Western Washington University women's soccer coach Travis Connell is a self-proclaimed worrier.
He must be, to stress about this year's Vikings. On paper, WWU is talented enough to compete on the national stage. After all, the Vikings return 16 letter winners and nine starters from a 19-4 club that won the 2012 Great Northwest Athletic Conference title and lost 2-1 in overtime during the national tournament's Round of 16.
Connell's been coaching long enough, though, to know a wealth of talent doesn't always equate to a lot of success.
"I'd much rather be the underdog than the favorite," Connell admitted. "We have to find out who we are as a team, because the tendency is when you have success the year before and you return so many key players is that you think you've already won something, so we have to guard against that, that feeling of complacency. We have to find hunger and motivation."
Western enters the new campaign ranked No. 12 nationally and was selected to repeat as GNAC champs, earning five of eight first-place votes. Western's lofty expectations are well warranted. The club returns players who accounted for 41 of its 47 goals scored a season ago as well as a starting back line that remains intact, not to mention a midfield Connell boasts "is the best in the conference."
It's not team skill that has Connell worried. It's an entire year of film opposing coaches can use to scheme for Western's talent.
"We surprised a lot of people last year, and it's much different when you're the favorite and everyone schemes against you," Connell said. "That's another disadvantage of having everyone back. Everyone has film on us. Everyone is going to have a scheme for us. We're going to have to reinvent ourselves just enough. Not too much because it works, but we have to twist things, tweak things and have new wrinkles and some of the new players will help us do that."
Putting the clamps on first-team All-Region senior forward Kristin Maris will surely be one of the opposition's top priorities. Maris matched a team high with nine goals last season.
In fact, Connell is trying to stay ahead of the curve with his talented striker.
"I just had a conversation with Kristin where I told her there are going to be double teams and games where she barely touches the ball, because teams can totally plan for it," he said.
Maris attracting so much attention leaves scoring chances for other Vikings, and that's where Western's offensive balance comes into play.
Talented sophomores Catherine Miles and former Sehome High standout Jessica Bertucci give Connell two players with speed, skill and the ability to beat defenders one-on-one.
Miles scored nine times last year, matching Maris, and Bertucci was on her way to a strong season before she tore her ACL during Western's fifth match of the year. Connell is excited to have her back and healthy.
"We definitely have weapons," Connell said. "When it comes down to it, it's the players you have, and we have some good players in the attack. What that does is, even if things aren't going right, it still gives you the confidence that you can pull something out late."
The top third of Western's 4-3-3 formation is backed by an extremely deep and gifted group of midfielders. All-Region junior midfielder and former Bellingham High standout Kim Cooper started all 23 games last year and is joined by senior Ashton Griffen and sophomores Stephanie Hamilton and Delanee Nilles. Griffen started every match a year ago, and Hamilton and Nilles compiled a combined 33 starts. Junior Kamilla Deeb also adds depth to the middle third.
Senior All-American defender Brina Sych headlines Western's back line. Alongside her, juniors Katherine Miccile and Brianna Jones and senior Kayla Russ form arguably the top defense in the GNAC.
"She definitely has the ability to change the game," Connell said of Sych, who helped Western allow just nine goals a year ago while recording five goals and five assists. "A lot of people don't, but we certainly have one in Brina Sych. She is just really fun to watch play the game. Seldom does a practice or game go by that she doesn't open my eyes or make me say, 'Wow.'"
Sych will certainly benefit from sixth-year, first-time starting goalkeeper Alyssa Beauchamp, who is supplanting All-American Jamie Arthurs.
Beauchamp, at one point in her career, was listed as the fourth keeper on Western's depth chart. However, Connell is thrilled to have her in goal.
"Alyssa is a great story," he said. "She is going to be an important player, and we are so fortunate to have her. She is putting her life on hold to come into a really challenging situation replacing one of the best players we've ever had in our program. She's always had talent, and I'm really happy she is getting the chance to use that talent."
Western's season begins on the road against UC San Diego at 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 7.
Reach Andrew Lang at email@example.com or call 360-756-2862.
2013 WWU WOMEN'S SOCCER SCHEDULE
Date Opponent Time
Sept. 7 at UC San Diego 7 p.m.
Sept. 12 Notre Dame De Namur Noon
Sept. 14 Dixie State 4 p.m.
Sept. 19 at Northwest Nazarene* 1 p.m.
Sept. 21 at Montana State-Billings* 3 p.m.
Sept. 26 Western Oregon* 3 p.m.
Sept. 28 Saint Martin's* 4 p.m.
Oct. 3 Seattle Pacific* 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 5 Central Washington* 7 p.m.
Oct. 10 at Simon Fraser* 7 p.m.
Oct. 12 at Seattle Pacific* 7 p.m.
Oct. 16 at Saint Martin's* 3 p.m.
Oct. 19 at Western Oregon* 3 p.m.
Oct. 24 Montana State-Billings* 3 p.m.
Oct. 26 Northwest Nazarene* 4 p.m.
Oct. 31 at Central Washington* 3 p.m.
Nov. 2 Simon Fraser* 7 p.m.
2013 WWU WOMEN'S SOCCER ROSTER
No. Player Pos. Year Hometown
19 Elise Aylward F Fr. Renton
25 Alyssa Beauchamp GK Sr. Vancouver
18 Jessica Bertucci F/M So. Bellingham
24 Becca Cates M Fr. Poulsbo
15 Kim Cooper M Jr. Bellingham
10 Kamilla Deeb M Jr. Odgen, Utah
23 Anna Geldenhuys F/M Sr. Bellevue
4 Ashton Griffen M Sr. Duvall
0 Ashley Haden GK Jr. Brush Prairie
22 Stephanie Hamilton F/M So. Orting
1 Miranda Head GK Fr. Marysville
20 Chelsea Jackson D So. Surrey, B.C.
12 Caitlyn Jobanek F/M Fr. Springfield, Ore.
9 Brianna Jones D Jr. Bonney Lake
8 Kristin Maris F Sr. Issaquah
21 Katherine Miccile D Jr. Kent
5 Catherine Miles F/M So. Anacortes
13 Delanee Nilles M So. Poulsbo
3 Diana Pollock D Sr. Bellevue
14 Kayla Russ D Sr. Puyallup
6 Erin Russell F Fr. Brier
11 Brina Sych M Sr. Vancouver
2 Nicki Williams D So. Tacoma
Reach ANDREW LANG at firstname.lastname@example.org or call ext. 862.