Experienced, versatile Cougars ready to meet expectations

(Photo by BYU Photo/Mark Philbrick)

In the BYU women's soccer team's regular season opener the Cougars started three freshmen and are still working on replacing the talented players who graduated after a run to the Elite Eight in 2012. What may not be as evident, is there are just as many seniors this year as last, which gives head coach Jennifer Rockwood confidence in repeating the success of last season.

Seven seniors, three who previously transferred after playing at different schools, will help lead the Cougars through the 2013 season and the heightened expectations both in-house and nationally. BYU was chosen sixth in the NSCAA coaches preseason poll and after the first week, the Cougars lowest ranking in a poll is 10th. The taste of almost beating North Carolina in the Elite Eight last year has added to the desire to make it deep into the NCAA tournament, all the way to Cary, N.C., which will host the NCAA College Cup this fall. 

Last year's team was a strong defensive unit and while team defense and defensive pressure is still the No. 1 priority for the Cougars, their offensive prowess holds plenty of promise.

"We think this team has a lot of potential to go forward and attack," Rockwood said. "This group is going to be able to go forward, but we need to see if we can stay consistent."

Apart from freshman Ashley Hatch at the high forward, the rest of the attacking players have plenty of experience. The versatility of senior Colette Jepson Smith may be one reason the Cougars can be so good this year. Jepson Smith has great speed and likes to go forward in the attack, whether she is on the wing or in the middle of the field. Placing players around her like Jaiden Thornock and Niki Fernandes on the wings and adding returning scoring leader Michele Murphy, who can also play just about anywhere in the attack, makes for a very dynamic group. That group alone fills up the lineup card, but the spring season's leading scorer Sarah Chambers is in need of minutes as well. Senior Angelica Dickson Adams and sophomore Marissa Nimmer are also prepared to provide a spark for the offense when they're called on and freshman Elena Medeiros will feature centrally in the attack.

The range of versatile attacking players means Rockwood can be creative in how she uses everyone. Nimmer has been brought off the bench late to close out games this season. She scored game winners against LMU and Utah State late in the year last season and put in a late goal in an exhibition against Haiti earlier this year.

In the midfield, Kyleigh Royall is being used in a similar fashion, but she will be used late for her skills in possession and for balancing out Rachel Manning and Cloee Colohan's minutes. The three senior holding midfielders are "the core of the team," Rockwood said. They win the majority of 50/50 balls, they possess the ball and distribute it very well. While defense is the midfield's No. 1 objective, Colohan and Manning have already shown they are tough to stop offensively.

"They're hard to mark going forward and smart at picking their times," Rockwood said. "They find themselves open quite a bit, because it's hard to mark and worry about a holding midfielder coming forward.

"They're both involved in most all of our set pieces. Rachel for her ability to win head balls and Cloee can strike a great ball."

Freshman Kayci Griffin will also play as a holding midfielder, but has also been seeing some practice time in defense.

Not a single defender returns to the same position. Three freshmen have started as outside backs in the exhibition and regular season opener, while junior Annie Amos and sophomore Paige Hunt were moved from outside defenders to central defenders. Spring season showed the Cougars everything they wanted to see from their center backs, but the fall season has been about getting the whole back line working together comfortably and consistently.

"We spend a lot of time on defense in the preseason," Rockwood said. "Defense is our main focus. We were expecting to graduate (good defenders) and were expecting these freshmen would come in and fill those roles for us and they've proven to be able to do that so far."

Avery Calton has been at right back in the early season, while Brittain Dearden was at left back before picking up an injury that has sidelined her for the time being. Ella Johnson, who was a central defender in high school, has picked up at left back until Dearden returns. Miranda Bailey and Camille Green will also play as outside backs this year. With so many changes in the back, practice time and game experience might be the key for the defense this year.

"We need to have good possession," Rockwood said. "That's something we're working on now - feeling comfortable and being a little bit more careful and not risking anything. As the back line becomes more cohesive and confident we'll be able to knock the ball around a lot more."

Behind the back line, is returning senior goalkeeper Erica Owens. She was the best goalkeeper in the West Coast Conference last year and is ready to continue where she left off. Finding her a backup has proven to be a difficult task as returners Hilary Smith Kaufusi and Katherine Snyder have been joined by freshman Hannah Clark in a battle to be named the official No. 2 goalkeeper.

For the team to reach the heights of last year there's plenty of soccer to be played against tough competition.

"We need to see if we can stay consistent, both mentally and physically," Rockwood said. "That's a mental toughness and leadership issue. We have seven seniors again. They have a lot of good experience and a lot of great leadership. There are a lot of girls who want to accept that responsibility and end their career on a high note."