Feb. 6, 2006
BERKELEY, Calif. - California hopes that another talented team and another challenging schedule, one that includes defending national champion Northwestern, add up to another winning season, another MPSF final appearance and the Golden Bears' first NCAA Tournament postseason berth. Cal head coach Jill Malko, who has led the Bears to six straight winning seasons and five straight conference final appearances, has built a program that is emerging as a power on the national scene. Cal has an offensively explosive squad returning to the field at Memorial Stadium, where the Bears will play six of their first eight games of the season. Despite having just three seniors on the roster, the Bears have a deep squad, particularly in the attack and in midfield.
How Cal does against a stacked schedule that includes six teams ranked in the Lacrosse Magazine preseason poll could do a lot towards giving the Bears postseason hope. Four of Cal's first six opponents are ranked, including No. 20 Stanford, which Cal opens the season with on Feb. 18, No. 17 Notre Dame (Feb. 24), No. 16 Vanderbilt (March 7) and No. 13 Cornell (March 10). Ohio State (Feb. 26) is one of Cal's other opponents during that stretch. The Buckeyes have been ranked in each of the last two seasons, and both years the Bears upset them. Malko's squad also plays Colgate, which reached last year's NCAA Tournament, on March 12. Besides hosting top-ranked Northwestern on March 23, Cal travels to No. 19 James Madison (March 26) for the second straight season.
"I've come to learn over the last seven years that early season wins over ranked opponents are very important," Malko said. "They can help you hang in the rankings for weeks. As difficult as our schedule was last season, it's that much more set to our favor this year, playing so many great teams at home early. It's really to our advantage. It's crucial that we win the vast majority of those games if we're going to achieve our goals."
Malko's Bears improved their record from 2004 (10-8) to 2005 (12-7) thanks in large part to the play of last year's sophomore class. Now a junior class, the group that includes 2005 leading scorer Laura Cavallo, 2005 second-leading scorer Liz Reifsnyder and 2005 fourth-leading scorer Jocelyn Paul will provide the bulk of Cal's scoring while junior goalkeeper Hilary Lynch marshals a defense that lost Erin Hafkenschiel, who played the most games ever for the Bears, to graduation last year.
Cavallo in particular had a breakout 2005 season. Her point total (62) tied her for second place on Cal's all-time single season scoring list and her goal total (44) put her in second place on Cal's all-time single-season goalscoring list, surpassing Molly Brady's 41-goal season in 2004. Brady graduated after last season as Cal's fourth all-time leading scorer (136 points).
"Obviously we lost Molly Brady, a significant contributor on the attacking end, but outside of that, we really didn't lose another significant contributor," Malko said. "Not only is it our strength, but it's where our depth is as well. As predicted this fall [in preseason], we did well on our attacking end in terms of scoring. It was a point of emphasis, and we did well with that. I continue to think that that will be a strength for us.
"Again our junior class is the core of our midfield and our attack," Malko added. "Laura obviously had a great year last year. She was helped by people paying more attention to other players at the beginning, and I think as an upperclassmen and our leading point scorer she'll see a lot more [defensive] attention this year than she saw last year. And she saw a lot more attention at the end of last year. She's very much aware of it, and we're very much aware of it. We're going to have to make sure that there are other people to step up and fill that void, if you will. In general, last year and much more this year, we are much more balanced in our attacking potential."
Cal improved on its 2004 goalscoring by seven goals (215 compared to 208), though the biggest improvement may have come in the Bears' ball distribution. Malko had four players with 10 or more assists in 2005. Only two players had 10 or more assists in 2004, though Colleen O'Mara collected a program record 41 that year. In 2005, Cavallo and Reifsnyder tied for the team lead with 18 assists each, Paul was next with 12 and Brittany Aungier had 10 as a freshman.
If the end of 2005 is any indication, sophomore Danni Zuralow could have a big impact in midfield this year. After recovering from a stress fracture in her leg that slowed her early, Zuralow scored 10 of her 16 goals in the final four games of 2005, including three goals each in the MPSF semifinal and final games. Among the freshmen, Madeleine Dale, Paige Keffer and Kiki Kalkstein provide plenty of support. Dale, who ran Cal's fastest 40-yard dash last fall, played mainly in the attack in high school but should see most of her time in midfield for the Bears. Conversely, Keffer, who played in midfield and on defense in high school, will play in the attack for Cal.
Senior Schuyler Sokolow has helped to fill the leadership void on defense left by the graduation of Hafkenschiel. Sokolow struggled a bit with nagging injuries in 2005, but "there's been a 180-degree turn in terms of her intensity this last fall, and it's really been reflective in her play," Malko said. Mary Downs, who started all 19 games as a freshman last year, is another steadying force on the defense. Junior Kathryn Lindler is the quiet star of the unit. Malko sees Lindler, a fast player who played in every game last year, starting 18, as potentially the biggest surprise on the 2006 squad.
"When you watch tape you say, `This kid doesn't make mistakes,'" Malko said of Lindler. "She's extremely consistent and she's gotten better and better every year, and she'll definitely lead this defensive unit as well."
Sophomore Meghan Bushnell, another steady defensive player, and junior goalkeeper Hilary Lynch are the team captains for 2006. Lynch had another strong season for Cal in 2005 and will be a mentor to freshman goalie Morgan Dyson, Cal's first true backup goalie since before Lynch arrived in Berkeley.
"Hilary works harder than anyone on this team," Malko said. "She's the hardest worker we've ever had on our team, bar none. It's great to see her be successful, because you always preach that the outcome of hard work equals success, and she's a living example of that."
Cal will need another staunch effort in goal from Lynch, as, besides the non-conference schedule, the Bears will face strong competition from within the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation. Cal and Stanford split the last two conference tournaments, but improvements across the board, especially at Denver and at second-year Oregon, make the conference more than a two-horse race.
"Our league has improved tremendously," Malko said. "We have to be careful, but that's a good thing. The stronger our league is, the stronger we will be.