Washington State has a good shot of returning to the NCAA Tournament, provided the Cougars take some good shots along the way.
That was a big problem last year, coach Todd Shulenberger said, reflecting on an 8-9-2 season that saw the Cougars punished for being overambitious.
“Last year we grew in our overall shots per game, but struggled in our shot selection. Our immaturity last season showed with taking shots that were probably unrealistic,” Shulenberger said of a season that saw the Cougs hit the crossbar 20 times en route to losing seven matches by a single goal.
Shulenberger goes so far as to say that the 2016 squad was better than Shulenberger’s first, the 2015 team that won a school-record 14 matches.
“Year one, we have this fantastic record, the best in school history, but last year’s team was better – we played a good brand of soccer,” Shulenberger said.
His optimism for this year is based on a strong recruiting class, rock-solid defense and the pending completion of multimillion-dollar facilities improvements at the Lower Soccer Field.
“The press box is going to be the Taj Mahal of press boxes,” Shulenberger said. “It’s setting up for something really special.”
That should boost recruiting, but Shulenberger is focused on the upcoming season, which began last weekend with a scoreless tie against 19th-ranked Minnesota.
If the Cougars (3-7-1 in the Pac-12 last year, good for eighth place) get back to the NCAAs, they’ll have done it with 13 incoming freshmen.
“This will be the youngest Coug team,” Shulenberger said. “The exciting part is we’re young, but athletic. This might be the fastest team coming in.”
The speed starts up front with sophomore Morgan Weaver, who led the Cougs last year with eight goals and made the Pac-12 All-Freshman team. She’ll be complemented by freshmen Elyse Bennett and Brianna Alger.
The midfield should get a boost from the return of Ferris product Maegan O’Neill, who was forced to play in back last year because of injuries to other players.
“She’s a true midfielder, really mobile,” Shulenberger said of O’Neill, a junior. “She’s got some bite to her two-footed tackles and she’s pretty fearless.”
O’Neill is joined by seniors Sofie Anker-Kofoed and Chelsea Harkins in the crucial role of creating chances and transition opportunities while keeping possession.
WSU returns almost the entire defense, a group that posted four shutouts and allowed just 21 goals all year (and only 14 against the Pac-12, in 11 matches).
Captain Jordan Branch is the most versatile, having the ability to push forward. The Cougs also return senior Kelsee Crenshaw and juniors Maddy Haro and central defender Grace Hancock.
Junior captain Ella Diedrick has been a fixture in goal for two seasons, posting 22 wins and a 0.99 goals-against average.
The cupboard is hardly bare for new coach Chris Watkins, who welcomed 18 letterwinners and seven returning starters to fall camp.
But the Zags will still be young: 13 of 27 players are underclassmen.
“There’s definitely a lot of new faces on the roster this year,” said junior defender Jodi Ulkekul, who played all 18 matches last year. “Coach has done a great job implementing all the newcomers in and making sure we’re all getting a lot of training and a lot of minutes.”
Other key returnees are junior midfielder Callie Best, out of Lakeside High (Nine Mile Falls), and defenders Ariana Pumpelly and Madeline Gotta.
“I feel like the group is coming together really well,” Pumpelly said. “We’re all committed and we all want to work hard. I’m looking forward to playing games with everyone.”
Sarah Swanson and Alison Seifert are back in goal.
Watkins replaces Amy Edwards, whose contract wasn’t renewed following a 6-10-2 season that included a 2-7 record in the rugged West Coast Conference.
After the best season in school history, coach Chad Bodnar insists that the Eagles can be better.
“Last year was another step forward in the direction we want to take our program,” Bodnar said.
Last year, Eastern won the Big Sky Conference tournament title to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school. Along the way, it set school records for wins (13), goals (44), assists (37) and shutouts (eight).
Records are made to be broken, and with nine returning starters, the Eagles could do it. Chloe Williams, a senior from Lewis and Clark High, goes into her senior year with a chance to win her third Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year award.
Key returnees up front include seniors Delaney Romero, Lexi Klinkenberg and Central Valley product Savannah Hoekstra.
The midfield will be held down by senior Aimie Inthoulay and junior Jenny Chavez, an All-Big Sky first-team pick. The defense will be anchored by Allison Rainiere and first-team all-conference pick M’Kenna Hayes.
The biggest change is in goal, with senior Emily Busselman the top candidate to replace the graduated Mallory Taylor.
After making history with back-to-back Big Sky regular-season titles, the Vandals will make more this year.
Idaho is moving into the Kibbie Dome, becoming the first NCAA women’s team to play exclusively indoors.
“It’s a blast. It’s absolute excitement in the fact that our players got a chance to test things out and be able to get used to the new surface,” fourth-year coach Derek Pittman said. “It’s a lot different than playing on grass.”
Idaho loses seven seniors of a team that went 10-5-4 overall and 7-1-2 in the Big Sky, including their top four goalscorers.
Key returnees include sophomore midfielder Morgan Crosby from University High School; senior defender Josilyn Daggs; junior defender Kelly Dopke; junior midfielder Megan Goo; junior forward Kayla Watanabe and junior defender Clair Johnson.
Subscribe to The Spokesman-Review's sports newsletter
Get the day's top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.