When it comes to college athletics, change often goes hand in hand with pain — as in growing pains. But the Southern Oregon University women’s soccer team plans to buck that trend when it embarks on a season full of change beginning Saturday at U.S. Cellular Community Park.
The Raiders have a new defensive philosophy, a new home field and, for the first time since 2005, will open a season with a coach not named Jon Clement. And if that’s not enough change, the Raiders lost six starters to graduation, four of whom had started for at least three years.
But head coach and Ashland High alum Jenni Rosenberg, who took over for Clement halfway through the 2013 season, remains optimistic after what she says was a very productive fall camp.
“Our potential is the sky,” said Rosenberg, who graduated from AHS in 1999 and spent four and a half seasons as an assistant coach at Cal State Stanislaus. “We’re really excited to get into games and start playing and see where we stand against other programs. I think this is the best I’ve seen this group of girls play. They’re really focused and they’re working hard.”
Rosenberg appears to have plenty to work with. The Raiders return 19 players from the team that finished 10-6-3 last season, 12 of which started at least one game. The only returner to garner all-league recognition is sophomore goalkeeper Kylie Moltzen, a Cascade Collegiate Conference honorable mention in 2013, but there’s talent everywhere.
Up front, SOU will feature a three-headed monster in juniors Kendra Madaras-Kelly and Megan McArthur and senior Serena DeChristofaro. All three forwards have been filling the net in scrimmages and all three have an attack-dog mentality. And that, says Rosenberg, is something SOU hasn't had.
“They’re very aggressive,” Rosenberg said, “and they really want to go at the back line. They really want to score some goals and you can tell. It’s a palpable difference from last year.”
McArthur credited Rosenberg with bringing the team together and believes big things are in store for the Raiders in 2014.
“It’s been great,” said McArthur, who played in 18 of 19 games last season, notching three goals and an assist. “I think it was really good for our team. We started out in spring just kind of warming up to (Rosenberg) and now we’re full force for the fall. I think our chemistry’s been great and she’s been nothing but the best for us.”
In the midfield, sophomore Presley Lambert and senior Jacquie Galvez will look to push the ball upfield, while junior Allyson Ward will take on more of a defensive role. Also roaming the middle of the field will be sophomore Lisa Elledge, who scored four goals off the bench last season, and freshman Kelsey Randall.
Rosenberg expects big things out of Lambert and Galvez.
“(Lambert) is a very athletic kid with a great first touch who wants to go to the goal, which is cool to get out of the midfield,” Rosenberg said. “And (Galvez) is a playmaker. She sees the game a little bit better than some.”
Defensively, the Raiders will be employing a funneling technique this season aimed at quick takeaways. Anchoring the back line will be seniors Elise De Jesse and Paige Kilpatrick. Junior Avery Dutton will also see plenty of playing time, as will fellow centerback Megan Smith, a sophomore.
In goal, Moltzen is the returning starter, but senior Devon Walker is back after sitting out 2013 and gives the Raiders a second capable keeper. Moltzen had 73 saves and eight shutouts last season, but Rosenberg isn't ready to name a starter.
“I think in the preseason we’ll split time (between Moltzen and Walker) and then we’ll see what ends up happening,” Rosenberg said.
The Raiders ranked second in the conference in goals allowed last season (0.86 per game), but Kilpatrick believes they could be even better this time around.
“Basically, when we’re defending we have high energy,” she said. “So we’re attacking the ball with multiple people, really hunting in packs to win the ball back as soon as possible.
“It’s looking incredible. Everybody’s really taking to their responsibilities. They really understand. Since we've worked on it since spring all of our returners are really strong with it and the new girls have picked it up really well.”
The Raiders host four nonleague games in nine days at U.S. Cellular — Saturday’s game against Marymount California, followed by tilts against The Masters College on Monday, Hope International on Aug. 29 and Menlo College on Aug. 31. After that the Raiders hit the road for games against California State-San Marcos, Biola and Concordia, Calif.
Southern Oregon’s league opener is Sept. 25 against Evergreen State, at home, followed by a game against Northwest two days later. Whether or not Raider Stadium, which is being outfitted with a new synthetic playing surface, will be ready for that first league game is yet to be determined, but when it is ready the Raiders will finally say goodbye to the grass field they've called home since the program kicked off in 2000.
And they can’t wait.
“We’re so excited,” McArthur said. “Hopefully, it’ll get more fans out to our games, more attention to our team. And I think it’ll be better for our play to play on turf — no bouncy balls, no sprained ankles.”
The Raiders were picked fourth in the CCC preseason coaches’ poll after placing fourth with a 5-3-1 record last season. Before watching their season come to an end in the league semis against eventual national champion Concordia, the Raiders earned their first postseason win since 2008.
Concordia, which has won 13 CCC titles in the last 14 years, is the clear favorite, while Northwest and Corban were ranked second and third, respectively. The Raiders say they respect Concordia and what it’s been able to do, but they don’t fear the Cavaliers.
“I think we definitely have a shot, if we stay focused, at winning conference,” Kilpatrick said. “And I feel like this year is our year to really be successful further on in the conference (playoffs). We just have to stay focused and stay diligent and keep working hard in practice.”
Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-776-4469 or firstname.lastname@example.org.