Aug. 13, 2009
BERKELEY - The California women's soccer team is set to kick off what looks to be a successful 2009 season this Saturday with an exhibition match against Pacific. The Golden Bears return 15 letterwinners and five starters and welcome 10 newcomers. CalBears.com caught up with third-year head coach Neil McGuire to get his thoughts on what to expect from Cal in 2009.
CalBears.com: What kind of differences are you seeing in practice between this year's team and last year's squad?
Neil McGuire: It's somewhat early to tell because we're only a couple of practices into preseason. I think that we might have better balance in terms of positional depth. Last year, we had to rely on certain players to play lots of minutes in one or two positions, and that was problematic.
CalBears.com: What will help the team be more successful in 2009?
NM: I think that we have to have a clearer understanding that we have to learn to put games away. I think that we had a lot more opportunities to win games last year than we did as a result of inefficiencies in front of the goal and allowing teams to get one or two clear chances that could help them win. We had a lot of good opportunities to win games last year that we just gave away.
CalBears.com: Three of the first four teams that the Bears face went to the NCAA Tournament - can you speak to your nonconference schedule this season?
NM: I think anytime you can prepare for your conference games with opponents that are similar to the ones you'll face in your conference, that is only a good thing. There's no question that Portland, Santa Clara, Texas and Texas A&M and other games that we have are going to challenge us. We're going to see what we have to work on. I think it's going to be a very stiff test early. But I'm very, very excited about it. In Portland, Texas, Santa Clara and A&M, you're facing teams that are perennial top-10 opponents. Obviously, if you parlay that into a comparison between them and the Pac-10 teams, any number of them - UCLA, USC, Washington, Washington State, Arizona State has developed tremendously. Everyone has. There were no easy games last year. And there will be no easy games this year.
CalBears.com: It does not get easier with the conference slate since six Pac-10 team went to the 2008 NCAA Tournament - how does the Pac-10 look to you this year?
There were no easy games last year, and there will be no easy games this year. There could have been even more Pac-10 teams in the NCAA Tournament last year. We're deep all the way through the 10 teams. If you look at our results against some of the teams that finished lower than us in the conference, they were very close games. I expect stiff competition from everyone this year because each team has reloaded. Everyone that was below us has recruited very, very good players. The teams that finished above us have continued to do the same thing. I don't expect it to be much different than last year. It's going to come down to execution.
CalBears.com: Who are you think of in goal?
NM: At this point, it's difficult to tell. Initially, we were thinking that Gina Pellegrini would be the starting keeper because she's a senior, and Lauren Hein is a freshman. But with the Rosie Aguilera returning as a fifth-year senior definitely puts some pressure on Gina in terms of overall experience within the program. Right now, all three goalkeepers look sharp. Gina's coming back from a long-term injury. Rosie played significant minutes in spring ball, and Lauren is still developing into a keeper who understands our system.
CalBears.com: How is the defense looking?
NM: We're leaning on our returning players to provide the bulk of the minutes early on until the younger players get experience - Brianna Bak, Danielle Brunache and Kaitlin Paletta, who is looking very sharp. We've got the ability to play Megan Jesolva on defense if we choose to. She played there as a freshman and recently on the U-23 national team. Any of the incoming players - Sam Walker, Amanda Glass, Amanda Groves, Rachel Clark - all of these players have the potential to give us quality minutes.
CalBears: How is the midfield shaping up?
NM: The midfield is interesting this year because we're quite deep, and that's going to give us tremendous flexibility. Katie Oakes and Megan Jesolva could provide a lethal combination in the midfield. Emily Shibata, as well, is playing as well as she ever has at Cal. Katrin Omarsdottir, once she returns from the European Championships, will provide us with another strong layer of experience and high-level quality. Katie Suits is performing extremely well in preseason. Zulma Munoz is a recent addition to the team, and she has performed exceptionally well. Betsy Hassett, our New Zealand national team player, is coming back off a leg injury and is extremely competitive. We could play some of those players up front if we choose to.
CalBears.com: Who are you think of playing at forward?
NM: Obviously, there are several players who are key returners for us. Alex Morgan and Lisa Kevorkian have been stalwarts for our front line for two years now. I think they will do a tremendous job, whether it is a two front or a three front. Lauren Battung, a freshman, is showing great promise and is continuing to look strong at practice. We might play Katie Oakes up top because I think she provides a good aerial power and ability to play on both sides of the ball offensively and defensively. Cami Senemar is coming off an ACL tear and is looking good. McKenna-Louise McKetty has come in fitter than she's ever been and is looking sharp in practice. She has been able to provide us with a lot of minutes and do some interesting things. Sam Walker is a player that we have tagged for the backline but whom also play up front, as well as Miranda White. Miranda is a player who is a quiet young lady, but on the field, she works extremely hard, and we can play her in any number of positions whether it be back, up front or in the midfield.
CalBears.com: The team took the program's first international tour to Italy over the summer - how was that trip?
NM: In terms of the team, it really helped them bond. In division I collegiate soccer, there's no question that there's a tremendous amount of work that goes in. The student-athletes are at practice, they're rushing off to class, they're in study hall, so the fact that we were able to spend 12 days together as a team really united them. I think it's also helping the freshmen because I think the upper classmen really understand how important it is to be together. In terms of myself, it allowed the players to see me as a person and not just a coach, which is always a good thing. It allowed me to grow closer to them. I really feel that the team unity is really, really good. That's something that Cal women's soccer has always had, but now, I feel closer to being attached to that, which is nice.
CalBears.com: The squad played three games in Italy - how did those go?
NM: We certainly learned some things. We played very, very well. The European style of soccer is different than the American style, so we had to adapt to some of the ways in which they played and some of the things they did. We had to deal with field adversity, referee adversity, a different language and different weather - we had to play in cold and rain in one of the games. We scored a lot of goals. We had to deal with the Italian players diving, trying to earn fouls. Our players didn't deal well with that initially but understood how to defend against that in the end. It was a positive thing all around, except for the injuries we incurred with Natasha Richardson tearing her ACL.
CalBears.com: You've added two new assistant coaches this year in Libby Hassett and Tracy Hamm - how are they doing at Cal?
NM: As with any new coach, that transition has not been easy, but Tracy and Libby have done a tremendous job of it. Former assistant coach Jennifer Thomas was a stalwart of this program for many, many years as a player and a coach. So to enter the post-J.T. era with two new coaches was a concern for us because J.T. means so much to the program. Tracy, having been a player here, understood so much of what Cal is about, so she's done a very nice job. As a player, she was extremely fit and motivated, and that's why she played professionally, so she's a great role-model for the players both as a player and as an athlete. Libby, with the goalkeepers, is a technician, where as the previous coach Brian Zwaschka did not have that expertise. The basis of Brian's coaching was about field management and tactical game management while Libby is more technically based. The players who learned under Brian who are now training under Libby will be better goalkeepers because of it. Both of them have done a great job. They've both got great spirit and attitude and work extremely hard. It seems to have been a positive change, which is great because those were not easy shoes to fill.
CalBears.com: How have the student-athletes handled the coaching changes?
NM: I am so proud of the players who have been here over the past three years. They've seen a head coach go and three assistants go, and that transition is never easy. The players' commitment to excellence has been exceptional. I think the way they stuck behind the program is extremely impressive. And for the manner in which they're brining on the younger players, they deserve tremendous credit for that.
CalBears.com: What are the team's goals for 2009?
NM: Our goals will never change. Our goals are to win the national championship and along the way, to win the Pac-10 championship. But we are determined to take one game at a time. It's very easy when you're playing the type of schedule that we are with Texas, Santa Clara, A&M and Portland, to by pass teams that don't have the same level of history. We're taking it one game at a time so the only game we have on our schedule is the first one. I like the way that the team is handling that right now. They're even taking it one day at a time.
CalBears.com: The Bears have a plethora of players with national team experience, what does that bring to the Cal team?
NM: There's no question that when you've got national team experience - whether it be with the United States or abroad - that they bring a level of experience that regular college players don't have. The concern is if they'll all be here at the same time. Luckily, we don't seem to have those conflicts this season, which is good because last year we had more than we wanted. It's important that our players know that we will support their national team opportunities so we took a hit for their own greater good. It's fantastic, there's no question about it. It tends to compound on itself in recruiting because national team players want to play with national team players. We've been able to attract younger national team players who want to be around the older ones. There's a great professionalism that comes with it. There's seriousness they bring, and they know exactly how to prepare. They can teach me more than I teach them oftentimes because they bring back so many great ideas.
CalBears.com: In the first days of preseason ball, how is the freshman class looking?
NM: They're playing good soccer. They get what we're trying to do in the program. They're technically clean and proficient players. They're also working extremely hard. One thing that I'm trying to stress to them is that they have to outwork the upper classmen.
CalBears.com: The team had a full spring schedule, was it as successful as you had hoped?
NM: Other than injuries, spring went very well for us. The game against the WPS team FC Gold Pride showed our players that there's a whole other level out there, and that they're capable of playing at that level because we were able to compete with them in the msecond half. The game against San Francisco showed us that if we do things correctly, we can do nice things against quality college teams. We were low key enough that we didn't put them under a lot of stress, but we were pushy enough that we developed them.
CalBears.com: The Cal women's soccer team was lauded by the NCAA for its top academic performance as part of the NCAA's academic reform program. The awards are given each year to teams placing in the top 10 percent in their respective sport based on their Academic Progress Rate scores, what does this say about the program at Cal?
NM: At its broadest sense, it shows you that student-athletes want to be at Cal because it's an important degree to have. There's no question that the level of education that they can receive here is first class. The schooling makes student-athletes come here, and regardless of personal circumstances or how it relates to athletics and how much time they're getting, their experience is that their degree is a very strong one. I think the testament to our retention is we have to give credit to former head coach Kevin Boyd and J.T. because the reality is that those numbers were based on when they were here as well as part of my tenure, so I can't take full credit. We appreciate all the work they've done and are continuing it.