In his six seasons at Utah, Rich Manning has built a strong soccer program that consistently challenges for the league championship (3 titles) and plays in the postseason (5 of 6 in NCAAs).

This season, thanks to a combination of graduations, defections and injuries, the Utes will have their youngest and most inexperienced team of Manning's tenure.

"Of all the teams I've had, this one is the least I know about," said Manning. "We're definitely a work in progress."

Not only did the Utes lose top players such as Kiley Jones, Melissa Crespo and Chelsea Card to graduation, they were shocked when leading scorer Adele Letro and goalkeeper Lynzee Lee both decided to transfer during the offseason.

Then during the summer, two Ute forwards who were expected to start, senior Jen Christoffers and sophomore Erin Dalley, both suffered serious knee injuries leaving the Utes thin up front. Dalley is out for the season, while Christoffers could be out much of the year.

The Utes opened the season on the road in North Carolina last week, losing to Wake Forest in overtime and defeating UNC-Greensboro also in overtime. They open the home season this weekend with games against Arizona tonight (7:30 p.m.) and Georgia Sunday (1 p.m.) at Ute Field.

Sixteen Ute players are freshmen and sophomores. Of the 10 freshmen, five have already seen extensive action for the Utes, including midfielders Kelly Martinez (Colorado), Chelsea Forbes (Bountiful), Kelly Woodfield (Timpview) and defenders Lauren Porter (East) and Lauren Dudley (Las Vegas).

Manning is happy to have a few experienced players and believes senior Katy Reineke, junior Kelly Isleib and sophomore Lauren Hair, all local players, are some of the best in the Mountain West Conference. Reineke and Isleib are midfielders, who can move up to forward, while Hair plays forward exclusively.

Reineke (East) was the Utes' second-leading scorer in 2007 with nine goals and seven assists. Isleib (Park City) set a Ute season record for assists with 13, but with Letro gone, is expected to increase her goal-scoring this year. Hair (Lone Peak) scored four goals as a freshman and will take on much of the scoring load as the lone forward in some Ute schemes.

Other experienced players for Utah include Amanda Sanchez in the midfield and Nicole Cardon and Morgan Skeen in the back.

"We need to stick together, defend real well and rely on certain people to make plays," Manning said. "I like this group, they have good character."

Emalee Rogers, a junior from Viewmont High, had an excellent summer playing in an Arizona league and has earned the starting goalkeeper job. But Manning said he also expects to use senior Amy Edman and freshman Hannah Turpen in the goal this year.

Manning always likes to play tough preseason games to prepare for the MWC season and this year is no exception.

Next week the Utes play at Oregon and Oregon State and also have road games at Washington, Loyola Marymount and Cal Poly. Other home games are against Utah State, Long Beach State and Cal State Fullerton. Utah opens the MWC season Oct. 4 against BYU at home.

UTAH SOCCER SCHEDULE

Aug. 29 — Arizona, 7:30 p.m.

Aug. 31 — Georgia, 1 p.m.

Sept. 5 — at Oregon

Sept. 7 — at Oregon State

Sept. 12 — Utah State, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 14 — at Loyola Marymount

Sept. 19 — Long Beach State, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 21 — Cal State Marymount,1 p.m.

Sept. 26 — at Washington

Sept. 28 — at Cal Poly

Oct. 4 — BYU, 7 p.m.

Oct. 9 — San Deigo State, 7 p.m.

Oct. 11 — UNLV, 7 p.m.

Oct. 16 — at New Mexico

Oct. 18 — at TCU

Oct. 24 — Seattle University, 7 p.m.

Oct. 31 — at Air Force

Nov. 5-7 — MWC Championship at Las Vegas


E-mail: sor@desnews.com