The UC Irvine women's soccer team lost just one conference game last season and has lost only two in the last three years. But last year's 5-1-3 Big West Conference record was good for only fourth place for the then-two-time-defending conference champions, who were 9-8-4 overall and missed out on an NCAA Tournament berth for the first time in three seasons.
So, never afraid of new concepts, sixth-year coach Scott Juniper has shaken the program's emotional tree in order to try to maximize success. In addition, Juniper and his staff are intent on being more diverse in terms of formations as the Anteaters try to regain an edge after playing seven of their eight overtime matches against conference foes last season.
UCI was 2-1-4 in those conference overtime clashes, including a season-ending defeat in penalty kicks against Cal State Fullerton in the semifinals of the Big West Conference Tournament.
"The Big West was so close last year," said Juniper, whose squad plays host to Texas A&M (ranked No. 12 in the preseason) on Wednesday at 7 p.m. in an exhibition game. "We don't want to become too predictable and be a team that everybody can predict what shape we're going to be in. By the time conference play starts, we want to be able to play in different ways. We have many coaches in this conference who have been around and have developed their programs with a very specific personality. We want to break out of that personality when we need to."
That personality will also be shaped with the aid of "The Chimp Paradox" a method used by consultant psychiatrist Dr. Steve Peters to help the British cycling team win eight gold medals at the London Olympics in 2012.
"The concept of the inner chimp is making its way across the Atlantic," said Juniper, who explained that the "inner chimp" is the crazy, emotional side of the brain responsible for unwanted behaviors that sabotage one's desire to be good.
"We're learning how to make friends with and manage that chimp, and when it's necessary, put it back in the box," Juniper said.
Another emphasis will be the suppression of individual egos for the good of the team, Juniper said.
"This team feels like one team more than any we've had," he said. "We don't have much of a hierarchy in terms of egos in the locker room. Everything we do is going to be for the greater good and for team goals.
Producing goals proved difficult last season for the Anteaters, who had only one player, then-sophomore forward Laura McGrail (six) score more than three. Four of McGrail's goals were game-winners, tops in the Big West in that department, but she figures to have more offensive help this season.
Among those who may move the scoring needle is Briana Frontino, a two-time community college All-American who transfers from Santiago Canyon College in Orange. Frontino, twice the Orange Empire Conference MVP, produced 24 goals and 21 assists in two collegiate seasons, after amassing 39 goals in a four-year varsity career at Cerritos High.
"She's very athletic and deceptively competitive," Juniper said of the mild-mannered 5-foot-4 junior forward. "She doesn't hesitate to go to goal. She has a genuine shot to help us immediately."
McGrail and fellow returners Cami Privett, a junior, Mady Solow, a senior, junior Jenna Pellegrino, senior Zuri Walker and sophomore Jasmine Nickelberry are additional offensive threats, said Juniper, who noted that senior tri-captain Natalia Ledezma (15 goals and 14 assist the last two seasons after transferring from UCLA) could wind up on the back line as easily as at forward this fall.
Solow and Walker, who like Privett and Pellegrino played primarily in the midfield last season, produced one goal each in 2012, when UCI was outscored, 29-25.
Juniper said sophomores Clarissa Robles and Kalene Needham could also emerge up front.
Juniper mentioned Privett, Pellegrino, Solow, Walker and senior Zoya Farzaneh as front-runners in the midfield mix this season, with Farzeneh and Solow joining Ledezma as captains.
Senior Jordan Bruce and sophomore Haley O'Brien are two of six returning starters. They will anchor the back line, said Juniper, who may also count upon Ledezma, as well as freshman Kelsey Texeira and sophomores Alana Sooy and Michelle Bagheri, the latter a transfer from Cal State San Bernardino.
Sophomore Corey Tobin and junior Jennifer Randazzo, who started 12 and 11 games, respectively last season, will battle for goalkeeping duties, Juniper said.
UCI's schedule, including preseason No. 6 BYU (Sept. 14 in Provo), No. 20 Cal (Aug. 23 at home) and No. 25 Denver (Sept. 1 at home) was ranked ninth-toughest in the nation by one website.
The Big West preseason poll has yet to come out, but Juniper, whose team carries a seven-game unbeaten streak into this season (the loss to Cal State Fullerton in penalty kicks officially counts as a tie), said the goals remain high for this squad.
"We can be proud of the fact that missing out on [a Big West regular-season championship and an NCAA Tournament berth] by small margins is a disappointing season for us now," Juniper said. "But the players are fired up to set the record straight. They feel they can write another page of history for UCI women's soccer [in its 30th season]. They want to do some things that no other [UCI] team has done before."