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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Polls push area teams to rise above

Nothing personal, but area women’s soccer coaches Matt Potter, Shannon Stiles, George Hageage, Pete Showler and Sean Bushey hope the coaching counterparts in their respective conferences are clueless prognosticators.

The preseason coaches’ polls aren’t flattering for Washington State, Gonzaga and Idaho, and they predict Eastern Washington and Whitworth will take a step back in 2005.

“The Pac-10 is an unforgiving conference and as excited as you get about your team, everybody gets better,” said WSU coach Potter, whose team finished eighth last season and is picked to do the same this year. “In reality we’ve been picked ninth the last two years, so is this progress or do we have a point to prove? We’re moving in the right direction, but we still have a lot to prove to people.”

That opportunity begins today for the Cougars, who visit Idaho State. In other openers today, Gonzaga visits Utah State and EWU is at Oregon. Idaho opens Sunday against visiting WSU.

This is Potter’s third season at WSU.

“The honeymoon is over and our foundation is set,” he said. “And we have a group of players that are firmly behind that. Our preseason has gone very well. The enthusiasm and energy is there for everyone to see.”

In soccer, like baseball, it helps to be strong up the middle. WSU counts that as one of its strengths, starting with the return of junior goalkeeper Katie Hultin, who was second-team All-Pac-10 last year.

“With Katie in goal, Ashley (Lara) and Allison (Scurich) at the heart of the back four, Carmen (Anderson) and Natalie (Elkind) in our midfield and Alix (Rustrum) as our go-to striker … there’s a solid backbone with experience and a good soccer mind,” Potter said. “That can only help serve the rest of your team.”

At Gonzaga, the Bulldogs are trying to build on consecutive 11-win seasons, but WCC coaches picked Gonzaga to finish tied for last with San Francisco.

“It doesn’t surprise me,” Stiles said, “just because we’ve yet to garner the kind of respect that comes with consistently having winning seasons. To earn that respect we have to have a few more consistent seasons.”

Four-year standouts Annie and Sarah Hawkins, who scored 14 of GU’s 31 goals last year, have graduated. Heather Horn, who made the WCC’s all-freshman team a year ago, is the lone returner on the front line.

“It’s interesting to watch other players’ personalities emerge because they have to take up the slack,” Stiles said.

In an effort to beef up its schedule, GU will face defending national champion Notre Dame on Sept. 11.

At EWU, the Eagles had a breakthrough season in 2004, earning a share of their first Big Sky title. The coaches’ poll, which has EWU in fourth place, reflects the balance in the conference. Five of seven teams earned first-place votes and just five points separated the top five.

“I don’t know what you can make of that,” said Hageage, whose father, George, has joined the coaching staff. “The conference is so tight right now.”

Hageage said his team is fit and talented, but needs to avoid injuries.

“Our strength is midfield (with Beth Russell, Jennie Summers and Kim McMullen), that’s where all our senior leadership is, as well as our goalkeeper (junior Tiera Como),” Hageage said.

At Idaho, first-year coach Showler faces a major rebuilding job with a short-handed roster. The Vandals finished last in the Big West the last three years. Now they move into the WAC, which saw its best two teams in 2004, SMU and Rice, exit for Conference USA.

Lindsey Kihm, one of Idaho’s top returning players, is probably out for the season after tearing an ACL in her knee in the final spring game. Freshman Aimee Goss, a transfer from Oregon State, suffered a knee injury in one of Idaho’s first workouts and she’ll miss at least four weeks.

WAC coaches pegged Idaho for seventh in the eight-team conference.

“The biggest challenge is setting the tone, getting the right mentality and getting them to believe they have the ability,” Showler said. “Overcoming three losing seasons is tough so we’re seeing how resilient the girls are.”

At Whitworth, the Pirates are chasing defending conference champion Puget Sound.

“We have a mature team that’s been able to win in the conference and win big games,” said coach Bushey, whose team was second behind UPS in 2004.

Coaches predict a third-place finish for the Pirates.

“I think we’re going to be good going forward,” Bushey said. “We lost some size from last year, but we’ve become quicker and we have players that handle the ball well in a team environment and create opportunities to score.”

At North Idaho College, the Cardinals have new digs in the five-team Scenic West Athletic Conference after losing associate member status in the NWAACC. Dixie has been an NCJAA power. Western Nevada, Colorado Mountain and Salt Lake are fielding varsity teams for the first time.

The Cardinals have 17 newcomers, but lost forward Brooke Donnelly to a season-ending knee injury in a recent scrimmage.

“Athletically we’re every bit as good as the best teams we’ve had at NIC, but we’re so young it’s going to take us a while to get on the same page,” coach Dan Hogan said.

That should sound familiar to Spokane coach Jim Martinson, whose team took third in the NWAACC tournament last year.

“This is probably the youngest groups we’ve had but they’re very talented,” he said. “We’re excited if we can get past the youth.”

Ashley Imes should provide scoring punch and the defense appears strong, Martinson said.

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