Oct. 1, 2013
PORTLAND, Ore. -
When Western Washington head women's soccer coach Travis Connell watched his team collapse in agony as they lost 2-1 to UC San Diego in overtime of the NCAA regional finals a season ago, he knew deep down that he was part of a special group.
"It was an exciting game and I was happy that our players were able to experience what it was like to play in that type of situation," said Connell, adding, "they played hard and competed and I am proud of those attributes."
The 2012 season ended with a bitter defeat and a sense of unfinished business, but Connell embraced the prospect that his team could be even better in 2013.
So far, the Vikings have done nothing but prove that statement, and Connell has earned GNAC Coach of the Month for his effort in September.
WWU got an immediate chance at redemption this fall, traveling to San Diego to take on UCSD in its first game of the 2013 season. When Jessica Bertucci broke a 0-0 deadlock in the 88th minute and sent WWU to a 1-0 victory, she helped the Vikings make a statement that things would turn out differently this year.
"At the beginning of the season you're building your team dynamic and finding out how you deal with challenges and adversity," Connell commented regarding the Vikings' first game of the season. "We had the opportunity to work on a lot of things with our opener on the road against a very good team, and it turned out great."
Since WWU's first game, the Vikings have not allowed another team to score, let alone lost a match. WWU is a perfect 7-0 and has now been ranked No. 2 in the nation in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America poll for two straight weeks.
"Everything starts with our defending, and the girls are very motivated and have really bought into our system," said Connell. "Our ability to defend well not only frustrates other teams but also gives us offensive opportunities."
The Vikings have had a near-perfect season up to this point, with the lone blemish to be found anywhere within their body of work being an own goal in an otherwise dominant 4-1 victory.
WWU has not trailed once this season.
"Brina (Sych) is one of our best players, and she does so many things offensively and defensively for us," Connell commented when asked about the staples of his team. "The other players have so much confidence in her and she helps us stay calm through toughout games."
A big part of the Vikings' dynamic attack has been their ability to spread scoring amongst a plethora of players. So far, nine different Vikings have found the net, with Catherine Miles and Kristin Maris leading the way with five and four goals, respectively.
Elise Aylward is amongst the best in the NCAA in assists with four, and nearly half of WWU's total shots taken have been placed on target (59-of-121).
"Catherine is a fantastic player who gained a lot of confidence from the playing time she got as a freshman," explained Connell. "Our offense depends on multiple players, and Catherine would be the first to tell you she couldn't do it without her teammates."
While Western Washington is the top team in the GNAC, it isn't the only one on a seven-game winning streak.
Seattle Pacific recovered after losing its first game of the season (2-1 to UCSD) and has won its last seven games in a row. Fittingly, WWU and SPU square off on Thursday in Bellingham, in what is shaping up to be the match of the season thus far.
"These are the easy games to prepare for, they're the games the players want to play in" Connell said with a chuckle, adding, "Seattle Pacific has been the best team in the conference for a long time and this is a game our players get up for and look forward to."
There's no question that WWU has the potential to surpass last season's success with an even deeper playoff run this season.
"The west region is the deepest in the country, and the games we play week-in and week-out prepare us for postseason play," Connell responded when asked about his team's potential. "If we can continue to play well and stay healthy, we have the opportunity to experience the postseason again and take those games one at a time."