GREELEY, Colo. – After a grueling non-conference schedule and a 1-7-3 start to the season, the Northern Arizona soccer team kicks off Big Sky play on Friday with a road match against Northern Colorado at 6 p.m. Despite the Lumberjacks' slow start to the season, no Big Sky team begins the conference schedule with a winning record, putting every team on even ground.
"Our conference overall hasn't fared as well as we would've wanted it to," said head coach Andre Luciano. "But it gives everyone a fresh slate at 0-0, so every game now is magnified by a thousand."
The Lumberjacks defeated the Bears twice last season by a score of 1-0 in consecutive weeks, including in the Big Sky Tournament semifinals. NAU knocked off UNC in the regular season finale on Senior Day on a goal by sophomore Jennifer Beaudoin. One week later, senior Jenna Samora's goal sent the Lumberjacks past the Bears into the Big Sky Championship, ending UNC's season.
"Last year was last year and there are completely different circumstances for both teams," Luciano said. "I expect them to be gunning for us since we knocked them out of the tournament last year. They've been scoring the last three games and they're a disciplined team at home. Tim Barrera is a good coach, so I expect it to be a hard fought game."
This season, the Bears, picked to finish third in the preseason Big Sky poll, are 3-5-2. They enter Friday's match on a three-match unbeaten streak, its longest of the season, including a 4-2 victory over South Dakota last week. Senior Ariel Cook, the current Big Sky Co-Offensive Player of the Week, leads the team with six points off one goal and four assists. Senior Kimmie Fiedler and juniors Danielle Birdsall and JJ Wykstra, a Flagstaff native, each have two goals to lead the Bears in goals scored. In goal, Kristin Salminen ranks second in the conference behind sophomore Lauren Weaver in saves (50) and saves per game (5.00).
The Lumberjacks are 8-5-1 in Big Sky openers and 3-4-1 on the road to open the conference season. This will be the third consecutive year that NAU has begun conference play on the road. In last season's Big Sky opener, the Lumberjacks tied Idaho State 0-0 in Pocatello, Idaho.
"Even last year when our record going into conference was pretty strong, I thought the first game was the most important," Luciano said. "It sets the tone for how the rest of the conference schedule will be for us. Hopefully we get a positive result on the road, which is the key in conference. You have to defend your turf at home and get one or two positive results on the road."
NAU holds the 4-3-0 all-time series advantage over UNC, but is 0-2 in Greeley. The Bears handed the Lumberjacks a 4-0 loss the last time the two teams met in Greeley in 2009.
Following Friday's match at Northern Colorado, NAU plays one final non-conference game at the Air Force Academy, Sunday at 10 a.m. The Falcons are 4-5-2, but are winless in its last five games with a 0-3-2 record. Freshman McKenna Fox is fourth in the Mountain West Conference with four goals and 10 points, both team-highs. The Lumberjacks shut out the Falcons, 1-0 last season in Flagstaff in the teams' first ever meeting.
"Air Force will be a good team," Luciano said. "They're a lot better than their record indicates."
Watch Out for Sam: Senior Sam Monahan, the team leader in goals, shots, shots on goal and points, was named to the Top Drawer Soccer Top 20 Players to Watch List from the Big Sky Conference at No. 5. The complete list can be found here.