Feb. 20, 2007
BERKELEY - California looks to build on its successes of the past few years with a deep, experienced team that will again challenge for a conference title and a postseason berth. Jill Malko enters her ninth year as the head coach of the Golden Bears, who compiled a 4-1 record in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation last year to earn a share of the MPSF regular-season crown. The Cal team that won that title loses two starters, but Malko brings back the bulk of the team along with a talented group of newcomers that boosts several areas of the team and the defense in particular.
The sophomore class that had such a strong 2005 season is now Cal's senior class and features some of the best players on Malko's team. Laura Cavallo and Liz Reifsnyder, Cal's co-leading scorers from a year ago with 51 points each, goalie Hilary Lynch, Jocelyn Paul and defensive whiz Kathryn Lindler hope to end their college careers on a winning note. Lynch and junior teammate Meghan Bushnell repeat as team captains; Reifsnyder is a third captain for the Bears in 2007.
"We're pretty much the same team plus we have some new players who I think will contribute to us significantly," Malko said. "We really have experience and leadership on our side. That will pull through for us. In the long run, in the close games, in the stressful situations, in the games on the road, we've done well. We have a great core of seniors that has really worked hard all their years, and even more so this year, in contributing. I have been very pleased with their efforts."
A balanced Cal team looks to get the season off to a good start, as it plays its first six games of 2007 in the comfortable confines of Memorial Stadium. The road schedule features three teams that reached the 2006 NCAA tournament. Cal plays national semifinalist Notre Dame (April 7 in South Bend, Ind.) and two-time defending champion Northwestern (April 9 in Evanston, Ill.) in back-to-back games and later takes on MPSF champion Stanford (April 21 at Stanford).
The Bears will take on those opponents without graduated starters Schuyler Sokolow and Leanne Zilioli. The former stalwarts brought speed, maturity and all-around games to midfield. This year, junior Danni Zuralow, who was more of a goalscoring threat in previous years, may be called upon to fill one of those midfield roles.
"Danni's really addressed her defensive game tremendously this fall," Malko said. She's certainly fast enough. I anticipate her taking more of a midfield role as opposed to just attack. She's done significantly well."
Junior Brittany Aungier, back after an injury sidelined her all last season, sophomore Madeleine Dale, another strong goalscoring threat, and sophomore Elizabeth "T" Jahp are other options to help replace Sokolow and Zilioli.
Jahp certainly caught the coaches' attention in the fall.
"She has improved tremendously," Malko said. "She had a tremendous fall. Without a doubt she's the most improved player on our team. So she's going to see a significant increase in her playing time and may fill that true middie position."
Cal still has plenty of options in the attack, even if Zuralow moves to the middle of the field. Opposing defenses may have paid more attention to Cavallo last year, opening up scoring opportunities for Zuralow to score a career-high 22 goals and 34 points and for Dale to rack up 21 goals and 22 points.
Reifsnyder is of course another threat to score as is Aungier, who scored 15 goals and collected 10 assists as a freshman in 2005. Talented freshman Tighe Hutchins may also see some time in the attack.
"We have strengths all over, which is nice," Malko added. "We have more depth on our defensive end than we ever have had, so that's a nice feeling. I also feel that our attack is a very strong unit. I can see at any given time we could have up to six or seven attackers who could score, go to goal and make things happen."
Backing up the defense in her final year is Lynch, who is coming off another solid season in 2006.The addition of current sophomore Morgan Dyson last year gave the Bears a true backup to Lynch, who had played every minute of the previous two seasons.
"Hilary had another exceptional fall," Malko said. "What we saw in the fall was Hilary really working and developing a new consistency in her game. What we see from Hilary often is she just makes these great saves and you're not sure how she made them. Now behind that, she's developed the consistency of making the saves she always should make as well. It's fleshing out her game, if you will.
"She's certainly has been the hardest worker on our team. Everything that she accomplishes at game time is due to hard work. It's a pleasure to have her on the field every day."
Lynch should get plenty of work again in 2007, as the MPSF looks to be even stronger than last year, when Stanford became the first team from the West to earn a spot in the NCAA Championship tournament. That historic move can only help other teams in this region, including Cal and Denver.
Malko tabs Denver as one of the conference favorites this year, though the veteran coach sees improvements across the board in the MPSF.
"And it's good," Malko said. "You're only as good as your league, really. How do we stack up against them? What I think we have that other teams might not have is maturity. We have senior leadership and leadership from our juniors. That pays off in crunch-time situations. You really need consistency, intensity and confidence. The seniors have that. They've been there and done that. That's certainly something I think is an advantage for us."