On The Verge

Aug. 16, 2006

By Caley Cook

Special to CSTV.com


At the last practice of her team's spring season, UCLA women's soccer coach Jillian Ellis clearly remembers getting goose bumps up and down her arms.


Her team had just lost the national championship game in a blowout to Portland. They weren't practicing with any of their big-name playmakers - some were injured and some were on national team duty. And it was a spring practice that didn't count for anything.


But it was the most intense practice Ellis had ever seen, and she had goose bumps.


"I wondered, `if it's this intense now, how is it going to be in August?'" Ellis says. "I knew that we probably wouldn't have seen that intensity if we'd won the national championship."


The Bruins may be reeling from their end-of-season loss, but they graduated only two players from last year's starting lineup - All-Americans Jill Oakes and Iris Mora - and Ellis worked to bring in the No. 2 Soccer Buzz recruiting class for 2006 (second only to perennial powerhouse North Carolina). It's not difficult to recognize the power building behind the 2006 Bruin resurgence.


UCLA has already shot to the top of the Soccer Buzz preseason poll. It's the first-ever preseason No. 1 ranking for the 2005 Pac-10 champions, who finished 22-2-2 in 2005 with losses to only Penn State and Portland.


Expectations are building.


"I've never been one to put it out there, but winning the national title is on everybody's mind," Ellis says. "In January the players were already talking about how they couldn't wait for the season to start because they still have something to prove. We're the `now' program, the ones that made it to the College Cup three times in a row. Now we want to take it just one step more."


As Ellis confirms, it's impossible to name-check one or two players who will take the Bruins over the top this year. But with the injury of powerful forward Kara Lang - she recently tore her ACL - the Bruins will have to do without the source of 17 goals last season.


"Kara's injury will impact us, I'm not going to lie, but if people want to characterize this team, we have a lot of youth that will contribute right away, even without Kara on the field" Ellis says. "With all these players on the national team program, it exposes them to so many styles and levels of sophistication and they come in ready to play college ball at a high level."


Top players like 2005 Player of the Year nominee Danesha Adams and U-21 National Team standout Bristyn Davis will anchor the middle third while experienced goalkeeper Valerie Henderson will patrol the back with U-21 U.S. National Team defender Mary Castelanelli. Sophomore midfielders Christina DiMartino and McCall Zerboni will also return after making a big impact in their debut season.


"We're collectively stepping up into the roles that Jill [Oakes] and Iris [Mora] had as leaders," DiMartino said. "Last year was disappointing, but I was so happy that we got that experience. Now we know what it takes to finish the job."


But it is the incoming freshmen that are generating most of the waves in the preseason. The Bruins landed No. 1 recruit Lauren Cheney and U.S. Youth National Team players Lauren Wilmoth, Lauren Switzer and Kristina Larsen. It is the second year in a row that UCLA has landed the top recruit after Kara Lang took the honor in 2005.


"Every year, players get more sophisticated and athletic," Ellis says of recruiting. "We're very patient to get the players we need. We're very pleased with the three Laurens coming in who all have youth national team experience. It's a pretty balanced class because we had needs at every position."


Along with the high-ranking freshmen class comes higher expectations. Hyped incomers such as Cheney and Lang deal with the pressure to perform in different ways, Ellis says.


"When I recruit players, the approach I take is that you don't have to come here and have us build our team around you - you don't have to carry the whole load," Ellis says. "I think they like that, where you're the low man on the totem pole, so to speak, and it pays off that we relieve them of some of that pressure."


Talking over the phone after the first team practice of the season, Henderson says she remembers her freshman year as a scary and nerve-wracking time.


"Obviously you come in really nervous," Henderson says. "You don't know what's going on and you're trying to impress everyone. There is so much pressure to step up. But we just try to communicate with them to alleviate the pressure. The freshmen this year are absolutely going to stand out."


The U-20 Women's World Championships will put a damper on the UCLA standouts, however, when six impact players head to Russia until early September. Adams, Cheney, Henderson, DiMartino and defender Erin Hardy will miss the first four games of the UCLA season to play with the U.S. U-20 National Team.


They will miss key games against eighth-ranked Penn State, 28th-ranked Long Beach State and dangerous underdogs Maryland and San Diego State.


"We'll miss them," Ellis says. "But I think this is our deepest team to date and we have players who can come off the bench and make an impact."


The beginning of the season isn't necessarily the Bruins' focus anyway.


"We are driving to peak in the postseason," Ellis says. "Last year we got blown out in the final, the year before we lost in penalty kicks and we've even lost to North Carolina on an own-goal late in a tournament game, so we've been through every heartbreaking scenario. Our goal is to be playing our best soccer at the end of the season and to hit our stride in the postseason."


Henderson definitely agrees.


"We're on the cusp of a national championship," she says. "And I think that's a great place to be."



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