Anteaters' rise spurs even loftier goals

After a breakthrough season that included a trip to the Sweet 16 in the program's first NCAA Tournament appearance, as well as a school single-season record of 19 victories, one might wonder what the UC Irvine women's soccer team can do for an encore.

Predictably, fifth-year coach Scott Juniper has an answer at the ready.

"We can beat anyone," said the 2010 West Region and Big West Conference Coach of the Year, who returns seven starters from a team that posted an unprecedented perfect Big West regular-season record of 8-0 on its way to a 19-3-2 finish.

"Last year, we refused to step on the field without believing we could win a game. The players know that now. This year, we have four top-25 opponents and the players are fired up for every single one of them."

Stanford (ranked No. 1 in the Soccer America preseason poll), Portland (No. 11), Santa Clara (No. 17) and Texas A&M (No. 22) represent the aforementioned premium competition for the No. 20-ranked Anteaters, whose willingness to take on highly touted foes allowed them to net just seven regular-season home games.

"We've had to go on the road to get the games we wanted to play," said Juniper, whose team opens Friday at 1:30 p.m. against Texas-San Antonio in the Texas A&M Invitational in College Station. "We're trying to raise the level of teams we are playing against and we want a schedule that is exciting for our whole team and ensures that their experience as competitive soccer players is nourished."

UCI fortified itself last season by outscoring opponents, 49-18, posting 11 shutouts and allowing more than one goal in only two of its final 20 games (winning on both of those occasions).

Tanya Taylor, a third-team All-American who led the Big West with 11 goals and 12 assists, is one of four starters who have moved on. The Big West Offensive Player of the Year led the way last season, along with senior goalkeeper Danielle de Seriere, who played every minute and posted an 0.69 goals-against average.

The returners are led by preseason All-American defender CoCo Goodson, the Big West Defensive Player of the Year who became the program's initial first-team All-American last season. Goodson, a transfer from Texas, scored nine goals in her first season at UCI. She had five game-winning goals and finished with 18 points.

"She is a better player than she was 12 months ago," Juniper said of Goodson, who he believes is quicker and more fit. "She'll have to be more fit, because she is playing some of the best forwards in the country."

Senior Judy Christopher, a defensive midfielder, is a two-time first-team all-conference performer whose determination and leadership will make her a catalyst, Juniper said.

"She's looked up to by the players," Juniper said of one of three captains (joining Goodson and junior midfielder Devon Delarosa). "She has great connections in our locker room."

Mar Rodriguez, a junior attacking midfielder who can also play forward, was a first-team All-Big West performer last season, when she had six goals and three assists to rank third among UCI's point producers. Rodriguez will miss the first four games while representing Mexico in the World University Games in China.

Senior forward Lexi Kopf (six goals and two assists), junior midfielder Dana Sanderlin (four goals and three assists) and senior defender Sarah Devine are additional returning starters.

Sophomore transfers Natalia Ledezma, a forward from UCLA, and Mady Solow, a midfielder from Florida, will help ease the loss of last year's starting seniors, including first-team all-conference defender Nikki Forrest.

Ledezma, who has youth national team experience, scored both goals in a 2-0 exhibition win over Fresno State and Solow has represented Canada on the junior national level.

Sophomore Zoya Farzaneh, voted the team's Rookie of the Year in 2010, started the exhibition match as a midfielder, while sophomore Jordan Bruce did the same on the back line.

Freshman Jennifer Randazzo is battling junior returner Kala Gabler for the starting nod at goalkeeper, while Cami Privett, Jenna Pellegrino and Jasmine Nickelberry are other freshmen Juniper expects to contribute.

Juniper also cited juniors Janelly Farias, Alexis Rafael and Jackie Samis, as well as senior Amanda Hardeman and sophomore Zuri Walker as those who should also bolster a depth he considers among the team's strengths.

UCI meets Texas A&M on Sunday, plays Santa Clara and Stanford back-to-back in the Stanford Nike Invitational (Sept. 9 and 11) and plays host to Portland on Sept. 22.

UCI's first home game is Sept. 2 against Hawaii and the Anteaters, who were picked by the coaches to win the conference, open Big West play Sept. 30 at UC Davis.

"We're currently one of the top two or three teams in California and Stanford and UCLA regularly make it to the Final Four," Juniper said. "There's no reason why we can't get ourselves into that kind of company."

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