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Dynamic offense, stifling defense lead Gonzaga to first national ranking since 2005

By Justin Reed The Spokesman-Review

Maddie Kemp stepped up in front of the cameras, her persona oozing with confidence.

And why shouldn’t it be?

The redshirt sophomore is on an absolute tear to begin the season, scoring eight goals in 10 matches – good for seventh in the country and tops in the West Coast Conference – helping charge the 20th-ranked Gonzaga women’s soccer team toward its first national ranking since 2005.

Kemp leads the nation in shots on goal per game at 3.1, and her 5.4 shots are third.

When she woke up Tuesday, she said she didn’t expect GU to be ranked, but that the team deserved its ranking.

“The reason I chose to come here my sophomore year of high school was for us to achieve that, and it feels better to be part of something that wasn’t already in the Top 25 and to work into the Top 25,” Kemp said. “It feels really good.”

Head coach Chris Watkins and Kemp worked to adjust her role this season after playing as a No. 9 – a true striker – last season.

Kemp finished fifth in the country with 52 goals her senior year at Camas (Washington) High School. Her redshirt freshman year, she scored two goals in nine games.

An adjustment before this season sat her back in an attacking midfield role. It has allowed her to focus less on pressing and more on finding the back of the net.

“If we’re smart, we can still find her enough shots to still feed a great goal scorer,” Watkins said. “And we’ve been able to do that so far, but some teams are going to adjust to that and probably get harder as we go.”

While the attack has been dynamic, the defense has stonewalled every opponent that has tried to put one past goalkeeper Lyza Bosselmann.

The Bulldogs have scored 34 goals while giving up three, earning seven shutouts.

GU has sprung to the top of most national statistical categories.

Its 34 goals rank second and its 28 assists are seventh. On the back end, the Zags are fifth with a .30 goals-against per game and sixth in save percentage with 91.4%. GU hasn’t allowed a goal in the past 324 minutes of play.

The lack of goals allowed definitely falls on the keeper, who is the last line of defense, but Bosselmann said to look a line in front of her at her defenders.

She focused on her two senior leaders in Haley Archuleta and Jordan Thompson – the two lead the team in minutes played. They headline a veteran-laden backline.

Watkins said the players from front to back are unique in all press to win the ball back. Defensive success is only possible if the team commits to it.

While the players were excited about the ranking – and rightfully so – Watkins was there to temper the celebration, saying they must still take care of business. One thing that he wants to see is another winning season to make it five consecutive – quite a feat considering the program has only had eight total in 30 or so seasons. But at 9-1-0, the Zags are three wins away from cementing the winning season streak. It also is their best start to a season in franchise history.

Watkins was prepared to celebrate with his team after practice Wednesday, but he limited that to five minutes before moving on to focus on the rest of the season, specifically for this weekend.

The Zags play Nebraska-Omaha on Saturday at 7 p.m. at Luger Field, then host BYU a week later. BYU was ranked all season until this week when it dropped out of the Top 25.

On Oct. 9, Santa Clara comes to Spokane for what GU hopes will be a battle of two ranked teams.

The Bulldogs will get to test their chops early in West Coast Conference play. Historically, the WCC has been a breeding ground of high-end soccer talent.

“If we finished the season with one loss, then I’ll be surprised,” Watkins said. “Because it’s a tough season. And the West Coast Conference is one of the very top conferences in the country. So, we’ve got a long road ahead, but where we’re at today, not super surprising.”

Santa Clara won the 2020 NCAA Tournament, knocking off Florida State to take home the title.

Pepperdine (sixth) and Santa Clara (19th) are also ranked in the WCC.

“So we’re hopeful,” Watkins said of competing in the WCC. “But as you’ll see in training everyday, we don’t take our foot off the gas. We’re going and we’ll let the chips fall where they may.”

Cougars climb standings

The Zags aren’t the only women’s program in the area with a torrid start.

The Washington State Cougars, who made the College Cup in 2019, have gone 6-1-1 in first month of the season.

Fifth-year player Sydney Pulver has seen the program rise over the past few seasons as the Cougs have made the NCAA Tournament every season it has been hold.

Pulver will tie the all-time games played list for WSU at 86 when she appears during the Arizona game on Friday at 5 p.m. in Pullman.

The Cougs have spent half their season on the road, strengthening their confidence to win anywhere. With more than half of their games away from Pullman, it was important to schedule away from home and the wins have trickled down confidence to the team.

Being picked to finish fifth in the conference also caused a little added motivation to the start of the season. That energy was passed on to Pulver.

“It’s our time to shine in the Pac-12,” Pulver said. “We’ve been very close to the top, and we always make a run in the postseason. So it’s definitely time that we make it a presence with who we are.”

The defense has given up three goals and have kept six clean sheets. Pulver sits just above the backline and center back Bridget Rieken, the commander of the defense.

Rieken, a junior, played at Lake City High School in Coeur d’Alene. The former Timberwolves player is second on the team in minutes played and has three goals and an assist.

“Bridget is a great leader back there,” Pulver said. “And very good on the ball and off the ball and defending and heading. She organizes the backline very well as well as the rest of the team. And she has been scoring a lot of goals this year, which is great with her being a center back.”

The offense has been led by 10 players scoring, which helps keep the defense from honing in on one player.

WSU’s Elyse Bennett and Grayson Lynch lead the team with five goals apiece.

Idaho has historic start

Also topping their best start in program history, the Idaho Vandals matched the Cougs at 6-1-1.

Idaho was projected to finish fourth in the Big Sky, but it tops the Big Sky through nonconference play. Head coach Jeremy Clevenger said his team didn’t look at the projections, instead worrying about their play on the field.

“We’re focusing on us and how we can be the best team and we have aspirations for competing for a championship,” Clevenger said.

It starts with in the back with two fifth-year-type defenders in Taylor Brust and Kathryn Blickenstaff.

Both 5-foot-8 defenders play every minute and lock down the center of defense.

Up top are two Spokane-area players: Margo Schoesler and Maddy Lasher. Schoesler played at Mead High School and Lasher was at Lake City.

The sophomore Lasher leads the Vandals with three goals.

“We’re very excited about her,” Clevenger said. “She is kind of the tip of our attack. She is very athletic, can play in a lot of different ways. She can play back to goal, she can run at defenders one v. one. I think she’s great in the box, just kind of poaching goals.”

Schoesler, also a sophomore, has been key to the link up play and to hold the ball up in transition.

“She’s just so good,” Clevenger said. “She can do pretty much anything. She has the ability to strike the ball well from distance. A smart player too, as well. Those two players are very critical to our success.”

Big Sky play begins Friday at 6 p.m. in Ogden, Utah, against Weber State.

“It’s just about refining things, sharpening things,” Clevenger said. “You get in conference, it gets sometimes a little bit tighter, more physical.

“We just want to take care of ourselves, have confidence and continue on what we’ve done and get better.”