Aug. 25, 2007
2007 Utah Women's Soccer Outlook
The life of an understudy can be a long, arduous process. An understudy must continually prepare to play an important role, while at the same time accepting and performing well in a suaporting role. Many University of Utah women's soccer players have had to do just that over the past few seasons. But 2007 could mark an opportunity for several of them to step out of the shadows of former Ute stars and take their turns on center stage.
Coming into the 2007 season, Utah will have to replace seven starters and three former Mountain West Conference Players of the Year. Gone are the 2005 MWC Offensive and Defensive Players of the Year - Amanda Feigt and Ashley Mason, who were both All-MWC performers last season. The 2006 Defensive Player of the Year - Melissa Wayman - also graduated last year.
But head coach Rich Manning's team certainly doesn't lack for established star power. Junior forward Adele Letro, the reigning MWC Offensive Player of the Year, returns for her third season. Letro was named to the NSCAA/adidas All-America team as a second-team selection. She became the first Ute ever to earn All-America accolades. Coming into this season, Letro is one of 46 players on the preseason watch list for the Hermann Award, which honors the top women's soccer player in the nation.
Sophomore midfielder Kelly Isleib, one of last year's conference Co-Freshmen of the Year, will also be back on the pitch for the Utes. Add senior Kiley Jones - one of the best defensive midfielders in the West - and Utah will have plenty to build around.
Speaking of success, Utah is coming off a 16-5-1 season - including a first-ever 7-0-0 mark in Mountain West Conference play -- in 2006. Last year's win total matched the school record for victories (16-2-2, 2003). The Utes will be looking for their sixth consecutive NCAA Tournament berth in Manning's sixth season on the bench. Utah has won the last two - and three total -- MWC regular-season titles and also owns a pair of MWC Tournament championships in the last five years.
Standing between the Utes and their goals of repeating as MWC Champions and earning their way into a sixth straight NCAA Tournament is a daunting schedule. Of course, a challenging slate of contests is nothing new to the Utah soccer program. Year in and year out, Manning's team plays a tough non-conference schedule with a couple goals in mind - preparation for the rigors of conference play and impressing the NCAA Tournament selection committee.
This season, the Utes will face four squads that advanced to the NCAA Tournament last season - Colorado, Idaho State, UNLV and BYU. Utah will also face off with four teams from the Pac-10 Conference, which had the nation's second-highest RPI last season. Five of the Utes' 11 road games will be against teams who were in the top 70 in the RPI in 2006.
Utah opens with four quality opponents, all on the road. The Utes will face Pac-10 opponents Arizona and Washington State, sandwiched around contests at Long Beach State and Colorado. The home portion of the non-conference slate isn't any easier. The Utes host Idaho State in the home opener. The contest with the Bengals will be a rematch of last year's NCAA First Round match-up, which Utah won 3-2 in a dramatic, double-overtime contest.
Manning's philosophy will be put to the test right away in Mountain West Conference action. The Utes open league action with back-to-back road games at UNLV and BYU. The Utah coach expects both of those teams - along with his own - to be in contention for the conference title.
Since Manning took over as the Utes' head coach in 2002, the Utes have the best in-conference winning percentage of any MWC rival. Utah has an .859 (26-3-3) winning percentage in conference games in that span. That mark is followed by BYU (.703/21-5-6), UNLV (.531/17-15) and San Diego State (.484/12-13-7).
Most of this season's rebuilding needs to be done on the back end. The most notable hole to be filled is the one directly in front of the net.
Ashley Mason was Utah's starting keeper for four consecutive seasons. She led the nation in goals against average as a freshman and holds the Ute career records for goals against average, shutouts and saves. Looking to fill those rather large shoes is sophomore Lynzee Lee.
Lee redshirted in 2005 after breaking her leg the previous summer. Last season, Lee saw action in six games, making one start. She tallied seven saves, did not allow a goal and compiled a 1-0 record. Manning will count on Lee's outstanding athleticism and knack for shot-stopping to keep opposing teams off the scoreboard. Lee was a Soccer Buzz Top 100 recruit coming out of high school.
Utah's other two goalkeepers - Emalee Rogers and Amy Edman - have both battled through knee injuries in the past. Bboth are capable keepers and should battle Lee for the starting position. Rogers played in five games as a freshman and red-shirted last season while rehabilitating a knee injury. Edman missed her first two seasons with knee injuries, but has been healthy since.
By the end of the 2006 season, four seniors were starting at the defender position for Utah. Chief among the losses is the graduation of 2005 MWC Defensive Player of the Year Melissa Wayman. Utah also lost Katie Battazzo, who is bypassing her senior season due to chronic knee problems.
Manning expects a mixture of returners and newcomers to pick up the slack. According to the Ute coach, the key to the defense may be senior Amanda Sanchez, who missed last season with a broken foot. In the past, Manning has referred to Sanchez as a coach on the field. This season, he's expecting her to assert her leadership abilities to keep the defense on the same page.
Senior Emily Fonua, junior Katy Reineke and sophomore Jena Roberts each have varying levels of experience in the program and are also expected to contribute to this group. Fonua started seven games and played in 12 last season, scoring one goal and dishing out one assist. Reineke saw action in 20 games and scored a pair of goals. Reineke has a lethal left foot. Her penalty kick goal in the final minute of regulation against Idaho State helped Utah to a first-round NCAA Tournament win in double overtime. Roberts had three starts and saw the field in seven contests. Fonua and Reineke are also capable of playing in the midfield, but will most likely play as defenders.
Newcomers who could contribute to the defense are transfer Addie Hair and freshmen Morgan Skeen and Alyssa Toomey. Hair is a tough, athletic player, who is coming off a knee surgery in March. Skeen is a very talented tackler and has spent time in the U.S. National Team program.
The midfield position should be the strongest group on the squad, at least at the beginning of the season, according to Manning. All three starters from last season return.
Included in that group of returning starters is sophomore Kelly Isleib, who was a Mountain West Conference Co-Freshman of the Year last season. Isleib was just six months off an ACL reconstruction at the beginning of last season and was still dominant. She ranked second on the team with four assists and also scored a goal. Manning calls Isleib -- a Park City native -- one of the most creative players he has ever seen in his coaching career.
Senior Kiley Jones, a second-team All-MWC selection last season, also garners high praise from her head coach. Manning says she's one of the more underrated players in the conference and the west. The Ute coach calls her the backbone of the team, due to her stifling defensive play and efficiency. Jones started all 22 matches last season.
Senior Melissa Crespo also returns at the midfield position. She moved up to the midfield from a defender spot during conference play last season and excelled in the new role. Crespo tied for the team lead with seven assists, which also lead the Mountain West Conference in league games. She also tallied a pair of goals in 2006. Crespo is also very solid defensively from the midfield position. She gives the Utes a physical presence in the midfield.
Other contributors in the midfield could include Reineke, sophomore Danielle Sample, freshman Alyssa Toomey and senior Paola Marsenaro. Sample saw action in four contests last season. Toomey could also play in the back at defender.
Utah led the Mountain West Conference in scoring last season, averaging 1.64 goals per game. Despite losing a former MWC Offensive Player of the Year in Amanda Feigt, Manning still feels his forwards are part of the best attacking group he's had in his tenure with the Utes.
One big reason for optimism with the forward group is junior Adele Letro, who was the 2006 MWC Offensive Player of the Year. Letro scored a league-high 12 goals last season. She also contributed three assists for a total of 27 points. In addition to her All-MWC accolades, Letro earned Second-Team All-America honors on the NSCAA/adidas squad. She became the first Ute player ever to be named to a women's soccer All-America team.
More reason for optimism up front is the return of senior Chelsea Card and junior Jen Christoffers. Card has the ability to use her 5-foot 10-inch frame to control space in front of the goal and can also finish with some touch on the ball. She scored one goal last season and has tallied seven in her Utah career. Christoffers, a small, speedy player, scored two goals in nine games during her freshman season, which ended early due to a knee injury. She added three goals in a full season last year.
A pair of newcomers will also give the Utes even more speed up front and should help put pressure on opposing keepers. Freshmen Lauren Hair and Erin Dalley both run very well and know how to put the ball in the back of the net.
Q&A Wich Coach Rich Manning
Q: What's your overall outlook on the team coming into this season?
A: "We have a roster filled with players that have experienced a lot in college soccer. One of the things I'm looking forward to is to see how they approach this season, based upon having had some success. We certainly lost a lot of firepower and a lot of experience. But I've always thought that this season we were going to be surprisingly good. We have a group of six to eight girls who have kind of been in the shadows of the Amanda Feigts, Ashley Masons and Melissa Waymans. I think they're excited to put their own stamp on the team. I expect that enthusiasm, combined with the experiences they've had to make us successful."
Q: How do you handle losing seven starters?
A: "You're talking about three- and four-time all-conference players and conference players of the year. I keep singing `You don't know what you got 'til it's gone' from Big Yellow Taxi. We'll miss them. But I feel like there are a lot people who have some talents and will be allowed to express them this year. That's the part I really look forward to. On paper, this is the best attacking group we've ever had. I'm really looking forward to working with that group and seeing what kind of attack we can generate."
Q: How about building around the strong nucleus you do have returning?
A: "Even though we lost players, there is a lot of experience returning. The reality is we had a senior goalkeeper and four senior defenders at the end of the year. Other than that, we have a lot of people returning. The seniors usually drive the team. We still have a strong group of seniors. They've been through a lot and they're motivated to take that next step."
Q: Do you expect any of your newcomers to make an immediate impact?
A: "I feel there are a few of them who will play and contribute right away. It's a very good group, with some dynamic personalities. I think Lauren Hair and Erin Dalley - both forwards - can put the ball in the net. They're fast, work hard and they're confident. They're going to add a lot to our group right from the get-go. I think Morgan Skeen could be ready right away. She's a defender and has had a couple camps with the Under-17 National Team. She's tough as nails, is one of the best tacklers I've ever seen and is good in the air. The fourth one who could help early is Alyssa Toomey. She's a really smart player and can play in the back or the midfield. I think that versatility is going to add to our group right away."
Q: Of the players you lost, who is the most difficult to replace?
A: "For sure with the goalkeeping situation ... goalkeeping and defense are the positions that take experience and good decisions and poise. That's the first thing I think of that we need to replace. (Former goalkeeper) Ashley (Mason), from the first day she stepped on campus, had the poise of a veteran. In her first year, I think she gave up three goals in her last 15 or 16 games. With goalkeeping, you always want to make a team work for their goals and she was very, very good at that. It is important that our goalkeepers and our people in the back step up."
Q: Do you feel the back end is where the most work needs to be done?
A: "We're definitely rebuilding in the back. We weren't planning on Katie Battazzo not coming back, but her knee just kind of wore out. So, the key there is Amanda Sanchez, who missed last year with a broken foot. She has great leadership qualities and is a very good defender. We expect her to kind of run the show back there. That will be the key for Amanda to get her form back and get everyone on the same page. We have a couple other players who by the end of last season were starting and have a quite a bit of experience back there. Emily Fonua has played a great deal and Katy Reineke played in the back all spring."
Q: You said you feel your attack might be the best you've ever had. Can you talk about the forwards as a group?
A: "There's a lot of speed up top. I think we'll be able to threaten the other team with our pace. Plus, they all have a nose for the goal."
Q: How about some of the individuals up front who will play a key role?
A: "As well as Adele (Letro) played last fall, I think her best soccer is still in front of her. I expect her to continue to be a threat every single game. She scored 12 goals last year and that's the first time in my five years here that anyone's scored 10 or more. That was nice. I thought it would never happen. We need some other people to step up and score regularly. The candidates for that would be Jen Christoffers, Chelsea Card and the two freshmen Hair and Dalley. Christoffers kind of got her feet back on the ground last year (after an injury the year before) and I expect her to continue to improve. Card can score. The rest of them are really fast runners. Chelsea is more of a post-up type of player. The two freshmen - Erin and Lauren - we expect them to come in and score some goals right away."
Q: Midfield is the area where you return the most experience. What's your take on this group?
A: "We return everybody at the midfield and that should - at least at the beginning of the season - be the strength of the team. I think we have a terrific midfield. We have players at midfield that can play both offense and defense very well. I have high expectations for that group."
Q: Who are the individuals you are looking to for outstanding play in the midfield?
A: "Kiley Jones is one of the best defensive midfielders around. She is the backbone of the team. She is just so quietly efficient. I think a lot of times what she is doing goes unnoticed. But she really allows us to do a lot of other things. She defends very, very well. She covers incredible amounts of ground. She's very good with the ball. Melissa Crespo moved up to midfield during conference season last year and she ended up getting seven assists. If you counted just conference games, she had the most assists in the conference. She gives us a little bit of defensive bite in the midfield. If that's where we play her, she'll probably do the same this year. Kelly Isleib played last year six months out of an ACL surgery and was terrific, while not being at her physical best. We expect her to have a great season. She is one of the most creative players I've ever seen. She can break teams down on the dribble. She can find the open player. She can help us hold the ball when we're under a lot of pressure and kind of settle the game down. With the players we have up top and her ability to break teams down and find open players, we're going to get a lot of chances. Katy Reineke may play the midfield. She is our "David Beckham." She has a great left foot. She can cross it in and she can take a free kick. There will be three of those people out there at a time and that's a strong, strong group."
Q: Can you comment on the defenders as a group?
A: "On defense, we don't have a lot of experience together as a group. But we do have players with good experience in the back. It is just a matter of getting everybody working together. I have a lot of confidence in their abilities. I feel good that the group will improve as the season goes on and we'll find the right combination."
Q: Which individuals do you feel will contribute at the defender position?
A: "Amanda Sanchez is going to be key, just being able to come back and take hold of that group. Jena Roberts is also an option at center back and she got some good experience in the spring. She is excellent in the air and is a very good defender. Emily Fonua has had two or three seasons of training to play in the back now and I think she's comfortable. She's one of our best athletes and hardest workers. She can play either on the left or right. For the other spot, we're going to use Katy Reineke on the left. We definitely want to have Katy out on the field. We have a transfer - Addie Hair - who had an ACL surgery in March and hopefully she'll be back in time for fall. She's fast, tough and probably our fittest player. Some of the newcomers ... as I've said before, Morgan definitely has the tools to come in and play right away. She could either play the middle or the right."
Q: With the graduation of Ashley Mason, how do you see your goalkeepers stacking up right now?
A: "I'm sure the keepers are really excited to be out of Ashley's shadow and ready to step up and have their time. It's a good group. They just need some experience."
Q: How do you assess the talent level of the individual goalkeepers?
A: "Lynzee Lee is one of the most athletic goalkeepers that you'll see. She is a great shot-stopper. She's very good at coming off her line to prevent scoring opportunities. I think with some experience, she'll be terrific. Emalee Rogers had a knee surgery a year ago this summer and is starting to come around again. She's very quick, a good shot-stopper and a very hard worker. Amy Edman has very good size in goal. She's had two knee surgeries. I think she's starting to get her strength and quickness back. She made a lot of progress last spring."
Q: Do you feel your non-conference schedule remains as challenging as it has been in the past?
A: "We really try to challenge ourselves all year, so that we can get ready for the Mountain West Conference season. We also want to play the best teams so that we can show the NCAA Tournament committee that we deserve a spot. So every year, we try to play a lot of Pac-10 teams, West Coast Conference teams, Big West teams. Those are probably the best conferences in the west and we try to test ourselves against them. Once again this year, we've kind of done that. We've got four Pac-10 teams, two Big West and one West Coast team on the schedule. It's not any different than any other year. We're going to challenge ourselves. We have a lot of road tests. I think the first two weekends are going to be key for us. We have four very tough games on the road, in a row. We have to hit the ground running and be able to find ourselves as a team and at the same time get some results. That's going to be necessary down the road. Several of the teams we play this year, we played last year. At that time, they were young teams that were building. We expect them to be even tougher this year. Arizona, Colorado, Washington State were very young teams. Washington and Pepperdine were young teams. We expect them to bring it."
Q: How do you see the Mountain West Conference stacking up this season?
A: "The league games, regardless of how the standings go, are always tight. Even teams that maybe aren't as talented or aren't having their best season are well-coached, are able to defend very well and make things tough. I can honestly say in five years, we haven't had any blowouts in conference play and we don't expect that this year. Every game will be tightly-contested and you'll have to play the full 90 or beyond. Obviously, BYU has a lot of players returning from a very good team. They're going to be very tough to beat. UNLV has proven themselves in the past three years to be an NCAA Tournament team. I think some of the other teams have some good, young talent. As the season goes along, I'm sure a couple of them will pop up as real contenders. For sure, that first weekend for us is going to be crucial. We're at UNLV and then we go to BYU to play in front of 4,000 crazy Cougar fans. A lot will be said about the conference race after the first weekend of the season. Having both those games on the road, we're going to have to be mentally tough to be successful. Having been at the top of the conference the last couple years, I think our players are used to having that pressure and dealing with taking people's best shots. We're hoping that the experience they've gained in that area will pay off."