Eight Days a Week

For any college team, breaking into the NCAA Tournament and competing on a national stage for the first time is a challenge. What’s even tougher is building a program that is not just a one-hit wonder, but an annual contender. This season could be the difference between Vanilla Ice and The Beatles for UC Irvine’s women’s soccer team. Head Coach Scott Juniper hopes that UCI’s first ever women’s soccer NCAA Tournament berth in 2010 was their version of Beatlemania taking the United States by storm in 1964 on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and not just an “Ice Ice Baby” music video.

Although the Anteaters have lost their most lethal offensive and defensive threats as a result of the graduations of forward Tanya Taylor and goalkeeper Danielle de Seriere, Juniper has coached up an imposing supporting cast and welcomed in an impressive recruiting class that is determined to create a UCI dynasty rather than fizzle.

The US Women’s Soccer team’s recent heroics in the World Cup all started with an improbable, headed goal from Abby Wambach in the last seconds of regulation that sent the game to penalty kicks against the Brazilians on July 10. America’s undermanned, come-from-behind win promised the country that there was still some room on the team’s bandwagon and for the 1,058 fans that were in attendance at UCI’s NCAA Tournament first round matchup against Arizona State last November, it had to have felt familiar.

Down 1-0 on Nov. 13, 2010, the Anteaters watched as the Sun Devils protected a slim lead for a majority of the contest. After ASU put a point on the board in the 17th minute, they stopped attacking and began wasting the clock away, much like Brazil did in the World Cup. In the 72nd minute, Taylor rifled a ball off of the crossbar for Irvine that rebounded out to then sophomore Devon Delarosa. The role player gathered herself and put the ball away in the back of the net.

Two minutes later, Taylor pressed the rewind button, crossing a pass to Delarosa, who headed it in to put the Anteaters up 2-1. ASU, eerily similar to the Brazilians, were stunned and couldn’t recover after playing keep away for a majority of the contest.

The following day the Anteaters advanced to the Sweet 16 after defeating the ACC Champion Wake Forest Demon Deacons, 2-0. UCI did so undermanned, playing without Zuri Walker for the last 19 minutes of the game, after she was controversially sent off with a red card in the physical battle.

Irvine’s historic run came to an end last Nov. 20 in heartbreaking fashion at the hands of the Washington Huskies in double overtime. When the Anteaters and Huskies were just minutes away from deciding who would advance to the Elite 8 with penalty kicks, UCI was stunned by a golden goal that snuck just out of de Seriere’s reach and instantly ended the team’s 19-3-2 season.

For those whose hearts were broken by America’s stunning loss to Japan in the World Cup Final, you likely would have felt the same anguish last November for the Anteaters, but according to senior Lexi Kopf, her teammates have recovered from the loss to UW and are ready to write a new narrative to the 2011 season.

“I think that our team is playing stronger than ever,” Kopf, the team’s veteran offensive leader, said. “Even though all of the seniors will be missed we have the depth and skill on our team to fill in for those players that graduated.”

Inspired to improve upon last year’s successes, Juniper hit the campaign trail hard. Replacing Taylor, the 2010 Big West Offensive Player of the Year who scored 11 goals and dished out 12 assists in her senior campaign, is impossible, and Juniper doesn’t expect to do so, but instead finds new ways to win.

UCI welcomes transfers Mady Solow and Natalia Ledezma to an already stacked squad. Solow is a midfielder who comes from the University of Florida and is also currently on the Canadian U20 Women’s National Team. Ledezma is expected to compete for a spot in the starting nine at the forward or outside midfield positions.

“[Ledezma] has been impressive not only on the field with her speed and ability to create in the attacking third, but she also fits in really well off the field with the personalities on our team. She had a great spring and I’m really excited to see what she will bring to the field this season,” Kopf said.

Last year’s Sweet 16 appearance attracted a number of high school prospects. Monique Pendleberry is an intelligent player with quickness who can be slotted at midfield or on defense. Cami Privett is a midfielder who, Juniper explains, can dominate on both sides of the ball. Jasmine Nickelberry scored 50 goals in two seasons at Turlock High School. She’s powerful, athletic and versatile. Jenna Pellegrino was a CIF first-team honoree and is a “classic central midfielder,” according to Juniper.

Alana Sooy should compete at midfield and on defense and has impressed offensively. Victoria Russo has battled through injuries throughout high school, but Juniper sees great potential in her game.

Aside from getting you 27 points on a Scrabble board, Jennifer Randazzo’s name could likely be in starting lineups for the Anteaters in the near future as she competes to take over the goalkeeper spot vacated by de Seriere with senior Kala Gabler. Randazzo recorded 39 career shutouts in high school.

The final recruit, Laura McGrail, steps in as a potential future leader. She’s a physical forward who could develop to be an offensive threat in the Big West. McGrail’s day will come, but Juniper expects Kopf and Ledezma to take the reins offensively.

“I am excited to watch Lexi step up this year,” Juniper said. “She has had to adjust the way she plays while in the front line with Tanya the last two years, but I am expecting to see her play with a little more freedom … Ledezma will add a lot of dynamic creativity to the front line too.  She could play alongside Lexi at times and her vision and ability to connect the game in the final third will be a key to our game offensively.”

The Anteaters are expected to dominate defensively as well.

“Coco Goodson, Sarah Devine and Judy Christopher all return,” Juniper said, “and they make up what is probably the strongest central defensive unit in the country.”

With Nikki Forrest, Alyssa Humphrey, Taylor and de Seriere gone, three new captains have been appointed in Goodson, Christopher, and Delarosa.

Goodson was a standout defender in 2010 that shined offensively with nine goals in her first season since transferring from the University of Texas. Christopher is a physical defender whose presence isn’t apparent on a stat sheet, but is imposing to any opponent. She was one of the main reasons why de Seriere registered 11 shutouts in 2010.

“There is nobody that has more passion for the game or a desire to win than Judy and that is a huge asset on the field,” Kopf said of Christopher.

Delarosa scored four goals last year and notched three assists, but her two scores against ASU were enormous for the team’s NCAA run.

“I feel confident that this year’s team can go just as far, or even further than last year’s,” Kopf said.

The No. 14 UC Irvine Anteaters are scheduled for 14 regular season games this year, eight against Big West teams and 10 non-conference matchups. Last season, UCI went undefeated in the regular season against Big West opponents, en route to a Big West regular season championship. Six of the 10 non-conference matchups are against teams who competed in the 2010 NCAA Tournament. A tough schedule has the Anteaters motivated, not intimidated.

“We will not be talking about repeating anything,” Juniper said. “This team will be new and everything it does will never have been done before. The 2010 team has written its pages of history and the 2011 will create their own history.”

“This year our slogan is relentless,” Goodson added. “We are going to be the same blue-collar working team that we have always been and we will not stop at anything. We want to win and we want to show people that UC Irvine is going to be a name to remember.”