2008 Pac-10 Women's Soccer Preview: UCLA

Aug. 13, 2008

Courtesty: Danny Harrington, UCLA Media Relations

Led by head coach Jillian Ellis, who is entering her 10th season in Westwood, the Bruins begin the 2008 campaign with yet another legitimate shot at capturing the school's first NCAA title in women's soccer. UCLA enters the season on the heels of a five-year run that has seen the program capture five consecutive Pac-10 Championships. The Bruins are also the only team in the country to compete in the last five NCAA College Cups, reaching the championship game in 2004 and 2005. Although the losses of forward Danesha Adams, (the Bruins' No. 2 all-time scoring leader) and goalkeeper Valerie Henderson (UCLA's career win leader) will be felt, the Bruins have softened the blow by adding the nation's fifth-ranked recruiting class. Freshmen Sydney Leroux, Whitney Sharpe and Amelia Mathis are just a few of the newcomers expected to continue UCLA's legacy of success in 2008. The Bruins also feature three national player of the year candidates in Christina DiMartino, Lauren Cheney and Kara Lang. All three are expected to enter the season at the top of their games, as both Cheney and Lang will be fresh off appearances at the Beijing Olympic Games, while DiMartino spent her summer helping the Under-23 U.S. National Team capture the Nordic Cup in Sweden.

Adds Ellis: 'We have definitely improved from a year ago in terms of experience and depth. All of our returning players are NCAA Tournament tested, having played in the College Cup every year. I also think having Kara and Lauren coming off long spells with their senior national teams is going to be a huge plus for us. In terms of depth, the challenge for us will be sorting through a large group of players who are all capable of coming in and contributing at any given time. So it might take us a bit longer to find our identity. But it's a good problem to have.

Cheney, Lang, Leroux and junior Kristina Larsen are four players who will likely see a lot of time on the Bruins' front line. Cheney enters the season as the top offensive threat, having led the team in scoring the last two seasons. She is coming off a year in which she set new single-season school records for both points (57) and goals (23). Soccer America's National Player of the Year and runner-up for the Missouri Athletic Club's Hermann Trophy in 2007, Cheney is equally adept at playing with her back to the goal or capitalizing on balls played through the defense. If she is able to come even close to the type of year she enjoyed a year ago, UCLA will be in good shape to make another deep run in this year's NCAA Tournament. Complementing the versatile Cheney up top will be two players who bring dramatically different styles to the Bruins' attacking unit. Lang's ability to muscle through opposing back lines has been a huge asset to the Bruins in recent years, as the redshirt junior has tallied 32 points (12g, 8a) in her two seasons in Westwood. Even more impressive has been her timely scoring in important matches, as she ranks third all-time at UCLA in career NCAA Tournament scoring with 19 points (9g, 1a). Two of Lang's best matches a year ago came against UCLA's West Coast nemesis Portland, as she scored twice in a 2-1 regular-season win, adding another in a 3-2 double-overtime victory in the NCAA Quarterfinals. Likely joining the imposing Lang up top will be the newcomer Leroux, a player who Ellis thinks will help make up for the team speed lost with the departure of Adams. A Canadian who has lived in Scottsdale, Ariz. the last several years, Leroux has represented both Canada and the U.S. at the youth national team level. She recently helped the U.S. Under-20s qualify for this year's FIFA World Cup in Chile. Another player who will definitely be in the mix of attackers is Larsen, as she is coming off an 11 point (5g, 1a) season a year ago. Like Leroux, she is also a member of the U-20 player pool. Adding depth to the Bruins front line will be sophomores Liz Zadro and Nicole Sweetman, along with newcomer Hannah Mac Kechnie.

Adds Ellis: 'It's a powerful group of players with a lot of personality. Both Lauren and Kara have proven they have what it takes to succeed at this level. I'm excited to see what Sydney brings to the group. She is really one of the best young forwards in the country with great speed and technical ability. I think Larsen is also going to be a really strong contributor to the group.'

The Bruins return a wealth of experience in the midfield, headlined by senior DiMartino, a two-time first-team All-American. Probably the quickest player in the country in terms of maneuvering through tight spaces, DiMartino led the Bruins in assists last year with 12. She also put in six goals, ranking third on the team in scoring with 24 points. Kylie Wright and McCall Zerboni are two other players who saw extensive time in the midfield last year. Wright, who is more of a holding midfielder, started every match as a freshman a year ago, recording two assists. Zerboni started every match but one in 2007, finishing the season with six points (1g, 4a). Two players who were defenders in 2007 but could see a lot of action in the midfield this year are Lauren Barnes and Lauren Wilmoth. Both pushed up into attacking roles as defenders last year and will be utilized more in the midfield this season, with Barnes on the left and Wilmoth on the right. Ellis is also excited about the possibilities that seniors Catherine Calvert and Caitlyn Mac Kechnie bring to the midfield. Calvert, who played in all 24 matches last year, enjoyed an outstanding spring season, while Mac Kechnie was in the midst of her finest season yet before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Sophomores Elise Britt and Taylor Cochran, and freshman Summer Williams also factor into Ellis' options in the midfield.

Adds Ellis: 'The midfield is the most experienced of our units. You look at players like DiMartino, Zerboni, Wright, Calvert, Barnes and Wilmoth - these are players who have played in big time games and have been successful. You also have to factor in Caitlyn Mac Kechnie, who was enjoying an outstanding season for us last year before getting hurt. I'm really excited to see the level of soccer this unit is capable of producing.

Returnees Erin Hardy, Dana Wall and Dea Cook will be joined by newcomers Whitney Sharpe, Amelia Mathis and Robyn Dutton to form the Bruins' defensive unit in 2008. Hardy is the veteran of the group, having started on the back line since arriving in Westwood as a freshman in 2005. Her play was a big reason why the Bruins surrendered just 16 goals in 24 matches a year ago. UCLA also ranked 17th nationally in goals against average (0.65) in 2007. Wall and Cook bring a level of much-needed experience to the back line this year, as both players saw action in every match last season. Sharpe and Mathis are the unknowns of the group in terms of college experience, however both have seen time with various U.S. Youth National Teams. Sharpe is a two-time Gatorade Girls' Player of the Year for the state of Iowa, while Mathis has helped her club team, the Eagles, to a pair of youth national championships. Both are extremely athletic, having excelled on their respective high school's track and field teams. Canadian Robyn Dutton, a member of her country's U-17 team, also factors into the defensive unit. She was named one of the top 20 international recruits by Soccer Buzz Magazine. Senior Nicole Kleinert and redshirt sophomore Jenna Belcher also figure to add depth to this area of the lineup.

Adds Ellis: 'I think we are going to be looking at different players in different positions in terms of defense. We have a lot of versatility in the back. Barnes and Wilmoth, who were great defenders for us a year ago, can slide up into the midfield and assume more of an attacking position if we need them to. A lot of it is just going to depend on matchups. Although we have a lot of young defenders coming in, we are extremely athletic. I'm excited to see these newcomers step in alongside some of our more experienced players like Hardy and Cook. But without a doubt, defense will be one of our strongest areas this season.

For the first time since Henderson arrived on campus back in 2004, the Bruins head into the season without a clear-cut favorite for the starting job in goal, as freshman Yiana Dimmitt and senior Ashley Thompson figure to battle for the spot during preseason workouts. Thompson has done an excellent job as Henderson's backup the last several years, owning an overall record of 3-1. She filled in admirably when Henderson missed the first four games of the 2006 season while competing at the FIFA Under-20 Women's World Cup, and saw action in six matches a year ago. Dimmitt is an accomplished keeper from the Bay Area, having played extensively at both the ODP state and regional levels. Although she suffered a knee injury in the offseason, she will push Thompson for the starting job when healthy. Transfer Marissa Campbell, who was on Harvard's team last year but did not compete, figures to add depth to the group, as she still has four years of eligibility remaining.

Adds Ellis: 'This is probably the first season in quite some time where our goalkeeping is not predetermined. It's really up for grabs. With Ashley's experience in the spring, and Yiana's tremendous youth experience, I think the two of them will be battling it out for the starting job. It's going to be interesting, but I'm confident in both of their abilities and would feel comfortable with either as our starting keeper. Add our transfer Marissa Campbell to the mix and we have a solid unit heading into the season.'

Final Comments
'I believe this team is capable of achieving some great things and I'm excited to see the process unfold, as there are so many unknowns at this point,' says Ellis. 'What I do know, is that we will play an attractive style of soccer that is possession oriented and dynamic in the attacking third of the field. As far as what type of system we will play, I really believe that is determined by the players you have to work with. I've always felt it's about putting the players in the positions where they can best help the team, and also maximize their strengths in the process. I don't go into the season with a set system in mind. As a coach, I think it's important that you are flexible. In today's modern game you have to make adjustments. After we have time to evaluate the players, we will put in a system and style that best suits them.

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