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Courtesy Utah athletics
Katie Taylor during an NCAA soccer match between BYU and Utah.

SALT LAKE CITY — In the past two seasons, the Utah women’s soccer team has been as competitive in the Pac-12 as any other athletic program at the U., outside of the gymnastics team.

The Utes have won nine games in two seasons, finishing a respectable fifth in 2011 before falling to ninth in the 12-team conference last year.

This year, with most of last year’s team back, the Utes are heading into league play with a new attitude that they hope pays off with an upper division finish and an NCAA invitation, for the first time since 2006.

“Our mindset is different,’’ says Ute coach Rich Manning, who is in his 12th year as the head coach. “Instead of ‘hey, what a great opportunity,’ it’s more like, ‘we can win this thing, let’s go for it.’ It’s really great to be (in the Pac-12), but we’re not going to be bowing down to everybody.’’

The Utes are off to a 4-1-4 start so far this season with their only loss coming 1-0 on a penalty kick to No. 6-ranked BYU in the final minutes. Early on, the Utes had trouble scoring with only two goals in their first four games (while giving up one) but have broken out with 16 goals in their past five games.

This week the Utes open their 11-game Pac-12 schedule with a home game (Friday, 7:30 p.m.) against No. 12-ranked and unbeaten Cal, one of three schools in the Pac-12 ranked in the top 15 in the nation (Stanford and UCLA are in the top five).

Manning believes the Pac-12 will be as tough as ever, saying, “I think this is the best Pac-12 since we’ve been in the league. It’s as deep as it’s been and the teams that have been down, such as Arizona and USC, are now back up. It’s going to be a really good league.’’

But Manning also feels he has his best team since the Utes joined the Pac-12.

“No question top to bottom, we have depth at lots of positions and good experience and we haven’t had that in a couple of years,’’ he said.

The Utes have an experienced yet fairly young team, with several local players playing key roles on the team.

The leading scorer is Katie Taylor, a junior midfielder from Davis High School, with four goals, followed by Baylee Nielsen, a sophomore from Maple Mountain High School, who has three goals. Avery Ford, a junior midfielder from Ogden, has two goals and two assists on the season.

Three top defenders are from local high schools, including senior Monica Okapal (Bountiful), junior Jill Robison (Layton) and sophomore Megan Trabert (East), while junior Sarah Duncan (Springville) had also started on the back line this year.

Cheyanne Mulcock (Bingham) has played in half the games at goalkeeper along with Lindsey Luke, a transfer from Wake Forest.

Other top players from the Utes include defender Jenny Hutton, forward Allie Wisner, forward Ashton Hall, forward Ali Forsberg (Viewmont), freshman Taylor Slattery and midfielders Kaycee Buckley and Katie Rigby.

The Utes feel like they have an advantage at home where they haven’t lost in 11 non-conference games and hope they can continue in Pac-12 games.

“We’re 8-3 in Pac-12 play at home and feel like we have a big advantage and are certainly looking forward to it,’’ said Manning.