MOSCOW, Idaho – Riding a six-game winning streak, buoyed by a big early victory and by the knowledge they rebounded from a couple of tough early league losses, the Idaho Vandals are heading into their first-round NCAA game on Saturday at Gonzaga with momentum and confidence.
“We’re focused. We’re really excited about the match,” Vandals coach Jeremy Clevenger said as his team is absorbing a scouting report and putting finishing touches on shaping its attack, on set pieces and penalty kicks in the closing days before the match.
Idaho (12-4-2) enjoyed its second 12-win season in a row. But where last year’s seasib ended in a heartbreaking loss in the Big Sky Conference championship game, this regular season concluded with a 2-1 victory against Northern Arizona and Idaho’s first Big Sky title.
Last year’s 12-3-3 team was a formidable defensive opponent, one of the best in the country. This year’s group has more of an attacking mentality, according to Clevenger. The Vandals are also road warriors, 8-2 away from Moscow.
Ten starters return from last season, and Idaho features 10 seniors this year. They are abetted by a freshman class of nine that has found ways to contribute.
“I thought coming in we were going to be pretty deep,” Clevenger said.
Idaho started its season with a 3-1 win against Seattle and played well in a 3-1 loss against Washington. But a 1-0 win on Aug. 27 at UNLV in 100-degree heat suggested the team had some grit. Jayd Sprague scored against the Running Rebels, assisted by Annika Farley, and the Vandals survived a 29-13 shot deficit against UNLV.
“That was really a good start,” Clevenger said.
The Vandals went into Big Sky play 5-2-1 and tied Weber State and beat Idaho State to start their conference season. They dropped back-to-back matches against Montana and Portland State.
“We were able to shake that off,” Clevenger said, and the Vandals have not lost since. They finished off their Big Sky season with wins against Sacramento State, Eastern Washington, Northern Colorado and Northern Arizona. In the Big Sky Tournament, they bested Portland State and Northern Arizona.
In the championship match, senior Maddy Lasher gave the Vandals an early lead. After the Lumberjacks evened the score, redshirt freshman Naomi Alvarez put Idaho ahead for good.
Vandals junior defender Rebekah Reyes was named tournament MVP after playing every minute while her center back teammate Cassidy Elicker had to sit out due to injury. Alyssa Peters, Sprague, Alvarez, Lasher, Hannah Alfaro and Kira Witte also made the all-tournament team for Idaho.
Witte, who tied for first in the NCAA with 13 shutouts in goal for Idaho last year, blanked seven opponents this year and has the school record with 20 career shutouts. Clevenger thinks she has improved as a sophomore.
“I think she is having an even better season,” he said. “We were more of a defensive team last year. This year, she is being asked to make bigger saves. We are more of an attacking team.”
Looking ahead to Gonzaga, Clevenger expects to see an aggressive, attacking Bulldogs team.
“They like to commit forwards,” he said.
Clevenger hinted that Idaho could turn that aggressiveness to its advantage. The Vandals, he points out, are coming in on a roll.
“We are playing some of our best soccer now,” he said.