In the world of sports, teams are not usually defined by the quality of the starting line-up who often start and finish a game; but, rather, by the quality of depth that fills a void when a starting player needs to sit out. For fans of the Baylor soccer program, the above statement should imply good things for the 2006 version of the Bears.
For the first time during his tenure, head coach George Van Linder believes he has the depth necessary to make a strong run through the Big 12 Conference; and, possibly, a run at the NCAA Championships for the first time since the 1999 season.
"I feel for the first time since I have been here, we have the necessary depth to compete and win at a high level," head coach George Van Linder said. "In the past, the strength of the team has been a particular area such as defense, offense, etc. But, for the first time, we are deep at every position. We believe this should translate to more wins this season."
The depth comes in the form of one of the strongest recruiting classes in the country. Van Linder and staff welcome 13 new players to the program this season, the largest recruiting class of Van Linder's four years at Baylor.
Although there is plenty of quantity in the class; more importantly, there is quality. The class includes Olympic Development Program players, high school All-Americans, Canadian National Pool members; and, of course, players who have won countless all-district, all-region and all-state honors.
In fact, the class did not go unnoticed on the national stage. Although recruiting rankings can sometimes be meaningless, Soccer Buzz Magazine ranked Baylor's incoming class 10th in the region and 55th in the nation, the highest total for Baylor in the rankings in school history.
"On paper this is one of the best signing classes in school history because we have been able to address quality with quantity," Van Linder said. "This is a very strong class from a defensive standpoint and will compliment the attacking players we have signed as well."
In addition to the strong recruiting class, the spring season has brought about excitement for the Bears. For the first time, Baylor went undefeated during the 2006 practice session, giving the team a boost in confidence that may have lacked after a disappointing 2005 campaign.
"The team really got a boost from the spring season," Van Linder said. "For the first time since I have been here, I believe the team has the confidence going into the season that they can accomplish some special things. The kind of attitude they are taking towards this season makes me believe they are ready to be successful."
Maybe more important than the positive attitude Van Linder sees in his squad, is what the fourth-year head man saw on the field during the spring season. In 2005, despite a stellar defense, Baylor managed only 18 goals on the season which translated to several close losses. However, if the spring is any indication, the Baylor soccer team is poised to finish its chances and give the team an offensive boost it lacked a season ago.
"Obviously, it was a disappointing season last year because we were unable to score goals," Van Linder said. "However, this spring I saw a team capitalizing on its chances. We scored some great goals; and, more importantly, we scored more goals."
The goal outburst has every player excited about the upcoming season. Most importantly, however, is how it has every player on the Baylor soccer team focused on the task at hand.
"The most important thing about this past spring and what the newcomers have brought to this team is a renewed focus," Van Linder said. "I think the team is focused as a team; and, most importantly, excited about what they can accomplish this season if they continue that focus."
Despite losing standout Tiffany Boshers to graduation, Baylor returns leading goal-scorer Amanda McGrath as well as senior Anna Schuch. McGrath returns after scoring five goals a year ago while Schuch has shown she is more than capable of putting up points after registering 17 points as a sophomore and nine points last season, including the first hat trick in nearly five years for Baylor.
With the return of McGrath and Schuch, as well as the addition of several key newcomers at the position, Van Linder believes Baylor soccer fans will see a more aggressive style from the forwards in 2006.
"In the past, we have been more cautious with our style," Van Linder said. "This season, I think we will likely be much more aggressive. We have the capability to emphasize ball pressure and take a little more wide open approach."
One reason for the change in approach has been the performance of newcomer Katie White. White, who played club soccer throughout her career and was a part of the regional Olympic Development Program, left high school early to participate in spring drills with the soccer team.
"Anna (Schuch) and Katie (White) had great spring seasons for us," Van Linder said. "It was obvious Anna was going to show more of the things that made her so successful her first year and Katie was going to come in and make an immediate impact."
In addition to the trio above, should Baylor need other players to step in at the position, players such as senior Missy McConnell, junior Jessica Hutton, as well as freshman Beckah Brady, Tara Lomas and Jackie Iacovelli have all seen action at the position and are capable of stepping in.
Although the forwards usually get the glory of scoring the goals, it is usually the midfielders who set up the chances through controlled play and quality crosses. If the spring is any indication, the Baylor midfield is ready to provide the forwards with the chance to light up the scoreboard.
Even though the Baylor midfield may be the youngest of the position groups in terms of experience, Van Linder saw some great things during the spring, particularly from returning players McConnell, junior Pat Roscovius and junior Shea Yates.
McConnell, one of only two seniors on the squad, has made 45 career appearances for the Bears over three seasons while Roscovius and Yates enter their junior seasons with 25 and 15 CAPS, respectively.
"Missy (McConnell), Pat (Roscovius) and Shea (Yates) all had outstanding spring seasons," Van Linder said. "Each of them showed they were more than capable than assuming the leadership roles we would need out of the midfield position."
In addition to the returning players, Baylor brings in a batch of newcomers that should provide an immediate impact for the Bears at the midfield position. Newcomers Tara Lomas and Betsy Kyle, in addition to Waco native Kaitlyn Amos, should give Baylor the blend of youth, experience and depth the Bears need to be successful.
Lomas comes to Baylor after an outstanding career at Terry Fox Senior in Pitt Meadows, British Columbia, while Kyle joins the Bears program after playing for one of the most prestigious club teams in the country, So Cal United, out of southern California. Amos, a Waco native and graduate of Midway High School, comes to Baylor after earning first-team All-Super Centex honors for two consecutive seasons.
Finally, Lara Doherty, who can play defense as well, is a newcomer who will also see time in the midfield. Doherty comes to Baylor after an outstanding Canadian high school career where she qualified to compete as a part of the Canadian National Team pool.
"We have some extremely talented newcomers who should make an immediate impact at the midfield position," Van Linder said. "I would not be surprised if some of the freshman come in and start playing quality minutes in the midfield right away."
In addition, returning junior Laura Brock, who is coming off of knee surgery, and returning sophomores Mollie Smith, Andi Fagan and Carolyn Lynch should give Baylor an added boost as it heads into the season.
Without a doubt, on paper, the strength of the Baylor soccer program heading into the 2006 season is the defense. One of the strongest defenses in the Big 12 Conference a year ago, Baylor returns every starter at the position from last season, giving the Bears one of the most formidable defenses in the conference.
Probably the most experienced position for Baylor heading into the season, juniors Rose Zapata and Megan Sherrell return for the Bears. Since their arrival on campus two seasons ago, the duo has made their presence felt to opposing teams as the pair have played and started in almost every game since their arrival.
Last season, Baylor allowed only 32 goals, one of the lowest totals in school history as the Bears managed to keep games close through stellar defensive play.
"Our defense is definitely the most experienced and deepest position we have on the team," Van Linder said. "Rose (Zapata) and Megan (Sherrell) have obviously shown they can perform at this level. In fact, Rose has really stepped up and shown she will be a leader on this year's squad."
In addition to the returning duo, Baylor brings in talented newcomers Elena Sutherland, Nicky Smith and Megan Humke. Sutherland, a transfer from LSU who saw action in every game for the Tigers last season, comes to Baylor and is capable of playing forward as well after scoring four goals last year.
Humke, whose sister, Melissa, was a standout for the Baylor soccer program from 2000-03, comes to Baylor after a strong career at The Woodlands high school where she participated in numerous ODP regional camps.
Finally, Smith, comes to Baylor after an outstanding career at Cedar Park (Texas) High School, where she was named the district's most valuable player following her junior season.
Freshmen Nichol Watson and Lauren Weathers round out what Van Linder believes should be one of the top areas for the Bears for the upcoming season.
With any good defense, a strong goalkeeper is needed in order to turn away the chances that happen to get through the initial line. With the return of junior Ashley Holder, Baylor has one of the best in the business.
Holder, who has started in all but one game during her career, returns after recording 125 saves a year ago, the second highest total in school history. The California native is shooting up the Baylor career goalkeeping charts and is poised for another strong season.
"Ashley (Holder) had another outstanding spring season for us," Van Linder said. "She continues to be steady in the net for us and this season should be no different."
Behind Holder heading into the season is talented freshman Gianna Casarez-Quintana. The next in line of what has been a steady stream of some of the nation's top goalkeeper's is this first year player from St. Pius X High School in Albuquerque, N. Mex., who led her team to the state title and No. 13 national ranking her junior season.
The freshman posted the lowest goals against average in the state her junior and senior seasons and is a more than capable back-up for Holder in net.
"Gianna (Casarez-Quintana) arrived to campus early and has really shown what she can do," Van Linder said. "She has a tremendous learning curve and is more than adequate should she need to step in for Ashley (Holder)."
The 2006 schedule is highlighted with eight home games; however, without a doubt, the most important part of the schedule is the three-game home stretch to open Big 12 Conference play against some of the toughest opponents in the league.
Baylor opens Big 12 Conference play with defending champion Texas A&M on Friday, Sept. 22, before hosting Texas (Sept. 24) and Iowa State (Sept. 29).
"The key is starting off right in Big 12 Conference play," Van Linder said. "We face three very tough opponents to open the conference season. However, playing the first three games at home could be a huge advantage. I think the team will be poised and ready to start off the conference season with a strong start."
In order to prepare for the conference grind, another challenging non-conference slate has been established for the Baylor soccer team. A date with defending national champion Portland (Sept. 8) looms as well as contests against Indiana (Sept. 1) and Purdue (Sept. 3) as a part of the Big 10-Big 12 Conference Challenge.
The home non-conference slate is highlighted by a contest with Samford (Sept. 17), a team which advanced to the second round of the NCAA Championships a season ago, as well as the season opener against Northwestern State (Aug. 25).
The schedule is one Van Linder feels can help the 2006 Baylor soccer team meet its ultimate goal.
"Our ultimate goal is to advance to the NCAA Championships," Van Linder said. "I think we have a built a non-conference schedule that will allow our team to see the goal is in sight once conference play begins. Once Big 12 play happens, it is just a matter of our team staying focused and realizing the goal is in reach."