Laura Seitz, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Rich Manning was on a recruiting trip in Kansas last June when he heard the news that Utah was joining the Pac-10 Conference.
And what was the Utah soccer coach's initial reaction?
Not wow as in "what are we getting ourselves into?" Rather, as Manning put it, "Wow, it really happened. What a great opportunity for our program."
If you ask Utah athletics director Chris Hill who the most positive coach in his department is, there's a good chance Manning would top the list. Manning doesn't seem the least bit anxious about his team competing this fall in the Pac-12, which he calls "No. 1 or 1A" along with the ACC as the best soccer conference in the country.
"My first reaction was, 'Now the system can work for us."' Manning said. "We don't have to tilt at windmills any more."
Manning was referring to things like scheduling and trying to improve his club's RPI to keep up with the more prominent conferences. After competing with an overall winning record against Pac-10 schools from 1995 to 2007, the Utes have lost eight games in a row against the Pac-10 over the past three seasons.
"It felt like in our sport, the ship was sailing away and the gap was widening," he said. "In the last five years it's become reality with the gaps between the haves and the have-nots trickling down to our sport. Financially we have had a hard time keeping up."
As daunting as it is for many of Utah's athletic teams, stepping up to play in one of the nation's premier conferences, in which most schools compete in warm-weather locations, Manning sees it as a challenge that his team can rise to.
"I don't think the players or the staff have any fear," he said. "The only thing that's an unknown is playing those teams twice on a weekend for consecutive weekends."
The Utes will play 11 league games with two games most weekends, usually on Friday nights and Sunday afternoons.
So far, Manning and the Utes haven't seen a lot of changes in recruiting success because of their new Pac-12 status.
Like most sports, soccer recruiting is starting earlier and earlier with most players committed by the time they're juniors. So Utah's 2011 class was already set when the June 2010 announcement was made.
However, the Utes did get an outstanding goalie out of Colorado, which Manning says is a result of the Utes' admission to the Pac-12.
Molly Poletto had been recruited by several major colleges, but when her coach left for another job, she reconsidered and called Manning.
"That was the first indicator that something was different," said Manning, who will welcome Poletto to his program this fall.
He said there was some initial confusion among recruits and their families about Utah's move to the Pac-12. "Some kids and parents would say, "Is that for all sports or just football?"
However, Manning is seeing a difference as he recruits the younger players for future seasons, both out of state and in Utah, where the Utes must compete with BYU for top talent.
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