U soccer recipe for success includes seasoning

After a season with more quick ascents and descents than the foothills of the Wasatch, the U soccer team (13-5-3) is coming together for a final climb that the Utes hope will outlast their other, less effective attempts.

The season-long struggle has included several setbacks, including injuries and embarrassing defeats. But following a very successful MWC tournament, the Utes seem poised to make a run in the NCAA tournament. Their run begins on Friday against No. 24 Colorado at 4:30 p.m. in Portland, Ore. Although some quality personnel will be on the sidelines, the prevailing team attitude is unaffected.

“From a mental toughness and a confidence standpoint, we’re about as good as we’ve been all season,” U head coach Rich Manning said. “We had a few rough spots this year, and injuries might have played a part, but our immaturity and inconsistency played an equal part. In the last week or two we’ve addressed those issues, and we’re getting better.”

The immaturity and inconsistency was due in large part to the youthful composition of the Utes’ roster. Of the 20 active players on the Utes, only six are upperclassmen, and nine of the remaining 14 are freshmen. The youngsters, however, have obviously come a long way and now have the full confidence of the coaching staff and their teammates.

“What’s good about the end of the season is that we have freshmen with almost a year of playing time under their belt and sophomores with two years,” said team captain Tracy Stratton-Garner. “So even though we have a young team, a lot of the younger players have started showing great leadership.”

To illustrate his confidence in his young players, Manning began one of the overtime periods in the MWC championship game with only one upperclassman on the field. Then, in a similar show of faith, Manning picked four of five shooters for the shootout from his underclass cache of talent.

“There are several players who have been maturing throughout the season,” Manning said. “I think their play recently has certainly reflected their development.”

Among the players who have come into their own this late in the season is sophomore forward Amanda Feigt. Although Feigt was a first team all-MWC selection in her rookie season, Manning feels she has recently developed a work ethic on the field that is seldom seen at the college level.

“Since the first weekend of conference play, [Feigt] has made a significant improvement in the consistency of her work rate and her determination on the field,” Manning said. “Her effort has been off the charts, and I think it’s been a huge step in her development as a player.”

Feigt played all 290 minutes of the conference tournament, which was played over a four-day span, and without question ran more than any other player on the field.

“Amanda was running hard all weekend,” Manning said. “Even in the very last play of the last overtime of the last game she was outrunning the defender, who had to grab her shorts to keep her from breaking away.” Another player that Manning feels played to a higher level in the tournament was freshman midfielder Kiley Jones. Jones was also on the field for all 290 minutes, and scored the game-winning goal against UNLV.

“Kiley Jones was quietly, along with Amanda Feigt, our best player in the tournament,” Manning said. “She was always working, never resting, and has matured a lot since the beginning of the season.”

Jones, however, is not the only midfielder that’s come a long way this season. Amanda Sanchez, who had to fill in for Tracy Stratton-Garner after she replaced an injured Melissa Wayman in the back line, has played well beyond her years. “I think that Sanchez is a really good player for that position,” Garner said. “Last year our midfield was all fourth- year players. This year there are three freshmen and one senior in the midfield and that’s kind of been hard. But Amanda has done a great job of showing leadership at that position.”

Manning, who echoed Garner’s sentiments about leadership, also added that Sanchez’s passing from that position has given the Utes a new dimension on offense.

“Sanchez hit about five or six 30- to 40-yard passes that sprung a forward in the championship game. They were just excellent passes and they really showed me that she’s grown into her role.”

The Utes’ offense looked effective in the MWC tournament for the first time since they lost junior forward Kim Lloyd to an ACL injury on Oct. 21, but it was the defense that was the biggest difference. The Utes had been prone to giving up cheap goals throughout the season that cost them some victories, so Manning changed his defense from a flat back four, to a three-one. In layman’s terms, the Utes added a sweeper to help prevent breakaways.

“We made some defensive adjustments for the tournament and they were kind of a work-in-progress, but they turned out really well,” Manning said. “By Saturday we were very comfortable with our defense.”

Another addition to the defense has been freshman Emily Campbell, who assisted on the Utes’ only goal in the championship game.

“Emily has been playing very well for most of the season, and we’ve been trying to find a spot for her,” Manning said. “She basically just won a starting position in the back with her play over the last few weeks. As a back player she brings a lot of attacking capabilities, which we really like.”

With a season’s worth of improvement for the underclassmen, the Utes’ play has finally become consistent, but Manning said that another kind of experience will be more instrumental in the upcoming tourney.

“I think our NCAA tournament experience over the last two years will come into play this weekend,” Manning said. “If we were to win on Friday, I feel good that we would give a good performance on Sunday and give ourselves a chance to win, even if it’s against Portland. Two years ago we played BYU in the first round and we beat them, but on the bus ride back to the hotel, the other coaches and I could immediately sense that we were in trouble against Portland because it looked like we had just won the championship.”

There are six players left over from that team, and the embarrassment they felt after losing to Portland should serve as ample motivation for the younger players.

“Against Portland we looked like a bunch of orange cones with red uniforms on them,” one senior remarked. “We had nothing left emotionally.”

With that experience under some of their belts, the Utes will no doubt be ready to compete on the highest level, no matter what hills they have to climb to get there.

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