FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – With a preseason win under its belt and the 2011 season in its rearview mirror, the Northern Arizona soccer team is set to kick off the 2012 campaign on Friday in Las Vegas when they take on host UNLV at 7 p.m. at Peter Johann Memorial Field. The Lumberjacks return 10 letter winners and five starters as they look to bounce back from a 3-9-7 season a year ago.
NAU heads into the season opener with momentum after defeating Embry-Riddle, 6-1, in its preseason tune-up last Saturday in Prescott. In the game, true freshman Haley Wingender recorded a hat trick while fellow true freshman Torey Braly netted two goals and redshirt freshman Malia Tano tacked on another. But now that the real season is ready to get under way, the goal is to continue to improve.
"I think the most important thing is to increase our sharpness on both sides of the ball," said head coach Andre Luciano. "We want our players to start to develop a rhythm on the field. Getting a preseason scrimmage in is always great, but I don't put too much read into that. Our focus will be do the things we're supposed to be doing correctly, minimize UNLV's opportunities and for us to come out of there with a win."
The Lumberjacks boast a young but talented roster this year with 21 of the 29 players being underclassmen. The defensive backline may be the most experienced heading into the season led by the return of senior Georgia Foltz, who is back for a fifth season following a season-ending injury against Southern Utah in the second game of the 2011 season. Foltz will captain a backline that also features juniors Alana D'Onofrio and Shawnee Morgan and sophomores Diane Buzzard, Mary Harrah and Emily Roth, all of whom started at least six games last year.
They will all be in front of junior Lauren Weaver, one of the team's two returning 2011 All-Big Sky Honorable Mention selections, who will be back in goal for the Lumberjacks. Weaver led the Big Sky with 105 saves and a 6.18 saves per game average. Her 105 saves also was the fifth-best single season total in school history and was the 35th most in Division I.
Sophomore Sarah Tarver, also an all-conference honorable mention selection a year ago, is returns to lead an offensive attack that lost four of its top five goal scorers from 2011. Tarver is the leading returning goal scorer after recording two goals during a strong first season at NAU. The Lumberjacks also have senior Laura Johnson and junior Elinor Priest, both of whom scored a goal last season, at the forward and midfield positions to go along with Wingender, Braly and Tano as well as sophomore Savannah Berry, a transfer from Florida.
UNLV enters the new season voted fourth in the preseason Mountain West poll. First-year head coach Michael Coll, an assistant at Penn State for the last eight years, looks to build off the Rebels' 2011 season where they finished fourth in the conference with an 8-10-3 overall record and a 3-2-1 conference mark.
The Rebels are led by seniors Macy Jo Harrison and Caitlin Allen, both of whom were 2011 All-Mountain West second team selections. Harrison ranked second on the team last season with nine points off of three goals and three assists, while Allen recorded one goal and one assist for three points and helped the Rebels allow just 21 goals in as many games.
"They're a young team and they have a brand new coach," Luciano said. "I know Michael Coll is going to be a demanding coach in terms of their perfection coming from Penn State and I expect their team to work extremely hard and play organized in their home opener."
This will be the sixth all-time meeting between the two schools, but the first since 2004. The two schools met every year between 1999 and 2004, with the exception of 2000, and the Lumberjacks are 1-3-1 all-time against the Rebels. UNLV won the most recent meeting at home in 2004, 1-0 in overtime, while NAU's only victory in the series was in the first meeting back in 1999, a 2-0 shutout at home.
Las Vegas Homecoming: For six of the Lumberjack freshmen, Friday will be more than just their first collegiate game. Natalie Gilbertson, Alexia Gonzalez, Syrina Lopez, Cassidy McLean, Sarah Pate and Wingender are all from the Las Vegas/Henderson area and will be returning home for the first time in an NAU uniform. For more of their story, click here.
Preseason Accolades: Weaver and Tarver were named to the College Sports Madness Big Sky Preseason All-Conference Second Team. Weaver was also named to Top Drawer Soccer's Preseason Big Sky Top 20 Players to Watch list, ranking at No. 15.