Aug. 14, 2006
Eastern Washington University goalkeeper Tiera Como already proudly wears one tiara as the best defensive player in the Big Sky Conference in 2005. In 2006, she hopes to place a second Big Sky Conference women's soccer crown atop her head.
Como returns for her senior season hoping to continue the success she's had her first three years in the program. Last year she had 121 saves and four shutouts, and had an impressive .829 save percentage with a 1.32 goals against average. She was a first team All-Big Sky Conference selection and was named the league's Defensive Player of the Year.
She is easily Eastern's all-time leader in shutouts with 10 and a 1.28 goals against average. Her 268 saves are second in school history, 82 behind the record. She helped Eastern win the 2004 Big Sky Conference regular season title.
"She has definitely been one of the reasons we have been so successful over the last three years," said Eagle head coach George Hageage. "We are glad to have her back for one more year. She will be the rock hopefully of our defense."
Besides Como, Eastern returns 14 other letter-winners and six other starters from last year's squad that advanced to the Big Sky Conference Tournament for the third time in the last four years. However, Eastern is still looking for its first-ever victory in the four-team tournament, and believes this year could be the year with Como and several other pieces in place to help get the team over the hump.
Four starters and a total of seven letter-winners were lost from a hard-luck Eagle squad that finished 2-3-1 in the Big Sky and 4-11-3 overall with a schedule that included a pair of nationally-ranked teams and a total of five teams which participated in the NCAA Tournament.
Eastern's schedule in 2006 could prove to be just as challenging. The Eagles will play 10 of 19 matches at home, including four Big Sky Conference opponents.
"Just like every year, we could lose to everybody on this schedule but we could also probably beat everybody on this schedule," Hageage said. "I am going to get more gray hairs. I think adding Northern Colorado to the Big Sky helps us this year because we have four home games in our conference, and that is really the key with soccer. It is really important to win four games now (to advance to the league tournament) so hopefully that will really help us out. And we wanted to play some teams out of region early in the season. Hopefully that will give us some momentum as we get back to the West Coast."
Eastern plays Pacific 10 Conference opponents Southern California on the road and Oregon at home, and will make a road trip to Illinois.
"We have a pretty tough schedule again," Hageage continued. "Any time you play Pac 10 teams that always increases your schedule strength. And Nevada crushed us (4-0) down at their place last year. So we are really looking forward to having them back at our place and it would be nice to get a little revenge. They are a very good team and had another good recruiting class. Gonzaga is another tough game for us like it is every year, and Long Beach State is very good. Those are probably the five teams that are going to be really tough for us."
Eastern has talent throughout its lineup -- including a very promising class of sophomores -- but the anchor is Como. Her progress has been steady after graduating from East Valley High School in Spokane, Wash., in 2002.
She redshirted her first year in the program, then was limited to 11 games as a freshman because of a broken leg. She had a 1.60 goals against average that season, but has a 1.20 average since then with nine shutouts. Much of the credit goes to the team's goalkeeper coach, who happens to be Hageage's wife Tamara.
"Tiera came in with a lot of potential and did really well here in Spokane as a high school athlete both in basketball and in soccer," said Hageage. "We knew if we just polished her up a little bit technically to get her to that next level then she could really be dominant. I think the last two years we have seen some of that for sure. And I think the best is yet to come. She has been working really hard so I think she will turn it up one more notch. It is going to be very tough to score against us."
Returning letter-winners Kelsey Tufnail and Nicole Deshazo are the team's top defenders returning, with Tufnail starting all 18 games a year ago. Deshazo started 11, and Cat Baller started 14. Several other returning letter-winners and incoming freshmen will challenge for positions.
"We lost a couple of players, so our defense will be interesting," said Hageage. "Kelsey Tufnail and Nicole Deshazo are coming back and both played substantial time in the back. That is really it. So it is going to be interesting to see what happens. Both of them haven't had a lot of experience -- last year was the first year they had some good game time in the back. Although Kelsey has been around awhile she hasn't really played in the back. We are a little bit green there so it will be interesting to see what happens with some of our new freshmen coming in."
One player the Eagles hope returns to full health is senior Jennifer McMullen, who has battled injuries the last two seasons. Her twin sister Kim McMullen earned All-Big Sky honors all four years she was at Eastern, including second team accolades in 2005 and 2003, and honorable mention in 2002 and 2004.
"Jen has had two years here where she hasn't been able to play because of injuries," Hageage said. "So her experience being around the program hopefully will help shore the defense up a little bit. We are looking forward to that."
At the midfield and forward positions, Hageage is excited about a young sophomore class that received valuable playing time as freshmen in 2005.
"The strength right now with our team are the players that are going to be sophomores," Hageage said. "Abby Jensen, Brittney Doran, Jocelyn Bement and Lillian Bourret really stood out in our scrimmages in the spring. And then you throw in some of the other sophomores . . ."
"Cassie Merrill battled some injuries this spring and was limited. Megan Roper has made huge strides so we are really looking forward to hopefully get her up top and help us score some goals. Morgan O'Friel has worked really hard. Those are all new young players so we are definitely relying on the sophomores next year."
As a freshman in 2005, Doran was honored as a second team All-Big Sky selection. The graduate of Meadowdale High School in Lynnwood, Wash., started all 18 Eagle games a year ago.
"Brittney is someone I think has unlimited potential," Hageage said. "To be second team All-Big Sky her freshman year was wonderful for her.
Doran and Jensen -- as well as senior Gwen Burgess -- have the inside track to starting positions as midfielders, Hageage said.
"I think that one of our strengths is going to be our three midfielders that have sort of staked a claim to starting positions next year. Obviously we will have to wait until pre-season, but right now that group includes Brittney, Abby and Gwen. That is going to be a huge strength for us because they are really playing well together."
The Eagles are hoping that Cyeeta Mott can continue to provide some scoring punch up front. She scored four goals in 2005 to earn second team All-Big Sky honors. In the games in which she scored, Eastern was 3-0-1.
However, Cyeeta suffered a knee injury during spring practice and will be unable to play for most of the summer. Hageage expects her to begin running again about three weeks before pre-season practices start. Her twin sister Cynita is expected to redshirt in 2006.
"Cyeeta was hurt in spring so she will be limited a little bit in her fitness," said Hageage. "It will take her a little time to get back. So she might not be as fit as we would like when she gets in but she is very dangerous on top."
A total of 11 newcomers -- including five freshmen -- will compete for positions in the fall. Hageage expects them to bring significant speed to the Eagle program.
"I think just from the standpoint of numbers up top we are going to be able to throw a lot of people at teams and all of them have some kind of speed," he explained. "There isn't a slow person among the players coming in as freshmen. They are very athletic and very fast, and that is really going to help out."
Even Eastern's walk-ons are receiving high praise from Hageage, and could compete for playing time. One of them -- Maia Fastabend -- was in the Olympic Development Program in Oregon.
"I really think she can step in and maybe win a position," he said. "Maia Fastabend gives us a huge boost because she can play multiple positions.