It’s easy to understand why Southern Oregon University women’s soccer coach Jon Clement annually dismisses preseason polls and predictions.

By Josh McDermott
For the Tidings
It’s easy to understand why Southern Oregon University women’s soccer coach Jon Clement annually dismisses preseason polls and predictions.

Last season, coming off a ninth-place finish, Cascade Conference coaches had Clement’s Raiders tabbed to finish third, even though the Raiders didn’t have a single player on the team with more than a year of collegiate experience.

They proceeded to lose their first five games by a combined score of 12-2, only to turn around and post a 7-3 record in league play and come within one win of the CCC finals.

The 2009 version has lost almost 75-percent of its scoring production from last year’s team, which struggled to find the net anyway with only 19 goals in as many games, but has been tabbed to finish fourth in the loop’s preseason poll. Whatever, though, according to Clement.

“I think (the polls) are just a complete waste of everyone’s time,” said Clement, now in his fourth year at SOU. “I have no idea where this team is going to be in two months, even though I think there’s a ton of potential on the field.

“In the past I’ve probably put too much emphasis on what’s ahead and the game four weeks from now,” he added, “but right now I just want us to focus on how we can get better today, and we’ll think about tomorrow when it gets here.”

That’s not to say Clement isn’t excited about his new team. Not by a long shot.

Even with the hits to the roster, the Raiders return nine players to a squad that has also added twelve new faces. Among those, junior Auika Muragin was a first team all-conference selection last year, and sophomore Denise Powell led all returners with three goals in a season which no one scored more than four.

Clement’s optimism, which has been become basic fall protocol, is still barely cautious for another touch-and-go season.

“At times this past weekend (in SOU’s friendly match), we played some of the best soccer ever played on this field,” he said. “It was fluid, cerebral, creative, there was flair … it was quite good. But it wasn’t devoid of mistakes, and we realize that however good we get, this is a long-term project and the building blocks are just starting to emerge.”

One freshman considered a building block is Stephanie Carr, who came to the Raiders via Upland, Calif. and will be counted on to compensate for lost firepower.

“She’s beginning to emerge as the player we think she can be,” Clement said of Carr, who scored a goal in the friendly against the Davis Radiation (Calif.) club team. “She has very clean technique, can connect almost anything brought her way and she has great instincts in the penalty area.”

In the back, the Raiders return junior defender Dianne Uehara, now in her fourth year in the program, and sophomore goalkeeper Jessica Kuehlwein, who orchestrated six shutouts last year for a defense that surrendered only one goal per game in loop action — good for third-best in the conference.

Clement has also raved about the play of midfielder Sarah Switzer, who is looking to bounce back from a disappointing 2008.

“Sarah would be the first one to tell you she wasn’t at her best last year,” Clement said. “But she’s got a very cheeky technique when she tries things, and she’s been arguably our most consistent player in practice. Hopefully she’ll be the player to connect us together in the midfield.”

Switzer could be the key to a Raider scoring attack that will once again be tested with a grueling nonconference schedule that includes Concordia-Irvine (Calif.) and Rocky Mountain (Mont.).

“We have a really solid middle and back, but we’re still struggling to connect up front,” said Muragin, who had two assists last year but will now be counted on more to create. “Hopefully that’s just one of those things that will come as we feel each other out.”

All three of the Southern Oregon’s CCC losses came on the road last season, including two at the hands of the top teams in the conference — Concordia and College of Idaho. Matches against both of those squads will be in Ashland this year.

Southern Oregon opens up play at University Field this weekend when they host Concordia-Irvine on Friday (5 p.m.) and Oregon Tech on Sunday (1:30 p.m.).

“I think we’re only going to get better,” Muragin said. “It’s always hard to bring in so many new girls, but every season is going to be different no matter what, and that’s just part of the fun.”