Utah women's soccer, no longer a Pac-12 underdog, out to build off banner 2016

Hailey Skolmoski returns to help the Utes try to build off their success 2016 season. (Photo / Steve C. Wilson / University of Utah)

Why did it click last season?

“Just the idea of being an underdog,” senior forward Natalie Vukic said.

“We disregarded all the press and attention and we were in it for each other,” added fellow striker Hailey Skolmoski, a junior.

“They always wanted to do better and more, and whatever hurdle they cleared, they were ready for the next one,” coach Rich Manning said. “There was never a time where they felt like, ‘Oh, we’ve arrived.’”

They have, though.

The Utah women’s soccer team, coming off its best Pac-12 season and deepest NCAA tournament run ever, no longer has the capability of sneaking up on anyone. The Utes were ranked No. 20 in the preseason United Soccer Coaches poll, one of five Pac-12 teams in the top 25.

They return eight starters from 2016, including nearly 80 percent of last year’s goal-scorers. Skolmoski was named Tuesday to the watch list for the Hermann Award, given to the best player in the country. The leading scorer from last year, Skolmoski’s 13 goals were most by a Ute since 2007. She became the first-ever Utah player to earn first-team All-Pac-12 honors and later was invited to play for the U.S. U-23 women’s national team.

2017 UTAH UTES <br>Last year’s success • Most successful Pac-12 year (13-4-5, 6-1-4), finished with second-highest ranking ever at No. 16 in the country after run to NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16. <br>No longer an underdog • One of five Pac-12 programs ranked in the United Soccer Coaches preseason poll at No. 20, along with Stanford (No. 2), defending national champs USC (No. 3), UCLA (No. 9) and Colorado (No. 25). Utah was tabbed No. 5 in the Pac-12 preseason coaches poll this week. <br>Returning talents • Junior forward Hailey Skolmoski (13 goals, 3 assists in 2016) named to 2017 MAC Hermann Watch List; Natalie Vukic, Max Flom, Eden Jacobsen, Holly Daugirda, Ireland Dunn, Janie Kearl, Natalee Wells, Aleea Gwerder all played in 22 matches a year ago. Utah returns eight of last year’s 11 starters. <br>Getting started • Face Weber State in preseason exhibition Saturday in Ogden, open at home vs. South Dakota State on Aug. 20.

All this after overcoming an ACL injury the year before.

“I found my love for the game again” in 2016, she said, “and it was like, ‘It can be taken away from me at any moment.’ It was just me realizing I have to give it my all every game.”

The Utes also found motivation in the past. The Utes hovered around .500 in 2015 and 2014. Fueled by a talented influx of freshmen and sophomores a year ago, both crews — veteran and newcomers — gelled to leave behind the struggles of the past.

“They don’t want to go back there,” Manning said.

“Those hard seasons, those really develop you as a team and make you a lot closer,” Vukic said, “because going through those hardships with everyone brings you together.”

The Utes now must learn play with a target on their back. In the preseason Top 25 poll, fellow Pac-12 programs like Stanford (No. 2), defending national champs USC (No. 3), UCLA (No. 9) and Colorado (No. 25) prove, Manning said, how much of a grind regular-season play is.

“It’s the best league,” Manning said. “Every game, one-through-11, all the games are tight.”

Utah’s deepest postseason run came to an end last November against USC in a 1-0 defeat in the Sweet 16. Despite the loss, Utah finished the year ranked No. 16 — its second-highest ranking ever. The season-ending loss was the second in the Utes’ final 17 matches of the season.

“I know they’re really eager for more,” Manning said.

Fueled by the taste of significant success a season ago, the Utes are determined to hike up higher in the Pac-12 pecking order instead of sliding down to similar struggles endured in the past.

“A big thing is keeping our heads,” Skolmoski said. “We’re still a program that’s building our story, whereas those Stanfords, UCLAs, they have their story already. We are building that for ourselves, so we can’t even think about last season. … We have to make a name for ourselves.”