FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – The 2013 Northern Arizona women's soccer team brought the program back to the Big Sky Championships for the first time since 2010. Last year's squad set a standard the 2014 team looks to carry on in their quest towards a Big Sky title.
Looking forward to the 2014 campaign, head coach Andre Luciano enters his 14th year at the helm for Northern Arizona and returns a talented roster infused with young talent. The Lumberjacks bring back 13 letter winners along with six All-Big Sky Conference selections. Not only does Luciano bring back some major contributors from last season's squad but also brought in 11 freshman eager to step onto the pitch and make an immediate impact on a team that looks to build off last year's 11-5-3 record and a second place finish in the Big Sky.
"The majority of the players that we have coming back are experienced," said Luciano. "We have seven starters coming back with a lot of young and quality players so the challenge for this team is the mindset they bring to the field."
The Lumberjacks have to experience life without Lauren Weaver who graduated in the spring and went down as one of the best goalkeepers in NAU history. Looking to replace Weaver is redshirt sophomore Natalie Gilbertson, sophomore Cheyanne Mumphrey and freshman Meghan Dickmann.
"All three of them have positive qualities that are going make our backline better," said Luciano. "Meghan Dickmann and Natalie Gilbertson are both good communicators and all three of them are good shot stoppers. I feel that we are deeper this year than we were last year."
None of the keepers on this year's squad saw any action on the field last season for the Lumberjacks, but Gilbertson did play in seven matches her freshman season and started in five of those matches. Although Mumphrey did not play during the regular season, the keeper did get playing time in her first spring season against some tough competition that included UofA, Embry-Riddle, New Mexico and Grand Canyon.
The Lumberjacks will rely a lot on their defense this season, which returns leadership from seniors Diane Buzzard and Sarah Tarver. Three of the four starting backline from last season returns in Buzzard, Tarver and sophomore Danny Muniz, all who made All-Big Sky Honorable Mention this past season. The challenge will be replacing 2013 captain and First-Team All-Big Sky defender Alana D'Onofrio; replacing D'Onofrio looks to be redshirt sophomore Alexia Gonzalez, who missed all of 2013 due to an injury.
"This may be the deepest part of our team right now based on experience," said Luciano. "We are really counting on Sarah Tarver and Diane Buzzard to provide leadership and understand what we need as a team. Alexia Gonzalez has recovered very well from her experience with the Mexico National team and it has really helped her. We have a lot of depth at the position but when you look at our nucleus it starts with the backline."
NAU's defense was stellar last season as the team allowed an average of 0.99 goals a game. Luciano will have a plethora of defenders to back up the starters as junior Ashlynn Curnow, sophomores Missy Kettelkamp, Mattie Wojcik all were contributors to last year's squad. Also add in freshmen Maddie Sjothun, Amber Measley, Riley Porter and Micaela Scafani to the mix and the Lumberjacks have plenty of options on the backline.
The midfielders saw a lot of success in 2013 and nobody saw that more than sophomore Cierra Gamble who was named First Team All-Big Sky. Gamble, now a junior, scored 13 points during the conference matches and was awarded Co-Golden Boot Award winner along with Mackenzie Harrison from Weber State. The Lumberjacks also bring back senior All-Big Sky Honorable Mention Savannah Berry, senior Malia Tano and junior Emily Wadell who all were major contributors last season as each player scored at least one goal in 2013. Seeing more time in the midfield is sophomore Lindsay Doyle who was third on the team in 2013 with four goals.
"The biggest thing with our midfielders is continuity," said Luciano. "Having the same group play together for three years is extremely helpful. Our holding center-mids are both veterans and talented in Emily Wadell and Malia Tano along with Lauren Doud. I think Brooke Evans can come in and make an impact on this team and then you add Savannah Berry and Cierra Gamble as our attacking mids and we are very deep. Also, with the addition of sliding Lindsay Doyle back into the midfield line that should give us some added depth."
The Lumberjacks also have junior Lauren Doud returning as well as two new midfielders in Chantal Deroos and Brooke Evans coming in as freshmen.
The Lumberjacks made major improvements on offense in 2013 scoring 28 goals, which was 13 more than the 2012 season. Nearly half of those goals were from junior Haley Wingender. Wingender, who was Second Team All-Big Sky, was second on the team in points with 13 behind Gamble and looks to lead the charge of a very young but talented group of forwards.
"The key with our forward line is they can interchange with our midfielders," said Luciano. "Haley Wingender returns as our leading goal scorer of the group but players like Savannah Berry and Lindsay Doyle can step into that role for us. The addition of Adrian Nixt is going to be very helpful for us this year."
Luciano and his staff brought in four forwards in Emma Bushell, Anna Goebel, Adrian Nixt and Alyssa Emig who will redshirt this season due to injury. Also returning are juniors Torey Braly and Demi Schmieder who is coming of an injury but will look to make an impact as she made All-Big Sky Honorable Mention as a freshman. In her freshman campaign, the local product of Coconino High School scored three goals and added four assists for a total of 10 points.
It is an early start to the 2014 season for Luciano and his squad as they kick off the season on Aug. 15 against in-state opponent Arizona State. Last year NAU started the season on Aug. 23 and when you fast forward to this season, Northern Arizona will have played two matches before that date. Their non-confrence schedule will bring in some unfamiliar schools from all across the states that include Valparaiso, Wright State and South Dakota. Returning for the second year in a row is in-state rival Grand Canyon after a competitive match last year in which NAU came out on top 1-0. The Lumberjacks will have five away matches during their non-conference schedule against ASU, UofA, UNLV, UC Riverside (played in Las Vegas, Nev.) and finishing at UTEP.
"Our schedule is pretty similar to last year because we started our first 3 games on the road and then we come home on a Sunday for a game against Valparaiso," said Luciano. "We have some tough opponents in UNLV and UC Riverside who finished as the runner-up in the Big West Championship. This schedule is only going to make us better."
Five home Big Sky matches await the Lumberjacks as the 2013 regular season champions Portland State come to town on Sept. 26 to kick off their conference schedule. NAU will also host Sacramento State, Eastern Washington, Montana and Southern Utah at Lumberjack Stadium this season. This year Northern Arizona will travel to new member of the Big Sky the University of Idaho; this will be the first time that NAU will travel to Moscow, Idaho to face the Vandals.
"We like the fact that we have 10 home games with four Friday night games," said Luciano. "With the addition of Idaho, we needed to have more of a balance with the home and away games."