Rebels Ready To Defend MWC Title|
Aug. 20, 2008
LAS VEGAS - There's no doubt that after the first 10 years of the program's existence, UNLV has firmly established itself as one of the top women's soccer teams on the West Coast. Last year was just another example of the Rebels' impact in the college soccer world, as they won their fourth-straight Mountain West Conference championship, claimed wins over two top-25 opponents, and just nearly missed earning the first top-25 ranking in school history when they were two spots out of the final coaches' poll of the regular season.
UNLV's goals coming into the year are to extend its conference championship streak to five years and to return to the NCAA Tournament after not receiving an at-large bid last year despite an 11-win season. There's no doubt that defensively the Rebels are ready to challenge for the title as best of the MWC once again, as UNLV brings back its entire starting defense. The huge question mark, however, is up front on the offensive side.
While UNLV had an outstanding season defensively in 2007, allowing just 15 goals (second-lowest in school history) and just three at home, the Rebels were led in spirit by their five seniors. Katie Carney (the MWC Offensive Player of the Year and the school's third-leading career scorer), Jessica Destito, Ashly O'Harrow, Erica Jensen, and Armani Rice formed the greatest class of players to ever graduate as they led the Rebels to four MWC titles, a 45-28-13 record, and combined for 56.3% of the team's offense last year (13 goals, 14 assists, 30 points). How well fourth-year head coach Katherine Mertz and the rest of the Rebels fill that void on offense will be the key to the season as UNLV hopes for another MWC title.
Mertz has planned for the losses on offense as early as last season, and thus a main focus of the spring was to develop the returning players into leaders for the team, both on and off the field. "We are looking for players to step up and have the confidence to take control of the game, and to get the ball into the back of the net." Mertz is comforted by knowing that she returns every starter on defense, but after that every other spot is open. She expects the biggest challenge the Rebels will face this year will be in finding a set 11 players and getting the chemistry working between them.
UNLV will not be lacking in numbers this season as 16 players return for the Rebels, including nine that have played in the NCAA Tournament. Fourteen newcomers will also join the squad this year, including several highly skilled players in the midfield and up front that will have very good shots at breaking into the starting lineup.
"Our defense turned in 11 shutouts last year, and we know we have a very solid group coming back. It is a great feeling to have so many returnees and have that much experience with your defense," said Mertz. With the confidence the coaching staff have in the defensive side of things, that allows them the luxury of concentrating more on the offense during the preseason. "We have 30 players on this year's team, so we know we have a challenge in getting all of them on the same page, especially when dealing with 14 new players." With so much uncertain at this time as to who the starting midfielders and forwards will be, Mertz knows it could be a while before she knows what kind of team she has on her hands, and what its best strengths will be. "We're going to play different systems and different lineups during the preseason and beginning of the season, and whatever lineup we finalize, will definitely influence and determine what we will play on offense."
Mertz knows that as the defending champions, teams will be coming after them all year long. "We just have to remember it's not easy, you have to work hard for everything you want. With replacing so many starters on the attack, we know there will be adjustments early, and how well we do that will be the key to our season."
As was mentioned before, the strength of the team lies in the defensive backfield. Brie Kuhne returns for her senior year and was one of three defenders to start all 21 games, along with juniors Mack Neely and Dani Morin. Sophomore LaChere Anglin started 12 games as the fourth defender, with fellow classmates Rachel Reid (six starts) and Elizabeth Jacobs (three starts) also filling in at the fourth defender spot.
Kuhne comes into her senior year having started 67 consecutive matches, and has earned first team all-conference honors the past two seasons, as she anchored a backline that allowed just 15 goals all season, including just three on the Rebels' home field. "Brie has shown a true sense of leadership among the defenders from the center back position, and is such a hard worker that she's very hard to beat," said Mertz.
Neely joins Kuhne as the other center back and has started 42 of her last 44 games. "Mack is very vocal and a good leader, and her ability to organize the defense has been key to our success."
Morin was in her second year as a starting back and did an outstanding job of shutting down the opponents' top offensive threats. In fact, Morin was named to Soccer America's and Soccer Buzz's Team of the Week after helping the Rebels post back-to-back shutouts over No. 11 Washington State and Iowa State in the UNLV Rebel Classic. Anglin, meanwhile, returns on the outside as well and the pair give UNLV speed to help turn the attack.
Reid and Jacobs both return to back up the defenders, while new to the team this year are four freshmen, Amanda Gilbert (Las Vegas), Ardrianna Guida (Henderson, Nev.), Jenna Larkin (Anaheim, Calif.), and Justine Sauder (San Clemente, Calif.). All four are athletic, good runners and will be a big addition to the Rebels' depth at the position.
The Rebels return one of the top goalies in the conference in junior Alicia Lugo. After leading UNLV to the 2006 MWC Tournament title by not allowing a goal the entire tournament, Lugo turned in a record-setting performance in the net in 2007. She broke the school record for solo shutouts in a season with 10, and also posted a 0.67 GAA, as she gave up just 15 goals all season while making 101 saves. Her career GAA of 0.87 is now also the lowest in UNLV history. Though she stands just 5-5, she offsets that with her outstanding athletic ability and she is one of the best at reading defenses and is very reactive in the net.
Three freshmen join the Rebels this season as backups to Lugo. Nicole Adams of Loveland, Colo., Amber Burgess of Las Vegas, and Alex Quesada of Livermore, Calif., will fill out the goalkeeper corps for UNLV. All possess good kicking games, while also being strong in the air.
Of last year's four starting midfielders, just one returns for 2008, junior Shannon Hughes, who will be a center mid this season. Two players that saw plenty of time last season and are among the favorites to start in the middle this year are junior Brianna Moore and sophomore Amanda Forrester. Hughes made 16 starts last season and scored a golden goal in a 1-0 win at TCU last year, while on the same road trip two days before at New Mexico, Moore accomplished the same feat, with a score in overtime in UNLV's 2-1 win. Moore also added another game winner in a 2-1 win over Arizona State, in which Forrester both scored and assisted on a goal. Moore finished the season third on the team with seven points (two goals, three assists), while Forrester had five points (two goals, one assist), and Hughes three (one goal, one assist).
Mertz talks about the differences of the trio and how they compliment each other. "Shannon is very good in the air and can change the point of the attack, while Brianna possesses a great final pass and reads the game well. Amanda is probably the best finisher of the three and also knows how to keep possession of the ball."
One newcomers that could challenge for playing time in the center mid is Hailey Garrison of Henderson, Nev. "Hailey is a very crafty player and will fight hard for us." Sophomore Sarah Naranjo is another that could play in the middle, as Mertz is looking at her as a holding midfielder.
Playing on the outsides will be junior Jamie McCoy and freshmen Brittney Flores of Cypress, Calif. and Jamie Fratto of Novi, Mich.
After graduating their top three forwards (Carney, Destito, Rice) this is the area that will see the most difference for the Rebels. In their place UNLV will offer two players that have shown their offensive skills in the past, but will be called upon as full-time starters for the first time in their career.
Senior Haley Partridge and Niki Connolly share many player traits, most notably their fast pace on the field. Partridge is a very dangerous one-on-one player, and as the tallest player on the squad at 5-10, is a big offensive threat in the air. Connolly, meanwhile, is strong at holding possession and finding the end of crosses inside the box. She finished the season with three goals, which tied her for second on the team, while Partridge scored the lone goal in UNLV's 1-0 win over San Diego State. The one newcomer that could make the biggest impact for the Rebels will be playing up front, as Las Vegas native Ashleigh Shoughro joins UNLV after a stellar freshman season at San Diego. She earned All-WCC Freshman team honors in 2007 after scoring 12 points off five goals and two assists along with posting three game-winning goals. "Ashleigh has very good pace and is a dangerous offensive threat. We expect her to fight for a starting spot during the preseason."
Junior Kelly Labor will also be in the mix for a starting spot, while the returning forwards are a pair of sophomores: Elizabeth Jacobs, who could also see time as a defender, and Danielle O'Neil. New to the group are Elizabeth Billington of Henderson, Chelsea Green of San Clemente, Calif., and Katherine Orellana of Downey, Calif.
This year's schedule for the Rebels is one of the most challenging in program history for one big reason, six of the first eight games will be away from Las Vegas. In fact, of the 19 regular-season games, only eight are scheduled for Peter Johann Memorial Field, the fewest home games UNLV has ever played. Another notable aspect of the non-conference schedule is the number of schools from the very competitive Big West. The Rebels will face five Big West schools this year, including a stretch of three straight against Pacific and at Cal State Northridge and Long Beach State. The season kicks off for the Rebels in Los Angeles, where UNLV will take on Loyola Marymount before staying in California to meet UC Irvine. "It's a challenging schedule for us, playing on the road for three of the first four weekends, and all against tough competition, but it will be a good challenge and help bring the team closer together earlier," said Mertz.
Following a home tournament against Nevada, Reno and Pacific on Aug. 20-30 in the UNLV Nike Classic, the Rebels go back to California for the CSU-Northridge and LBSU swing, before playing in another tournament in New Mexico, where they will meet Farleigh Dickinson and Milwaukee. The UNLV Rebel Classic on Sept. 19 and 21 features Robert Morris and Niagara, while the non-conference slate concludes at UC Riverside on Sept. 28.
Having won four straight MWC titles gets you plenty of attention, and that's reflected in the TV schedule for the MWC. Of the three regular-season games that will be broadcast by The Mountain West Sports Network, two feature UNLV. The MWC season opener for the Rebels at San Diego State on Oct. 3 will be shown, as well as the regular-season finale in Las Vegas against New Mexico on Oct. 31. Following the SDSU game, UNLV has two more games on the road, at BYU and at Utah, before finally returning home to host its first league competition, Wyoming, on Oct. 16.
By virtue of winning last year's regular season title, UNLV will host the 2008 MWC Tournament, the fourth time it will have been held in Las Vegas, on Nov. 5-8. The last time the Rebels were the host, they won the tournament with a 1-0 overtime win over New Mexico in 2005.
"Opening up the league schedule with three straight on the road is going to be very tough, but the bright spot is we play three of our last four at home, and we are also looking forward to hosting the tournament once again," said Mertz. "It'll be a great opportunity for our players, and for the community to see some high-quality soccer games played."