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WCCountdown: Lions Set Sights on the Postseason

Aug. 19, 2009

Two years into Joe Mallia's tenure, the coach has every reason to be proud of his efforts at Loyola Marymount. The Lions have recorded back-to-back seasons of 10-or-more victories and finished third in the challenging West Coast Conference each time. Mallia has won the most games of any LMU coach in his first two seasons and a school-record seven Lions have been named to the All-WCC teams in each of the last two years. Still, the coach knows that something has been missing.

"In many ways, the past two seasons have been very successful for our program, both on and off the field," Mallia said. "Having said that, one of our program's biggest goals is to compete at a national level. Our absence from the NCAA College Cup the past two years, despite excellent seasons, is an indication that this goal is still a work in progress. It is also a part of a process with which we feel we are continuing to move positively forward."

After making NCAA Tournament appearances in 2002 and 2006, LMU has come close the last two seasons. In 2007, the Lions equaled the school record with 12 victories and tied with Santa Clara for third place in the WCC. That season, the NCAA took Portland, San Diego, and Santa Clara for the postseason, leaving LMU as the odd team out. Last year, the Lions played a more difficult schedule - featuring six games against nationally-ranked opponents - but again reached 10 wins. In conference play, LMU was in third place out-right but, for just the first time since 1999, only two WCC schools were picked for the tournament, with Portland and San Diego getting the nod.

Mallia is determined to take LMU back to the postseason in 2009. His roster this year features a unique blend of talented freshmen and seasoned veterans, with 21 letterwinners and eight starters returning to combine with eight newcomers - LMU's largest incoming class under Mallia. What makes the group unique is that it is heavy on upperclassmen, with 17 juniors and seniors on the roster.

"We have a great balance of veterans and youth in our team this year," Mallia said. "The depth is probably the best we have had in my short two years here. Experience and quality in new players are vital to the long-term success of any program. The experience helps us win games now. The quality of the new players insures us that we will have continued success in the years to come."

Leading the veteran charge are 10 players who all experienced the postseason in 2006 and are anxious to return in their final go-around. Fifth-year seniors Allyssa Clark and Michelle Kanama, along with seniors Kim Feeney, Lacey Bartels, Tiffany Harrison, Jill Sweetnam, Katrina Chong, Leslie Grandy, and Kristen Garcia and redshirt junior Eugenia Miranda all tasted the NCAA Tournament and can offer that experience as motivation for the younger charges.

"This is a great and large group of seniors that we are fortunate to have this year," Mallia said. "They are very experienced, talented, and great leaders. We look for them to be the backbone of this team over the course of the fall."

The Lions certainly have the talent to make a run at the tournament. Five players who gained All-WCC honors last year will be back in the Crimson and Navy this year. Junior Lily Sorentino was a First Team selection, Harrison was on the Second Team, and Feeney, Clark, and junior Julie Gallaudet were all Honorable Mention. Add in a freshman class that has been ranked as the second-best recruiting class in the WCC by TopDrawerSoccer.com, and the Lions could do some serious damage in 2009.

FORWARDS
In juniors Lily Sorentino and Julie Gallaudet, LMU returns its top two point-scorers from last season. Sorentino, who has earned all-conference honors in each of her first two seasons, tied a school record with eight assists in 2008, which also tied for the conference lead in the category. Sorentino's size, speed, and strength have elevated her to the status as one of the elite players in the league, as evidenced by her inclusion in the 2009 WCC Preseason All-Conference Team. Most people reserve the term "game-changer" for players who score lots of goals but with three goals in 38 career matches, one would not classify Sorentino as a potent goal-scorer. However, she is a game-changer in her ability to set up teammates and that has made her a key player in LMU's attack. In just two seasons, Sorentino has registered 14 assists, leaving her four shy of the school record.

Gallaudet emerged as a lethal strike partner alongside Sorentino in 2008. After appearing in seven games, mostly in defense, as a freshman, Gallaudet led the Lions with five goals and 14 points in 2009, including both tallies in the 2-1 victory over Santa Clara, LMU's first over the Broncos since 2000. The link-up between Gallaudet and Sorentino will be crucial for the Lions to continue their success this season.

Junior Kelley Lawson and sophomore Erin Rementer are the other returning strikers who found the net last year. Lawson's lone goal was a dramatic one as she scored within 12 seconds of coming on as a substitute to beat Pepperdine 1-0 in overtime. She is an excellent crosser of the ball and will stretch defenses. Rementer played in every game, mostly as a reserve, and tallied a pair of goals last year. She can put defenses on their heels with her pace and is a long-range scoring threat.

Seniors Jill Sweetnam and Katrina Chong, and juniors Gabrielle Parisella and Dominique Penaranda give the Lions further veteran presence up front. Parisella's sophomore year numbers (one assist) were a drop-off from an excellent freshman campaign (three goals, four assists, ten points) but a return to form is expected this season. Like Lawson, Parisella can provide outstanding service from the wings, while Sweetnam, Chong, and Penaranda have the ability to break down defenses through the middle.

Returning for her second season is Caroline Helfrich, who suffered a season-ending injury last season and has worked her way back to health. Her ability to get to the line and to deliver strong service into the box will only help the front line.

"Our forwards will be one of the keys to our success, as they are with most teams," Mallia commented. "We need to be more dangerous in the attack for many reasons. First off, the more pressure we put on an opponent, the more confidence we will build over the course of any given game. Then, of course, with more pressure comes more chances and eventually more goals will follow. We need this group to step up this fall."

MIDFIELDERS
To assist in the offensive load, LMU returns a solid midfield that combined for five goals and two assists last season. Seniors Tiffany Harrison, Lacey Bartels, Michelle Kanama, and Nikki Martinez and junior Nickey Ha give the Lions experience and depth, with the ability to form the first line of defense and also to get forward in support of the offense.

Senior midfielder Tiffany Harrison has earned All-WCC second team honors the last two seasons.


Harrison is the most-decorated of the group, having earned Second Team All-WCC honors in each of her last two seasons to go along with a place on the conference's All-Freshman Team in 2006. In 2008, she again anchored LMU's midfield, giving the Lions an aerial presence with her 5-11 frame. Harrison contributed two goals and each was crucial as they were the game-winners against UC Irvine and Harvard.

Bartels provides a good complement to Harrison as a tenacious ball-winner and ferocious defender. The two have been stalwarts of the Lion midfield for the last three seasons, having played in every game since their freshman year and combining for 12 goals. Together, they will provide the backbone of LMU's central midfield, from which all the rest of the play will be dictated.

Returning to the fold is a fifth-year senior, Michelle Kanama, who missed all of last year due to injury. Another player who is tremendous in the air, Kanama's health could be crucial to the Lions' success. Her athleticism and passing vision, along with her leadership, are unparalleled, giving LMU three players who can control play from the middle of the park.

In junior Nickey Ha, the Lions have a player with excellent ball-control who took a major leap forward in 2008. Ha stepped into a starting role last year as an attacking midfielder and gives the Lions someone who can run at the defense.

Nikki Martinez also gives the Lions a veteran presence in her second year with the club. Martinez joined the team in the spring of 2008 and has worked her way up on the depth chart to where she can push others for some quality minutes.

With the senior-laden midfield poised to move on after this year, Mallia has brought in a pair of high school teammates to be the future of the LMU middies. Amanda Owens and Cori McGovern arrive on The Bluff from Monte Vista High School in Danville, CA, where they helped MVHS to the East Bay Athletic League championship and NorCal Champions in 2007 and 2008. Owens was a member of the under-14 national team pool and has been on the Cal North State Team since 2004 while McGovern was a three-time all-region selection.

The duo is a big reason why TopDrawerSoccer.com has ranked LMU's recruiting class second in the WCC. The publication said, "In Amanda Owens, the Loyola Marymount Lions have a dynamic attacking player who can help breathe extra life into their offense. Cori McGovern, a Mustang SC teammate of Owens' will bring a good work ethic and give the team a bonus since the two already have experience playing with one another."

DEFENDERS
Mallia will have no shortage of players to choose from in defense, as eight players will compete for playing time. Again, the coach sees a veteran presence in seniors Kim Feeney, Kristen Garcia, and Leslie Grandy. Feeney, a team captain, would normally be the anchor of the group but will miss the first part of the season due to an injury suffered during the spring. The absence of the three-time all-conference defender will put pressure on the other players to rally but there is no doubt that they are up to the challenge.

Grandy and Kristen Garcia will need to fill the gap left by Feeney and they have displayed the pedigree to make a seamless transition. Grandy was a starter in every game in 2008 but battled injuries in 2009 and only appeared in seven games. A return to her form as a sophomore will be welcomed by the defensive ranks.

Garcia split her time as a junior between the defense and wide midfield, resulting in her first two career goals and her first career start. A speedy player who can feature at outside back, she gained a lot of confidence in her 12 games last season and is looking to parlay that into a successful senior campaign.

Sophomores Marissa Zamora, Brittney Sanford, and Jaide Garcia also figure to be in the mix. Zamora started 17 games as a freshman and proved to be one of LMU's most valuable defenders, logging over 1400 minutes, tops among freshmen. Another year older and stronger, Zamora will be counted on to halt opponents' wide forays at outside back while also getting forward herself. Sanford will make the switch from midfield last season to defense this year, filling a need for the Lions in the absence of Feeney. With two assists last year, Sanford showed that she can distribute the ball and she will continue to do so from the back. Jaide Garcia (no relation to Kristen) played in seven games and is versatile enough to excel anywhere she is placed on the pitch.

Fans will also get the chance to be introduced to freshmen Kelsey Wilson (San Clemente, CA), Jordan Nelson (Garden Grove, CA), and Claire Yearian (Gig Harbor, WA). Wilson was the 2009 Orange County Register Varsity Player of the Year after leading San Clemente High School to the CIF Championship. A highly-decorated player in high school, Wilson also won the 2007 National Club Championship with SoCal Blues. A technical player with a smart defensive mind, Wilson could make an immediate impact at the collegiate level.

At Pacifica High School, Nelson was a four-time All-CIF Division III selection and was the Empire League Defensive Player of the Year as a junior and Most Valuable Player as a senior. Even with these accolades, Nelson has a great work-ethic and can compete for a starting job right away.

Not to be outdone, Yearian was a First Team All-State player at Bellarmine Prep in Washington, where she was also on the state ODP team and selected for the regional camp. Yearian is another player who is good on the ball and versatile enough for multiple positions, while her four years of track experience will be on display as she stretches opposing defenses as an outside back.

GOALKEEPERS
For the second straight season, LMU has a backlog of goalkeepers on the roster but only one with any substantial experience. Fifth-year senior Allyssa Clark enters the year as the incumbent starter, with redshirt junior Eugenia Miranda, redshirt sophomore Katie Beaulieu, and freshmen trio Brittany Jagger, Alaina Martin, and Paige Pennington competing for playing time.

Clark stepped up in a big way last year to fill the shoes of one-time WCC Defender of the Year Josyln Slovek. In her first full season as the starter, Clark merely went out and made the second-most saves in school history (95) while posting a 1.02 goals-against-average and eight shutouts, both of which put her in the LMU top-10. The Lions are hoping not to have to count on Clark as often this season but are secure in knowing that she is there as the last line of defense.

Miranda and Beaulieu have both spent multiple years in the program but have seen action only sparingly due to injuries. They will be relied upon for their leadership amongst the goalkeeping core.

The Lions welcome three freshmen keepers who will be ready for their shot. Brittany Jagger (Allen, TX) has already experienced big-time soccer, having won a national club title in 2008 with national powerhouse Dallas Texans. Jagger herself was key to the team's title run, earning the tournament's Golden Glove Award. A three-time state cup winner, she has also won at the regional, district, and league levels and will bring that winning mentality to the Lions.

Alaina Martin (Boulder, CO) has seen her share of success, as well, having won two Colorado State championships in high school and earning All-Centennial League honors in three straight seasons. Paige Pennington (Rancho Cucamonga, CA) came out of St. Lucy's Priory High School, the same school that produced former Lion standout Stefanie Baduria, and has shown the ability to compete at the Division I level. The return of Slovek as an assistant coach will further the development of these players as LMU looks toward the future.

SCHEDULE
After facing six nationally-ranked teams in 2008, one might forgive Mallia for scheduling down in 2009 in order to generate more victories. Yet, that's not what the coach has in mind as he pushes his team toward its ultimate goals. "We've put together a very competitive non-conference schedule with the thought in mind of preparing ourselves for conference play as well as to boost our stature nationally," Mallia said. "As a program, our continued goal is to compete at a national level as well as to win a WCC championship and to make a run in the national tournament. To do so, we feel strongly that we need to schedule accordingly in our non-conference play. This schedule absolutely gives us the opportunity to achieve both goals."

Mallia is referring to a schedule that features 11 of 19 matches on the road and includes five opponents who played in last season's NCAA Tournament and nine teams who had an RPI in the top-100.

The Lions kick off the schedule with the first two of seven non-conference road contests. On August 21, LMU travels to UNLV, followed by a visit to Cal State Northridge on August 27. The home opener falls on Sunday, August 30 against Northern Arizona in the first of the five games against NCAA Tournament participants. The match against Northern Arizona starts a three-game home stand, which features visits by Vermont (September 4) and Houston (September 6) to Sullivan Field.

As the calendar hits mid-September, the Lions face back-to-back weekend tournaments in Oregon (September 11-13) and at UCLA (September 18-20). On September 11, LMU will play in the Oregon Nike Tournament in Eugene, taking on the hosts on Friday and Oregon State on Sunday. The Ducks and Beavers comprise two of the three Pac-10 opponents on LMU's schedule.

Following the trip to Oregon, the Lions make the short journey up the 405 to Westwood, where they will compete against Missouri (September 18) and Utah (September 20) in the UCLA Women's Cup. Missouri finished the 2008 season ranked 17th in the nation and earn a #4 national seed to the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers advanced to the second round before being eliminated on penalty kicks. LMU's other opponent in the UCLA Tournament will be Utah, who finished as runners-up in the Mountain West last year after going 11-9-2. The Lions and Utes played to a 0-0 tie at Sullivan Field last year.

A third NCAA Tournament participant, Long Beach State, awaits the Lions when they return home on Friday, September 25. Long Beach State has won two of the last three Big West Conference regular season titles and qualified for the NCAA Tournament last year with a 14-5-4 record. Two days later, LMU plays its final non-conference home match, hosting Cal State Bakersfield. The non-conference schedule concludes on October 2 with another Pac-10 foe, as LMU travels to Arizona.

For the eighth straight season, LMU will open West Coast Conference play against local rivals Pepperdine, making the trip up to Malibu on October 11. Each of the last five meetings between the Lions and Waves has been decided by a single goal, with four of those matches going into overtime.

LMU's only true homestand of WCC play comes the following weekend when the Lions host Gonzaga and Portland. Each game will be part of an LMU soccer doubleheader, with the Lion men playing after the women each day. On Friday, October 16, the women host Gonzaga, who they beat in overtime in Spokane last year. That is followed by a visit from defending conference champions Portland on Sunday. Portland's last trip to Sullivan Field came in 2006, the year of LMU's last NCAA Tournament appearance, and ended in a 0-0 tie.

The game against Portland is the first of three straight against preseason ranked opponents, with road games at San Diego and Santa Clara following. All of the non-conference road games will come in handy as the Lions play three of their final four games of the WCC schedule away from home. On October 23, they head down to San Diego to face the Toreros, who advanced as far as the second round in last year's NCAA Tournament. That leads into a trip to perennial national powers Santa Clara on October 25. Last year, the Lions recorded their first win over Santa Clara since 2000 but the seven-time WCC champion Broncos will be looking for a return trip to the NCAA Tournament following last year's absence.

LMU will host its Senior Day at the final home contest on October 30 against San Francisco and the regular season concludes on November 7 with a trip to Saint Mary's.

"As usual, each and every WCC game will be a battle. We play the lions' share of our games on the road, which is going to be a test for this veteran team," Mallia said. "Having four of our seven conference games on the road makes our non-conference schedule all the more important as it prepares us for the rigors of WCC play. Having said that, this group has been put in this situation in the past and will be well-prepared for the challenge."