SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Coming off an appearance in the Sweet 16, Santa Clara women's soccer, ranked No. 10 in the country, is almost ready to start the 2014 season and try to make the 25th NCAA Tournament in program history. The Broncos will open the season Aug. 22 at 7 p.m. vs. UC Irvine. Last year Santa Clara finished 16-4-2 overall and 8-1-0 in the West Coast Conference en route to a share of the 10th conference title in program history.
"We're in a really good spot," said Santa Clara head coach Jerry Smith. "Preseason is about coming together as a new group and just getting ourselves ready for the first couple games. I think we're right on track. In some ways we're a little ahead from where we normally are, so we're excited about that. The team has pretty good preseason fitness and the preseason strength looks pretty good also. The team is working really hard at coming together. The last thing that really comes together for us is successful attacking play and goal scoring. We're certainly not where we want to be, but for preseason I think we're in a pretty good spot."
The Broncos finished 2013 with the second-best offense in the country, scoring 62 goals, or 2.82 goals per game. They outscored opponents 62-25 and outshot other teams 398-242. Santa Clara registered 208 shots on goal while holding opponents to 127.
Sofia Huerta, named to the M.A.C. Hermann Trophy Watch List, led Santa Clara last year with 16 goals and 40 points while tying for the team lead with eight assists. Jordan Jesolva is the second-best returning scorer. Jesolva found the back of the net five times and added two assists for 12 points. Both players were named to the Preseason All-WCC Team. Dani Weatherholt is the only other returner that scored more than one goal last year and she scored twice.
"In Sofia you have an All-American who has played well at the front of our team had a great season last year," said Smith. "We're looking for Sofia and someone like Jordan Jesolva to take the lead role for us in terms of creating chances and scoring goals. I think this year more than last year it will be attacking and goal scoring by committee, which can really be a positive thing. It takes a while for all of that to come together. I would encourage our fans and our team to be a little patient with the team at the beginning of the year knowing that ultimately we are going to be a very good team. Having said that I'm very pleased with what I am seeing in the preseason. We certainly won't be a great team in our opening weekend but we're going to be pretty good and we're optimistic about how good a team we can evolve into when we get to the conference season."
The Broncos lost 27 goals and 14 assists in seniors Julie Johnston and Morgan Marlborough as both went pro. Smith knows that the rest of the team will have to step up around Huerta to pick up the slack.
"Having great goal scorers like Morgan Marlborough and Julie Johnston is awesome to have in clutch situations," explained Smith. "You lean a little more heavily on those guys, so when they're gone you worry about it. But oftentimes there is an upside or silver lining to those guys not being there, and that is an attitude that because those two are gone everyone has to contribute more. I'm hoping that philosophy will come into play regarding our goal scoring. Julie scored some goals, Morgan scored some goals, but if we all try to contribute to making up that difference we could end up with another great attacking season this year."
Another spot where Santa Clara lost a ton of experience was in the backline. The Broncos lost three seniors in Ellie Rice, Allie Vernon, and Sarah Jackson who started the majority of games on defense. Alyssa Kleiner will be the only regular starter to return on the backline, but goalkeeper Andi Tostanoski will be in her third season as a starter in 2014. Last year Tostanoski started all 22 games and picked up 98 saves with a .803 save percentage. Santa Clara recorded nine shutouts in 2013 with Tostanoski picking up six solo while contributing to three more with her back up Molly Mettler.
"The biggest transition for us will be in our backline," said Smith. "That's from an attacking standpoint and a defensive standpoint. We have a number of people ready to fill some of those voids, however. Ali Jones has seen some time for us at the back and Ashley Doyle is an experienced player. We have a number of new players that are also going to be vying for positions back there in Megan Keeth and Kellie Peay, a transfer from South Carolina Anjel Brown. We don't know who is going to be playing back there but we know we have several good options. The team we had last year was one of our best teams and great teams have a lot of senior starters. Great teams also have a lot of players that are behind those senior starters waiting for their opportunity and I think we have a number of people that are waiting for an opportunity to be a starter for us and will put a very good team out there. But in terms of new faces in new positions, there will be more of that in our back line than anywhere else on the team."
As with any new season, there are new players on the team. This year the Broncos will have nine newcomers, with junior Kiara Burkett having arrived on the Mission campus last winter. The challenge for the coaches will be to determine what newcomers will take on starting roles and how the players fit together. The challenge for the players will be to come together as a team and learn how to work as a group.
"We have one transfer in Anjel Brown and a new face in Kiara Burkett has been here since last winter," said Smith. "The new players have integrated in very well. I would say in terms of building the chemistry that you need to have a successful team we are ahead of where we normally are at this time of year. One of the reasons for that is we ran a summer strength and condition program for our players that was a great way for them to get ahead on strength, get ahead on conditioning, and get ahead on the chemistry of coming together as a new group. I said to the team, and its clearly the case, we're ahead of where we normally are in preseason. There are a lot of reasons for that such as the summer program, the leadership we have on our team, and the personalities that we have on our team are really working hard at creating a culture of togetherness and unity. For all those reasons we are in a really good spot right now. We have to get a lot better and we'll learn some hard lessons along the way. The goal is to be good in October and November and ultimately the Final Four. We are certainly tracking in that direction."