The Washington State soccer team got out of its comfort zone last season under new coach Keidane McAlpine, then found something even better: a return trip to the NCAA tournament.
The key, McAlpine said, was encouraging a more up-tempo approach despite the fact that the Cougars had reached the NCAA three of the previous four years by playing a more conservative style.
“For us it was very important as a new staff to maintain the program and to get back to the NCAAs - a longshot in a lot of people’s eyes,” McAlpine recalled. “The other piece was to work on changing to a little more up-tempo . but they bought into it, thanks to the seniors and the other upperclassmen,” McAlpine said.
The result was a 12-6-2 record, including a 6-4-1 mark in the rugged Pac-12 Conference that was good enough for the postseason. Once there, the Cougars took 21st-ranked Portland to a shootout after a 2-2 tie.
Now WSU has a chance to become a tournament fixture; another NCAA trip would be the program’s fifth in six years. In both 2009 and 2011, the Cougars reached the second round in the 64-team field.
The Cougars have 15 returnees, including 13 letterwinners, and 11 newcomers, which gives McAlpine a good shot at a return trip.
“They came back with a great mindset and great intensity, and the fitness level was very good,” McAlpine said.
The key to another big year up front is junior forward Micaela Castain, who led the Cougars with 11 goals.
Juniors Beau Bremer and Korynn Blanksma also pose a scoring threat, McAlpine said.
Junior goalkeeper Gurveen Clair gave up just 0.98 goals per game last year in 16 starts.
The Cougars open the season Friday at Seattle.
The Bulldogs were 8-11-1 last season, but are off to a strong start with a 2-1 exhibition win over Oklahoma last weekend. It doesn’t hurt that GU returns seven starters, 14 letter winners and a pair of returning redshirts.
Fifth-year coach Amy Edwards also welcomes 11 newcomers — the most since her second year in charge of the program. Midfielder Kasey Rubosky, a junior from Nine Mile Falls, is the top returning scorer with four goals and two assists, and notched three game-winners.
Classmate Tori Lee, from Kirkland, Wash., had a team-high five assists. Other returning starters include seniors Emily Eckman and Ali Ohashi, along with juniors Cricket Harber, Katey Pennington and Jordan Travis.
The biggest challenge is an always-tough West Coast Conference, where the Bulldogs finished 1-6-1 last season. The Bulldogs are at Eastern Washington on Friday. Kickoff is at 4 p.m.
Eastern Washington Eagles
A young team grew up in a hurry last year, finishing 3-3-3 in the Big Sky Conference and 6-8-4 overall.
“Last year, I think with a lot of sophomores they made huge strides,” said coach George Hageage, now in his 14th season. “This year as juniors they expect to win, so that’s the next step.” Hageage hopes to push the Eagles forward a bit more this season, especially after scoring just two goals in their last four conference matches to fall out of postseason contention.
Junior forward Cassie Black, an All-Big Sky second-team honoree, led the Eagles with eight goals, including four game-winners. The only player in the Big Sky to notch a hat trick in 2012, Black will be the focal point of EWU’s attack.
The Eagles also return a strong defensive unit highlighted by junior goalkeeper Nathalie Schwery, who split time last year with graduated Jamie Walker and gave up just 1.19 goals per game. Senior Brianna Brannan of Kennewick, another all-Big Sky second-teamer, anchors the back line; she’s joined by returning starters Kayla Sutter and Jessica Wallace.
Only four starters remain on the 2012 squad that reached the Western Athletic Conference postseason tournament last year.
That means a lot of opportunities for the 13 newcomers — including 11 freshmen — on this year’s squad, which opened the season last weekend with a scoreless tie against Oklahoma.
“With such a big group of newcomers and how they have been pushing the returners so far in training, I think we will see goals coming from many areas,” head coach Pete Showler said.
Idaho looks to build off its sixth place finish in the Western Athletic Conference in 2012. The Vandals will be playing in the WAC for the final time in 2013 and are out to leave a lasting impression on the conference.