Ledezma, UCI open well

UCLA transfer Natalia Ledezma came to UC Irvine to win friends and influence scoreboards.

The sophomore had managed the former by blending her unselfish style of play and an infectiously vibrant personality with a group of new teammates, a large number of whom contributed to the Anteaters' 19-3-2 campaign in 2010.

Ledezma, a former ESPN Rise second-team All-American at La Mirada High who also played for the U.S. national team at the under-15, U-17 and U-18 levels, wasted little time achieving the latter as well. She scored both goals in a 2-0 exhibition victory over visiting Fresno State on Wednesday afternoon.

Ledezma, who did not score and managed just three shots (only one shot on goal) in 18 games as a freshman for the Bruins last season, helped Coach Scott Juniper's Anteaters justify their No. 17 national preseason ranking.

UCI, which won its first Big West Conference regular-season title and turned its first NCAA Tournament appearance into a run to the Sweet 16 in 2010, was also picked to win the Big West this season in a coaches' poll announced Wednesday.

"We're not a secret anymore," said Juniper, who was pleased with the effort of his healthy players, all of whom saw action against the Bulldogs. "We've got some players who can play. It's a different kind of pressure this season and we'll have to learn how to play a different way. But it's exciting and it's good."

Juniper was thoroughly impressed with many facets of Wednesday's performance, not the least of which was the 5-foot-2 Ledezma.

"She's an incredibly talented player," Juniper said. "She scored two goals on two chances [shots on goal, three shots total], which is world-class finishing. She loves to play and nothing fazes her."

Ledezma, who converted an assist from senior midfielder Judy Christopher in the 52nd minute, then ricocheted a shot off a Fresno State defender into the net in the 82nd minute to give junior Dana Sanderlin an assist on a sequence begun by freshman Jazmine Nickelberry, said getting very few scoring chances was not the reason she ultimately left UCLA.

"I knew [Juniper] from the [Olympic Development Program] and seeing the season UCI had last year definitely opened my eyes," Ledezma said. "Being a defensive player was not my position, I think most coaches would say, but I was happy to get playing time [at UCLA]. But things are more relaxed here and there is not so much competitiveness between the players. It's great here."

Juniper's smile echoed that sentiment, as did his praise for his players.

"The question I had coming into today was, 'How many of these [newcomers, including eight freshmen and two transfers] can step up and play?'" Juniper said. "We've answered that question and I think every single one of them can play. Now it's just a competition between them to see who is actually going to step up enough to be in the starting lineup."

Freshman goalkeeper Jennifer Randazzo, who split the shutout evenly with junior starter Kala Gabler, had the only save for the hosts, a diving stop to her right early in the second half.

Sophomore midfielder Mady Solow, a transfer from Florida, also impressed, while Juniper singled out a veteran back line led by returning All-American CoCo Goodson, the Big West Defense Player of the Year last season after transferring from Texas.

Juniper also cited junior defender Sarah Devine for her strong play, as well as impressive debuts by freshmen Nickelberry, Jenna Pellegrino and Cami Privett.

Sanderlin had three shots, while Christopher, Goodson and junior Alexis Rafael had two apiece to help UCI outshoot the Bulldogs, 17-7. UCI dominated possession in the second half.

Senior forward Lexi Kopf sustained a bruised right hip, Juniper said, but is expected to be ready for the season opener.

UCI also prevailed, 4-3, in a practice round of penalty kicks, during which Christopher, junior Devon Delarosa, Sadow and Ledezma found the net for the hosts.

The Anteaters open the season Aug. 19 against Texas-San Antonio in the Texas A&M Invitational in College Station.

The first of their seven scheduled regular-season home games is Sept. 2 against Hawaii.

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