Strong midfield to carry Cal team

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Senior Betsy Hassett, junior Kaitlyn Fitzpatrick and sophomore Taylor Comeau call the Cal midfield their domain. Hassett’s fast decision-making, Fitzpatrick’s blazing shot and Comeau’s gritty defense form a three-headed monster in the center of the field.

“If we hear about other teams scouting us, they say our midfield is the engine of our team,” Comeau said. “People try to double-team us in the middle. They think to break the team down, they need to break us down first.”

Cal strength is in its midfield and nowhere was this best epitomized than in the team’s on Aug. 26 loss against No. 18 Missouri. With the defense struggling, it was up to the midfield to step up and pull the team even.

After receiving a pass from Comeau, Fitzpatrick streaked down the right side and delivered a beautiful cross. Hassett claimed it and then powered home. In the Bears’ time of need, it was the midfield who took it upon themselves to lead.

“I start the attack, Betsy is transitional, and [Fitzpatrick] is the dangerous one,” Comeau said. “Playing together for a full year, playing every game together has made us very comfortable with one another.”

This game, though early in the season, reveals the nature of Cal women’s soccer this year. A midfield that has embraced its identity as a grind-it-out unit sandwiched by defensive and offensive units where questions still remain.

“We feel up to the challenge, but it’s not just going to be the midfield,” Hassett said. “We are going to need the whole team.”

In 2011, the Bears had the best season under six-year head coach Neil McGuire, finishing 12-6-4 and earning a berth to the NCAAs. In the postseason, the euphoria of a 4-3 shootout victory against Santa Clara in the first round was quickly erased by a 3-1 penalties loss to Boston College.

Although Cal saw its season end abruptly, the squad was already looking forward to a bright future. McGuire understood that to get better he would need to keep bringing in top talent.

“We have a really good bunch of freshman this year,” Hassett said. “[McGuire] keeps getting good players to come through here.”

One of the members of the stellar recruiting class is freshman Ifeoma Onumonu, whose 5’10” frame and blazing speed give nightmares to opposing defenses.

Onumonu will join a forward unit with many questions surrounding it. In the 2010 and the first half of the 2011 seasons, the Bears had Alex Morgan and Katie Benz respectively, two athletes whose finishing ability gave the squad a dynamic scoring option.

Because no forward has yet to announce herself as the primary scoring threat, McGuire has tried different combinations at forward. As the season progresses, this unit will try to figure out the most effective setup.

Defensively, juniors Emi Lawson and Texas transfer Nina Pederson are the starting center-back pair on a defensive unit which at times seemed disorganized so far. It will be up to junior keeper Emily Kruger to maintain order on the back line.

The defense will need to sort things out in time for conference play, which will be extremely tough this season.

Cal was chosen to finish third in the Pac-12 behind No. 4 Stanford and No. 2 UCLA in the preseason coaches poll. Easily the toughest games for the Bears will come at the very end of their schedule, in L.A. against the Bruins and at home against the Cardinal.

“We can definitely win the Pac-12,” Hassett said. “But this year we are capable of going much farther than the second round of NCAAs.

Coming off their best year under McGuire, the expectations of the 2012 Cal squad are higher than it has ever been. But to live up to the hype, the team will rely heavily on their midfield until the talent around them figures it out.