season. Winegar has improved her skills and conditioning tremendously since last year.
Manning's alignment is unique in that he plays with three central midfielders. Junior Tracy Stratton returns as the holding midfielder, whose job is to hold down the middle, win balls, win headers and help stop counter-attacks.
"Tracy is one of the best headers in the conference," says Manning. "Any time teams try to play over the top of us, she is able to contain their attack." Stratton also made strides in her offensive game during the spring.
A pair of seniors in Amber Brower, who has started 53 games the last three years, and Heather Wilhelm-Carter, are also returning starters. Brower, from Hyrum, Utah, is a tireless worker who does all of the dirty work. "She defends very well," praises Manning. "She is staring to feel comfortable in this system and is poised to have a good year."
Wilhelm-Carter, a senior from Sandy, Utah, played at left midfielder last year and may also move back to left defender on occasion this season. "Heather is a very good passer," says Manning.
Junior Esther Imotan shined in last year's NCAA Tournament and is one of the Utes' best attacking players when she's on. "She can come off the bench and really give us a spark. The key for her getting more playing time will be improving on her consistency," says Manning.
Erin Pruitt, another junior, is coming back from shoulder surgery after playing in just eight games last season. "Erin is good in the air and a good passer," evaluates Manning. Pruitt will compete with Stratton at the holding midfielder spot.
Two freshmen who will figure into the rotation are McKenzie Joyner from Mapleton, Utah, and Addie Hawkins from Olympia, Wash. "Mckenzie has terrific speed and is two-footed. She is really quick and can hit long balls very well," says Manning.
Hawkins was a part of the Washington State Olympic Development team and comes from a soccer family. Her sister, Devvyn, played for Manning at Santa Clara, was the third pick in the 2003 WUSA draft and is a member of the U.S. National Team.
Manning utilizes four defenders. His first concern will be filling the void created by Battazzo's injury. "It was just so hard to get by her last year. She has that gift of knowing where to go and making it hard to get around her, and then she could win anything in the air."
Three seniors from instate will be contending for starting roles at either the middle or outside positions. Jen Williams, a native of Bountiful, Utah, started 16 games last season and earned second team all-Mountain West honors. In her coach's estimation, Williams is poised for a great year. "She is an excellent athlete and a wicked one-on-one defender," says Manning. "She has also improved her understanding of team defense."
Keri Keddington, from Centerville, Utah, is very vocal, which makes her a natural leader who can organize. Genny Grimm of Salt Lake City is "one of the best one-on-one defenders on the team," according to Manning.
Should Field gain medical clearance to continue her career, the junior from High Point, N.C., will play either in back or up front. "Lauren hits a great long ball. She also does an excellent job handling our set pieces off penalties and corners," explains Manning. "That would be a big loss if she can't play."
Wayman, a native of West Valley City, Utah, can play both in the back and the midfield. "She is a good passer, very good in the air, and feisty," says Manning.
Deatherage from Scottsdale, Ariz., can play any of the four defender positions. "She is strong for her size. Michelle is an old-fashioned, tough defender," raves Manning.
Duarte, a native of Placentia, Calif., provides the Utes with another young defender who has good speed and the skills to get into the attack.
Utah will rely on three freshmen in front of the goal. How quickly that trio can learn to fit into the team's defensive concept and manage a game is going to be a key component to the Utes' success.
Sunnyvale, Calif., native Ashley Mason is a 5-10 physical talent who has all of the tools. "She can kick the ball 60-70 yards down field and can change the game, starting a counterattack right away," points out Manning.
Kaycie Zimmerman out of Orem, Utah, brings maturity beyond her age and manages the game exceptionally well. "Kaycie's composure and reading of the game will grow on you. She's in control and it gives a great sense of confidence to the rest of the team"
Another Utah product, Sara Ravenberg of West Valley City, also manages the game very well.
"We were excited to get each of them for different reasons, and its going to be a fun group," says Manning. "It's just a question of how quickly can they pick up on the system and feel comfortable at the college level."
A major factor in the Utes making the NCAA invitee list last season was their success during the nonconference season. Utah went 3-0 against Portland, Kentucky and Washington State, three teams that were also invited to the party.
The Utes will have equal opportunity to make good with this year's pre-conference lineup, headlined by home games against Michigan and Florida. Utah will also play two pivotal road games against Texas A&M and Saint Mary's.
"Michigan made the NCAA quarterfinals last year and is a perennial playoff team," analyzes Manning. "That will be a good measuring stick game for us to start off during the first weekend. Florida is as athletic of a team that you will see in college. They were the NCAA champions in '98 and a semifinalist in 2001. Texas A&M was an NCAA quarterfinalist last year and has been consistently in the top 10 in recent years. Saint Mary's has been a regular top-20 team; a lot of injuries just held them back last year."
In breaking down the Mountain West Conference race, Manning says BYU, which has won the Mountain West Conference title all four years of the league's existence, will once again be a major factor in the league race. He also looks for New Mexico to be a contender, returning a veteran team that tied and beat the Utes in two meetings last season.
An advantage for the Utes in making the NCAAs for a second consecutive year will be hosting the Mountain West Conference Tournament at Ute Field. "It's another step for building our program, and we'll be motivated to perform well," says Manning.
"After the strides we made last year, the players no longer have this far-off notion that 'we want to win the conference and we want to make the playoffs.' Now they have experienced it, and they understand what it's all about," Manning concludes. "Coming off a breakthrough season, the team's confidence is going to be high, and that's good. This group has a lot of potential."