FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – The Northern Arizona soccer team returns home on Friday where its played in front of one of the country's top home attendances all season long to square off against preseason Big Sky favorite Portland State at 7 p.m. at Lumberjack Stadium. The Lumberjacks are back in their home confines with a 2-1 conference record, 4-6-2 overall, after a weekend split at Weber State and Idaho State a week ago.
"Anytime you have an opportunity to play at home in conference, you have to make the most of it," said head coach Andre Luciano. "Three points (for a win) in a conference game is huge and this weekend gives us the opportunity to win and perhaps sit in the top-two or three in the conference at a critical stage of the season."
NAU kicked started last weekend's two-match road swing with its third consecutive 1-0 victory, shutting out Weber State behind the play of junior Lauren Weaver in goal and a score courtesy of freshman Cierra Gamble. Gamble notched the game-winner, her second goal of the season, towards the ending of the first half and Weaver tied her career-high of 11 saves to preserve the victory. The Lumberjacks appeared to be on track for a weekend sweep, striking first against Idaho State on a goal by redshirt freshman Malia Tano, but conceded two quick goals to the Bengals in an eventual 2-1 loss.
Entering play this weekend, the Lumberjacks currently are on the outside looking in, sitting in a tie for fifth place with six conference points. However, they've played just three Big Sky games through the first two weekends of conference play as compared to the majority of the teams in the conference who have played four.
The play of the defense has been key to the Lumberjacks' recent success over their last five games in which they've gone 3-1-1. With a backline consisting of senior Georgia Foltz, junior Alana D'Onofrio, sophomore Diane Buzzard and freshman Alexia Gonzalez and Weaver anchoring the defense in goal, the Lumberjacks have allowed just three goals during that span and posted three shutouts.
"Team cohesion has been the key," Weaver said on the Lumberjacks Weekly Podcast. "We've all learned how to play together and we're starting to mesh."
Offensively, Gamble and Tano both tied freshman Haley Wingender for the team-lead in goals with their respective scores last weekend. The Lumberjack trio each has two goals, accounting for six of the nine NAU goals this season. Freshman Demi Schmieder picked up her team-leading fourth assist on Tano's goal at Idaho State and now leads the team with six points. Her four assists is the third-most in the conference entering the week.
The Lumberjacks are unbeaten, 2-0-1, in their last three home games and are 2-2-1 overall at home this season with their only home losses to Pac-12 in-state rivals Arizona State and Arizona. A big part of their home success has been the Lumberjack soccer faithful that has packed Lumberjack Stadium to an average home attendance of 1,006 through the first five home contests. The per game average currently puts NAU at No. 20 in the nation and the fifth-most among schools outside the six power conferences. Two of the five home attendances this season already rank in the top-10 largest home crowds at Lumberjack Stadium in school history.
"I think we're all pretty excited to be home," Weaver said. "It's just a whole new vibe at home coming back from a road trip to have the fans there. It means the world to us when everyone comes out and it brings our level up. Having the ball girls out there and the fans cheering helps us out."
The team hopes to have another packed crowd on hand for Friday's match against Portland State as the Vikings come into the game tied for first in the Big Sky standings with nine points. Portland State is riding a three-match winning streak and comes into the weekend with a 5-6-1 overall record and 3-1 conference mark a year after finishing the regular season as the co-Big Sky champions.
The Vikings have outscored their opponents, 9-2, in their four conference games. Daniela Solis leads the Vikings with eight points on three goals and two assists, while Megan Martin, last year's Big Sky Offensive MVP, Amanda Dutra and Kelsey Henningsen each have two goals. Lainey Hulsizer has been stout defensively for Portland State with her conference-leading 0.98 goals against average this season.
The Lumberjacks own a 10-4-3 series edge over the Vikings and are undefeated at home against Portland State in eight all-time matches. The two teams played to a 1-1 tie last season in Portland and NAU has not lost to Portland State in its last seven matches, going 4-0-3 since 2006.
National Women's Soccer Home Attendance (Per Game):
|1. Portland: 3,443||11. Maryland: 1,277|
|2. BYU: 3,261||12. Utah: 1,252|
|3. Texas A&M: 2,363||13. Louisville: 1,204|
|4. North Carolina: 2,163||14. TCU: 1,185|
|5. Penn State: 1,784||15. Virginia: 1,132|
|6. Georgia: 1,544||16. Dayton: 1,111|
|7. New Mexico: 1,504||17. Florida: 1,086|
|8. Stanford: 1,495||18. Colorado: 1,043|
|9. Florida State: 1,419||19. Tennessee: 1,009|
|10. Notre Dame: 1,317||20. Northern Arizona: 1,006|