The UC Irvine women's soccer team has been nearly unbeatable the last two seasons in Big West Conference play. But according to conference coaches, the 2012 Anteaters are still not the team to beat.
Coach Scott Juniper has guided UCI to a 33-7-2 combined record in 2011 and 2010, including a 14-1-1 record in conference regular-season games, back-to-back conference regular-season championships and two straight NCAA Tournament appearances, one of which ended in the Sweet 16.
But Long Beach State's run to the NCAA quarterfinals last season was enough to render the Anteaters a virtual afterthought when it came to picking a favorite in the preseason conference poll. UCI, which has fallen to Long Beach State, 1-0, in the last two Big West tournament finals, received just one of 10 first-place votes. The other nine were awarded to the 49ers.
Juniper, while somewhat perplexed by the lack of affirmation after elevating his program onto the national stage, also said a little preseason doubt could be the ideal motivational tool for a roster that he calls the deepest in his six seasons at the helm.
"It seems a little lopsided," Juniper said of the poll, in which UCI was picked second in a 10-team alliance that includes newly added Hawaii. "But the last time that happened, we went 8-0 [in the Big West, a feat never replicated]. But that's fine. We'll make that work to our advantage at some point with the team."
The Anteaters should have several factors working to their advantage, one being the latest of some talented transfers that have included two-time All-American CoCo Goodson (from Texas) and Natalie Ledezma, a former UCLA defender who had 12 goals and eight assists at forward on her way to first-team all-conference recognition last year.
The latest arrival is Rachel Wood, who played the last three seasons at North Carolina. A former All-American and top-five national recruit at Aliso Niguel High, Wood played 65 matches at UNC, starting 25, mostly on the back line. She posted five career goals, nine assists and was a member of the 2008 NCAA championship team. But she returned home for a chance to play her favorite position: forward.
Juniper said he is happy to give her that chance.
"She's got athleticism and strength to go with it," Juniper said of the 6-foot senior. "She's a very elegant athlete in so many ways and she's in a position where she can use that now. It's not going to be easy to play against her, because she can do many different things. She can run in behind you, she can post up, she can beat you one vs. one, she can outwork you and she can beat you in the air. This girl is a complete player and it's going to take a lot to slow her down for 90 minutes."
Ledezma, a versatile talent who Juniper praised as one of the most intelligent players he has worked with, has a skill set that could make Wood even more potent. This new pairing could help alleviate the loss of first-team all-conference forward Lexi Kopf, who had 11 goals as a senior last season.
But the aforementioned depth might also allow Ledezma, a preseason all-conference pick, to shift to the midfield periodically to allow greater opportunities up top for sophomore Laura McGrail.
"She has been scoring goals on the ground and in the air and combining well with Rachel in the preseason," Juniper said of McGrall, who had just two shots in five games last season. "We're pretty excited about her."
Cami Privett, the Big West Freshman of the Year and a second-team all-conference honoree last season, is back in the midfield, where seniors Dana Sanderlin and Devon Delarosa are returning starters as well. Privett, also a preseason all-conference choice, had five goals and five assists in 2011, when Sanderlin added five assists and one goal.
Sanderlin has 10 career goals and seven assists, while Delarosa has eight goals and eight assists in her three previous seasons at UCI. Versatile senior Mar Rodriguez (11 career goals and five assists) is another formidable returner, as is junior Mady Solow, who transferred in before last season from Florida.
Sophomores Jordan Utvich and Jenna Pellegrino are potential contributors in the midfield, where freshman Clarissa Robles has already impressed Juniper.
"She's an exceptional player," Juniper said of Robles, who could also contribute as a striker.
Junior Zuri Walker is another of 10 players competing for four midfield spots, Juniper said.
Sophomore Jennifer Randazzo returns at goalkeeper after amassing six shutouts and 14 wins last season. But Juniper said Corey Tobin, a freshman from Orange Lutheran High, could create competition for the starting job.
Juniors Jordan Bruce and Zoya Farzaneh figure to add experience on the back line, where senior Jackie Samis has locked up a starting spot at center back to help ease the loss of Goodson (now playing professionally in Holland).
Freshmen Mandi McBroom and Haley O'Brien are additional candidates in the back, where Sarah Devine, now a volunteer assistant coach, earned first-team all-conference laurels last season as a junior. Devine, who redshirted in 2008, elected not to use her final year of eligibility.
The Anteaters open the season Friday against BYU at 7 p.m. in the first of four consecutive home games. The conference opener is Sept. 28 at Cal State Fullerton and the much-anticipated Long Beach State showdown is Oct. 20 under the 49ers newly installed lights.
"Everyone plays for each other and it's everyone's responsibility to make everyone better each day," Juniper said. "If we continue to do that, good things are going to happen."
Twitter: @BarryFaulkner5Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun