FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – After just missing out on the conference tournament a year ago, the Northern Arizona soccer team's road to a return to the Big Sky Championship begins on Friday as a familiar foe rolls into Lumberjack Stadium. The Lumberjacks (2-5-2) will square off against Southern Utah (1-4-1), who is in its first season as a member of the Big Sky, at 7 p.m. Friday night in the conference opener for both teams.
"This is the part of the season where every game matters in terms of positioning for the conference tournament and the opportunity to participate in the NCAA College Cup, so there's a heightened sense of urgency," said head coach Andre Luciano. "Once conference play starts, everybody is 0-0 and the parity really starts to show. Anything can happen on any day."
The Lumberjacks will have momentum and confidence on their side after an impressive showing last weekend. NAU posted a 1-0-1 mark in its final non-conference tune-ups leading up to this Friday's match. The Lumberjacks started last weekend with a 1-1 tie with Florida Gulf Coast, an NCAA Tournament participant in 2011, and followed that up with a 1-0 shutout of San Jose State.
NAU received goals from sophomore Diane Buzzard and redshirt freshman Malia Tano last weekend. For Buzzard, who earned Big Sky Defensive Player of the Week honors earlier this week, and Tano, the goals were the first of their careers which continued an NAU trend thus far in 2012. Of the five Lumberjacks to record a goal through the first nine games of the season, four of them – Buzzard, Tano, and freshmen Haley Wingender and Cierra Gamble – notched the first of their careers. Furthermore, for seven of the nine players to register a point in 2012, the points were the first of their collegiate careers. Sophomores Savannah Berry and Kelly Whelan and freshman Demi Schmieder have recorded their first assists to go along with the four first-time goal scorers.
Heading into conference play, Wingender leads the team in goals (2), points (4) and shots (21). Her 21 shots ranks Wingender fifth in the conference, while she's also tied for sixth in goals and tied for seventh in shots per game (2.33). Schmieder is the team-leader in assists with three, which puts her in a tie for second in the Big Sky. In goal, freshman Natalie Gilbertson and junior Lauren Weaver have split time so far and both are among the tops in the Big Sky in terms of saves with Gilbertson ranked fourth with 36 and Weaver ranked tenth with 22.
Although Southern Utah is new to the conference, there is a lot of familiarity between the Thunderbirds and the Lumberjacks as the two teams have met each of the last five years and a total of 10 times since 2001. NAU holds an 8-1-1 advantage in the series, but Southern Utah claimed the most recent meeting last year, 3-1, on their home field.
"Southern Utah has a new coaching staff, they're new to the conference and they beat us last year," Luciano said. "I'm sure they feel it's not a big challenge to come here and a lot of those players have competed here on numerous occasions. We have to defend our home turf, but we can't take anything for granted because everyone is playing for the same prize."
Stacey Brinkman leads the Thunderbirds with two goals and four points, while Charly Booth has been SUU's primary goalkeeper, with a 1.76 goals against average and a .776 save percentage in 2012. The Thunderbirds have played just one game in each of the last three weekends and recently picked up their first victory of the season last Friday, 3-0 against Western State College of Colorado. Southern Utah put up a season-high 27 shots while limiting WSCU to just two.
Friday's game will be a televised broadcast by NAU-TV. The game will be shown live on NAU-TV channels 4 and 104 as well as Fox College Sports at 7 p.m. Fox Sports Arizona will show the game on a delayed basis later that night at 10:30 p.m. Fans can also watch the game live online via the link above.