Last Friday marked the finale of Colorado State’s women’s soccer team’s second-ever season as a Division I program.
Though the Rams lost to the Wyoming Cowgirls 4-1 on Friday, finishing 11th in the Mountain West Conference with an overall record of 4-15-0, the conclusion of their 2014 season berthed much more positivity than 15 losses might imply.
Colorado State actually doubled its wins from 2013, when it went 2-13-3 to finish dead last in the conference its first season. While the Rams may have only moved up one spot in Mountain West regular season final standings to second-to-last, players still felt leaps and bounds were made from last season.
“There was such an improvement from last year,” junior defender Megan Speed said. “Like Coach Hempen says, if you didn’t see (us play), then you probably wouldn’t believe it because our record really doesn’t show how well we did.”
The improvements made by the Rams are especially highlighted by comparing this year’s and last year’s margins of victory. Four of the top-five finishers in the conference this season — San Diego State, New Mexico, Colorado College and Utah State — all only beat Colorado State by just one goal. Second-place Wyoming was the only team in the top five to score multiple goals on the Rams in 2014.
Just last season, the Rams were shut out 3-0 by each of 2013’s top five finishers, giving up a total of 15 goals to five opponents.
This season, top five teams slipped only 10 goals past CSU, with four coming in the last match to Wyoming. In three of those matches, the Rams’ opponents only scored once.
The Rams gave some true collegiate soccer powers serious scares in Fort Collins in their matches with San Diego State and Colorado College.
First, Colorado State nearly upset perennial national power Colorado College at home, leading the Tigers with an early score in the second half and then battling back and forth until the score reached 2-2 with less than a minute left, and the Tigers scored a game-winning goal on a jumbled scramble in the box.
Then in its second-to-last match of the season, Colorado State held the now three-time defending Mountain West regular season champions San Diego State scoreless for over 100 minutes, sending the match into double overtime. Alas, the Rams lost that one in minute 105 as SDSU captured their conference crown with another game-winning score in a chaotic box.
“Those two matches (Colorado College and SDSU) definitely stick out to me a lot,” Speed said. “I could see the disappointment in us when we weren’t able get the wins, but I think that shows all of us and even Coach Hempen the potential that we have. Its now more about being consistent with our play and not having games where we drop off.”
The matches with Colorado College and San Diego State, along with the other top teams CSU held within reach, showed the persistent maturation of CSU’s young team.
The Rams dressed just three seniors in 2014, and only five juniors. The rest of CSU’s roster was composed of underclassmen, most of whom had little-to-no Division I experience.
According to Hempen, the high level of play displayed by their opponents along with the success in closely competing with the best teams in the conference served as the best teacher for his young team.
“There’s nothing like preparing for (Division I soccer) more than going through it, and having had that opportunity to get in the mix with some pretty good teams,” Hempen said.
In his 26th year as a head coach, Hempen knows what it takes to build a soccer program from the ground up, as he did with Duke’s women’s team starting in 1988, where he appeared in eight NCAA Tournaments in his final nine years.
The coaching legend cites consistent recruiting as the key to growth.
“Now we’re going to layer in another class of recruits who will be in the same boat (of inexperience) as this year’s players,” Hempen said. “But they will not have the year of opportunity our players this year had. Its going to be an interesting future until we get that base of players that grow with the program, which we are probably a year away from with another recruiting class.”
The players who emerged this year as likely leaders for next year’s team are juniors Speed and Gianna Bertana, who led the team in goals with four. Freshman forward Janelle Stone also helped lift CSU’s attack off the ground with a team-high three assists.
But Hempen hesitated to make any promises about the looks of next year’s team, even though Stone and Bertana looked to have consistent connection at times.
“It’s too soon to call those two (Stone and Bertana) our go-to players,” Hempen said. “There are going to be players coming in that want those jobs.”
While Colorado State soccer is sure to find new, young talent, it is unlikely any freshmen will come ready fill the shoes of two senior defenders —— who leave the program after this season.
Both Ruder and Vaughn transferred back home to Colorado from the established programs of San Jose State and Kansas, respectively, to contribute to the founding of CSU soccer.
Both players were crucial in developing a defense that was not easy to slice through for 2014’s top teams in the conference. In fact, in her time at CSU, Vaughn never missed a minute on the field, earning the title of the “Iron Woman” after notching her 3000th consecutive minute on the field this season.
“We will definitely miss them,” Speed said.
Speed stated the goal for next season is still to finish in the top six in the conference to receive a conference tournament berth.
“I know that’s been the goal for us ever since the program started,” Speed admitted. “The first year was extremely hard, but this year was kind of a heart breaker because I think saw how close we really were. I hope next year we are able to see ourselves making the conference tournament. Next year is our time.”
Collegian Sports Reporter Sam Lounsberry can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @samlounz.