FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – It's over a week into August, which means one thing for the Northern Arizona University women's soccer team: game day is right around the corner. After the 2015 campaign came to an abrupt halt finishing just below the cut for the Big Sky Conference Tournament, Head Coach Andre Luciano and the Lumberjacks look ahead to the highs and lows that 2016 will bring about with a refreshed perspective.
"This group of players has worked really hard in every session that we've had up to this point," Luciano said. "They have been extremely blue-collar and are complimenting each other very, very well both during training and in their chemistry off the field."
In just three days, Northern Arizona will hit the road for Tucson, Ariz. to take on Pac-12 foe University of Arizona in their lone exhibition match of the year. The Wildcats are coming off an NCAA tournament appearance where they qualified for the Sweet 16 before falling to No. 3 Stanford. Kick-off is set for 7 p.m. at Murphy Field.
"This will be a great opportunity for us to evaluate where we are," Luciano noted. "With a full week of practice under our belt and prior to our home opener against Utah Valley, obviously playing a quality, NCAA Tournament opponent will give us a true test of where we stand."
It's no secret that the 'Jacks graduated a bulk of their starters including four All-Big Sky selections from 2015. But with change, comes new opportunity. With seniors like Dani Muniz and Lindsay Doyle, as well as redshirt junior Missy Kettelkamp, there still is no shortage of experience for NAU.
"This year is a chance for us to create a different legacy with this group of players," Luciano said. "We had really good soccer players that played a lot of minutes their four years here last season, but now it's an opportunity for our players to make their own mark on this program."
Muniz appeared in all 19 games last season at defender while Doyle appeared in 18. At forward, Doyle strung together a solid junior season scoring four goals – tied for second on the team – and two assists for 10 points. Kettelkamp, too, brings a strong mix of experience to the table after proving in 2015 she can defend and put the ball in the back of the net.
Given that 26 players of NAU's 36-player roster are underclassmen, the growth ahead is inevitable. With 15 freshmen aboard the Lumberjack train – 12 newcomers and three redshirts – Luciano and his squad are bound and determined to use what's in front of them as an advantage. Without any one, star player to rely on, Luciano summed up his expectations for this year's team in one word: united.
One component Luciano hopes to shake up in 2016 is defense. After giving up more goals than he would have liked last season, the Lumberjacks will amplify their intensity on the defensive end of the ball. With sights set on keeping games tighter, and establishing an identity as a blue-collar-type team, the 'Jacks hope to position themselves for a few more digits in the win column.
All For One
Northern Arizona will kick off its season against Utah Valley in its home opener on Aug. 19 and follow up with New Mexico State on Aug. 22. After a brief stint on the road at the UNLV Rebel Classic in Las Vegas, Nev. Aug. 26-28 and at Grand Canyon University on Sept. 2, the Lumberjacks will host the annual Mountain Classic where University of New Mexico and University of Illinois-Chicago will attend.
"Our non-conference games are meant to create an identity of who we want to be," Luciano said. "We've been talking a lot about a 'one for all, all for one' mentality and that every player is vital to our success. We have to approach every training session and every game in the non-conference with enthusiasm and a desire to get better."
Big Sky Buzz
Being tabbed preseason No. 5 in the Big Sky polls, NAU surely has a challenging road ahead of them once conference games roll around. The 'Jacks will open up the conference season in Flagstaff on Sept. 23 and Sept. 25 versus Portland State and Sacramento State, respectively. The game against University of Idaho, predicted to win the Big Sky in 2016, will be played in Moscow in NAU's third to last conference game of the season. The Lumberjacks will then close out their conference slate at home against Southern Utah on Oct. 28 before the Big Sky Conference Tournament.
"I'm going into my 16th year here and I really do feel like our conference is the strongest it has ever been from top to bottom," Luciano noted. "I've noticed that the teams in the Big Sky are doing better in the non-conference season and feel like this year will be great in terms of getting big wins. We just have to take it day-by-day and game-by-game, being prepared every single time. There won't be any easy games this year."
We Before Me
With just 10 days before Northern Arizona's home opener, the grind will continue and so will the mentality of teamwork and unity that Luciano has stressed day in and day out. Would a championship be nice? Of course – but this year's young team being able to trust the process is of equal and perhaps greater importance.
"We're not even talking about wins and losses," Luciano said. "If we focus on being united and working hard for each other, then things will happen. Last year we were so set on repeating as conference champions that we didn't keep our eyes on the road ahead of us. Every day we have to get better at something, but the most important part is playing for each other."