Spring practice begins for soccer

The U soccer team is midway through its spring schedule and it’s already apparent that this group of Utes is going to be a force next fall.

Coming off a 16-2-2 MWC championship season that ended prematurely at the hands of Idaho State in the NCAA tournament, the 2004 Utes are looking to become the dominant program in the MWC by winning consecutive titles.

BYU had long asserted itself as the team to beat in WAC and MWC women’s soccer, but under head coach Rich Manning, the Utes have put Cougar dominance into question.

The Utes have won the last four head-to-head matchups between the archrivals, but BYU, despite a disappointing conference season, made it to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament.

It will likely be a two-team race in the MWC next year as well, but before the intensity of conference play begins, even before nonconference play begins, there’s the training period known as spring soccer.

“If you watch a spring soccer game, you know you’re watching a spring soccer game,” Manning said. “There just isn’t as much intensity out on the field as there is during the regular season.”

Despite the lack of intensity due to the absence of consequence, spring soccer is a valuable developmental tool. Much like Major League Baseball’s version of spring training, college soccer teams use it to develop young talent, get the old timers loosened up and back in shape and develop a cohesive team attitude to be applied in the fall.

“I’m not so concerned about the results, or how we do on corner kicks,” Manning said. “I’m more concerned with improving individual skills. Sometimes it’s improving someone’s left foot, or winning headers, or their ability to read the game.”

With last seasons’s seniors limited to guest appearances at practice, and next season’s freshman getting ready for their high school graduations, the Ute spring squad is pared down to three classes of players. The Utes are also without the services of freshman Amanda Feigt, who has been busy starring on the track team, and junior Esther Imotan, who tore her ACL over Winter Break.

However, the Utes have added three players to their spring roster, all of whom will be available next season, barring injury.

Freshman Adele Letro, who was supposed to play last fall but was academically ineligible, has joined the team this spring. She was one of the Utes’ prized recruits last year based on her performance on the under-17 national Olympic development team, which speaks volumes, considering that recruiting class produced the nation’s top goalkeeper and two other all-conference performers.

The Utes have also picked up freshman transfer and Salt Lake local Lindie Theuer, who would have played for Utah State last season if not for a puzzling discrepancy with the training staff.

Returning for the Utes is Katie Battazzo, who is in the beginning stages of her comeback from knee surgery that kept her out all of last season. Battazzo was an all conference defender as a freshman two season ago and looks to return to form after a redshirt season. If she does resume playing at the all conference level, it will make one of the nation’s best defenses that much better.

“One of the most exciting things about the spring for me is that Katie is finally starting to train again,” Manning said.

Manning also hoped to address the issue of replacing his two all-conference midfielders, Amber Brower and Bobbie Benegas, which is the Utes’ only substantial question mark heading into next year.

“This spring is a good opportunity for some of these girls to prove that they’re capable of filling those shoes,” Manning said. “Midfield was certainly a position we looked to fill with our recruits, but I hope we can start to fill it before next fall.”

The Utes have three more “play days,” which generally consist of more than one short game in a three-hour span. On Saturday, March 27, the Utes play in the alumni game, then April 3-4 they will be in southern California to face Loyola-Marymount and Pepperdine.

The trip to California is the second of the spring season for the Utes, and both trips feature games against West Coast Conference opponents. The WCC is traditionally one of the top three conferences in women’s soccer, and Manning’s relationship with those teams is a sign of the direction this program is taking-but then again, so are the last two seasons.

After the successes Manning has had here at the U, he’s ready to have many more.

“We had a terrific 2003 season,” Manning said. “But now it’s time to start preparing for 2004.”

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