The New Mexico State soccer team went into the 2009 season with few expectations. The reason? It was the program's inaugural season and nobody really knew quite what to expect. The result? A much better than predicted finish from the team as a 9-9-1 overall record and a conference record of 4-3-1 led to a fifth place finish and a WAC tournament bid in just their first season. Just how impressive was their inaugural season? Fellow first year program Missouri-Kansas City finished their inaugural season at 1-16-1 and fellow conference mate Louisiana Tech, a program that has been in existence for six seasons, had never won a WAC game until last season and still have yet to participate in the conference tournament.
Enter 2010. The Aggies are looking to build off the momentum they created in their inaugural season and despite being picked to finish eighth by the league's coaches, the Aggies have their sights set once again on a strong season with a top six finish and a conference tournament berth.
"We definitely have high expectations, we did good last year and we just want to build off that," said sophomore defender Courtney Irwin in the team's media day interviews.
Being just a second year program, the Aggies didn't have a lot of turnover after their first season nor do they have to replace many starters due to graduation. The team does have a couple of notable names to replace as the Aggies' leading goal scorer, Jazmin Cardoso, transferred to George Mason and senior leader and First Team All-WAC goal keeper Katie Graul exhausted her eligibility. Finding Graul's replacement in goal will be one of the few puzzles second year head coach Michael Needham will have to solve before the Aggies open the 2010 season. The Aggies have added 13 newcomers to the roster with several of them expected to push for playing time and perhaps potential starting positions.
There are three players in the mix to claim the big shoes that Katie Graul left to fill. Sophomore Jessica Schutter, redshirt freshman Mikaela Bittner and true freshman Erin Wosick (Albuquerque, N.M.) are all hoping to be the next All-Conference stopper. Jessica Schutter has been sidelined with an injury that has prevented her from practicing but Coach Needham expects her to be cleared to practice in the very near future. Schutter is the only player with any playing experience at the Division I level having appeared in two games last season playing 55 minutes and making three saves while allowing no goals.
Mikaela Bitner, who redshirted during the 2009 season, and true freshman Erin Wosick have both performed well during the fall preseason camps and Coach Needham had high praise for both after the team's Crimson and White scrimmage on August 13th. "They're making big saves when they need to both in training and in the Crimson/White game," said coach Needham. He added, "I'd go so far as to say we had great goal keeping in that [Crimson/White] game and kept some pretty tough shots out of the goal."
With three goal keepers on the roster, Coach Needham has plenty of options to evaluate for replacing Katie Graul before the season begins. "There's a lot of competition there and that'll make those kids better," said Coach Needham. "I'm excited to see who separates themselves this week and claims the starting spot against UTEP."
The Aggies return a wealth of experience at the defender position with senior Baili Foutz and sophomores Elise Nordin and Courtney Irwin all returning. Nordin and Irwin played in all 19 games for the Aggies while Foutz played in 18 of the team's 19 games. Also returning for the Aggies in the backfield returner Vanessa Thomas who also played in all 19 games. "That's a nice place to have a strong group of returning players," said Coach Needham. Also returning is redshirt junior Heather Goldberg. Joining the four returnees in the backfield are redshirt freshman Lauren Allen, Allison Freels, a junior transfer from Cal State-Stanislaus, freshman Mickey Giles (Albuquerque, N.M.), sophomore transfer from the University of Dubuque, Megan Hendler and freshman Amber Vega (El Paso, TX). "We're definitely deeper in the back which is a good thing," said Coach Needham. "Last year you kind of had your fingers crossed all the time." Several of the newcomers have performed well in the preseason and should push for playing time this season. "Olivia Sierra has shown very well in the preseason and Amber Vega and Allison Freels are kids that are nipping at people's heels trying to get in the mix," said Coach Needham. "They're learning every day and getting better. I'm pleased with the way we're coming along in the back."
The midfield group is another position with a lot of depth returning and Coach Needham believes that the midfielders are one of the Aggies' strongest positions. "The midfield is definitely a strength on our team," said Coach Needham. "We're playing better soccer through there, we're keeping the ball, we're connecting the ball to our forwards which is a lot better than last year which was just hoping balls were going to connect instead of putting names on passes and finding people."
Highlighting the returnees in the midfielders is sophomore Crystal Burns. During her freshman season, Burns was electrifying for the Aggies often showcasing her one-on-one ability. She scored four goals which was the second most on the team. She was also second on the team in total points with 11. She also proved to be adept at finding her teammates for scores as she was tied for the team lead in assists with three. As outstanding as she was in her freshman campaign Coach Needham believes she's ready for an even bigger sophomore season. "She was good last year, she's having a breakout preseason. She's been really good," said Coach Needham.
Also returning for the Aggies in the midfield are sophomores Cassie De Leon, Vanessa Novella and Veronica Subu along with junior Marisa Moya and senior Nina Yanes. "Nina Yanes is in the mix, she's a feisty returning kid that is competing everyday." Yanes played in 18 of the Aggies' 19 matches and scored two goals including a game winner against CSU-Pueblo.
The Aggies welcome some very talented freshmen to the midfield including Mary Kate Koziol (Wilmington, DE), Daisy Hernandez (Bakersfield, CA), Megan Thompson (Albuquerque, N.M.) and Marie Ipock (Los Lunas, N.M.). Koziol was named one of ESPN Rise Magazine's top players from the state of Delaware and played for one of the top club teams in the country, FC Delco. "Mary Kate Koziol from Delaware has come in and really impressed the staff and really impressed the players. She's doing a good job," said Coach Needham. Hernandez and Thompson also figure to push for playing time in their freshman seasons. "Daisy Hernandez has done well and Megan Thompson is another one that'll see time in there."
The Aggie forwards feature a mix of returning talent as well as talented freshmen. Sophomores Lauren Cope and Yolanda McMillion highlight the returning group. McMillion earned her stripes last season becoming one of the go-to options late in games. McMillion played in 18 of the Aggies' 19 games scoring three goals, all three game winners including a golden goal against Air Force to give the Aggies a 2-1 victory. "Yollie McMillion has been excellent, her athleticism is just a lot of fun to coach," said Coach Needham.
Fellow sophomore Lauren Cope also scored three goals last season and earned WAC Offensive Player of the Week honors for the week of September 28th through October 4th when she scored two goals, a golden goal against Boise State to give the Aggies a conference victory in their first ever conference match. She followed that up with a goal against Idaho in a stunning come-from-behind victory for the Aggies.
One of the talented forwards joining the Aggies is standout freshman Dani De La Vina (Phoenix, AZ) and Kristen Powers (Temecula, CA). "Dani De La Vina is a technical forward," said Coach Needham. "She's a little unpredictable at times with what she does which is what you want up front. She can score goals, she's got a goal scorer's personality." Fellow freshman Kristen Powers should also see significant minutes this season. "Kristen likes to play out wide and run at people and be dangerous," said Coach Needham. "She serves a great ball in on crosses."
The Aggies open up the season once again with I-10 rival UTEP. The Miners and Aggies played an instant classic in El Paso with the Miners coming away with a bit of a controversial 1-0 golden goal victory in overtime. The Aggies' schedule is also vastly different from their inaugural season in that they'll open the season playing eight of their first nine games at home with their lone road trip coming on September 3rd when they face in-state rival New Mexico for the first time. "It's going to be nice to be playing at home, playing in front of our fans, in our environment something that we're comfortable in and maybe something other people won't be comfortable in which will be nice, " said Coach Needham.
The Aggies finish up the non-conference portion of season on the road with matches at Northern Colorado and Wyoming then head to Nevada to wrap up a three game road trip. The Aggies finish the regular season playing three of their final four conference games at home.
Despite being picked to finish 8th by the league's coaches after a 5th place finish last season, don't expect the Aggies to sneak up on anyone in conference play. The Aggies led the league through the first four weeks of play last season and were in contention for the regular season title right down to the wire. Last season the Aggies played in seven overtime games and 13 games that were decided by one goal. The Aggies struggled at times offensively, averaging 1.21 goals per game, but Coach Needham expects the Aggie offense to flourish in year two.
Last season the Aggies gave up just 1.26 goals per game and the Aggie defenders will play a big role early as their experience will be relied upon heavily as whoever earns the goal keeping spot will have very limited college experience.
Last season the Aggies started out conference fast rolling to a 4-0-1 record through their first five games before losing their final four matches to end the season. Coach Needham felt that his team simply ran out of gas at the end of the season, a direct result of only having two weeks of practice time and no offseason strength and conditioning for the players. This season that should not be as big a factor as the returnees all have a year of Division I level experience under their belt and the benefit of an entire offseason of strength and conditioning. "We were way ahead of where we were last year at this time in terms of fitness and that's a direct effect of our strength and conditioning program," said Coach Needham. "Our freshmen came in pretty fit. We had two freshmen pass the fitness test which is pretty good because you don't know what to expect because they're coming up to altitude and the heat."
The Aggies aren't satisfied with just matching the effort and result that came in their first season, they're looking to build off that momentum and as a result, don't expect a sophomore slump from the Aggies. "We have a core group of players from last year that came in again this year and we're just building off of that," said sophomore defender Elise Nordin. "The new players that we got that came in are really good players and I feel like we're really moving forward." It should be a season to remember on the pitch for the Aggies.