BELLINGHAM, Wash. - The recent past has been bright for the Western Washington University women's soccer team. The future also looks bright.
The Vikings are coming off the best season in school history, having posted a 20-2-1 record, winning the Great Northwest Athletic Conference regular-season and West Regional championships and advancing to the semifinals of the NCAA Division II National Tournament, where they suffered a 2-1 loss in overtime to West Florida.
Despite losing five starters from that squad to graduation, WWU's depth is such they still return experienced players at nearly every position. A total of 13 letter winners return, 10 of which started at least two games last season.
"I'm shocked when I look at our roster to see the quality and number of players we lost and yet we still have so many good ones coming back," said coach Travis Connell (12thyear, 141-61-20), the winningest coach in school history and the 2013 GNAC Coach of the Year. "We have great leaders across the entire field, and we have enough new blood to keep everyone hungry, because they still have plenty to prove."
Leading the returnees for the Vikings are senior defender Brianna Jones (Bonney Lake), junior forward Catherine Miles (Anacortes), and senior midfielder Kim Cooper (Bellingham). Jones earned first-team Daktronics All-America honors last season as well as being GNAC Defensive Player of the Year. Miles received Daktronics All-America honorable mention, and Cooper was a second-team West Region all-star in 2013 after being a first-team selection the previous season.
"We have returning players with more experience than we've ever had," Connell said. "A lot of our key contributors have started nearly every game since they were freshmen. They've played in big games, they've won conference championships, and they've won NCAA tournament games. They understand what it takes."
Jones anchored a defense that allowed just 10 goals last season, ranking ninth nationally in goals against average at 0.43. She is also a threat as a target on set pieces, having scored seven goals over the last two years. The other full-time returning starter in the back is senior Katherine Miccile (Kent/Kentlake), who will play right back. Both are three-year starters, but their connection goes back much further.
"They've played together since middle school in club soccer," said Connell. "Both had fantastic seasons last year, and we'll rely on them heavily this season."
Junior Chelsea Jackson (Surrey, BC/Fraser Heights) joins Jones at center back to give the Vikings a rangy and athletic center back pairing. Versatile sophomore Caitlyn Jobanek (Springfield, OR/Thurston), who started nine matches as a freshman, is the left back, but has the attacking skills to play almost any position further up the field.
Sophomore Erin Russell (Brier/Mountlake Terrace) and freshmen Emily Webster (Bellingham/Sehome) and Abby Klinkenberg (Renton/Kentridge) provide depth at outside back, and junior Nicole Williams (Tacoma/Stadium) and freshman Sierra Shugarts (Federal Way/Decatur) are the backups at center back.
Cooper, the team captain, directs the midfield from her deep lying position just in front of the defense. She has just a goal and five assists in her career, in which she has started all but one game over the last three seasons, but the numbers don't demonstrate the distribution and defensive abilities of a player who has twice been an all-region selection.
"She is a really special player," Connell said of Cooper. "She enables us to keep possession and dictate the tempo of the game. Plus, she's a fierce competitor, which makes her a great defender and ball winner."
In front of Cooper as attacking midfielders are juniors Stephanie Hamilton (Orting/Bellarmine Prep) and Delanee Nilles (Poulsbo/North Kitsap). Hamilton, who had two goals and five assists last year, has scored a game-winning goal in the NCAA tournament each of the last two seasons. Nilles, a part-time starter at a variety of positions over the last two years, had four goals and two assists last season.
"The three central midfielders have played together a lot the last couple years, and they are certainly one of the strengths of the squad," Connell said. "Stephanie and Delanee are both able to score goals. Delanee can score a lot of different ways, she has a great shot outside the penalty area and great instincts around the goal."
Jobanek, who earned NCAA II Final Four All-Tournament honors, and Webster could both see minutes in the midfield, and freshman Colleen Lindsay (Spokane/Gonzaga Prep) will also contribute.
Up front, Miles led WWU and the GNAC with 15 goals last season, and she also added three assists, topping the team in points for the second straight year with 33. She already has 24 career goals, which ranks 12th in school history, and would move into a tie for sixth with eight more goals.
Miles will play one wide position, while sophomore Elise Aylward (Renton/Lindbergh), who had two goals and seven assists last year, returns as the starter at the other. Junior Jessica Bertucci (Bellingham/Sehome) is in the target spot after scoring four goals and notching three assists in 2012.
"As a coach, I would not want to have to face our forwards for 90 minutes," Connell said. "They can wear you down with their speed and work rate, and they also have a lot of technical ability."
The one spot where the Vikings lack extensive game experience is in goal. But junior Ashley Haden (Brush Prairie/Hockinson) is her fourth year in the program, and didn't allow a goal in 187 minutes of action in five substitute appearances last season.
"Ashley had a great spring," Connell said. "She really asserted herself and took a big step forward in consistency."
Connell also expressed confidence in the three backups - redshirt freshman Miranda Head (Marysville/Lakewood), junior Veronica Saez (Bainbridge Island) and freshman Alyssa Treptow (Flagstaff, AZ) - saying all were capable of starting. Saez is a transfer from NCAA I Fairfield, where she started six games in 2012.
One of the strengths of the squad is versatility, with a number of players, most notably Jobanek and Nilles, being able to play multiple positions.
"I love having players that not only can, but are willing, to play different positions," Connell said. "We have a lot of versatility, and that's a coach's dream, because they can adjust to new things, even in mid-game, and allow us to take advantage of our strengths."
The Vikings open the year with four West Region opponents from outside the GNAC. Such games are critical to the regional rankings that, along with the conference tournaments, produce NCAA tournament spots.
"Finding ways to get results at the beginning when you're trying to get new pieces to fit is always important," Connell said. "After that, it's finding consistency and being able to adapt to whatever the challenge is. Everybody has a great game plan at the beginning, it's how you navigate the bumps along the way that make you a great team."
WWU has been brilliant at home the last two years, winning 20 of 21 contests, including all 12 last season. The added bonus for the Vikings in 2014 will be playing home games on campus for the first time since 2000, as they move into the new Robert S. Harrington Field.
"We're all excited about it," Connell said. "You want to be part of something bigger than yourself, and being on campus in front of friends and other students means the world to our players."
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Webster and Shugarts Named Scholar All-Americans
WWU seniors Emily Webster and Sierra Shugarts add Scholar All-America awards to impressive career resumes
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Gabriela Pelogi Named Third Team All-American
Pelogi becomes the 10th player in WWU history to earn All-America honors from the national soccer coaches association
Four Vikings Named United Soccer Coaches All-West Region
Emily Webster, Karli White and Gabriela Pelogi earn first-team honors, Sierra Shugarts a second-team selection
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WWU coaching staff recognized by United Soccer Coaches as West Region Staff of the Year
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Vikings place four players on First Team, one player on Second Team
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Defending National Champions Advance to NCAA West Regional Final
Defending national champion Vikings beat Sonoma State 2-0 in second round of NCAA II Championships
No. 2-Seed Vikings Open West Regional Play Saturday vs. Sonoma State
The Vikings open NCAA II Championships play facing No. 3-seed Sonoma State at 1 pm at Harrington Field