1996 Season Outlook
Three years ago, the Cal women's soccer team rose to No. 2 in the national poll and earned its first NCAA Tournament bid in five seasons. Since then, the Golden Bears have been building to reclaim their place among the nation's elite.
And this year, head coach Andy Bonchonsky, with heavy doses of old and new, believes he may have the right mix of players. Seven seniors combine with 10 freshmen and a host of talented players in between put Cal clearly in position to return to the postseason.
"It's really been a couple of years of rebuilding and reshaping the team since 1993 when we lost seven seniors," Bonchonsky said. "I think we're at a point now where we have enough balance to give us depth at every position. I think the key is for us to come together as a group. The returning players have really set the standard, and the new players have come in and used them as role models."
Last year, the Bears showed glimpses of their potential, finishing 8-10-1, a three-win improvement over the previous season. With almost every starter returning for 1996, Bonchonsky added one of the top recruiting classes in Cal history. With newcomers covering each position on the field, several should be able to provide immediate results this year.
"We have a lot more offensive power with a minimum of 10 players who are good goal scorers," said Bonchonsky, who is entering his eighth year with the Cal program and sixth year as head coach. "I also think our defense is stronger after we changed our system a little bit. And then we have a pair of high level goalkeepers to give us more depth at that position than we've had in several years."
Below is a look at the 1996 Cal team by position:
The Bears possess four solid forwards for 1996 in juniors Courtney Carroll and Mary Oades and freshmen Stacey Mallison and Amy Balavac.
Carroll, a versatile athlete who is playing her third position in three years, started all 19 matches last season as both a midfielder and back, totaling one goal and one assist. Oades, who sat out last season after transferring from Washington State, provides a much need physical presence up front.
"Courtney has the potential to be a great forward because she has a great shot," Bonchonsky said. "Mary is probably the best pure goal scorer that we have. It's tough to get the ball away from her when she has it."
The two newcomers are expected to contribute immediately after posting stellar high school careers. Both Balavac and Mallison were members of the Central Valley Express Under-18 team that won the 1995 national championship.
"They are both really good athletes and big and strong," Bonchonsky said. "I've seen them score at every level before they got here, so expect the same at Cal. Together with Courtney and Mary, that gives us the strongest group of forwards we've had since I've been here."
With a host of talented players, the midfield could be the Bears strength this fall. Cal will use five midfielders most of the time, and with four seniors in that group, the experience is certain to pay dividends.
Senior Alisha Lopez, Cal's Offensive MVP in 1994 and a second team All-Pac-10 pick in '95, is back at full strength after suffering a knee injury, while senior Natalie Mariani owns more starts (41) than any other Cal player and should make an easy transition from defender, where she played before this season.
"Alisha is a potential All-American," said Bonchonsky. "She is one of the more creative and skillful players that we've had in this program. Natalie will be a better midfielder because of her strength and intelligence in the middle."
Senior Rachel Davidson will join Mariani in the middle, with senior Allie Kemp providing speed on the outside. Davidson scored a team-high five goals last season on her way to earning second team All-Pac-10 honors, and Kemp added four goals and was named third team all-region.
"Rachel is one of the hardest working players on our team and has really matured over her career," said Bonchonsky. "Allie is one of our fastest players and is in a position that is best suited for her."
Freshman Tami Pivnick, a member of the Under-20 National Team pool in 1995, could make an immediate impact this fall because of her knowledge of the game.
Other players expected to see action are sophomore Shelly Fouts, who started 11 matches last year, and freshman Sarah Kaminsky, along with sophomore Ashlee Hunt and freshman Sarah Conner.
Freshman Kim Brown, who Bonchonsky calls "a potential All-American due to her speed, skills, strength and smarts," is a versatile athlete who can play any of the midfield spots.
The Bears will use a three-back set in 1996 and have probably the best player on the squad in senior Berkley Bowers in the middle. The winner of Cal's All-Out Award last season, she has an offensive mindset that allowed her to take 20 shots on goal last year.
"Berkley is a great marking back who combines her smarts, tenaciousness, skill and toughness into her position," said Bonchonsky.
Sophomore Jessica Stanton can also play marking back and has worked on improving her offensive game during the offseason. Sophomore Ryan McManus, with one of the strongest legs on the team, is a physical player who also had the ability to attack on offense.
The Bears depth in the backfield lies with freshmen Amy White, Stephanie Strocco and Lulu Monti. However, Cal will miss senior Debbie Demarchi, who is out for the year with a knee injury.
In goal, Cal possesses a pair of high level keepers who are both capable of handling the position with skill. Team captain and senior Karen Cook enters the year with 11 career shutouts and the school career record of 204 saves.
"Karen has all the intangibles you want in a goalkeeper where her leadership and respect is first and foremost," said Bonchonsky. "Her technical ability is close to flawless, and she's definitely someone who can lead us to the next level."
Freshman Jill Stephenson is sure to get plenty of action as well as she prepares to take over full-time duties next fall. Although she just began playing the position before her senior year in high school, she has all the skills to make her an outstanding goalkeeper at Cal.
"Jill is potentially one of the best goalkeepers we've ever had in our program," said Bonchonsky. "I put her in with (former Cal All-American and 1996 Olympian) Mary Harvey because of her natural ability. She can step in at any time now and get the job done."
As they do every year, the Bears have set gaining an NCAA Tournament bid as a team goal. But unlike the past couple of seasons, 1996 seems like their best opportunity in three years.
"I'm as excited and anxious about this season as I was in 1993," said Bonchonsky. "My goal is to get us back at least to where we were before, but a bigger goal is to keep us there after this year. The team feels that making NCAA's is a realistic goal. You can see it in the way they conduct themselves."
The Bears begin the year by playing their first six matches at home, with two in Pleasanton and four more at Berkeley's Witter Field. After a road trip to Michigan and Michigan State in late September, Cal starts the heart of its Pac-10 slate at USC Oct. 4. The Bears wrap up the year at home against Stanford in what always proves to be a competitive encounter.
By the time that match rolls around, Cal hopes to have put itself in position for another postseason berth, a scenario that could happen if the old and the new come together as one.