NORMAN, Okla. -- The 2005 edition of Oklahoma soccer reports to campus on Tuesday, Aug. 9 and is set to begin practice on Wednesday at John Crain Field.
SoonerSports.com brings fans a complete preview of the Sooners' soccer program as it enters its 10th year of existence this season and seventh year under head coach Randy Evans. Evans (51-52-11) will look to guide his team, which returns nine starters from 2004 and 19 letterwinners overall, back to the postseason.
After making the program's only trip to the NCAA Tournament in 2003, Evans and the Sooners will look to return to the postseason after they struggled in 2004 with injuries to key players.
The 2005 season will be no different than any other as one of the biggest keys will be the players' health. If it were not for injuries to Lauren MacIver, Lauren Harris, Catherine Wade, Jennifer Nichols and others, the 2004 team might have duplicated the 2003 team's accomplishments.
“I still believe last year’s team was the most talented we have fielded at OU,” said Evans. “But injuries really slowed down what that team could accomplish. In 2005, we will not look to be better than last year’s team but be more successful than the 2003 squad that advanced to the NCAA Tournament."
Nine players (six seniors, three juniors) return from the 2003 team and six sophomores, who all saw significant time a year ago, return to help lead the Sooners back into the postseason.
"This could be the best group of leadership that I have had the pleasure to coach," said Evans. "They have really impressed me with the organization and discipline that they displayed in the spring and summer."
Leading that group will be senior captains Christy Kenkel and MacIver. In addition, six other seniors (Jenny Jones, Becky Nelson, Kristin Vesely, Michelle Enos, Lindsey Pulat and Hollee Fink) combine to form perhaps the most experienced senior class under Evans.
"Lauren is a tremendous leader because of what she does on the field," said Evans. "It is very important to her for this team to succeed and that is obvious when you watch her play in an actual game or when we are doing a simple drill during practice.
"Her determination is incredible and she has a lot to prove after missing the Big 12 season with an ACL tear. Being an All-Big 12 honoree in each of her first two seasons, I know she will come out strong this year. She is a big key to this team's success."
While MacIver enters her second season as a team captain, Kenkel, a two-time Academic All-Big 12 honoree, begins her first.
Last season, the team played in 11 games decided by one goal and came out on top in five of those contests. Included in those 11 games were five of OU's seven Big 12 losses. The 2005 squad will look for more offense to improve upon that mark in close contests.
"I was thrilled with the level of play we had attained last year, with a lot of close games, despite the injuries," added Evans. "We started off 4-1-3 in non-conference play and we were playing some of the best soccer we have seen here. The team needs to carry that non-conference success into the Big 12 regular season this year.
"I have no reason to think that this year's team can't be better than the 2004 team. We have a lot of depth in the attacking positions and will have every opportunity to score goals. We will return to a high level of play and staying healthy is all we need to accomplish our goals. And those goals are to enjoy another successful non-conference season, position ourselves as one of the top four teams in the league during the regular season and win the Big 12 Championship in order to earn the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament."
In order to accomplish those goals the Sooners have lined up another challenging schedule in 2005 as they will face the likes of Saint Louis, Arkansas, Wisconsin and Iowa, among others, before Big 12 play begins.
OU will open the conference season with three consecutive home games (Texas, Texas Tech and Colorado) before traveling to Missouri and Kansas for the first Big 12 road contests.
Then Texas A&M and Baylor will travel to Norman before the Sooners conclude the regular season with trips to Nebraska, Iowa State and Oklahoma State.
“Your success during conference play is obviously the most important task throughout the course of a season," added Evans. "But I think how well we do against non-conference opponents will dictate our success against Big 12 teams.
"We look forward to the 10 games in front of our home crowd and the many challenges that this schedule presents. We believe that it will set us up for a run to the postseason.”
The top eight teams from the Big 12 Conference will participate in the 2005 Big 12 Championship, hosted in San Antonio, Texas, at Blossom Stadium on Nov. 2, 4 and 6. The winner of the conference championship, along with at-large bids, will then advance to the 64-team NCAA Tournament, held on campus sites, with this year’s championship held in College Station, Texas.
The University of Oklahoma soccer team prides itself on playing tough defense and this year's team will look to its young goalkeeper to anchor the squad. Sophomore Jennifer Nichols will assume the role as the team's last line of defense and will look to lead the Sooners to another season of solid defense.
As a freshman, Nichols saw time in the Sooners' net in 13 contests and started five of those games. In 805 minutes of action, she allowed 15 goals for a 1.68 goals-against average, while making 49 saves. She also spent the year learning from one of the program's best goalkeepers, Catherine Wade, who was lost to graduation.
"We expect Jenny to be the No. 1 goalkeeper and do a tremendous job for us, especially after the phenomenal spring she had," commented Evans. "Last year, she split time with Catherine and was able to gain valuable experience. That will really help her this season as a full-time starter."
Backing up Nichols will be Pulat and Fink, both of whom transferred to OU. Pulat, who spent her first year in Norman in 2004, had a stint in which she competed against Big 12 competition with Texas Tech. Fink has spent the past two seasons with OU and came over from Grandview College (Des Moines, Iowa).
"I am happy to have Lindsey because she has experience as a starting goalkeeper in the conference and Hollee is probably the hardest working goalkeeper on the team," said Evans.
The remainder of the defense is perhaps the biggest question mark on the team as Evans is unsure who will fill all the roles.
"I have no doubt that our defense will be solid again in 2005 but the big question is who will be playing back there," commented Evans. "We could have a number of different players on defense, depending on if we use a 3-5-2 or 4-3-3 formation.
"The one certainty is that Jenny (Jones) will be playing in the center of the defense, controlling the back line. Jenny is one of our best players and she will be joined by Andrea Hurley on the right side of the defense. That combination of experience and leadership will take pressure off our young goalkeeper."
The other center back in the possible 3-5-2 formation will be freshman Tally Ward, if she is healthy. The McKinney, Texas, native is coming off a foot injury that could prevent her from playing right away. If that is the case, Evans will switch to a 4-3-3 or a 4-4-2 style of play.
Ward is not the only freshman who could see time on defense. Helen Ajufo, Traci Dickenson, Katie Corbit and Savannah Campbell, who were all recruited to fill defensive holes left from graduation, could battle it out for the left back position.
"We potentially have a lot of depth on defense if we can get some freshmen to step up like the group did last year," said Evans. "If that occurs, it will allow us to push up Kady Kelly and Lauren Harris into their natural attacking positions. That is something we wanted to do last year because we knew Kady and Lauren could help us score more goals. If push comes to shove, we always have the luxury of using them on defense if needed."
With Kelly and Harris potentially penciled in for the Sooners' midfield, more depth presents itself in the middle of the field for OU.
In the defensive portion of the midfield, the opposition can expect to see sophomore Allyson Kucera and Kenkel along with sophomore Jayme Seetin and junior Katherine Hergenrether.
MacIver, a permanent fixture in the Sooners' midfield over the last three years, or Harris will serve as the team's attacking center midfielder. Whichever Lauren is used in that role, the other will likely move up top as a forward.
As many as six other players could compete for time in the midfield. Those competing for time as the outside midfielders include sophomores Shana All, Colleen Keester, Lauren King and Ashley King, and Campbell.
"The midfield is the core and the strength of our team," said Evans. "It is a luxury to have this much talent and depth to control the center of the field for us."
This year's team also presents Evans and his coaching staff with numerous options at the forward position. The most goals that any OU team has scored in a single season is 36 (2001). This year's team has the potential fire power to top that mark, according to the Sooners' head coach.
"We have never had this much depth at the attacking center midfield and forward positions," added Evans. "It is very exciting to sit back and think what this team could accomplish on offense. It is certainly a goal of this team to surpass any previous goal scoring record."
Like many of the other potential midfielders, Harris, MacIver and Kelly will have the opportunity to play up top for Evans and will join the team's leading scorer from last season, junior Savannah Scott. Scott led all Sooners last year in points (13) and goals (6) and added one assist.
Also returning with frontline experience are seniors Becky Nelson, Kristin Vesely and Michelle Enos, sophomore Tenesha Duncan and newcomer Christy Smeal.
"We have a nice combination of players that we can put together on the field," added Evans. "If Becky and Tenesha return 100 percent (from injuries suffered in 2004), we will also have Kristin Vesely, Michelle Enos and Christie providing us with an even longer list of players competing at this position, all of whom will contribute in some way on offense."