AZUSA, Calif.-- If there ever was a team capable of making Azusa Pacific’s first year in the Pacific West Conference a hit, it’s this year’s women’s soccer team. The women, who return a program-record 11 seniors, bring back 30 of their 33 goals from their 2011 NAIA semifinal run, and lose just one starter. The Cougars also have one of the best coaches in the business in Jason Surrell, who leaves the NAIA atop the career winning percentage list (200 win min.) with an astounding .847 clip (209-30-19) in 12 seasons. His teams have never lost more than four matches in a season and have posted 15 or more wins in 11 of the last 12 years.
This year’s Cougars have five players that have received All-NAIA or All-GSAC recognition in the past few seasons, and with the amount of returners, it should be a group that can get the ball rolling from the get-go.
“In terms of seniors and experience it’s at the top. This group is capable of greatness, but it’s just a matter of getting it done,” said Surrell.
The Cougars are moving to the PacWest, an NCAA Div. II conference that has seen its membership rise from just nine schools to 14 since 2010. The PacWest spans three time zones and four states, and with stops in Hawaii, San Diego, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Phoenix, Ariz. it’s known as division II’s ‘destination conference.’
How Azusa Pacific fares in its first season playing an NCAA Div. II schedule and in the PacWest will in large part depend on its leadership and seniors; something the Cougars have in spades.
A Slew of Seniors
While the jury on whether or not this is the most talented team in Azusa Pacific history is still out, it is without a doubt the most experienced. As mentioned earlier there are a program-record 11 seniors on the roster, a changeup from the combined five in the past two seasons.
There are seniors at every part of the field, with Michelle Wieland returning in goal, and Natalie Sun coming back as the team’s top scorer from 2011 alongside fellow senior Heidi Witschi up front. 2011 NAIA All-Americans Molly Lavin, Markie Gleason and Rachael Harding will patrol the middle of the field, while Madeline Arterburn, and Emily Wood are entering their fourth seasons in the program. Jacqueline Conforto will be the lone senior playing primarily in the back, looking to bounce back from an injury-riddled junior season. Add all of that to a pair of seniors with NCAA Div. I experience in Lynsey Browne (UC Riverside) and Shannon Righetti (San Jose State) and you have the makings of a group that alone could contend for a PacWest title in 2012.
Between The Posts
As has been the norm for Surrell’s teams over the past decade, defense will be a strength, thanks in large part to the return of Wieland, who put together an impressive junior campaign while splitting starts with 2011 senior Alexa Douglas. The duo combined for 15 shutouts, while holding opponents to just eight goals in 21 games. In 2011 Azusa Pacific shutout its opponents nearly three times in every four contests, registering a 0.37 goals-against-average.
This year Wieland enters the season atop the depth chart and the career goals-against-average list. Her 0.36 clip is the best in program history (min. 30 decisions), and she ranks third on Azusa Pacific’s all-time shutouts list with 26 clean sheets in three seasons. She recorded 10 shutouts in 13 starts in 2011, and played in all four of Azusa Pacific’s NAIA tournament matches where she held opposing teams scoreless in three straight games before the Cougars fell to Lee (Tenn.) in the semis.
Freshman Brandi Wegerle will play behind Wieland in her first year with the program.
On The Front Line
Scoring may not have been Azusa Pacific’s strong suit in 2011, but that should be a different story this season. The Cougars return their top goal-scorer in Sun, who finished the season on fire, scoring three goals in the NAIA tournament, earning NAIA all-tournament honors. Sun, a 2010 All-American, recorded 10 goals in her junior season after rehabbing from a leg injury last offseason. This year she came into camp in the best shape of her career, something Surrell noticed right away.
“Natalie’s our most fit player right now. She definitely came into camp motivated to have a great senior season,” he said.
Playing next to Sun will be fellow senior Witschi, who missed the early part of last season with an injury. Witschi has 13 career goals under her belt, and brings a level of experience that should help the team be more dynamic up front. Amanda Hardy is coming off an impressive freshman season where she worked her way into the starting lineup by year’s end. She started the final seven matches, including three GSAC tournament games and four NAIA playoff contests. Hardy assisted on six goals in 2011, finishing second in that category. Shannon Hardy scored four times in her first season with the program, notching the team’s first goal of the year against Trinity Western (B.C.), before knocking in the game winner in the next match against Lee.
Newcomer Alyx Williams had a strong collegiate debut at Chico State a year ago. The sophomore found the back of the net five times as a Wildcat, and was named California Collegiate Athletic Association Player of the Week after she scored a pair of goals to help clinch the team’s CCAA North Division title. Fellow first-year Cougar Haley Fisher, who could contend for minutes early on, will add to the depth up front .
“Obviously we’d like to finish more of our opportunities this year. With Natalie and Heidi up front the experience factor is there so none of the situations should be too much for them to handle,” said Surrell.
“Amanda had a great freshman year, and we’re looking for her to continue to improve. I think Haley will be a great addition. She brings tenacity and strength, and sees the ball well.”
Daniella Perez is one of the team’s best natural talents, and after seeing time in the playoffs in 2011, is ready to see her role in the offense increase.
In The Middle
The Cougars have incredible depth across the board, and that’s no more apparent than in the midfield. Gleason, Harding, and Lavin are coming off All-American junior campaigns. In 2011 Lavin had a knack for coming through in the clutch as four of her six goals were game winners, including back-to-back winners against Rocky Mountain (Mont.) and Holy Names. Harding, who spent her first three years as a defender, is playing in the middle for the first time. She earned NAIA All-American honorable mention recognition as a junior despite missing the last five matches of the year, and was a 2010 first team All-American on top of being an All-GSAC performer over the past two seasons.
From a defensive standpoint Browne, who is having a strong camp, gives the Cougars an edge in the middle, while Wood and Righetti are strong attacking midfielders that should see increased roles in their final season with the team. Madeline Arterburn is coming into her fourth season with the program, while first year players Cassidy Burr, Jasmine MacDonald, and Kira Heggeland add to the team’s depth. Burr has looked extremely athletic during preseason workouts, and could contend for playing time as a true freshman. Second year players Kendra Trifonovitch and Ally Whitlock should also provide Surrell with options in the middle while challenging for minutes.
“Our midfield is extremely deep. They are calm and composed and distribute the ball well. The midfielders are the ones that keep the offense moving,” said Surrell. “You can always count on Markie to be solid and this year we want her to be even more involved in the game. Molly is great offensively, while Lynsey gives us a lot in terms of defense. Emily and Shannon have both played the attacking midfield really well. Kendra has come on since her freshman year, and then you have Logan, who may play a little more defense this year. It can get pretty deep for us.”
The Back Line
If the midfield is the deepest area for the Cougars, the back line is right there with it. Danielle Ross was named the Outstanding Defensive Player of the 2011 NAIA tournament after helping the Cougars to three shutouts in four matches en route to a semifinal appearance. And then you have Allie Stone, who may be the most important defender for the Cougars. She missed all but seven games as a sophomore, but in the seven matches she played Azusa Pacific posted five shutouts. She started in 20 games a a true freshman, and looks poised to anchor a Cougar defense that has given opposing teams fits over the years.
“The interesting thing there is that Allie gets the least amount of recognition, but she’s the one who organizes the defense. She’s the real glue back there. Ross and her play really well together.”
Natalie Nick was Azusa Pacific’s assist leader in 2011, notching eight assists as the Cougars’ primary corner kicker. She returns for her third year with the program, while Conforto enters her fourth season after missing much of last year with a leg injury.
Sophomore Logan Chan was a mainstay in the lineup as a true freshman, starting 14 times in 20 matches. She returns with a year under her belt, and as one of the team’s more skilled players.
Transitioning To The PacWest
Azusa Pacific was more than comfortable in the Golden State Athletic Conference, winning the GSAC title 10 times since 1993. The Cougars left the conference as the winningest program, compiling a .832 mark against GSAC opponents. In the PacWest, however, none of that will transfer as the Cougars will have to make a name for themselves as one of four new programs in 2012. The team, however, isn’t really changing its game plan, despite heading into unfamiliar territory.
On the docket in the first season will be road trips to the Bay area for contests with Academy of Art University, Dominican, and Notre Dame de Namur. The team will also head to the desert for road tilts with Grand Canyon (Ariz.) and Dixie State (Utah). The home schedule will see three Hawaiian schools at the Cougar Soccer Complex, with Hawaii Pacific, BYU-Hawaii, and Chaminade making visits in October. Azusa Pacific will, however, have a bit of normalcy as the team squares off with former GSAC foes California Baptist, Fresno Pacific, and Point Loma.
“Our focus is to win the conference. There’s a lot of unknown for us, so that’s what we’re going to try to prepare for. Obviously the travel will be more extensive, so we need to adjust to that,” said Surrell. “But for the most part we’re going to do what we’ve been doing for years, continuing with what’s worked for us. Personally, I’m excited. It’s a little refreshing after so many years of doing this.”
Under The Lights
With the addition of a new set of lights at the Cougar Soccer Complex, many of Azusa Pacific’s matches will be played under the stars. Opening night is slated for Saturday, Sept. 1 against long-time rival Biola at 5 p.m. with the men’s team playing the nightcap at 7:30 p.m. The Cougars will face California Baptist, Hawaii Pacific, Chaminade, and Point Loma for night games in 2012.
Gleason: 2011- first team NAIA All-American, All-GSAC; 2010- second team NAIA All-American, All-GSAC
Sun: 2011-NAIA all-tournament team; 2010- NAIA first team All-American, All-GSAC
Harding: 2011- NAIA All-American honorable mention, All-GSAC; 2010-NAIA first team All-American, All-GSAC
Lavin: 2011- NAIA All-American second team, All-GSAC
Ross: 2011- NAIA tournament Outstanding Defensive Player
Williams: 2011- NCAA Div. II Championship Player to Watch