Duo setting up Utes for success

By By Natalie Dicou

By Natalie Dicou

There are few deadlier combinations in sports than a team that has both a great passer and a great scorer. The U women’s soccer team has one of each.

Head coach Rich Manning hopes his own version of Stockton-to-Malone will step up to the challenge of leading the Utes to another MWC title when the season kicks off Aug. 31.

The passer is sophomore forward Kelly Isleib.

In her first year with the Utes, Isleib helped her team climb the national rankings all the way to No. 11 while taking home conference Freshman of the Year honors in the process. It’s not a small accomplishment considering she did it all on a bum knee. Isleib played last season after just four months of recovery from ACL surgery.

“Her knee wasn’t strong and she wasn’t fit,” Manning said.

Even hampered with an injury, Isleib managed to be effective, tallying four assists.

Manning says Isleib is one of the best passers he’s ever seen — and that’s saying a lot. Before Manning came to Utah five years ago, he served as an assistant coach at Santa Clara, where current U.S. Women’s National Team member Aly Wagner once ruled the midfield. Manning believes that Isleib has the potential to be even better than Wagner.

“Kelly has the ability to play in the World Cup someday,” Manning said.

Isleib’s main target in Utah’s attack will be junior forward Adele Letro, a prolific scorer and second-team All-American who led the Utes with 12 goals in 2006.

“She’s quick and she’s very skillful,” Manning said. “She’s the kind of player that just quietly hangs around and the next thing you know, she’s created a chance for herself.”

The two dangerous forwards will lead a team that lost seven starters from last season. Despite the mass exodus, Manning expects the Utes to be even stronger than they were last year when they swept the MWC regular season.

“I expect us to be surprisingly good,” he said. “My hope is that they take the winning from the last three years and go, ‘OK, that’s been fun, but we want even more.'”

Instead of having to rebuild after losing such a significant chunk of its lineup, Manning says the Utes have reached a point where they can simply “reload.”

“I think the group that graduated last year kind of set the standard for the program and I think this group has been waiting for three years for their chance to shine in the spotlight,” Manning said. “I think they’ll be pretty determined to do that.”

While the Utes’ offensive scheme is already coming into focus, there are more questions than answers when it comes to defense. Last year, the Utes won an unprecedented stretch of nine straight shutouts.

From Sept. 24 to the beginning of November, it seemed like Utah’s veteran backs had created a force field around their goal.

But every defensive starter has moved on — including four-year starting goalie Ashley Mason — and new players are battling for key defensive positions.

But it won’t be all newbies on the Utes’ backline. After breaking her foot on just the second day of preseason last year, defender Amanda Sanchez was sidelined for the season. If she’d been healthy, she would have started, Manning said.

“We expect her to kind of be the rock back there,” he said.

In the last five years, Utah has been one of only five teams in the nearly 50-team West region that has received five straight invitations to the NCAA Tournament.

“The only thing we haven’t done is make a good playoff run,” Manning said.

Utah fell to Portland in the second round of the NCAA Tournament last year.

Now that the Utes know what it takes to play and compete in the first two rounds of the tournament, Manning and Co. hope 2007 will be the year that they break into the third.

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Lennie Mahler

Adele Letro led the U soccer team in scoring last year with 12 goals. This year, the team hopes to improve on its successful 2006 season, in which it won a stretch of nine straight — all shutouts.