Matt Potter believes if a soccer player is good enough, she’s old enough – no matter how young she might be.
That’s why Washington State University’s ninth-year head coach had no problem throwing Ali Fenter into his starting lineup shortly after she arrived on campus four years ago, even though she was just a freshman.
The 5-foot-6 defender out of Shadle Park High was simply that good.
“The fact that we started her in her first year here speaks to the confidence we had in her as a staff, and I had in her as a head coach,” Potter said. “She jumped right in, embraced her role, and she hasn’t looked back since.”
On Saturday, the durable Fenter will make her school-record 85th consecutive start when WSU (12-6-3) takes on Kentucky (13-7-0) in the opening round of the NCAA Division I playoffs in Lexington, Ky. In addition, she will join teammates Jacquelyn Roth and former Mt. Spokane High standout Tiara Pittman as part of a small senior class that is the first in school history to compete in three NCAA soccer tournaments.
“No, it never gets old,” Fenter said of making yet another postseason tournament appearance. “It’s always an amazing feeling to see your name up there on TV and to get in.”
The Cougars earned at-large tournament berths in each of Fenter’s first two seasons in Pullman, losing to 15th-ranked Texas in Portland in 2008 and then tripping Villanova 1-0 in a first-round match in 2009 before losing in the round of 32 to host and 19th-ranked Maryland.
They failed to make the tournament after finishing 7-13-0 last fall, but Fenter is convinced the disappointment of 2010 was the catalyst to this year’s return.
“Last year there were like only three teams out of the Pac-10 that didn’t go, and we were one of those teams,” she said. “So, yes, it was a huge disappointment. But we really worked hard all spring, and couldn’t wait to get back to playing this season and put the disappointment in the past.
“Fortunately, we were able to do that, and it just feels awesome to be back in the tournament.”
Potter is quick to credit Fenter and his other two seniors for this year’s turnaround, which saw the Cougars finish alone in third place in what is now the Pacific-12 Conference and earn scoreless ties with a pair of teams – UCLA and Virginia – that were ranked No. 4 in the nation when they played them.
“For a lot of people it was a reality check,” he said of last year’s failure. “If anything, it re-energized us, and made us realize we can’t take these things for granted.
“And to be perfectly honest, those three seniors led the charge after the end of last season and continued to set great examples in terms of work ethic and mental preparation throughout the spring and summer. And now their reward is getting noticed this fall.”
Defense has been WSU’s strength in 2011, as evidenced by the Cougars’ eight shutouts and 0.63 goals-against average, the best regular-season mark in school history.
It’s that defense, Fenter said, that has her and her teammates believing they can compete with any team in the country.
“Defensively, we’re a lot better than last year,” she said. “We’re harder to score on, and that gives us a chance against anybody we play.”
And now that the Cougars have clawed their way back into the NCAA’s 64-team field, they hope to create a little postseason stir.
“Obviously, we’re so thankful, and excited, to get in again,” Fenter said. “But now it’s like a new slate, and we’re ready to go out and win this first game.”
“This is a passionate bunch that wants to keep playing,” Potter said. “And when you’re passionate about a cause, which they are, good things always seem to happen.
“Their expectation, as a group, is, ‘We’re not here just to make the numbers come out right.’ They realize that a whole new season has just begun for 64 teams, and they want to be one of those 64 that makes the most of it.”
To do that, the Cougars will need to lean on the leadership and considerable talents of Fenter, who has never missed a start in her collegiate career.
“Ali’s stability, reliability and consistency have given us a foundation we have been able to build on to the point where we can compete with anybody,” Potter said of his star defender. “She’s been the cornerstone of something very special here, and an integral part of our success.”