As the 2017 soccer season approaches, the Utah State team is in full preparation mode. This season, the Aggies look to continue their successful ways by utilizing the experience of the veterans and strengths of the fresh faces.
On the field and off, head coach Heather Cairns knows she can count on her squad to represent the program, Utah State and the Mountain West in a way they can all be proud of.
The Aggies will open the year at home with three matches at Chuck & Gloria Bell Field. Utah State will host Southern Utah in its sole exhibition match of the season on Friday, Aug. 11. The official season will get underway on Friday, Aug. 18, against South Dakota State. The homestand will conclude on Sunday, Aug. 20, when the Aggies take on Montana.
Utah State’s first road match will be a close one, as the Aggies travel to play in-state rival Utah on Thursday, Aug. 24. The team will then return home to close out the month against Cal State Fullerton on Sunday, Aug. 27.
September will find the Aggies on the road for the majority of the month, as the team will play six-straight away matches. Utah State will take on border foe Idaho State on Friday, Sept. 1, before heading east. The Aggies will play at Minnesota on Friday, Sept. 8, at Eastern Michigan on Friday, Sept. 15, and at Oakland on Sunday, Sept. 17.
“I think our non-conference schedule is really strong this year. It will test us and prepare us for conference play,” Cairns said. “There are a lot of strong teams at the top of their conferences and that played in the NCAA Tournament last year. It’s a pretty tough schedule to start off with.”
USU will open Mountain West action on the road as it plays at San José State on Friday, Sept. 22, and at Fresno State on Sunday, Sept. 24. The team then returns home for a four-match homestand. The Aggies will host San Diego State on Friday, Sept. 29, followed by New Mexico on Sunday, Oct. 1. Colorado College will come to Logan for a match on Friday, Oct. 6, while Air Force will make the trip for a match on Sunday, Oct. 8.
Back on the road, the Aggies will play at Wyoming on Friday, Oct. 13, and at Colorado State on Sunday, Oct. 15. USU will then host defending Mountain West champion UNLV on Friday, Oct. 20. The team’s final road match will be played at Nevada on Sunday, Oct. 22. The regular season will then conclude on the home pitch, as Utah State hosts Boise State on Friday, Oct. 27.
As the winners of last season’s conference title, UNLV will host the 2017 Mountain West Championships. The tournament will begin on Tuesday, Oct. 31, with the championship game set for Saturday, Nov 4.
“The only constant in the conference is that anybody can take it any year. There is so much parity and so much on the line, and it always comes down to the last days. Third and seventh-place can be just points apart,” Cairns said. “We expect it to be very competitive again this year, and would expect nothing less from the Mountain West.”
Coming off the second-highest scoring season in program history, the Aggies look to continue their fast-paced offense. Though the team loses its leading scorer from the last two seasons, several strong players return to the attack, ready to fill the hole.
“There’s obviously a big hole left by Jessica Brooksby, as she was a leader for our team both on and off the field and was our leading scorer,” Cairns said. “At the same time, we have Wesley Hamblin back, who was an all-conference player last year. Alecia Robinson and Bailee Hammond are coming off really strong seasons and great springs.”
Along with the returning experience, the team welcomes several offensive players who are ready to contribute.
“We’ll look to bolster the offense with some freshmen,” Cairns said. “Sadie Mertlich will play a central offensive role, and Kartsyn Peterson will play on the wing. Ashley Cardozo is going to be an interesting player, and will be a fan favorite. She’s creative and predictable on the ball.”
Throughout the midfield, Cairns and her staff also have several spots to fill, due to graduating experience.
“The midfield line is where we’ll see the most new faces. We graduated a lot of playing time last year, along with Danielle Nowers’ injury,” Cairns said. “We’ll have a new group of faces there, and things are wide open. We need to hash out some pieces and figure out how to get on the field. There are some returners that we’ll look to in Erin Rickenbach, Jordyn Chung-Hoon and Kanyan Ward, along with the incoming freshmen. Kami Warner and Amber Marshall are some names that will vie for playing time.”
The back line
Always a staunch defense, Utah State looks to continue that trend through the 2017 season.
“We really have a strong back five. Kelsey Andersen and Mealii Enos anchor us as center backs, and both of them were recognized as all-conference players last year,” Cairns said. “We graduated both our outside backs, but return Mikayla Howes and Jaylen Hinckley, who both played some significant minutes last fall. We also get Olivia Burnett back from an ACL injury, and she’ll play an outside back role. We have Taylor Garza in the back, who can play back and get forward to be a nice addition to the defense.”
Joining the defensive backs is a solid group of goalkeepers.
“We have a strong goalkeeping corps, where Grace McGuire and Maggie Richey both played minutes last year, and Sara Cobb is back from injury,” Cairns said. “We add a newcomer in Samantha Aguilar to bolster our goalkeeping group.”
In all, the Aggies welcome back five starters and 14 total letterwinners from last season’s roster. The team returns more than 50 percent of its offensive production (21 goals and 17 assists), along with 92 percent of its goalkeeper minutes from 2016. Returning players combined for 188 total starts a year ago, while 17 members of this season’s roster have seen time on the pitch in an Aggie uniform. The veteran players bring their years of expertise and leadership to the team, providing a solid group that the coaching staff can count on.
“We did not name captains this year, but elected leadership representatives as a team. Sara, Kelsey and Maggie will be the heart and soul of the group. They’ll take us in a positive direction and pull everyone along to get the best out of their teammates,” Cairns said. “On the field, Bailee, Alecia and Wesley have all chipped in a lot of points, and get better as their careers progress. Mealii and Kelsey in the back played almost every minute of every game last year, so they have a great chemistry. That’s a pretty great corps to lead us on the field.”
Along with the solid returning corps, Utah State welcomes nine newcomers to the roster. The coaching staff added eight freshmen and one transfer player in the offseason. Of the nine additions, eight hail from the state of Utah, keeping the team’s historically local ties strong. The new Aggies bring great experience to the roster, with several all-state accolades, state playoff appearances and club soccer tournament titles between them. Additionally, three players who missed the 2016 season with injuries will return to action for 2017.
“I think this freshman group is pretty exciting,” Cairns said. “They have all embraced their summer preparation and will start off on a great foot. They’ll inject our team with some needed energy and fill in some holes.”
As the competition season approaches, the team has been working hard through its first two weeks of training.
“It’s all about getting everyone on the same page. We play Southern Utah just 11 days into our season, so we need to remind everyone of their on-field roles and get everyone clicking,” Cairns said.
Under the guidance of the veteran coaching staff, the new and returning players will work together to create a strong bond that will translate to success on the field.
“We always want to get to the conference championship and give ourselves a shot at the NCAA Tournament,” Cairns said. “Sometimes that is too big of a goal though. You have to look at what you’re doing day-in and day-out to get better each day and each game. That’s our focus. We want to have continual progress.”
Fans can follow Utah State soccer on Twitter, @USUSoccer, on Instagram, @USUSoccer, as well as on Facebook, at /USUSoccer. Aggie fans can also follow Utah State Athletics on Twitter, @USUAthletics, on Instagram, @USUAthletics and on Facebook at /USUAthletics.
Megan McCuistion is an Assistant Media Relations Coordinator at Utah State.