Back where they belong

By By Tom Quinn

By Tom Quinn

The Mountain West Conference tournament is set to begin tonight, and the U women’s soccer team could not be in a better position. The Utes looked unstoppable this season, running the conference table and capturing the No. 1 spot as well as the first-round bye that goes with it.

“We certainly had a successful conference season,” U head coach Rich Manning said. “Collectively, the team is in a great frame of mind right now. We have been here before, and the players are used to the pressure that comes with the tournament.”

As Manning said, the Utes are no strangers to success. In fact, they’ve been in this position before.

In 2005, Utah secured the top seed in the MWC tourney by breezing through an undefeated conference season. With the exception of a tie against BYU in Provo, the Utes rarely faced any serious opposition within the Mountain West.

Unfortunately for Utah, that regular season success didn’t translate into a strong showing at the tournament in Las Vegas. The Utes lost to upstart New Mexico 1-0 in the semifinals, a defeat that not only sent them home early but also put their NCAA berth in jeopardy.

“That was awful,” junior midfielder Melissa Crespo said of the loss last year. “We should have won that game and the tournament.”

One year later, the team is hell-bent on avoiding a repeat performance. Although tired sports clichs about “taking things one game at a time” ring hollow in most situations, the players on Manning’s team actually believe what they are saying.

“I’m just trying to live in the moment right now,” senior forward Hailey Marsh said. “I’m thinking about last year, but in a good way. We all remember how that loss felt, and we don’t want it to happen again.”

Manning, in contrast, hasn’t lost any sleep thinking about what happened last year. Although the vast majority of the players are the same, Manning has said time and time again that this year’s team has little in common with the 2005 version.

“Last year’s team had one bad game and then lost five of their next six,” Manning said. “This team is much more confident. If something goes wrong, they have what it takes to deal with it.”

These days, everything seems to be going right for Manning and Co. They earned a first-round bye, which means they get to watch while New Mexico and San Diego State slug it out to see which team will meet the Utes in the semifinals.

History suggests that Utah would fare equally well against either team. Utah faced both teams on the road during the month of October, defeating New Mexico 3-0 in Albuquerque and SDSU 2-0 in San Diego.

Furthermore, the Lobos have never beaten the Utes in Salt Lake City, a fact that bodes well for a Utah team that will be looking for revenge should New Mexico advance to the second round.

Meanwhile, the Aztecs, who tend to play well at high altitudes, have a 2-2-1 mark against Utah at Ute Field. SDSU has suffered four straight losses after nearly defeating BYU in a 3-3 tie in Provo earlier this month.

The Utes, it seems, don’t care which team advances; they just want to get on the field.

“I’m very pumped up right now,” senior defender Carisse Winegar said. “We have a lot of confidence heading into this tournament. We’re all very excited for Thursday night.”

Lennie Mahler

Ute junior forward Chelsea Card battles with a Wyoming defender during the teams’ Oct. 27 showdown.