'Eaters aiming higher

College coaches often look to other campuses to find inspiration and role models when it comes to fashioning success. UC Irvine women's soccer coach Scott Juniper, however, merely peeks down the hall of the school's athletic offices.

Juniper, in his fourth year, said he and his players have benefitted from the example set by the UCI men's program, which Coach George Kuntz has guided to consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, including two Big West Conference tournament crowns and one regular-season conference title.

It's the Big West tournament that Juniper and his players have focused on his first three seasons at the helm, and the Anteaters have qualified for the four-team postseason event two of the last three seasons, including last year. But, coming off a 12-7-2 campaign that included an eight-game unbeaten streak, nine shutouts and 37 goals to the opponents' 29, expectations have been raised for this season.

"There's a significant change in the mentality this year," said Juniper, who returns 12 of the 14 players who registered at least one goal and/or assist in 2009, including the top four scorers. "[My players] know what it takes to win the conference now. I don't think they did the last three years. We had a team meeting last week and close to 100% stated that winning a Big West Conference championship is what they want to do this year."

Toward that end, the Anteaters may have one of the most proven scoring arsenal in the conference, in which they were picked to finish third by a preseason vote of the coaches.

Tanya Taylor, a senior forward, and Dana Sanderlin, a sophomore midfielder, return after both producing a team-best six goals and four assists last season.

Sophomore midfielders Devon Delarosa (four goals and five assists) and Mar Rodriguez (five goals, including four game-winners, and two assists) are also back to give opposing goalkeepers some sleepless nights.

Junior Lexi Kopf (two goals and two assists) figures to start alongside Taylor up front, while Juniper said several other weapons may be utilized, based on the kind of skill sets might be needed in any given match.

Taylor and Sanderlin were second-team all-conference performers, while defensive midfielder Judy Christopher, now a junior, earned first-team All-Big West laurels in 2009.

"Judy is basically matched up against the most creative, most dangerous player on the other team every single game," Juniper said of Christopher, who chipped in three goals and one assist last season. "And she shuts them down. There hasn't been a player who has been able to dominate possession against us and that's largely because of Judy."

Senior goalkeeper Danielle de Seriere anchors an experienced defense that includes seniors Nikki Forrest and Alyssa Humphrey, sophomore Sarah Devine as well as transfers Coco Goodson, a junior from the University of Texas, and Lani Amack, who started as a freshman last season at Washington State.

Joining Christopher and Sanderlin in the midfield will be Rodriguez, who started for the Mexican national team in the Under 20 World Cup over the summer, as well as Delarosa and junior Carly Crowder.

Zuri Walker, a freshman from San Diego and the younger sister of Anteaters men's standout Amani Walker, could also make an impact in the midfield while she waits her turn to potentially become a weapon up front, Juniper said.

Juniper also mentioned Jordan Bruce, another San Diego product, as one who may assert themselves from the incoming freshmen class.

Freshmen contributed 18 goals and 12 assists last season and Juniper believes that having made the adjustment to Division I competition, they have added to their skill sets.

The skill sets on the roster now align more precisely with Juniper's mindset, he said.

"Being my fourth year as head coach, every player on the roster I've had a hand in recruiting," Juniper said. "I see a lot more of my personality on the team now. Rather than trying to put round pegs in square holes, we've got the right players for the right positions at the right time."

Game time commences tonight at 7, when Idaho visits for the season opener.

Taylor, Humphrey and de Seriere, who has 20 career shutouts, are the team's tri-captains, but they are not the sole leaders, Juniper said.

"Mentally, we're on a different level than last year," Juniper said. "I think that is closely aligned with the maturity of the team."

The Anteaters open the conference season Oct. 1 at home against Pacific.

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