Women’s soccer teams in the Mountain West start conference play this weekend, with Colorado State slated for two home matches against the UNLV Rebels Friday and the Nevada Wolfpack Sunday. Last month, coaches from around the Mountain West picked how they thought the conference would turn out. Here is a conference preview following the 2014 Mountain West Women’s Soccer preseason coaches poll.
1. San Diego State Aztecs
2013 Record: 13-7-2 (9-1 conference)
2014 Pre-Conference Record: 5-2-1
Key Losses: F Sophie Metz, F Carli Johnson, D Haley Palmer
Key Returners: F Hannah Keane, M Kelsey Booth
Receiving 115 first place votes, the Aztecs were picked to repeat as Mountain West regular season champions for the third straight year, while trying to defend last year’s post-season conference championship as well. Outshooting their opponents by the impressive margin of 368-279, the Aztecs cruised to a 9-1 conference record, the sole loss coming against Wyoming. Their season ended in a first round NCAA tournament loss to No. 3 UCLA. Three key players graduated last year for the Aztecs, though, in Sophie Metz and Carli Johnson. Metz was all-Mountain West first team in 2011, while Johnson picked up first-team honors last year. Haley Palmer will be missed as the 2010 Mountain West Freshman of the Year, 2012 and 2013 Defensive Player of the Year and three time first team all-Mountain West selection graduated. But San Diego State hasn’t appeared to slow down, storming into the early season with an upset over No. 10 Michigan in late August. Senior Hannah Keane returned for her last season with the Aztecs. Keane led the team last year with 12 goals on 92 shot attempts. The next closest number of shot attempts by a teammate was Palmer at 37. Midfielder Kelsey Booth has been leading the offense for the Aztecs this year, dishing three assists and scoring a team high three goals so far this year. Look for this senior duo to be striking when San Diego State comes to Fort Collins on Oct. 28.
2. Colorado College Tigers
2013 Record: 15-4-3 (8-1-1 conference)
2014 Pre-Conference Record: 4-2-2
Key Losses: Madison Whitehead
Key Returners: M Sarah Schweiss, M Kaeli Vandersluis, M Jessie Ayers
Colorado College enters this season as its first as part of the Mountain West, moving from Conference USA which it won last year with an 8-1-1 regular season record. The Tigers lost to Duke in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to close their season. Coaches picked Colorado College second with 112 first place votes in its first Mountain West season. In preseason play, the Tigers have gone 4-2-2, with their first loss coming in an upset to Northern Colorado, which CSU beat 1-0 early this season. The Tigers returned a strong trio of midfielders in Sarah Schweiss, Kaeli Vandersluis and Jessie Ayers. Schweiss is coming off a seven goal and seven assist 2013 season, which landed her on the third team all-Conference USA, while Vandersluis is returning from notching 9 goals and 9 assists, earning first-team honors. Schweiss has netted a team-high five goals already this season, while Vandersluis and Ayers have each scored two and are tied for a team-high of two assists each. Madison Whitehead will be missed by the Tigers this year as she graduated after racking up seven assists in 2013. The Tigers come to Fort Collins to face the Rams on Sunday, Oct. 12.
3. Boise State Broncos
2013 Record: 13-7-3 (6-3-1 conference)
2014 Pre-Conference Record: 3-3-3
Key Losses: M Katy Oehring
Key Returners: M Brooke Heidemann, D Katy Clayton
After finishing second to San Diego State in a 1-0 loss in the Mountain West conference championship last season, Boise State was picked third in the conference for 2014, receiving 103 votes. The Broncos lost Littleton, Colorado native Katy Oehring after she graduated last year. The first team all-conference midfielder scored four goals and dished three assists in 2013. “I certainly think we’ve had some players who have been waiting on the wings to fill the holes she’s left,” head coach Jim Thomas said of Oehring’s departure. Last season’s leading scorer and all-Mountain West first-team midfielder Brooke Heidemann returns for her junior campaign for the Broncos, notching four goals and two assists already this season after scoring nine goals in 2013. The Broncos head into the opening weekend of conference play with a 3-3-3 record. The Broncos will have opened with nine road matches out of their first 11 contests, a fact that is calming to Thomas. “The trials and tribulations of the early season have prepared us,” Thomas said. After finishing second last year and being picked third behind Mountain West newcomer Colorado College in the Coaches’ Poll last month, Sunday’s match with the Tigers will showcase the new competition in the conference.
4. New Mexico Lobos
2013 Record: 8-10-3 (6-3-1 conference)
2014 Pre-Conference Record: 2-3
Key Returners: M/F Ruth Bruciaga
New Mexico was picked fourth in the Mountain West, but has lost three games and won only two so far in 2014. The Lobos are capable of exploding offensively for spurts of multiple goals, scoring four goals in each of their two wins over Loyola and New Mexico State. But they often give up two goals or more, as they have in each of their three losses. The Lobos have yet to record a shutout. New Mexico must improve its defense to maintain a high position in the Mountain West against aggressive attacks like San Diego State’s and Colorado College’s. Sophomore Ruth Bruciaga has been the igniting offensive threat for the Lobos so far this year, recording a hat trick in New Mexico’s 4-1 win over New Mexico State.
5. Utah State Aggies
2013 Record: 10-7-5 (5-3-2 conference)
2014 Pre-Conference Record: 4-3-1
Key Losses: F Jennifer Flynn
Key Returners: M Lexie Morgan, F Jessica Brooksby, M Jayne Robinson, GK Jeannie Woller
Utah State ended last season in the semifinals of the Mountain West post-season tournament where it lost to conference champion San Diego State. Led by , The Aggies will miss Jennifer Flynn’s first team all-conference season of five goals on 36 shots in 2013 as the forward graduated in the spring. “We relied heavily on (Flynn) last year,” head coach Heather Carin said. Carin said she feels like the team is more balanced this year, though. Senior midfielder Lexie Morgan has stepped up to fill the void left by Flynn with three goals and an assist on ten shots this season. A pair of sophomores in Jessica Brooksby and Jayne Robinson, whose five assists led the team last year, have combined for five goals for the Aggies in the early season as well. Carin said she is “fairly happy with the spread goal scoring distribution this year.” Defense has been the key in the Aggies’ four wins, though, with goalkeeper Jeannie Woller recording three shutouts over Nebraska-Omaha, Sam Houston State and California-Riverside.
6. Fresno State Bulldogs
2013 Record: 10-8-2 (7-2-1 conference)
2014 Pre-Conference Record: 1-8
Key Losses: D/M Morgan Castain
Key Returners: Jaycee Birgham
Fresno State received 73 votes from coaches to rank 6th in the preseason, but has come up with an early 1-8 record before conference competition. The Bulldogs sole victory came over Eastern Washington in their home opener, a team that just beat Colorado State 2-0 last weekend. After a second place regular season finish in 2013, Fresno State is likely feeling the absence of Morgan Castain, who graduated last year after posting 12 goals on 58 shots and 31 shots on goal, which earned her Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year honors. Senior Jaycee Brigham has stepped up this year, though, scoring five of the Bulldogs’ seven total goals on 22 shots. The addition of freshman Peyton Cline out of Woodland, California has been enjoyed by the Bulldogs so far too, as she has racked up four assists already this season.
7. UNLV Rebels
2013 Record: 10-8-3 (5-5-0 conference)
2014 Pre-Conference Record: 5-2-1
Key Losses: Jenn Wolfe
Key Returners: M Delani Murnan, F Dakota Blazak, F Hayley Wilson
UNLV opens its conference play schedule this weekend in Fort Collins in a match Friday with the Rams. Last season, the Rebels finished with a loss on penalty kicks to Wyoming in the first round of the conference tournament. Jenn Wolfe led the team with seven goals, setting a UNLV school record with six game-winning goals, a performance that landed her a spot on the all-Mountain West first team. Wolfe will be missed by the Rebels this season as she graduated, but the addition of forward Jodi Barber, a transfer from Barton College where she was a third-team Division II All-American in 2013, should help fill Wolfe’s void. The Rebels’ attack has been aggressive as a team, getting off 116 shots to opponents’ 79. The distribution of offense has been even. “We have a very balanced attack and a number of players we feel have the ability to score goals,” head coach Chris Shaw said. Juniors Barton and Delani Murnan and sophomores Dakota Blazak and Hayley Wilson have proven Shaw to be right, as they have recorded two goals a piece in the early season.
8. Wyoming Cowgirls
2013 Record: 7-11-4 (4-4-2 conference)
2014 Pre-Conference Record: 2-5-1
Key Losses: F Lucie McDowell, F Sara Paul
Key Returners: M/F Kasey Curtis, F Laurel Ramer
Wyoming has played seven of its eight games this year on the road, coming up with five losses, three of which were in overtime. Head coach Peter Cuadrado is far from panicked about the early season, though, believing that the intensity of the close matches has helped prepare his young team. “I think we’re growing up fairly quickly,” Cuadrado said. The Cowgirls are reeling to replace Lucie McDowell, whose 23 points, ten goals and 49 shots led the team last year, as well as Sara Paul, who racked up six goals and eight assists as a junior in 2013 but did not return for her senior season. “We replace them by committee,” Cuadrado said, implying Wyoming will work to balance its attack between players. The Cowgirls are coming into the start of conference play this weekend from a scoreless tie with Northern Colorado, which Colorado State beat 1-0 in in its home opener. They will meet the Rams in the last game of the regular season on Oct. 31.
9. Nevada Wolfpack
2013 Record: 5-11-4 (3-6-1 conference)
2014 Pre-Conference Record: 3-5-1
Key Losses: F Kori Disarufino
Key Returners: F Bobbi Reilley
Nevada has started the season with a slate of games against bigger schools with tradition behind their programs, such as Texas, Arizona and Arizona State. Although the Wolfpack came up with three losses to those schools, and a total of five before conference play, head coach Melissa Price thinks the early season will be good for the team moving forward. “I believe the level of competition we’ve played helped us in many ways,” Price said. “We want to be ready to compete, make adjustments, and respond to our opponents in conference and I believe our non-conference schedule has helped prepare us to do that well.” The addition of freshman Angel Merriwether has been undoubtedly welcome as the forward leads the team with three goals so far, coming from nine shots on goal.
T-10. Colorado State Rams
2013 Record: 2-13-3 (1-9-0 conference)
2014 Pre-Conference Record: 2-6-0
Key Returners: D Megan Speed, D Catherine Ruder, F Gianna Bertana
In its second season ever, the Colorado State soccer team received 27 votes in the coaches’ poll to be tied with San Jose State for 10th in the Mountain West. In the program’s first year, Colorado State went 2-13-3, already matching that number of wins this season with victories over Northern Colorado and College of Charleston. Coaching legend Bill Hempen has been focused on improving his attack to be more aggressive this year, as the Rams have been out-shot by their opponents 111 to 69, scoring only two goals on those attempts. Junior Megan Speed and senior Catherine Ruder anchor CSU’s back four with veteran experience, while junior Gianna Bertana has been the only player to provide a consistent offensive spark for the Rams. Bertana scored the game-winning goal over Northern Colorado in the 87th minute and dished the assist on the only other Rams goal in their overtime win over Charleston. The three seniors on the team in Ruder, Jami Vaughn and Maggie Sherman have stated competing for wins in the Mountain West is the team goal for 2014. This weekend is a big first step as conference play opens up with UNLV on Friday and Nevada on Sunday.
T-10. San Jose State Spartans
2013 Record: 3-14-1 (2-7 conference)
Pre-Conference 2014 Record: 3-3-2
Key Returners: GK Zoe Makrigiannis, F Lupita Estrada
San Jose State, the former school of CSU defender Catherine Ruder, will head into the weekend after a win over Portland State Sunday, an experienced team that shut out CSU 3-0 earlier this season. Spartans’ goalkeeper Zoe Makrigiannis has been tough to score on so far, posting four four shutouts including one over Portland State to be the current Mountain West Defensive Player of the Week. Lupita Estrada will has found herself as the main source of offense for the Spartans again this year after racking up four goals on 30 shots in 2013.
12. Air Force Falcons
2013 Record: 3-13-2 (2-7-1 conference)
2014 Pre-Season Record: 3-4-0
Key Losses: M/F Kaileigh Moses
Key Returners: F Ally Swift
Air Force was picked on the bottom of the Mountain West in 2014, but has appeared competitive so far this season with overtime wins over California-Davis and Central Michigan, and a 5-1 blowout over Oakland. With the addition of freshman midfielder Angela Karamanos, whose four goals lead the team, and the effort of junior Ally Swift, the Falcons’ attack has been more aggressive early this season. The pair has attempted 13 shots each. The Falcons will play Colorado State on Oct. 10 in Fort Collins as part of the Colorado Cup in-state competition.
Collegian Sports Reporter Sam Lounsberry can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @samlounz.