It is an exciting year for the Eastern Washington University women’s soccer program.
With an influx of 11 freshmen who joined the team in 2011 and another 11 newcomers in 2012, the women’s soccer team is on the move. After using the 2011 season to rebuild and re-evaluate, the Eagles have experienced a radical transformation of growth and development that has left them excited about the upcoming season. The team attitude that is now shared by both coaches and players is one of confidence.
“The whole vibe of the team has been different,” said EWU head coach George Hageage, who returns for his 13th season at the helm of the program. “You saw that this spring -- the maturity and change in attitude. The younger players realized they can now compete with those players who are a lot older and stronger.”
Joining Hageage on the sideline will be assistant coach Julio Morales, returning for his second year with the Eagles, and goalkeeping coach Tamara Hageage, who enters her 13th year with the team.
After a couple years of struggling to get the players to connect on and off the field, Hageage feels the correct measures have been taken by his staff to bring the team together, and they are now working towards a common goal.
“We have to base our strategy off team, it can’t be off individuals, which I think is what happened a couple years ago,” said Hageage. “Last year, we had a bunch of freshman, but they were all on the same page. Even though we were losing games, we were competing and had the opportunity to win a lot of those games.”
Heading into 2012, Eastern will have 18 returners on the roster, seven of whom were starters a year ago and account for 80 percent of goals scored in 2011. But only 11 of those 18 are actually upperclassmen. Hageage is adding to that group eight 2012 recruits, as well as several promising walk-ons.
With a strong mix of underclassmen returning, Hageage is confident in the abilities of his 2012 squad.
Offensive players offer talent and experience
“The program is in a good position with a talented group of sophomores,” said Hageage. “They are more fit, more confident, and have eliminated a lot of mistakes from the fall. Those players will form the core of our team for the next few years.”
Sophomore Cassie Black, a forward from Battle Ground, Wash., will grace the field once again after a frustrating finish to her once-promising freshman year. After leading the team with six goals in the 2011 season, Black suffered an ankle injury that took more time to heal than the team anticipated.
“Our scoring woes started when Cassie got injured last year. For the last month and a half, she was playing at about 80 percent. For someone who finishes as well as she does and likes to slash, an ankle injury is not good for your game. With Cassie being a freshman and not having the experience to figure out other ways, it definitely hurt our ability to score. But she is healthy now and ready to go, so we are hoping she can build on those six goals.”
Joining Black on the offensive line will be senior Kasey McNeill and junior Siara Byers, who had two goals and two assists in 2011 for the second-most points among returners.
Another player to watch this season is senior midfielder Lauren Jacobsen, who according to Hageage holds down the center of the field as the team leader.
“She brings field experience and knowledge to the team and is an essential part to what will make this young team thrive,” said Hageage.
Jacobsen earned All-Big Sky Honorable Mention accolades for the third consecutive year in 2011. Also returning to the midfield this season will be senior Brittney Conway, junior Danielle Jones and sophomore Haley Stading.
Defense provides strong options as players compete for minutes
Among the few veteran returnees is senior goalkeeper Jamie Walker. She took over the starting position and the role of captain her sophomore year and has continued improving ever since, proving to be one of the top keepers in the conference. She was ranked second in the Big Sky in saves per game (5.33) in 2011, amassing 80 saves on the year. She was twice selected as a Big Sky Player of the Week, and earned the first postseason honor of her career as a member of the All-Big Sky Honorable Mention team.
But with the return of sophomore goalkeeper Nathalie Schwery, who was a member of the Swiss national team before coming to Cheney, Walker will have to work hard to hold on to minutes in the goal, as Schwery is said to be capable of increasing her playing time in 2012.
“Nathalie is playing really well,” said Hageage. “There is definitely competition there. It’s funny to say that with a great senior who has been in the net for three years, but it is one of the things that is up in the air this year,” commented Hageage.
The rest of the Eagle defense still remains to be determined.
“We recruited a number of defenders this year so it will be interesting to see which returning players we push forward into other roles,” said Hageage. “That is going to be the first priority for preseason -- figuring out who we have in the back four and who will be that fifth person to help out.”
One player who is battle-tested in the back though is sophomore Katie Cashman. After starting 13 of 15 games on EWU’s back line in 2011, Cashman was recognized by the conference coaches as a member of the All-Big Sky Honorable Mention team. She played a total of 1,239 minutes - the second-most on the team. Cashman, a native of Granite Falls, Wash., was actually recruited as a forward, but stepped up during her rookie season to fill a need in the back.
“The really great thing about Katie is she can play in the middle of the park or in the back, and still have a major presence offensively. She offers great size, speed and aggressiveness.”
Fresh faces expected to make big contributions
Two additions to the 2012 roster who may help fulfill the needs on the defensive end are junior college transfers Nicole Medeiros and Jackie Rodgers.
“We signed a couple of junior college players this year, because we wanted some more maturity. Both these newcomers can make a huge impression,” said Hageage. “Nicole is an impact player. She is physical, strong in the air and fast. She can run the show in the back, and I look for her to be a leader from day one.”
Hageage is also expecting strong performances from three freshman who are already familiar with the team and coaching staff, as they have all played for Hageage on the local Spokane Shadow club team. Defender Taylor Berdar and midfielder Shayla Weiler out of University High School, along with forward Amanda Bliesner from East Valley High School are said to be “good players who will help with depth, and eventually jump in and carry the program,” according to Hageage.
New plan of attack, and new conference opponents are another focus for 2012
With a fresh core group of players also comes the introduction of a new style of play.
“The college game, especially Division I, is really about athleticism more than anything else. We are trying to possess the ball more, knock it around a little bit, and see if we can break teams down,” said Hageage when asked to define the changes that will be seen this season. “I want us to play the game, as opposed to smack it down the field and run after it. Our goal is to really try to spread the field this year.”
The Eagles will start the season playing in-state rival Washington State in a preseason scrimmage Aug. 17. It should be a great test to start the year, as WSU advanced to the second round of the NCAA Women’s College Cup in 2011. The Eags will officially kick off season play at home Aug. 24 versus North Dakota State.
With two new conference schools in the mix this year, Eastern will play nine Big Sky Conference games, starting with two at home against Weber State and Idaho State on Sept. 21 and 23, respectively.
The ultimate goal is to win enough of these nine league games to qualify for the Big Sky Conference Championship, reserved for the top four teams at the end of the regular season. But with the addition of North Dakota and Southern Utah to the league, yet no additional spots in the tournament, qualifying for this event will be harder than ever. The conference championship will be held the first week of November at the site of the regular-season champion.
2012 Big Sky Preseason Coaches' Poll
|1. Portland State$^||68 (2)|
|2. Northern Colorado$^||66 (4)|
|3. Montana^*||64 (2)|
|4. Weber State^||58 (1)|
|T5. Northern Arizona||50 (1)|
|T5. Sacramento State||50|
|7. Idaho State||39|
|8. Eastern Washington||23|
|T9. North Dakota||16|
|T9. Southern Utah||16|
$ 2011 Co-Regular-Season Champion
^ 2011 Big Sky Tournament Participant
* 2011 Big Sky Tournament Champion