FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – From 2008-10, the Northern Arizona soccer team rose to the top of the Big Sky Conference with two conference tournament championships and NCAA Tournament appearances in 2008 and 2009 and the school's first-ever regular season conference title in 2010. However in the two years since, the Lumberjacks experienced a shift in team dynamics moving from a veteran-laden team to squad filled with underclassmen due to the graduation of nearly 30 players from those championship teams.
Looking forward to the 2013 campaign, head coach Andre Luciano enters his 13th season at the helm of the Lumberjack soccer program and has his team focusing on one goal: winning the program's fourth Big Sky championship. With 10 returning starters and 18 total letterwinners back, the Lumberjacks once again sport an upperclassmen-led team. Add in 15 talented newcomers to the roster as well and the Lumberjacks are primed to earn their first conference tournament berth in three years and regain their spot among the Big Sky's elite.
"This is a veteran group that has experienced a lot and been through a lot," Luciano said. "This is the first time in a few years where we won't have to rely on our freshmen to play significant minutes for us. It's a lot easier going into a season having players that have had three and a half years under their belt instead of having to try and piece together a lineup. We have balance and we're excited for the year to begin."
The Lumberjacks' success over the last two years have mainly stemmed from their defensive efforts. Protecting the goal for NAU during this span has been senior Lauren Weaver, who enters her final season as not only one of the best goalkeepers in the Big Sky, but also one of the best to ever wear the NAU uniform.
Weaver earned her second All-Big Sky Honorable Mention selection last season after finishing in the top-five in the conference in all goalkeeping statistics. In 14 starts and 16 games played overall, the senior from Winnetka, Calif. notched career-bests in goals against average (1.16), save percentage (.841) and shutouts (7). Weaver was at her best in conference play as six of her shutouts came against Big Sky opposition and she carried a 0.83 goals against average in nine conference games. Heading into 2013, Weaver's 226 career saves rank fourth in program history as does her 11 career shutouts.
"Lauren's biggest asset this year is her leadership and experience in goal," Luciano said. "She's a seasoned goalkeeper and is extremely focused on having another good year and right now she's our No. 1 goalkeeper."
In addition to Weaver, NAU also returns sophomore Natalie Gilbertson who started five matches a year ago as a true freshman before suffering a season-ending injury. She recorded two shutouts, one solo, and made a career-high 10 saves versus Arizona State. With Weaver and Gilbertson back along with two incoming freshmen, the Lumberjacks are in good hands between the posts.
"This is the deepest pool of goalkeepers we've had since I've been here," Luciano said. "Everyday is going to be competitive and a challenge to be in the top-two and I am looking forward to some spirited training sessions."
While Weaver has gotten a lot of the accolades for the Lumberjacks' defensive success, the starting backline should not go unnoticed given that NAU recorded eight shutouts, six in conference play, last season which ranked second in the Big Sky. The six Big Sky blanks set a new school record while the eight total shutouts was NAU's third-highest single season total.
Unlike past years, the Lumberjacks only lost three seniors to graduation this season but they will be hard pressed to replace one of them – Georgia Foltz. Foltz, the team's lone selection to the All-Big Sky first team and only player to start all 19 contests in 2012, served as the team's captain last year after returning for a fifth season following an injury that limited her to just two games in 2011.
To ease the loss of Foltz, Luciano will turn to senior Alana D'Onofrio and junior Diane Buzzard to anchor the defensive backline, both of whom are returning starters with 48 and 25 career starts to their names respectively.
"You don't replace a player like Georgia Foltz who was a mainstay in our backline for the last five years," Luciano said. "But we shifted Alana D'Onofrio from an outside back to a central back to fill that role and she'll be partnered with Diane Buzzard. We're comfortable with our two center backs at this point."
A third familiar name, that of junior Sarah Tarver, enters the fall as an expected starter in the backline although many Lumberjack fans are accustomed to seeing her on the attack for NAU. Tarver, who spent the spring season as a member of the NAU women's basketball team, is making the move to the defensive side of the pitch for the Lumberjacks after spending her first two seasons on the opposite end of the field. She was named All-Big Sky honorable mention following her freshman season as a midfielder.
"Sarah Tarver had a breakout spring after returning from playing basketball," Luciano said. "She's made a name for herself as an outside left back. With Alana and Diane, those are three players we're looking at immediately to start in the backline."
The fourth and final spot on the backline will be left open to competition. Among those that competed in the spring for the outside right back position are sophomores Emily Wadell, Maya Huffman and Cierra Gamble.
Even with Tarver, who made 14 starts last year in the midfield, moving into the backline, the Lumberjacks are still loaded in the central area of the field with returning starters Savannah Berry and Emily Roth, both of whom enter their third collegiate seasons.
Berry made a splash in her debut season with the Lumberjacks in 2012 after transferring from Florida, as she was one of NAU's primary threats going towards the goal. Playing in all 19 games earning 13 starts, Berry ended the season with a bang as she scored her first collegiate goal and also tallied an assist in the team's season finale against CSU Bakersfield all while attempting 10 shots. Her 37 shots on the season led the team and she finished tied for third on the team with four points on one goal and two assists.
Meanwhile, Roth was a steady force tying for second on the team with 17 starts last year after making just seven as a freshman the year prior. She had a breakout game against North Dakota, recording her first career goal and assist in the team's 4-0 shutout win on the road. Her consistent play throughout the season was recognized at the conclusion as she was voted All-Big Sky honorable mention, her first all-conference honor.
"We've made some changes to the formations we're going to play and Savannah Berry has emerged as a key attacking presence for us out of the midfield," Luciano said. "Emily Roth had a fantastic sophomore campaign and we look forward to her building on that this year."
Senior Elinor Priest is a name to look for among the various different options that Luciano has at his disposal to fill into the midfield as well. The Portland, Ore. native has spent the majority of her time at the forward position during her career in Flagstaff, but has shown to be capable in the central mid role.
"Elinor Priest is a true holding central back that can be a link player for us," Luciano said. "Malia Tano, Cierra Gamble and Torey Braly are all players that also have experience at that position and we look forward to having everyone contribute."
Sophomore Demi Schmieder, out of local Coconino High School, was NAU's offensive catalyst last season as she paced the team in goals (3), assists (4) and points (10). An All-Big Sky Honorable Mention selection, Schmieder finished tied for third in assists and tied for eighth in points in the Big Sky. When on the attack, she was on point as 16 of her 21 shots (.762) were on goal and her play elevated in conference play as three of her goals came when it mattered the most.
The return of sophomore Haley Wingender will also be a big boost to the Lumberjacks, who at times struggled to score in 2012. Wingender led the team with two goals and five points through the first 13 games of the season before she suffered a season-ending injury against Portland State. Still, her five points only trailed Schmieder for the team lead and she was one of four players to notch multiple goals despite missing the last third of the season.
"I think we're going to be a little more diverse in our movement off the ball," Luciano said. "Having Haley back gives us the ability to get behind teams with her pace. But we've also shifted Nicole Sherwin from the midfield position to a target forward and Malia and Torey can jump in as well."
After redshirting as a true freshman in 2011, Tano made an impact last year totaling two goals and will be counted once again in 2013. Braly out of nearby Cottonwood, Ariz. is healthy after missing all but the first two games of the 2012 season with an injury and Sherwin was a standout player during the team's recent trip to Spain in May in which the Lumberjacks picked up three wins in four matches against Spanish professional club teams.
Another name to look for is senior Shawnee Morgan. Morgan, who has shifted between the forward and defender roles throughout her career, is once again expected to contribute on the offensive side of the ball after scoring her first career goal in last year's finale against CSU Bakersfield. After starting seven of the first eight games in the backline, Morgan's role grew as a forward as the season progressed as she was tied for second on the team with 12 shots in conference play.
"Shawnee Morgan returns as a player that played significant minutes last year," Luciano said. "I think she is due to have a fantastic season in 2013."
NAU will play an 18-game schedule in 2013 beginning on Aug. 23 at Long Beach State. Its home opener, the first of 10 home dates, will be two days later on Aug. 25 versus Lamar at 12 p.m. at Lumberjack Stadium.
Among the schedule highlights are five consecutive home matches in the month of September against UNLV, Grand Canyon, Colorado State, UTEP and Hawaii before starting conference play. The Lumberjacks will also host reigning Big Sky champion Idaho State on Oct. 4 in their conference home opener. NAU has four of its nine home matches at home in Flagstaff.
"This year we will have the opportunity of having 10 home games and it's a good balanced schedule that will test us early in the season with some non-traditional opponents," Luciano said. "We have a good stretch of home games in September against opponents from good conferences and it gives us the opportunity to establish ourselves prior to conference."
For the full 2013 schedule, click here.