Women's Soccer Preparing to Defend Big Sky Championship
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – The Cardinals aren’t the only
team on the NAU campus in fierce preparation for a title defense.
Across campus at Lumberjack Stadium, The Northern Arizona soccer
team, winners of the 2008 Big Sky Championship, are getting into
shape for their August 21 opener at Utah State. Following the
program’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament and a
disappointing opening-round loss to Portland, the veteran
Lumberjacks return all but one starter in a bid to reclaim the Big
“Obviously the program is in a good spot emotionally after the season we had last year,” said Head Coach Andre Luciano as he prepares for his ninth season at the helm of the NAU program. “We want to build off what we accomplished in 2008, which is to create a winning attitude and to be competitive in every game that we play. We want to appreciate that championships don’t come very often and that we have to work twice as hard this year to get back into a position to win another one.”
The 2008 Lumberjack squad set schools records for wins (12) and winning percentage (.614) while also establishing Big Sky records for assists in a game (14) and points (32). Luciano does not want to dwell on last season, however, as the 2009 campaign will bring new challenges.
“If you rest on last season laurels then it becomes very easy to become complacent,” says Luciano. “Every season is different, every team is different. We have to focus less on what we did last year and more on what we have to do this year in order to win another championship.”
A big challenge in 2009 will be trying to replace Cee Cee Odorfer, the 2008 Big Sky Co-Offensive MVP. Odorfer led the team in every offensive category last season, including goals (10), assists (8), points (28), shots (66) and game winning goals (5). She was a three-time All-Big Sky First-Team selection at NAU and set school records for points in a season (28), career assists (18) and game winning goals (13).
“You don’t replace Cee Cee. A player like Cee Cee Odorfer comes around once in a blue moon in a program like ours,” says Luciano. “We were fortunate to have her here as long as we did. Last year everyone focused on her and we had stretches during the season where if Cee Cee wasn’t scoring, our team struggled. We’ve had different players step up in the spring and in summer training. We will have to play a little differently at times but on the same token I think we’re a little more versatile in terms of the personnel that we have.”
Among the players hoping to pick up the slack will be sophomore Jenna Samora, who tallied seven goals and two assists in 2008 in being named Big Sky Newcomer of the Year. Coach Luciano knows that he needs the explosive Samora to avoid a second-year slump if his team is to succeed in 2009.
“I always tell the freshmen that a sophomore slump is all created by an unwillingness to work harder,” explains Luciano. “Jenna has had a very good spring and she’s relished her roll on the field as a playmaker for us. She’s very versatile and can play a couple of positions for us. She is very gifted in her thought process and her abilities, so if she has a breakout year it’s based on her natural talent.”
Though the team is looking towards the future, last year’s experiences will undoubtedly shape the program for years to come. Prior to falling to Portland in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, the Lumberjacks withstood a 7-0 drubbing by the Pilots in mid-September, a game that helped re-focus the team and led to wins in five of their next six matches. A perennial women’s soccer power and the 2002 and 2005 national champions, playing at Portland twice proved to be a great experience for a Lumberjack team learning how to play in the spotlight. The Pilots have been picked as the No. 1 team in the 2009 TopDrawerSoccer.com preseason poll.
“We had the opportunity to play Portland twice at their home. I think it was an incredible learning experience for all of our players,” noted Luciano. “The first game we played against them really turned around our season as we saw what great soccer looked like. The NCAA Tournament game allowed us to experience the postseason at an incredible venue against an incredible team. No game this year will be as impressive in terms of atmosphere as that. We learned that in order to become great, you have to play great all of the time. It gave us the opportunity to aspire to something at a much higher level.”
The Lumberjacks will continue to play at that high level as the 2009 schedule contains its fair share of quality opposition. The non-conference seasons opens at defending WAC-champion Utah State, a team that went 7-0 in its conference last season. NAU’s home opener welcomes Pac-10 power Arizona, a game that Luciano hopes will match 2008’s home opener against Arizona State in both attendance and excitement. The Lumberjacks will host the Mountain Classic on September 4 and 6, welcoming 2008 Summit League-Co-Champion Oakland and Iowa from the Big Ten. Other non-conference games include a home match against defending Ohio Valley Conference-champion Murray State and a trip to Tempe for a rematch with Arizona State.
“We traditionally like to either schedule heavily at home or heavily on the road based on the conference schedule,” explained Luciano. “Since we have four road games and three home games this year in the Big Sky, our first thought process was to learn how to play on the road and learn how do to deal with adversity early in the season. It will also be good that we have a bye week between our last non-conference game and the start of Big Sky-play.”
The 2009 Lumberjack squad has just four newcomers and a slew of returning players captained by Kristi Andreassen, Rebekah Schmidt and Sarah Vallen, leading Coach Luciano to high expectations for the upcoming season.
“We bonded very quickly over a full season last year. We lost just one starter and one senior so most of our nucleus is back this season. I’m very proud that 22 of our 27 players have been here since July 3, working out on their own and playing every day. Our freshmen have been up here as well going to summer school so they have a very good idea of what this team is about. I would say that the chemistry is going to be very strong.”
With the bitter taste of a 6-1 season-ending loss still resonating, Luciano and his team are eager to get back on the pitch and prove that the 2008 season was simply the start of excellence for the Northern Arizona soccer program.
“I’ve got a good group of kids and I’m really proud of them,” says Luciano. “We’re really excited to get going.”