NORMAN, Okla. -- The 2006 soccer season is set to begin in one week with the Sooners' first preseason game on Tuesday, Aug. 15 against TCU. That game is slated for a 3 p.m. start at the newly renovated John Crain Field at the OU Soccer Complex.
With camp set to begin on Wednesday, Aug. 9 and the regular season opener scheduled for Aug. 26 in Hawai'i against Washington, SoonerSports.com brings fans a preview of the upcoming season for head coach Randy Evans and his squad.
The 10th year of Oklahoma soccer proved successful as the 2005 Sooners set program records for wins (overall and consecutive), goals, assists and points. Despite missing the NCAA Tournament, head coach Randy Evans still considers last year's team the best in program history and an important building block for the 2006 season and years to come.
"Last year was the best season we have ever experienced and it's no secret that we were disappointed after not being selected to the NCAA Tournament," said Evans. "After we made that first trip to the NCAA postseason in 2003, I said that the bar for future teams had been raised and the standard was set for what is expected out of the OU soccer program. The exact thing was said after the 2005 season."
In 2005, OU finished 13-6-1 and 5-4-1 in Big 12 play. Despite the loss of senior captain Lauren MacIver, the team's leading scorer, the offense in 2006 returns more than 65 percent of its production from a year ago. Additionally, the defense returns three Sooners with starting experience as well as goalkeeper Jennifer Nichols, who played every minute in the net in 2005.
"I feel like we have an NCAA caliber squad and there is no reason why the 2006 team should not be better than last year's," added Evans. "I think leadership is the biggest question mark for this group. We have the talent and experience, but we really need our juniors to set the tone and step up. We already know that the three seniors (Andrea Hurley, Kady Kelly and Savannah Scott) have the ability to lead this team, but they can't do it by themselves."
Eight players comprise the junior class and six of those athletes stepped on campus two years ago as one of the most highly touted recruiting classes at OU.
"The entire junior class has to fill that void (left by the eight seniors in 2005)," said Evans. "We expect them to take the reins of this program. That group was brought in to make a difference and, now that they are upper classmen, I expect them to meet those expectations and help lead this team into the postseason. "
In addition to the three seniors and eight juniors, five sophomores, who all saw significant time last season, will be joined by 10 newcomers in 2006.
"As a head coach, I have been able to play a lot of freshmen and as a result, we have really benefitted from their experience throughout the season and in the years that follow," said Evans. "I expect that trend to continue again this season because we have a great group of athletes who will provide quality minutes."
OU, which opens the season in Hawai’i against Washington on Aug. 26, will face another daunting non-conference schedule followed by the Big 12 season.
Overall, the Sooners will face seven teams that advanced to last year’s NCAA Tournament (Michigan State, Purdue, Colorado, Texas A&M, Texas, Iowa State and Nebraska).
The 2006 slate, comprised of 19 games, features 12 contests that will be played at the newly renovated OU Soccer Complex. The $4.5 million construction project on John Crain Field began in November and will be ready for Oklahoma's home opener on Friday, Sept. 1, against Michigan.
“This should be the most demanding non-conference schedule that OU has ever had and it will certainly prepare us for Big 12 competition,” said Evans. “In addition, we are hoping this schedule will get us prepared for a run at postseason play. The schedule is extremely challenging and will provide us with a strong RPI for NCAA consideration.”
The Sooners will also face Oral Roberts and Stephen F. Austin in non-conference action and will open the Big 12 regular season against Oklahoma State on Sept. 15. In addition to hosting OSU, the Sooners will entertain Big 12 foes Kansas (Sept. 24), Missouri (Oct. 6), Iowa State (Oct. 8) and Nebraska (Oct. 22). Oklahoma will hit the road in conference play against Colorado (Sept. 22), Texas A&M (Sept. 29), Texas (Oct. 1), Texas Tech (Oct. 13) and Baylor (Oct. 15).
The top eight teams from the Big 12 Conference will participate in the 2006 Big 12 Tournament in San Antonio, Texas, at Blossom Stadium on Nov. 1, 3 and 5. 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 Women's College Cup hosted by North Carolina State University in Cary, N.C.
Former Sooners Jana Cunningham (1999-2002) and Catherine Wade (2001-2004) set the standard for goalkeepers at Oklahoma. Junior Jennifer Nichols is ready to move up among those ranks after playing every minute in the Sooners' 20 games last season. With that experience, she set an OU individual season record with seven shutouts. In just two seasons, Nichols has appeared in 33 games, making 25 starts.
"Jenny made great strides during her sophomore year, turning in some phenomenal performances," said Evans. "In the spring, she became more consistent and we expect her to play at a very high level, game in and game out. She can certainly position herself as one of the best goalkeepers in the Big 12 this season."
The talent at the position does not stop with Nichols as freshmen Tara Macdonald and Evelyn Larson provide much needed depth off the bench in addition to the ability to start.
"OU has never been more talented across the board at this position," said Evans. "Tara came in early and showed a lot of progress in the spring. The coaching staff has a lot of confidence in her and in Evelyn to provide us with quality depth in goal."
Key Player - Jennifer Nichols (2005 stats - 20 starts, 13-6-1, 89 saves, seven shutouts, 1.26 GAA)
Probable Starter: Junior Jennifer Nichols
Off the bench: Freshman Tara Macdonald, freshman Evelyn Larson
The OU defense posted seven shutouts in 2005 (six other contests with one goal allowed) and Coach Evans expects more of the same in 2006.
"We are looking to have an even stingier defense this season," said Evans. "Andrea sets the tone in the back and also has the ability to get involved in the attack. Helen proved to be one of the toughest defenders in the conference as a freshman and Traci and Katie both have solid opportunities to earn starting positions.
"The incoming freshmen provide us with some depth and options on defense and some of those same players will overlap into the midfield."
Key Player - Andrea Hurley (2005 stats - 19 games started, five assists)
Probable Starters: Senior Andrea Hurley, sophomore Helen Ajufo, sophomore Traci Dickenson
Off the bench: Sophomore Katie Corbitt, sophomore Tally Ward, freshman Charla Baker, freshman Ashlee Coleman, freshman Kasey Hahn, freshman Kate Marr, freshman Becca Nelson
Depending on the formation, the midfield may only consist of three Sooners and the third starter, which is more of a defensive position, is up in the air. Returnees Jayme Seetin, Tally Ward and Katie Corbitt will all compete for that spot while newcomers Ashley Farrand and Kate Marr will look to make an immediate impact.
"Last year's team broke a lot of records and we expect this bunch to play a big role in that happening again this season on both sides of the ball," said Evans. "Lauren is one of the best athletes in conference. She is a tremendous defender and has the mobility to be effective in the attack. And Ally is one of the best players in collegiate soccer in the air. She has a great work ethic and a strong desire to succeed."
Key Player - Lauren Harris (2005 stats - 18 starts, three goals, four assists, 29 shots)
Probable Starters: Junior Allyson Kucera, junior Lauren Harris, sophomore Katie Corbitt
Off the bench: Junior Jayme Seetin, sophomore Tally Ward, freshman Ashley Farrand, freshman Kate Leyendecker, freshman Kate Marr
In 58 games played in a Sooner uniform, senior Savannah Scott has scored the fourth most goals in OU history (17). Her 41 points also ranks fifth all-time and she will remain a fixture in the Sooner offense in 2006.
"Savannah is the key component of our offense," said Evans. "Her game has really matured and I believe she is one of the best players in the Big 12 Conference."
The OU offense will look different from years past as it will sport anywhere from one to four forwards at one time, providing Coach Evans with a lot of versatility and fire-power up front.
"The coaching staff expects this offense to be very potent and break the records set by the 2005 team," said Evans. "We expect good things from Tenesha (Duncan), who has great composure around the goal and can finish a high percentage of chances, and Kady (Kelly), who is also a dynamic player in the box."
Key Player - Savannah Scott (2005 stats - 20 games played, seven goals, two assists, 39 shots)
Probable Starters: Senior Savannah Scott, senior Kady Kelly, junior Tenesha Duncan, freshman Daphne Fitzpatrick
Off the bench: Junior Shana All, junior Colleen Keester, junior Ashley King, junior Lauren King, sophomore Savannah Campbell