Seventh? Really, seventh?
To the Utah women’s soccer team, it cries out for justification just how their squad, who finished third in 2013 and are returning nine starters, have been picked by the Pac-12’s coaches to finish in the bottom half of the conference.
Utah soccer starts Friday
O The Utes, picked to finish 7th in the Pac-12 conference, begin the season with a road trip:
Friday, 7 p.m. MT » Utes at Oral Roberts
Sunday, noon MT » Utes at Oklahoma
Of course, the Utes aren’t waiting for a recount. After a recent practice when the poll was brought up, Katie Taylor bit her lip before offering a measured reaction.
"Every year we’ve tended to do better than we’re picked to finish," she said. "I don’t think them picking where we are has anything to do with how we’re playing."
The Utes don’t need to be told they belong in the Pac-12 - they know they do.
They proved it with a 10-5-6 record last year, including an unbeaten mark at home, that sent them to the NCAAs for the first time since 2006. They have players that could start on other teams, like all-Pac-12 goalkeeper Lindsey Luke, or preseason all-Pacific selection Katie Taylor who plays midfield.
These aren’t hayseeds who are still windswept by the competition in their conference. They’re no longer just happy to be here.
"Of course it’s easy motivation to say no one believes in us, but I think the fact that they’re upset about things like that means they’ve turned a corner," coach Rich Manning said. "The girls last year were tired of just saying how hard [the conference] is, they said ‘We’re going to do it.’ And that was the difference."
This season’s group brings in that same culture with the experience to stand behind its confidence.
Defense is the hallmark of the Utes, and the team aims to improve on their 10 shutouts last year. Luke might be the best player on the team, but she also has solid defensive players protecting ahead of her such as Megan Trabert and Katie Rigby. Newcomers Audrey Gibb and Janie Kearl, like Trabert, hail from nearby East High and could make an imposing backfield.
On attack, Taylor and Ashton Hall return as the top two point leaders, but traditionally Utah’s offense comes by committee. Expect fresh faces to make an impact here: Freshman Mariah Elmer has impressed in practice with her assertiveness.
Most important, the team agrees, is mentality. They see swagger as an important element in winning games.
"I think last year there was a lot of positive energy," Luke said. "I remember game days we would all be out here, there would be this hunger and this want to make an impact. … It’s really about everybody being on the bus. Everybody being all in and knowing our potential."
How good could they be? Last year gives some indication.
The Utes tied No. 2 UCLA and No. 11 Cal last year. They also gave Stanford, then ranked No. 10, a run for its money before the Cardinal managed to score off a set piece.
That defeat still stings, Taylor acknowledges. So does the U.’s first-round loss to Texas A&M, a 1-0 result that made the team feel like the NCAA Tournament was over before it began.
"It was a learning experience for us, too," she said. "We hadn’t made it to the NCAA tournament in 6 or 7 years, so it just kind of teased us and gave us a taste. Obviously we take it a game at a time, but I think we want to go back. We’re preparing to go further this year."
And they’re not waiting for anyone to tell them they deserve it.
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