AZUSA, Calif.-- Last season the Azusa Pacific women’s soccer team suffered the worst start in head coach Jason Surrell’s 13 seasons, opening the 2012 campaign a 3-5 record midway through the season. The program that had long been the standard of success in the NAIA looked lost in its first season of Division II play.
But the Cougars pulled it together and found their rhythm in their first year in the Pacific West Conference, rattling off 10 consecutive wins to end the regular season to take second place with a 12-2 PacWest mark. And while the year abruptly ended in the NCCAA West Region semifinal following a shootout loss to Point Loma, Azusa Pacific showed not only that it belonged, but that it was a contender.
The 2013 Cougars, who are No. 2 on the conference’s preseason coaches poll, are hoping to learn from last season’s inaugural venture through the PacWest, all with a roster that features more newcomers (16), than returners (13). And with a staff that’s had a chance to adjust to life in a new conference, and a young, but talented group on the field the Cougars look poised to continue their momentum from last year’s late-season run.
“Last year there was a newness of playing in a Division II conference, and it took some time to adjust. It only helps that we have that experience with traveling in the PacWest because now we have a staff and returners that know what the travel is like. I think that can only benefit us,” said Surrell. “But it goes both ways. We know what to expect now from the other programs, but they know what’s coming from us. I believe we have a talented enough group that if I come up with a good game plan we’ll be able to have a quality season.”
Azusa Pacific’s newcomers will have to fill the void the 11 seniors left from last season. The Cougars’ returners only accounted for seven of the team’s 35 goals in 2012, and Alyx Williams is the only player back that registered at least two scores a season ago.
“It’s a bit unusual that we have more new players than returners. We’re bringing in a lot of talent so the challenge is to integrate them into our system. We’ll be relying on our senior leadership and I think that group is capable of handling it. They’ve done a great job, they know what it’s like to play at Azusa Pacific, and they’ve done a really good job of showing the rest of the players what it looks like to be part of this program.”
The Cougars welcome two NCAA Division I transfers in Allyn Brown (Pepperdine) and Mayra Almazan (UC Santa Barbara), along with 14 high school recruits. The senior group of Daniella Perez, 2012 All-PacWest defender Natalie Nick, 2011 NAIA tournament Outstanding Defensive Player recipient Danielle Ross, and four-year starter Allie Stone will anchor the back line while fulfilling a key leadership role.
“Our lineup still to be determined. We’ve had really good competition in our preseason training and with so much talent we could go with several different lineups. I’m hoping that from an experience standpoint we’ve gained enough. I expect us to compete in the PacWest and do what we did last year and be right there in the mix until the final week of the season,” said Surrell.
The 2013 women’s soccer slate kicks off with a classic Azusa Pacific vs. Lee matchup. The Cougars and Flames have met nine times since 2005, with Azusa Pacific holding a slight edge (5-4) in the all-time series. The Flames, however, ended the Cougars’ season in 2010 and 2011 at the NAIA tournament during their four-year national championship run. Thursday night’s matchup will be the Flames’ first-ever visit to the Cougar Soccer Complex.
Following the opener, the Cougars will take on Cal State Dominguez Hills as part of a men’s and women’s doubleheader on Saturday night before traveling down highway 57 for a 5:30 p.m. tilt at Cal Poly Pomona. Azusa Pacific begins its PacWest slate with a brief two-game road trip at Holy Names (Sept. 19) and Academy of Art (Sept. 21). The team’s longest home stretch of the season begins on Sept. 26, when the PacWest’s four Hawaii schools come to the Cougar Soccer Complex. Azusa Pacific then travels to Dixie State, Dominican, and Fresno Pacific before concluding its home schedule with a 1 p.m. game against California Baptist. The regular season finale is set for Nov. 9 at Point Loma.
Azusa Pacific is losing 28 of its 35 goals from a season ago, and replacing the team’s senior production from 2012 will be a vital task. Amanda Hardy, Haley Fisher and Williams will bring continuity up front for the Cougars, while newcomers Lindsey Ryals and Katelyn Rogers should have a big role in the team’s attack. Hardy has tallied 11 assists in her first two years, pacing the Cougars in that span, while Williams came on strong towards the end of her sophomore season.
“In years past we’ve had a lot of players returning and we sort of knew what we had going into the season. This year we have so many new pieces. A lot of the players have really stepped up. Katelyn has unlimited potential with what she can do, and I expect her to be a quality forward right away,” said Surrell.
Fisher and Williams came through with key goals in their first year with the team in 2012. Williams scored a crucial goal in the team’s 2-0 defeat of Point Loma on Oct. 23, and Fisher tabbed the game-winner in a road victory over Grand Canyon on Sept. 29.
The Azusa Pacific midfield also lost its share of experience, with All-PacWest seniors Shannon Righetti and Emily Wood graduating, along with Lynsey Browne and two-time NAIA All-American Markie Gleason. The departure of four senior starters, however, gives way to a new group to take charge. Junior Shannon Hardy has had an impact since her freshman season, and her five career goals rank behind only Williams among Cougar players. She’ll be joined by Cassidy Burr and talented newcomers Victoria Kovatch, Haley Williamson, Brown, and Alamzan. Brown played one season at Pepperdine before coming to Azusa Pacific, while Alamazan, who attended South Hills High School and played for Cougar assistant Scott Mocabee, spend one year at UC Santa Barbara.
“Allyn is extremely technical. She sees the game really well, and it’s obvious that she trained at the Division I level. She should step in right away and help us. Mayra can be a difference maker for us immediately. She’s very crafty and is one of those kids that can make you shake your head with some of the plays she can make,” said Surrell. “Victoria has good size, speed, and is very athletic. She comes from a good club team and she’s really going to impact us right away. I expect her to see the field from the get go.”
The Cougars’ back four returns each of its starters, with Logan Chan and a trio of accomplished seniors anchoring a defense that’s surrendered only 37 goals in the past 63 matches. Azusa Pacific led the conference in goals against average (0.61), and its 10 shutouts ranked third in the PacWest. With the amount of talent and experience returning, the Cougars looked primed for another dominating defensive season.
“We’re returning a lot back there, and I expect them to be as good as they’ve always been for us. Danielle, Natalie, and Allie are all very experienced and have a really good connection. They all play really well together. I’m also excited with what we’re bringing in with some of our freshmen. We have so many players that can play, and it really gives us a lot of options,” said Surrell.
“Hayley is a strong one-on-one defender and has a good understanding of the game. She should see minutes early on. Courtney is the ideal centerback. She has good size, she’s athletic and strong. She’ll impact us this year because she’s a quality defender,” said Surrell.
If there’s one area that took the biggest hit in terms of expereince, it’s between the posts. The Cougars lost All-PacWest keeper Michelle Wieland, whose 36 career shutouts rank second on the program’s all-time list, and don’t return a goalie. Azusa Pacific will now have to rely upon a pair of true freshmen in Sarah Klinkenberg and Kristin Wilson. Klinkenberg has impressed in training, and with Wilson hobbled by an injury, is slated to open the season as the starter. The two have big shoes to fill, as Azusa Pacific keepers have compiled 49 shutouts over the past four seasons.
“We’ve had some very good keepers over the years and I expect that to continue with Sarah and Kristin. They’ve been battling in practice and both of them give us a different dimension. Right now Sarah has the spot, she’s been fantastic. But based on what Kristin can do, once she’s healthy I expect them to continue to compete for time. We’re looking forward to having the opportunity to use them both,” said Surrell.