Back-to-Back Champs!

Marlin Agoub/Photography Intern

UCI 5, UCR 0

Scott Juniper had a plan when he scheduled three straight Sunday games to end the 2011 regular season for the UC Irvine Anteaters’ women’s soccer team. In 2010, Juniper’s squad was on fire. Known for their impressive fitness, the Anteaters pushed through a tough regular season schedule last season, closing out October with five games in three weeks.

UCI claimed its first women’s soccer Big West regular season championship in school history last season. Despite a 16-game undefeated streak, the Anteaters lost the Big West Tournament championship game to Long Beach on Nov. 7. They then received a bid to the NCAA Tournament and advanced all the way to the Sweet 16 in their tournament debut, beating Arizona State and leaping past the ACC Champion Wake Forest Demon Deacons. But despite all of the heroics, thrust into the national spotlight for the first time in school history, UCI came up short when the field narrowed to 16. They lost 1-0 against the University of Washington Huskies at home in double overtime.

“Last year we went all the way through and the games were piled on and we just ran out of gas in that last game,” Juniper said.

Taking the arduous NCAA Tournament schedule into consideration in 2011, Juniper confidently decided to rest his players with just three straight Sunday games to close out the season. On Oct. 30, the Anteaters’ freshness showed. Claiming their second straight Big West regular-season title in school history and second in as many years, the women’s soccer team handled the UC Riverside Highlanders, 5-0 on Senior Day at Anteater Stadium. They’ve now won six straight games and are 13-3-2 overall.

“The team is clicking right now,” Juniper said. “They’re playing for each other. They’re coaching themselves. Every player front to back is performing the way we want them to.”

The two teams played to a scoreless tie until the 39th minute, when sophomore Natalia Ledezma scored her 12th goal of the season. Ledezma added two assists to give her eight on the season. By the 55th minute, UCI had extended its lead from one to four as senior forward Lexi Kopf took a pass from Ledezma in the 46th, banked it off the post and in for her ninth goal of the season.

Junior Sarah Devine rebounded a header from senior defender CoCo Goodson five minutes into the second half and extended the lead to three. Kopf then scored her second goal of the contest in the 54th, this time assisted by freshman midfielder Cami Privett.

While trampling the Highlanders, Juniper was faced with a tough decision: either leave his starters in so they could stay sharp for the Big West Tournament or bring his seniors in on Senior Day. He did a little bit of both. Juniper kept his leaders on the field, while substituting several players throughout the second half. He pulled freshman goalkeeper Jennifer Randazzo in favor of junior Kala Gabler, who has backed up Danielle de Serierre and Randazzo throughout her career. Gabler and Randazzo recorded one save apiece as the Highlanders released an embarrassing total of three shots in the game with just two on target.

The score remained at 4-0 for nearly 35 minutes. After the Highlanders began fouling Lexi Kopf continuously, she broke free from a defender and took a touch pass from her twin sister, senior Jordan Kopf. UCR’s goalie bit on the pass as Lexi dribbled around her and tapped in an easy dribbler into the net, completing her first collegiate hat trick with just 47 seconds left on the clock.

The goal was Lexi Kopf’s 11th goal of the season, tying her with alumna Tanya Taylor for eighth in school history.

“It was just great being out there with [all the seniors] after all of the fitness tests and bonding together,” Lexi Kopf said. “It was just awesome.”

With their performances on Sunday, Lexi Kopf and Ledezma cemented their names in the Anteater history books. Ledezma, a UCLA transfer, wears No. 3; it’s the same number that Tanya Taylor wore in her historic 2010 season, which included being named the Big West Offensive Player of the Year and becoming the first UCI women’s soccer player to be drafted into professional soccer.

Taylor had 12 assists (school record) and scored 11 goals (eighth in school history) in 2010, while totaling 34 points (second in school history). In just her first season as an Anteater, Ledezma’s goal on Sunday moved her past Taylor and into a tie for fifth in school history with 12 single season goals. Kopf’s hat trick gave her 11 goals, tying Taylor. Nicole Bucciarelli holds the school record with 17, which was set in 1996.

“We’ve now got a little bit of history and tradition,” Juniper said. “We set some pretty lofty goals five or six years ago, but now it’s built on the history. Last year’s team was phenomenal, this team has got a long way to go, but we’re building a program and an infrastructure and support that should carry the program for years.”

Ledezma may or may not have six goals left in her; it all depends on whether the Anteaters can advance deep into the NCAA Tournament.

But one school mark that’s within reach is the single-season points record. With 32 points, Ledezma now ranks fifth in the annals of UCI’s history books, moving her to within five of Bucciarelli’s UCI single-season points record. And with eight assists, she’s now tied for sixth in school history, just four behind Taylor’s year-old record. By season’s end, Ledezma and Kopf could very well decorate their names across the school’s all-time record books.

UCI hosts UC Davis on Nov. 3. They’re now two wins away from a Big West Tournament Championship and back-to-back NCAA Tournament berths.

“This team could beat anyone,” Juniper said. “We played the best team in the country and we lost 2-0, but we can win a game against a team like Stanford. The players they know they can.”