Aug. 26, 2002
With another year under their belts, the members of the Baylor soccer team appear poised and ready to take yet another step forward as they try to recapture the Big 12 Conference championship in 2002.
With eight of 11 starters returning, the Bears have an experienced squad returning this fall to battle for the conference title. Yet, with four underclassmen included among the 11 projected starters, Baylor expects to have a certain youthful energy as an asset, as well.
Coming off a year marred by injuries, the Bears hope 2002 will be different. Baylor suffered from a revolving door in goal last season, as four different players saw time in the net while the team's stable of goalkeepers was racked with injuries.
"Despite our overall record (8-10), we as a coaching staff were very proud of our team," head coach Nick Cowell said. "The year didn't go as expected because of things that happened out of our control.
"When that happens, it humbles you, but in the long run, it can help you. As you face adversity as a group, it can strengthen you. Last year's problems brought our team closer together and gave us a renewed sense of purpose."
Freshman keeper Mel Pannell severely dislocated her shoulder in the team's first game a year ago, starting the carousel in motion that would be Baylor's goalkeeping situation. After nine months of rehab, Pannell seemed poised to reclaim that starting job this season. That is, until she reinjured that same shoulder during the summer. Pannell underwent total reconstructive surgery on her shoulder and has since retired.
With Pannell out of the picture, the starting mantle falls to incoming freshman Tanya Sena. Sena, however, broke her thumb late in the summer, and could be a question mark come Opening Day. Should she be unavailable, freshman Morgan Pinter will fill her place in goal.
"Last season's problems are so fresh in our minds," Cowell said. "To have to worry about the goalkeeper position is a headache we don't need."
Thankfully for Cowell and the Bears, the other positions are much better off. On defense, the team welcomes back senior Tamura Crawley, a three-time all-Big 12 selection, and team co-captain Melissa Humke. Joining last year's two returning starters will be junior Casey Cleveland, who impressed with her play late last season, and freshman Kandyce Farr.
"I'm excited about our defense," Cowell said. "The No. 1 thing we'll work on during the preseason is our defensive shape. We're changing our formation this year to a 4-3-3 (four defenders, three midfielders, three forwards), because whoever is in goal will be inexperienced. Having four in the back gives us a more solid foundation and different attacking options coming out of the back."
Junior Hillary Jacobson and freshman Tiffany Haines will also likely see time on defense.
"This is Casey Cleveland's time to step forward, and Kandyce will be a quality player right from the start. Katie transferred in and played well during the spring. She's likely to compete for some time. Hillary is one of our unsung heroes, pushing everyone to get better; that's something our team appreciates and needs. I would like to see Tiffany step up and take some responsibility her freshman year."
The entire starting midfield returns from a year ago. With one senior and two juniors manning the position, midfield is the Bears' most experienced and deepest position. Senior Whitney Barrett will partner with juniors Ryan Lee, the team's assist leader last season, and 2002 all-Big 12 honoree Candace Reilly.
"One of the strengths of our team is great depth in the midfield," Cowell said. "With depth, we can rest our players. Since these are generally the players who run the most, it's good to be able to get them rest and see no drop off on the field.
"Whitney sets the standard for this team in terms of fitness. She is a very consistent, very dependable player with a heart the size of a horse," Cowell said.
"We all know Candace's abilities as a leader. She is a very technical and smart tactical player who we can rely on to anchor the midfield.
"Ryan is probably our most improved player, from the day she walked in to now. She has great vision and can see things through a defense that lead to assists and goals."
Fighting for time with the experienced trio will be newcomers Kate Hensman, a junior transfer, redshirt freshman Tiffany Boshers, and true freshmen Amber Cole and Bethany Vick.
"Kate transferred in at mid-year and did very well in the spring. Tiffany is a phenomenal left-side player, something we need. Bethany is an exciting outside-mid player, very hard-working and technically adept.
"Amber, one of our top recruits, is coming off ACL surgery. She may not factor much at the beginning of the year, but hopefully by conference will really be getting going," Cowell said.
Leading the Baylor attack will be three sophomores and one junior. Despite their lack of seniority, the foursome has an impressive amount of experience. Sophomores April Robertson, Ginny Rosario-Tull and Kristin Ruef each appeared in every game last season, while junior Emily Fukuchi led the team in scoring as a freshman and finished fourth on the team in points last season. Freshman Sam Savage, along with Cole, will provide depth at the front.
"Ginny has the potential to follow in Courtney Saunders' footsteps as an all-Big 12 or all-America player, and even to hopefully play in the pros," Cowell said.
"Kristin has worked harder than anyone else to raise her fitness and strength levels; we'll see the effects of that this fall.
"April exceeded our expectations as a freshman. She's a 'steady Eddie,' a consistent force. She's a great finisher, and very good in the air -- an unusual trait in women's soccer.
"There is no better striker on our team than Emily Fukuchi. She's the most technical forward we have. It's amazing in practice how accurately she hits the ball.
"The thing about having sophomores playing together is that they've grown in together here," Cowell said. "They have a lot of games under their belts for being so young. This year, they will be a much stronger force... I look for them to be much more consistent this season."
That consistency wil be needed, as the Bears approach yet another tough schedule in 2002. Among Baylor's opponents are six teams that qualified for last year's NCAA Tournament, led by Elite Eight team Texas A&M and 2001 conference champion Texas. All this while playing in the prestigious Big 12 Conference, one of the nation's top collegiate soccer leagues.
"The league is probably better as a whole this year," Cowell said. "There's not a lot of difference between the number one team and the number six team in our league."
The team has set three stages of goals for the upcoming season. The confidence goal: making the Big 12 Tournament. The realistic goal: finishing among the top four teams in the Big 12. The barrier-breaking goal: winning the Big 12.
"And of course, the NCAA Tournament is always an expectation for the program," Cowell said. "But it's more the daily things that we need to concentrate on. If we do the daily things, the bigger goals will take care of themselves."