Aug. 23, 2010
Under the direction of first-year Head Coach Lisa Oyen, the Arizona women's soccer team is gearing up for a fresh start in the program that eyes a bright future.
A familiar face that served seven seasons an assistant including part of last season as a co-interim head coach, Oyen is set to put her own stamp on the program. She inherits a hungry mix of veteran players and an infusion of youthful talent in a freshman recruiting class that ranks among the best to step foot on campus.
"We're going into a different time of this program," Oyen said. "Our personnel are going to be different, our playing style is going to be different and our energy is going to be different. I am very excited about the direction of our program."
Undoubtedly, rising to the top of the ultra-competitive Pacific-10 Conference will be a challenging process; but, that will remain the goal of the program that won a share of the league title back in 2004. Coaches plan on revamping the overall style of play, showcasing more attacking skills and creativity up front, while relying on steady play on defense.
Among the chief goals that will not show up on any tactical plans is the desire to draw out the enjoyment and enthusiasm playing the game should include. While winning certainly helps, the real spark for any successful team must come in training. After spring practices, Oyen and her staff, which includes four-year assistant John Galas, who was promoted to associate head coach, and first-year assistant Danielle Sunderhaus, feel confident that mindset is already taking shape.
"We really saw a lot of positive things in the spring," Oyen said. "Our players realize they have an opportunity to build the program into one that they can be proud of. There is great excitement and energy surrounding the team right now heading into this season."
Without question, seniors Becky Barry, Alex Davis and Macke Mutz will provide the necessary leadership on and off the field. All three have faced their share of adversity in the program, but perseverance has paid off in the end. Each is entering their fifth seasons in the program after missing significant portions of one or more years with injuries.
"Our seniors are not only vocal leaders, but they also lead by example," Oyen said. "They have done everything asked of them and they have portrayed that to the rest of the team. But I don't think we can rely on just a few leaders. We need to have a group that embraces a variety of leadership roles that will make this team better."
The senior leadership will blend with a solid core of returning players who will also help bring along a young group of freshmen. Among them is returning is top goal scorer Renae Cuellar, an honorable mention All-Pac-10 performer a season ago. Cuellar expanded her game in two international competitions since last season, including the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup in Germany this summer where she netted a pair of goals for Mexico.
The international experience is invaluable for players in the program young or old. A season ago, Alex Smith hit the ground running as a true freshman, emerging as one of the team's top defenders. This year Ana Montoya, who will be a freshman, was a part of Colombia's first-ever FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup team that reached the semifinals. A total of 11 other freshmen appear on the roster that is as deep, skilled and experienced as any UA class.
"We're going to be a fairly young team," said Oyen. "Because of that, we have to integrate our freshmen into our system quickly, but also make sure they are comfortable and confident going into the season."
The month of August will provide three intense weeks of training and preparation for the season. While all players worked on fitness and conditioning in the offseason, the preseason training will focus on skill and tactical improvement before the season commences.
"We're going to establish the kind of soccer that we want to play so that everyone has the same message and ideas," Oyen said. "We're going to start with a basic outline and develop from there. We want everyone to understand their roles and expectations for when we play our first match."
The schedule will be one that challenges the Wildcats from the get-go. A total of six teams on the slate are ranked in the preseason top-25, with four others receiving votes. The 20-game includes 10 matches at home at Murphey Field at Mulcahy Soccer Stadium. The venue has been home to some of the Wildcats' best games in recent years and should continue to provide that same excitement this season with a recharged Arizona soccer team.
A look at Arizona's attacking players begins with veteran forward Renae Cuellar, who has two steady season's under her belt. She tied for the team lead in goals as a freshman and again paced the Wildcats a season ago. She will remain a top target for the Wildcats in the final third, but Arizona will look to become a more diverse attacking team this season.
"We have a variety of players who can finish," Oyen said. "I feel like we have a very deep and diverse group of attacking players, so we're going to be very dangerous in the final third as far as having a lot of different players who can work off of each other well."
Three returning players that stand out are Brittany Cole, Itzel Rodriguez and Alex Davis. Cole struggled with some injuries a year ago, but was one of the team's standout performers in the spring. Her emergence and the addition of a couple freshmen could push Davis back to midfield, a place where the Wildcats also hope to diversify their attack. Several players in the freshman class add even more depth, perhaps none more ready to challenge for playing time than Jazmin Ponce who brings high-caliber national experience to the program. Jessica Fitzgerald will also compete for playing time.
Arizona has a bevy of talented players in the midfield, some with experience and some looking to gain experience this season. At the top of the list are Macke Mutz and Alex Davis, who seniors who bring significant leadership to the group. Mutz is a great facilitator in the midfield while Davis' versatility in the attack can allow her to move to forward where she has played at times in her career.
Another returning player with experience is junior Jessica Culver, who was one of the Wildcats' top midfielders before an injury last October. Three sophomores - Kristin Strother, Ariel Boulicault and Susan Melendez - each earned meaningful minutes and will compete for top roles this season.
"We have a lot of depth in the midfield," Oyen said. "All of our players are very different, which is exciting because for us it doesn't make us predictable and gives us a variety of ways to attack. We have some very technical, creative and consistent players in those positions."
Several freshmen will add depth and challenge for their own playing time. Ana Montoya brings game-ready experience from the international level, along with Shannon Heinzler, Jensen Skinner and Amy Olson. Samantha Cummings and MacKenzie Jaroch are players that could slide to forward to add depth as well, while Shannon Heinzler can play as a midfielder or defender.
Arizona has a handful of key returnees that will provide critical experience and organization on defense. Among them is one of the three seniors in Becky Barry, who looks to turn in a healthy and productive season. In addition, a pair of sophomores are ready to build on fabulous rookie campaigns in Alex Smith and Kristyn Magyar.
"I think the knowledge and experience that Becky brings will help this group a lot," Oyen said. "Alex and Kristyn both had very, very good seasons last year and should have improved even more."
Outside of those returnees are newcomers Gabrielle Lindeman and Kenzie Ackerfelds. Each will be counted on to integrate into the defense and provide depth to the defensive backfield. Shannon Heinzler will also add depth with her versatility to drop back.
Ashley Jett returns as the only goalkeeper on the squad with collegiate experience. She played in four games a season ago, tallying 16 saves. She will be joined by a pair of newcomers in Jamie Wilkinson and Lorena Aragon.
"I feel comfortable with all three of our goal keepers," Oyen said. "The only issue is experience, but they will gain that quickly. I am confident they will be able to step in and perform well for us."
Jett will be counted on the provide the leadership at the position, while Wilkinson and Aragon bring plenty of youth experience that will help them quickly adjust to the college game.