Pre-season recognition may not win games, but the Western Washington University women's soccer team is getting a lot of it.
The Vikings were ranked No.12 in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America NCAA Division II Pre-season Poll, and are also picked to repeat as Great Northwest Athletic Conference champions.
Why the high hopes?
Perhaps because 17 letter winners, including nine starters, return from a 19-4-0 squad, the win total being a school record, which won the GNAC regular-season title with a 12-2-0 ledger. The Vikings claimed the conference tournament championship and eventually reached the Far West Region final of the NCAA Division II National Tournament.
Headlining the returnees are two All-Americans - senior defender Brina Sych(Vancouver/Union), who earned second-team honors from the NSCAA, and senior forward Kristin Maris (Issaquah), who received Daktronics honorable mention.
"We have an immense amount of experience," said WWU coach Travis Connell (11th year, 121-59-19), who was the 2012 NSCAA Far West Region Coach of the Year. "Our players have won matches on talent, they've won on tactics, they've won on toughness. They have that experience of being able to adjust and knowing winning comes in a lot of sizes and shapes."
The Vikings scored 47 goals a year ago, and those scoring of 41 of them return. Leading the offense are two forwards who return in WWU's 4-3-3 system - Maris and sophomore Catherine Miles (Anacortes).
Maris, who plays the central target role, had nine goals and six assists for 24 points. She was a first-team all-region selection and the MVP of the GNAC tournament. Five of her goals were game-winners, including an extra-time goal against Sonoma State in the regional semifinals.
"Teams had to change defensive tactics to deal with her," Connell said of Maris. "She has a great ability to link and hold up play. She's really grown into that role and she's added goals to it. We have a great combination with her strength and our speed on the wings."
Miles had seven goals and team-bests of seven assists and 25 points as a freshman in one of those wing spots. Also back is sophomore Jessica Bertucci (Bellingham/Sehome), who had three goals and an assist before suffering a season-ending knee injury in the fifth game.
Senior Anna Geldenhuys (Bellevue/Sammamish), who has three career goals and saw action in every game last season, provides experienced depth at all three forward spots, and freshmen Elise Aylward (Renton/Lindbergh) and Caitlyn Jobanek (Springfield, OR/Thurston) could factor in at the wide spots.
"We're a very athletic team, especially out wide," Connell said. "Catherine and Jessica can create huge mismatches with their speed and one-on-one ability." There's astounding depth in the midfield. Senior Ashton Griffin (Duvall/Cedarcrest) started all 23 games last year, playing a variety of positions and notching one goal and four assists.
Sophomore attacking midfielders Delanee Nilles (Poulsbo/North Kitsap) and Stephanie Hamilton(Orting/Bellarmine Prep) both contributed immediately as freshmen. Nilles scored five goals and Hamilton had three goals and three assists, including a game-winning goal in extra time against Cal Poly Pomona in the opening round of the regional tourney.
Junior Kim Cooper (Bellingham) returns after starting all but one game over the last two seasons and earning first-team NSCAA all-region honors last year. Junior Kamilla Deeb (Ogden, UT/Bonneville) provides experienced depth there.
"This group has played a ton of minutes, and they are savvy, technical players," Connell said. "Ashton is one of our leaders, and we have two sophomores and a junior who have all been starters."
The backline returns all four starters. Sych, in fact, started the least, opening just 13 games of the 20 she played while nursing various injuries. Despite that, she had five goals and five assists for 15 points from her right back spot, being third on the team in the latter two categories.
"Brina is fun to watch, even as a coach, I'm amazed sometimes," said Connell.
Junior center back Brianna Jones (Bonney Lake) was a second-team all-region pick last season, and senior center back Kayla Russ (Puyallup/Bellarmine Prep) and junior left back Katherine Miccile (Kent/Kentlake) both started all 23 games. Sophomore Chelsea Jackson (Surrey, B.C./Fraser Heights Secondary) and senior Diana Pollock(Bellevue/Eastlake) give the Vikings versatile, experienced backups.
"The athleticism and talent of our back four enables us to take risks other teams can't," Connell said. "We can play up the field and keep teams on their heels."
In goal, sixth-year senior Alyssa Beauchamp (Vancouver/Mountain View) takes over for departed All-AmericanJamie Arthurs, who set school career records for shutouts (39) and goals against average (0.58).
"Alyssa had a fantastic spring," Connell said. "She's waited her turn, and she's going to make the most of it."
The Vikings will look to make school history this season, as the program has reached the NCAA II tourney three times, but will be seeking its first back-to-back trips.
"We definitely have high expectations," Connell said. "The challenge is to use those as a motivation. We have control over how we prepare and how we perform; what you have to guard against is those expectations making you tight instead of motivating you."
WWU will get an immediate test on Sept. 7, as it opens the season by visiting UC San Diego, the team that knocked the Vikings out of the national tournament last November.
There's a new head coach of the Western Washington University men's soccer team, but he's hardly a new face.
Greg Brisbon, the top assistant in the program for 12 of the last 13 years, including eight as the associate head coach, now becomes the head coach.He replaces Travis Connell, who will concentrate solely on leading the Viking women's squad.
"I'm excited," said Brisbon, who holds a United States Soccer Federation "A" level coaching license. "It is different in that I'm making the decisions now, from every little thing to every big thing. There isn't going to be a whole lot of change, I just want to adapt and keep getting better."
He takes over a team that returns a number of key performers from last year's 8-8-2 squad that posted a 6-6-1 mark in Great Northwest Athletic Conference play. Seven starters are among the 17 returning letter winners, giving the Vikings excellent depth.
"Usually there's a gap between the 15th and 25th players on the squad," said Brisbon. "That gap is really small on this team. All of our guys are capable of contributing in matches."
Leading the returnees is senior forward Andrew Weishaar (Puyallup), a second-team all-GNAC pick last year.
Weishaar, a physical 6-foot-1 target forward, tied for the team lead with seven goals in 2012 and added three assists for a team-high 17 points. He has 16 career goals, 12th in school history, with four of them being game-winners.
"Andrew has the potential to be our best all-around player, and he's improved over last year," said Brisbon. "He understands his role, he uses his body to get position well, he's able to get into the gaps, and he passes and finishes well."
A number of players could fill the wide spots in WWU's 1-4-2-3-1 system. Among the returnees there are sophomore Leonard Kusina (Fairbault, MN/Shattuck St. Mary's), who had one goal last year, and junior Caden Sowers (Ferndale).
Just behind the front line at attacking midfield is sophomore Austin Curtis (Bonney Lake), who had three goals last season, two of them in a 2-1 victory over then No.11-ranked Seattle Pacific. Junior Tye Hastings (Mill Creek/Jackson) also returns after missing last season with an injury. Hastings had three goals in 2011.
In the holding midfield spots, sophomore Uche Ugwoaba (Burien/Highline) and junior Gabriele Zaccagnini (Olympia/Capital) both return after each starting all 18 games last season. Zaccagnini had a goal and an assist, Ugwoaba had one assist and earned honorable mention all-GNAC recognition.
The backline is anchored by senior center back Bailey Martin (Tacoma/Stadium), who made 15 starts a year ago.
"Bailey is a great leader," Brisbon said. "He takes pride in being a Viking soccer player and tries to teach guys all the little things."
Sophomore Kurtis Pederson (Puyallup/Bellarmine Prep), who also started 15 games a year ago, could be the other center back, but might also see time in the midfield, and junior Pat Cole (Bellingham/Sehome), who made 13 starts in 2012, is the incumbent at left back. A number of other players could factor in along the back, including senior Dean Byron (Renton/Liberty), who has 28 starts in the last two seasons.
There's great depth at goalkeeper, with a three-way battle for the starting spot. Junior Keegan Rogers (Portland, OR/Portland Christian) started every game last season, posting a 1.29 goals against average and five shutouts to earn all-GNAC honorable mention. Senior Leo Cohen (Seattle/Roosevelt), who redshirted last year, has made 13 career starts and has four shutouts. Redshirt freshman Nico Terenjtev (Mercer Island) is also in contention.
"It's close between all three of them," Brisbon said. "It's really just a matter of who comes in ready to go. I feel comfortable playing any of them."
The Vikings open the season with a bang, travelling to Colorado for games with Metro State and Colorado Christian, then returning home to meet Notre Dame de Namur and Hawaii Pacific in West Region battles before opening the GNAC schedule at Northwest Nazarene on Sept. 19. The Vikings would likely need a series of good results in the non-conference games to have a reasonable chance of reaching the NCAA Division II National Tournament.
"The first four games, as always, are crucial, and there isn't an easy opponent in the four," Brisbon said. "We didn't do well on the road last year, we gave some results away. That's something we want to improve."
Coming off an outstanding 2012 season, there's lots of reasons for optimism for the Western Washington University women's volleyball team.
The Vikings were 24-4 last year, winning the Great Northwest Athletic Conference title with a 16-2 record and eventually reaching the West Region semifinals of the NCAA Division II National Tournament.
Eight letter winners return from that team, including five of the seven regular starters. Leading the way are two juniors - libero Samantha Hutchinson (University Place/Curtis), who earned second-team American Volleyball Coaches Association All-America honors; and middle blocker Kayla Erickson (Gig Harbor/Peninsula), a Daktronics first-team all-region selection.
Coach Diane Flick (14th year, 273-74) recognizes the talent and experience her team has, but Flick, who ranks ninth among NCAA II active coaches with a winning percentage of .787, the best in school history, says patience is still very important.
"You can't expect it all to be there right away, in order to be really good, you have to patiently learn the process," said Flick, who was named GNAC Coach of the Year for the seventh time in 2012. "This group recognizes that challenge and they've taken ownership of it."
Hutchinson is another in a long line of standout liberos for the Vikings. The GNAC Defensive Player of the Year, she averaged 6.41 digs a set, which ranked fifth in NCAA II, and her All-America status marked the sixth time in 11 years a Viking libero had earned that honor.
"Sam's best attribute is her ability to read the game," Flick said. "She takes in the right cues and makes very good decisions. That's 90 percent of the battle; she's so good at reading that she doesn't have to make spectacular plays." Redshirt freshman Bryce Larson (Mukilteo/Kamiak) will also see action in the back row as a defensive specialist.
Erickson and senior Emily Boerger (Marysville/Marysville-Pilchuck) provide another area of strength as returning starters at middle blocker. Erickson was a first-team all-GNAC pick last year, averaging 3.12 kills a set on .341 attack efficiency, as well as 1.19 blocks. She led the Vikings in the last two categories, being second in the GNAC in attack efficiency and third in blocks, as well as being ninth in the conference in kills.
Boerger, who received GNAC all-star honorable mention, contributed 1.85 kills and 0.80 blocks, ranking 10th in the GNAC in the latter statistic.
"We've had a tradition of having two strong middle blockers," said Flick. "That's helpful, because they can go at each other every day in practice and make each other better. It also includes helping younger players behind them understand the position."
Versatile sophomore Jennica McPherson (Seattle/Kennedy) returns at the opposite (right-side) hitter position. Strong at the net, averaging 1.59 kills and 0.41 blocks a set, she's also able to stay in through the back-row rotations to average 2.5 digs and post a team-high 36 service aces.
"She's had a great off-season," Flick said of McPherson. "She's a solid all-around player - she provides an extra passer, she's a consistent hitter, a great outlet hitter and a good defender."
At outside hitter, WWU has to find a way to replace the kills of graduated All-American Marlayna Geary, but Flick believes there's enough depth, not just at that position, but across the entire squad, to accomplish that.
"We have a lot of pieces," Flick said. "We can ask somebody to contribute three kills a set and have a few others increase by 0.5. That's very doable, and should be if you're improving every year."
Junior Kelsey Moore (Bellevue/Newport), who Flick said "had a fantastic off-season," returns as a starter at outside hitter, having averaged 1.99 kills and 0.70 blocks. Also back is junior Emily Cotter (University Place/Curtis), who played primarily in the back row last year, averaging 2.08 digs, but also has 55 career kills. Sophomore Rachel Roeder (Sammamish/Issaquah) saw limited action last season, and redshirt freshman Raney Lepper (Deming/Mount Baker) also provides depth.
"She's very quick and gets to a lot of balls, she also jumps well," Flick said of Dillard. "She doesn't have to take a huge leadership role with this group. She can just focus on making the right choices at the right time."
The Vikings, who have reached the national tournament seven of the last 12 years and are ranked No.17 in the AVCA Preseason Poll, open their season with tournaments at Western Oregon and Sonoma State, with three of the eight matches being against 2012 national tournament participants. GNAC play begins at Montana State-Billings on Sept. 26.
A return trip to the national tourney would be the first time that has occurred for Western since back-to-back trips in 2006 and 2007. The Vikings reached the national championship match in 2007.
Western Washington University will be looking to extend its school record string of men's cross country national appearances to seven in 2013, and the Viking women hope to begin a new string after having a run of four trips to nationals snapped last fall.
"We have two good squads," said Coach Pee Wee Halsell, who is in his 27th season. "With the men we have a very talented group of seniors, and the women's side is very good although still young and not having quite as much depth.
"But our goal for both is to get to nationals and finish in the Top 10. That's where I want these programs to be."
Led by All-American Dak Riek (Sr., Everett/Mariner), who placed 37th at nationals, the WWU men return five of the top seven runners from last year's team which placed 21st at nationals, third at the West Regional and second at the Great Northwest Athletic Conference championships. Riek also earned all-region (fifth) and all-conference (third) honors in 2012, both for the second straight year.
"If he goes into nationals healthy, the sky is the limit," Halsell said of Riek. "As a sophomore he had bronchitis at nationals and last year he competed there with an Achilles' problem. It certainly showed his competitiveness. But he's got the talent to be a top five finisher."
All of the top five runners back this fall are seniors. Besides Riek, they include Chip Jackson (Shoreline/Shorewood), who was a West Region and GNAC all-star; West Region all-star Dylan Peterson (Seattle/Garfield); Tanner Boyd (Camas); and Tabor Reedy (Poulsbo/North Kitsap).
Two more top returnees are Zachary Bursell (So., Juneau, AK) and Jonathan Quimby (Jr., Ferndale).
Two talented newcomers are Juan Castillo (Jr., Lake Stevens), who sat out last season after transferring from Everett CC, and Nathan Richards (Jr., Longview/R.A. Long), who was a redshirt in 2012 after transferring from Clark CC.
Pacing the WWU women is Katelyn Steen (Jr., Sammamish/Eastlake), who earned all-region accolades by placing 22nd. The Vikings finished fifth at conference and seventh at regionals.
Six of the top seven from 2012 return. Besides Steen, they are Mikhaila Thornton (Jr., Bend, OR/Mountain View), Taylor Guenther (So., Vancouver/Prairie), Austen Reiter (So., Camas), Haida Ikeda (Sr., Issaquah) and Arielle Walton (Sr., Issaquah).
Another solid returnee is Haley O'Connor (Jr., Sammamish/Eastlake), who placed at nationals in 2011 along with Steen and Thornton.
For the second time in three years, the NCAA Division II West Regional and national championships are taking place at Spokane on the Plantes Ferry Sports Complex course.
"It should be to our advantage to compete at Spokane as they performed so well there the last time," said Halsell, whose men placed 10th and women 12th at nationals in 2011.
WWU opens its season on Sept. 7 at the Central Washington Apple Ridge Invitational. The Vikings compete at the Sundodger Invitational on Sept. 14, the Eric Anderson Invitational on Sept. 21and the Saint Martin's Invitational on Sept. 28 before playing host to the 40th Annual WWU Classic Invitational on Oct. 12.
The GNAC Championships are Oct. 26 at Western Oregon, followed by the regionals on Nov. 9 and nationals on Nov. 23.