PULLMAN – For many reasons, these are the best of times for Washington State women’s soccer:
Five NCAA tournament appearances in the last six years, an enthusiastic new coach and an athletic department that’s given them another 4 million reasons to rejoice.
Cougar captains Gurveen Clair and Nicole Setterlund nod in agreement: All the hard work has paid off, and they’ve found the light at the end of the tunnel. Six banks of lights, actually – part of a $4 million project that could push the program to the next level.
Some would say the Cougars are already there. WSU is one of only 28 Division I programs to reach the NCAAs in at least five of the last six years. Along with rowing, soccer is currently the most successful sport at WSU.
“It’s pretty amazing, I never thought I’d see this day, but it’s very worth it,” said Setterlund, a pre-season all-American from British Columbia who along with the other veterans will playing for her third coach in the last four years.
After defensive-minded Matt Potter left after the 2011 season, former Auburn assistant Keidane McAlpine pushed the Cougars up the field. New coach Steve Nugent promises a combination of the two, with an emphasis on possession.
“It’s been difficult, but that’s helped us develop because we’re learned to play three different styles of soccer,” Clair said.
This year, the Cougars will play in the same location on Colorado Street but with lights overlooking a pristine, state-of-the-art field. Over the next two years, WSU will add permanent seating, concessions and restroom facilities, outdoor club space and on-site ticketing.
“The facility is fantastic, and once they tie it all in, it’ll be one of the best in the country,” said Nugent, who in February became the Cougars’ sixth head coach when McAlpine departed for Southern Cal.
It’s an exciting time to be a part of Washington State athletics, with the expectations that he (athletic director Bill Moos) is setting for us, across the board.”
The first measuring stick? Friday’s season opener at 5 p.m., when Texas Christian comes to Pullman.
Nugent is an upbeat 43-year-old from small-town New England who talks less about formations than forming bonds. At a recent practice, he proudly announced that his team had the summer term highest grade-point average of any sport, men’s or women’s.
A day later, the team embarked on a five-day retreat to Leavenworth, Washington, to build on the ties Nugent has tried to build in the past six months. After three years as North Carolina Greensboro, he arrived in Pullman mostly to ask questions.
“I was a very good listener for five months,” said Nugent, who believes that success is a product of “understanding the balance between athletics, service and academics.”
And something more, he just learned.
Previous stops at Florida State, Georgia and Greensboro left Nugent with the feeling that something was missing, and he says he’s found it in Pullman. His wife and three children are now in town, “and they’re sensing it as much as I am,” Nugent said. “It’s exciting when people see you, and you get a ‘Go Cougs’ no matter where you are.”
He related that to a recent Kiwanis Club meeting, telling the group that “I’ve longed for something like this for many years, a connection where I can be a part of many different things.”
On a recent plane flight, Nugent said he even got a ‘Go Cougs’ from former boxer Mike Tyson. It was a small sound bite, but “that was pretty special,” Nugent said.
On the field, the Cougars return 13 letter winners and seven starters from a squad that went 14-3-4 overall and finished second in the Pac-12 behind eventual national champion UCLA.
WSU loses leading scorer Micael Castain, but got eight goals last year from Setterlund and five from junior Cara Wegner.
Clair holds numerous WSU career records, including goals-against average (0.72), shutouts (24), save percentage (82.3), and most importantly, wins (34).
She expects more to follow.
“We want to be the first class to go to the tournament four years in a row.”
“We don’t want to be that class that didn’t make it,” Clair said.
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