Aug. 29, 2007
Piece by piece, Baylor soccer head coach George Van Linder knows the program is building towards reaching the success the program enjoyed when the Big 12 Conference formed 11 years ago. After last year's appearance in the Big 12 Conference Championship, its first appearance at the post-season event in five years, Van Linder and the 2007 version of the Bears believe the building blocks are in place for a successful 2007 campaign.
"We have to build on last year's success," Van Linder said. "We might not have accomplished all that we had hoped for last season; but, the fact we were able to do something that has not been done here in awhile seemed to light a spark for the team as they prepared for this season."
The spark could be seen in the early summer months as most of the team remained on campus to participate in several conditioning programs with the hopes for a strong start when school opened for the fall.
"We had the best summer by far since I have been coach," Van Linder said. "Every player wanted to get better during the off-season and I think they were able to accomplish quite a bit and learn a lot about themselves."
Aside from the summer workouts, another strong reason for optimism is the amount of experience returning for the 2007 season. Only one starter is lost from last year's squad and the return of eight seniors gives this team the experience it needs to have a successful 2007 campaign.
"The eight seniors are going to help us a lot this season," Van Linder said. "They understand the work it is going to take in order to be successful. I think they have shown a lot of the underclassmen how important this year is to them and how much they want to improve from a year ago."
With eight seniors and 21 letter-winners returning, Van Linder recognizes how unique of a situation the team is in. Not many squads around the country have as much chemistry as the Bears have heading into the first contest against Louisiana-Lafayette.
"We only lost a pair of scorers and everyone else is coming back," he said. "I think there is a lot of comfort with each other and that should help going into the season. Everyone is familiar with the system. So, I think the chances are good we should have a pretty successful year."
A big reason for the hope is the return of a large sophomore class which had an impact on the success of the team last season. 10 sophomores return, including a large number of players who saw significant minutes last year.
"The sophomores are really going to play a key role on this team," Van Linder said. "They made an impact last year and I only think things are going to get better for them this season."
Of course, success will not come easy in the rugged Big 12 Conference; however, Van Linder believes this year's team is fully capable of making some noise during league play.
"Our goal this year is simply not to make the conference tournament," Van Linder said. "We want to make the NCAA Championship. In order to do that, everybody has to realize their role in meeting that goal. With the amount of experience we have returning and the talented players we have coming in, I believe it's possible."
With a strong defense and first-team All-Big 12 Conference goalkeeper Ashley Noah returning for the 2007 season, the forwards might decide just how far the Bears will go in 2007. In the past, Baylor has been able to hold opponents to low scoring totals; however, the Bears have been unable to put enough tallies on the board to take the team to the next level.
With the arrival of freshman Cecille Henriksen; however, Van Linder believes he now has more than enough fire-power up front to make up for the losses of leading scorers Anna Schuch and Missy McConnell.
"Cecille (Henriksen) is a special talent," Van Linder said. "Even though she will be a freshman this year, we are going to look to her to put up some strong numbers. She is an extremely tough athlete who should play a very important role."
Henriksen, who played club soccer with Fortuna Hjorring out of Denmark, is a Danish national who has an extensive soccer career. The freshman has played against some of the top teams in Europe and should provide an immediate impact.
In addition to Henriksen, seniors Pat Roscovius and Jessica Hutton, along with Amanda McGrath and Lauren Weathers should provide the Bears with more depth at the attacking position than has been seen in recent memory.
Roscovius tallied five points for the Bears last year while McGrath and Weathers each tallied a goal for Baylor a season ago.
"We moved Pat (Roscovius) up front late last year and she really created some solid opportunities for us," Van Linder said. "She spent the off-season training as a forward and is one of the hardest working players we have so I expect her to be successful. In addition, Jessica (Hutton), Amanda (McGrath) and Lauren (Weathers) will also see significant time up in the front."
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. With a solid group of incoming freshman to compliment some experienced players, the midfield position could be one of the strongest for Baylor this year.
White returns for the Bears in the midfield after scoring five points last year to tie for third on the team in the category. The sophomore appeared in every game for the Bears and will provide a steady presence for the team in the upcoming year.
"I really think we have a lot of depth at the position," Van Linder said. "Obviously, in order for our forwards to be successful we will need some midfielders to step up. I think we have the athletes who can come in and make some positive things happen."
In addition to White, Nicky Smith returns for her sophomore season after recording two assists while seeing action in all 19 games a year ago. Senior Laura Brock should also provide added support in the midfield while Andi Fagan and Carolyn Lynch return for the Bears after each making 17 appearances last season.
With so many returning and experienced players, Van Linder expects to see marked improvements in how aggressive the midfielders go after balls in the air.
"I think the strength of the midfield this season will be their ability to win the ball in the air," Van Linder said. "That is something we have struggled with in the past; but, this year's squad seems to be much more aggressive in going after the 50/50 balls."
Part of the reason Van Linder expects to be successful in the air are the additions of freshman Lotto Smith and Lindsey Johnson. The pair comes in as highly touted recruits after outstanding high school careers.
"Lotto (Smith) is extremely talented in the air and has absolutely no fear," Van Linder said. "She is a special athlete. Lindsey (Johnson) is also good in the air and has really good ball control. We definitely expect these two to come in and have an immediate impact."
Although the midfield has its fair share of experienced players returning, it's the defense that has far and away the most depth and experience returning for the 2007 season. Every starter returns in the back as Baylor looks to put a clamp on the opposition.
"We have a lot of veterans and a lot of choices in the back," Van Linder said. "The closer you get to the goal the stronger we are as a team. That says a lot because we have a lot of talented players up front."
Leading the way in the back is senior Rose Zapata. The fourth-year starter has played in nearly every game as a Bear and looks ready to anchor the defense for another year. In addition, fourth-year starter Megan Sherrell returns along side senior Shea Yates to give the defense a tremendous amount of experienced leadership.
"We have a lot of experience for a limited number of spots," Van Linder said. "Everybody will see some playing time; but, the competition for the starting spots should be tough; and, I only think that will make us better."
A player who should get a number of starts in the back is sophomore Betsy Kyle. The second-year player returns after starting every game last year as a freshman. A versatile player, Kyle scored a goal and added a pair of assists to help lead Baylor last season.
Despite nine position players returning for Baylor in 2007, the unquestioned leader of this year's squad is senior goalkeeper Ashley Noah. The former Ashley Holder (she was married to Chris Noah in July 2007), Noah returns after earning first-team All-Big 12 Conference honors in goal last season.
An All-America candidate heading into the year, Noah enters the season only 63 saves shy of setting a new, Big 12 Conference mark for most saves in a career (held by former Baylor great Dawn Greathouse).
"This should be the year she really breaks out," Van Linder said. "She is an extremely talented player who is a hard worker and is undoubtedly our team leader. Ashley (Noah) is an experienced player who will not be intimidated. If our offense can score some goals we know it's going to be a special year because Ashley has the ability to take over games in the net."
The 2007 season should prove to be a historic one for Noah as the fourth-year starter looks to set a number of school and conference records as she closes out her successful career.
Although Noah will likely see a majority of the action in between the posts this season, a pair of talented goalies will be there to back the senior leader up throughout the year. Gianna Quintana returns for her sophomore season while freshman Courtney Seelhorst joins the squad to allow Baylor to go three-deep in net for the first time in years.
"They push each other as back-ups," Van Linder said. "With Courtney (Seelhorst) and Gianna (Quintana) we are comfortable that position is in good hands once Ashley leaves school."
The 2007 schedule is highlighted with nine home games that includes a number of contests against premiere Big 12 Conference programs.
Baylor opens Big 12 Conference play with a pair of home games against Kansas (9/28) and Missouri (9/30) before embarking on the road to face Oklahoma (10/4) and Oklahoma State (10/6).
"The key is starting off right in Big 12 Conference play," Van Linder said. "We face four very tough opponents to open the conference season. I think the team will be poised and ready to start off the conference season with a strong start."
Other key matches in Big 12 play include a date with Texas in Waco on Oct. 14 as the Bears close out the season against defending Big 12 Conference regular and post-season champion Texas A&M on Nov. 2.
In order to prepare for the conference grind, another challenging non-conference slate has been established for the Baylor soccer team. The marker for the program as it prepares for the conference season should be when the Bears travel to California in mid-September. Baylor faces Cal State Northridge (9/14) and Long Beach State (9/16) in a pair of contests that will help the Bears prepare for another rigorous conference schedule.
The home non-conference slate is highlighted by the home-opener with Louisiana-Lafayette (8/31) as well as a match against in-state rival Texas State (9/2) to open the 2007 season.
The schedule is one Van Linder feels can help the 2007 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."