Give ’em five

By By Natalie Dicou

By Natalie Dicou

If you think the U’s football team has a tough schedule this year, consider what the Ute futbol team is up against.

The U women’s soccer team — winner of back-to-back Mountain West Conference titles — won’t make its debut at Ute Field until the fifth game of the season. The Utes will spend the first couple weeks of their 2007 campaign on the road.

Slated for this weekend are a pair of experienced teams in Arizona and Long Beach State. The teams are set to return a combined 19-out-of-22 starters.

The Utes, on the other hand, will feature a lot of new blood in the lineup. Seven starters have moved on, including Utah’s entire defense.

“Earlier in the season, (our opponents) might be a little more set in what they do than somebody like us that’s trying to figure out a few new things,” said head coach Rich Manning. “But it’s a good challenge.”

Despite the high turnover, Manning is confident that his players can step out of the shadows of last year’s star-studded group — which posted an unprecedented stretch of nine straight shutouts and led the conference in goals with 1.64 per game.

“I expect us to be surprisingly good,” Manning said.

Perhaps the biggest cleats to fill are those of goalkeeper Ashley Mason, who started for the Utes the past four years.

Sophomore keeper Lynzee Lee is up for the challenge of filling in for last year’s MWC Defensive Player of the Year.

“It’s different,” Lee said of her new role as starter. “I’ve played a couple college games but nothing has been resting on my shoulders. It’s always been (Mason’s) job.”

Despite her inexperience, Lee is ready to make her mark.

“I obviously have the first-week jitters, but I’m feeling confident and ready to play,” Lee said.

The biggest question facing the Utes is their defense. All four starters from last year’s shutout-happy squad are gone.

But Manning isn’t panicking. The coach expects junior defender Amanda Sanchez to step up after being sidelined for all of 2006 with a broken foot.

“(Sanchez) will run the show back there,” Manning said.

Rounding out the Utes’ defense are junior Katy Reineke, freshman Morgan Skeen and sophomore Jena Roberts.

Utah’s strength is clearly in its midfielders.

A trio of talented centerbacks isset to return to the lineup. Taking the pitch this weekend will be sophomore Kelly Isleib and seniors Kiley Jones and Melissa Crespo. Isleib was named co-MWC Freshman of the Year in 2006 despite being slowed by a lingering knee injury throughout the season. Jones was a second team all-MWC selection.

Up front, the Utes lost an offensive threat in Amanda Feight to graduation. But their firepower at the forward position is undeniable. Freshmen Lauren Hair and Erin Dalley will likely have a chance to assert themselves in Feight’s absence.

2006 MWC Offensive Player of the Year Adele Letro will lead the scoring charge again for the Utes. Letro, who netted 12 goals last season, isn’t too concerned about the upcoming road swing.

“It doesn’t really matter because we’re not burnt out yet,” Letro said. “Classes aren’t too stressful yet. By midseason, it gets kind of hectic.”

First up for the Utes is a Friday night showdown against Arizona.

The Wildcats are coming off a so-so season, finishing at 8-10-2 overall last year. Arizona didn’t fare too well in the competitive Pac-10 and only managed to come out victorious in one conference game.

Virtually all the same players who suited up for Arizona in 2006 are on its roster this year, including 19-out-of-21 letter-winners and six of the team’s top seven goal scorers.

On Sunday morning — bright and early — the Utes will face Big West champion Long Beach State. Kickoff is scheduled for 9 a.m, a highly unorthodox start time. The game was originally scheduled for 2 p.m.

“It’s definitely a challenge,” Manning said of the bleary-eyed start time. “It’s something that was kind of thrown at us a couple weeks ago as a surprise and we’re not happy about it?I think it will affect the quality of the game.”

Long Beach State is coming off its best season in school history. In 2006, the 49ers finished the year at 14-5-1 and took home the conference title.

“They have two players that are terrific headers of the ball,” Manning said. “Up front, they are small but quick.”

The 49ers’ defense would best be termed as stingy. Last year, Long Beach State blanked its opponent 14 times.

Nine starters from last year’s team will return to the 49ers’ lineup, which enters the season ranked No. 25 in Soccer Buzz’s annual preseason poll. Utah didn’t make the list.

“I think that if we’re going to get where we want to go as a program that we have to go to tough places on the road and get some results,” Manning said.

The Utes will play their first home game against Idaho State on Sept. 14.

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Jarad Reddekopp

Jen Christoffers dribbles the ball downfield in an Aug. 23 practice scrimmmage at Ute Field. The Utes prepare for their season opener against Arizona on Friday in Tuscon.