On The Precipice Of A Breakthrough
It was another step forward for the Oregon soccer program in the fall of 2021, though not the big final step the Ducks had hoped to take.
When the field for this year's NCAA's championship tournament was set, the UO women and their 9-4-6 record were on the outside looking in. Second-year coach Graeme Abel had expected to see Oregon's name listed among the 64-team field, but instead presumably was one of the last teams out.
A bitter pill to swallow, no doubt. But Abel took a realist's point of view.
"I've been on both sides of it," Abel said. "We've just got to make sure next year we take care of enough of the results that they can't leave us out."
The 2021 season capped a highly unusual year in which the Ducks played their 2020 season in the spring of 2021, due to the COVID pandemic. After an abbreviated offseason, Oregon was right back on the pitch for the fall before going on to finish fifth in the Pac-12 – up two spots from the spring, and up six spots from the fall of 2019, before Abel arrived.
"We can't take away from what this team has accomplished in terms of moving the program forward, back-to-back seasons with a lot of positives," he said. "Obviously the ultimate goal wasn't met, but still a lot of things to take away from a solid year"
The fall of 2021 saw Oregon put together one of the top offensive seasons in school history, with 29 goals in 19 games. All-Pac-12 first team goalkeeper Leah Freeman set a UO single-season record with nine shutouts, and her eight wins were one shy of the school record.
Freeman's final win and last shutout of the year was a 1-0 victory at Utah in double overtime on Oct. 24. The Ducks hosted Washington State and UW the next week before closing the regular season at Oregon State, and they went 0-2-1 over that stretch. In hindsight, just one win in those final two weeks might have put the Ducks into the Women's College Cup.
"The Washington weekend, that was the one weekend where we probably dipped overall, in terms of performance," Abel said. "You're walking out of a 19-game season with four losses. That's pretty good."
Coming off a 6-5-5 spring season, the Ducks pulled out a few more games in the fall than the season before. But a couple of early season ties, at San Francisco and against UC Santa Barbara, also might have been the difference in coming up just short of a tournament bid.
"There's those little things that we'll look back on," Abel said. "We'll do a deep dive in terms of, what do we need to do next time to get positive results in those games."
The fall of 2021 was the final season at Oregon for star midfielder Chardonnay Curran, the all-time program leader in games played, along with veteran defender Mia Palmer and forwards Eden Hardy and Jordan Wormdahl. The Ducks believe they have worthy replacements on hand, including Alice Barbieri in the midfield, Megan Rucker at the back line and Callan Harrington on the attack.
Chai Cortez, Kess Elmore and Zoe Hasenauer will provide leadership in 2022 after taking advantage of the extra year of eligibility stemming from the pandemic. And the Ducks will boast returning strength up the middle, from Freeman in goal to Ally Cook up top, and the likes of Croix Soto, Anna Phillips, Hasenauer, Caitlin Shaw and Maya Hahn in between.
"You look at that spine though the team and it's really solid," Abel said.
The departing seniors "bought into everything we've done here," Abel said, and "they've set a new standard for this program." If and when the Ducks do eventually break through and make the NCAA Tournament, he said, the program will be sure to extend invitations to the likes of Curran and Palmer to join them for the trip, in acknowledgement of the foundation they helped build for the program.
For the time being, though, the attention turns to building up the returning roster. Hired just before the pandemic hit, Abel hasn't had a standard offseason with Oregon to execute his player development plan. Still, players like Palmer and Hardy illustrated how well this staff can coach up the Ducks.
"So we'll look to do that with all our student-athletes," Abel said, "making sure they're better equipped for future seasons."