Head coach Rich Manning begins his 11th season as the head coach of Utah women's soccer.
Aug. 17, 2012
For the University of Utah soccer team, 2011 was about showing it belonged in the Pac-12 Conference. A fifth-place finish and a 5-1 home record in league play spoke for itself. The Utes now enter 2012 with confidence and excitement, along with some question marks at key positions. Head coach Rich Manning and the Utes hope the answers to those questions and last year's experiences combine to lead them through year two in the Conference of Champions and to a berth in the NCAA tournament.
"Having been through a season in the Pac-12, we have a good feel for our opponents and the things that come along with playing in the Pac-12," said Manning. "That being said, there is still a little bit of a learning curve with making our first road trips to play some of the teams we faced at home last year. But I think our players have a good idea of what is in store for them and I know they have the confidence and belief that we belong here and can compete at this level. I expect the conference to be even tougher this year. A few teams had some key injuries or were a little bit down last season and I expect them to bounce back. It should be a hotly contested conference title race this year.
"For our team, we have so many new faces, I think it will take a few games for us to get things sorted out," Manning continued. "Our girls will have to learn on-the-fly a little bit. I am very pleased with the character and athleticism of this group and we have good pieces to work with. It's up to us as coaches to put them in the right place and help them grow as players."
Following the graduation of Erin Dalley, last season's leading goal scorer and the top scorer of 2009 as well, the Utes have a big hole to fill up front. The Utes' returning forwards combined for just two goals last season, but did provide eight assists. Manning will look for them to combine with some skillful and athletic freshmen and step to the forefront of the attack in 2012.
"We had two sophomores get a lot of experience up front last year in Jill Robison and Katie Taylor, and I hope they can start to fill Dalley's void," Manning said. "I want them to step up and score some goals for us. We also have juniors Allie Wisner and Jen Ericson up top, who are very hard workers with a lot of experience and leadership. Sophomore Ashton Hall got good experience in the midfield last year and we are going to put her up front this year, with her strength, confidence on the ball and ability to strike it well with either foot. She definitely has the tools to help us score goals. We have also added freshmen Baylee Nielsen and Ali Forsberg to that group, who are both fast and hungry players who we expect to grow as the season goes along."
Managing the Midfield
On a team undergoing changes and plugging new pieces into several positions, the Utah midfield is one constant to look toward. Arguably the deepest and most skilled position on the field for Utah, all three of the Utes' starting midfielders and with two very experienced players return to the middle of the park. Ute midfielders combined for nine goals and 11 assists last season and will look to grow both of those statistics this season. Anchored by junior Harley Spier, one of the most aggressive headers of the ball Utah has seen in recent years, along with 2011 Pac-12 All-Freshman Team selection Avery Ford, the Ute midfield should be a point of strength in 2012.
"Right now, our midfield has the most competition on the team for playing time, which is a good thing," said Manning. "We have a lot of very good midfield players and it will be exciting to watch them separate themselves and see what kind of personality we have out there. For us, it's important that our midfielders keep the ball in possession and then project themselves into the attack. I would definitely like to see even more goals from our midfield this season.
"Avery [Ford] is coming off a fantastic freshman year and we are excited to watch her continue to grow," Manning said. "Harley [Spier] offers a tremendous work ethic and solid defending, and is a threat on set pieces going forward. She is really one of our engines in the midfield. Junior Leslie Muirhead has really come back fit from last year and is excellent in possession. She can project herself forward and score goals for us. Stephanie Lemeza is another junior who is a skillful player and can really help us if she can stay healthy.
"McKel Wall is a sophomore who started a bunch of games for us last year. She is excellent on set pieces and is a skilled attacking player," Manning continued. "We have also brought in several really good freshmen. Kaycee Buckley can do it all in the midfield. She plays well on offense and defense, she can create goals for others and score herself, and I think she will have an impact right away. Breanna Carrillo is one of our most skillful players, she can really get in and do some damage on the offensive end. Christine Dailey and Sammi Swan are both good two-way midfielders as well, which we value a lot on our team."
Protect This House - The Defenders It is never easy to replace one four-year starting center-back, never mind two. That is the challenge facing the Utes this year following the graduation of Lauren Dudley and Lauren Porter, who combined to start more than 150 games on the Utah back line. Nevertheless, Manning is encouraged and will try to construct a defense utilizing experience and athleticism on the outside, while tinkering with several variables in the middle.
"We will find out a lot about our defense as we go through our non-conference schedule," said Manning. "We have a lot of newness back there. That being said, this group is very athletic, fast and physical, and has a lot of self confidence. I think we some game experience and our defense could do very well. In the middle, junior Monica Okapal has been out the last couple of years with injuries, but showed herself through the spring and through preseason to maybe be our best tackler. She can play at a very high level even though she has never really played as a defender, being a converted forward. She tackles well, can head it, has good defensive instincts and should have a strong impact. Joining her we have three of four other candidates at center back. Megan Trabert has started out well as a freshman and Katie Rigby is a very versatile player who could help us out back there. Nykell Seymour is another freshman who has been hurt but I expect her to challenge for playing time when she is healthy.
"At outside back, Jenny Hutton is a very skillful player who can also provide offense for us going forward," Manning continued. "Sophomores Abby Groth and Sarah Duncan got a lot of experience last season and are super-athletic. They really proved they can play at this level last year. And junior Lexi Krantz, who we are converting to defender, is calm on the ball, can win headers, is a good tackler and has shown promise there in the preseason. Finally we have Lauren Johnson, a redshirt freshman who was hurt last year, but is now healthy and should compete both at center back and outside back."
The Last Line of Defense Another question the Utes must answer this season is who will play between the pipes as they look to replace graduated three-year starter Hannah Turpen. Junior Cheyanne Mulcock showed definite promise in five games last season, making 14 saves and not conceding a single goal as she combined with Turpen for three shutouts. Competing with Mulcock for time in goal will be redshirt freshman transfer Lindsey Luke, who comes to Utah from Wake Forest after sitting out her true freshman year with the Demon Deacons.
"What we like in both Cheyanne and Lindsey is that they are good soccer players, not just good goalkeepers," said Manning. "They could both play in the field if needed. Both have good soccer instincts, make good decisions, are excellent with the ball at their feet and distribute the ball well. Having another soccer player on the field can make a difference for us.
"Over the last two years, when Cheyanne got an opportunity she played well," Manning said. "She seems to enjoy the big moments. We heard fantastic things about Lindsey from people she has worked with in the past and so far she has shown great athleticism and ability to communicate to other players. So we feel the position is in good hands, we just need to play some games and get them more experience."
Emerging Leadership Prior to the beginning of preseason, the Utes lost their only senior, Katie Martinez, to a knee injury. The third for Martinez, it has unfortunately ended her soccer career. The loss of a senior leader, skilled midfield player and a well-respected person will be a difficult hole to fill.
"I certainly think our leadership roles are up for grabs," said Manning. "So far [Allie] Wisner and [Jen] Ericson have been two of the more vocal leaders on and off the field. They know the ropes and what our program is about, and they have communicated that well to our new players. By virtue of their position, we also need our goalkeepers to step up and become leaders. We also have other players like [Ashton] Hall who can lead by her confidence and vocal play, and [Monica] Okapal who provides leadership with her steady play. [Jenny] Hutton is also someone that has a lot of character, has played in big games throughout her soccer career and can provide some guidance as we go through the season."
The Way We Want To Play "We really value work ethic and players who can play two ways, offensively and defensively," said Manning. "It's very important that all 11 players on the field do that in concert with one another. We certainly love the `beautiful game.' We want to keep the ball, make smart passes and create good opportunities. We aren't afraid to possess the ball in any area on the field and we certainly have players who the ball and are confident with it at their feet. I think if you look at a team like Bayern Munich [of the Bundesliga] or the German Men's National Team, they play both sides of the ball very well, are very creative in their attack and have found a lot of success. I think teams like that are good role models for the way we would like to play the game."