Last season, the Cal women’s soccer team owed much of its success to a young newcomer. Freshman Ifeoma Onumonu led the Bears in goals, shared the lead in assists and boasted four game-winning goals last season en route to being named Pac-12 Freshman of the Year. Now a sophomore, the dynamic Onumonu has ascended from the whirlwind of freshman success to the ranks of team veterans.
This year, Cal’s roster is riddled with more youngsters. However, the Bears do not expect these freshmen to follow in the trailblazing cleat prints of Onumonu. In fact, few will likely get the opportunity to replicate such success. This season, the freshmen are expected to largely bide their time on the sidelines, learn from their elders and establish a strong foundation for future seasons. Cal is counting on its veterans, not its incoming freshmen, to drive the success of the squad.
“We have 10 new freshmen, which is definitely a big change, especially at practice,” said senior goalkeeper Emily Kruger. “But if you look at the people who have been getting the big minutes these past four games, it has been returning players and a lot of returning starters with tons of experience.”
Last season, the Bears boasted a respectable 8-3 conference record — enough to snag third place in the Pac-12 despite a disappointing loss to Stanford in the conference closer.
Despite Cal falling to its archrival, the Bears’ 15-5 season record and No. 23 ranking earned them an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, where they bested Pepperdine to advance to the second round. In the second round, the Bears succumbed to No. 4 San Diego State, ending Cal’s postseason. The run was Cal’s ninth straight NCAA Tournament appearance and coach Neil McGuire’s sixth straight one with the Bears.
Despite the relatively successful season, the Bears’ hunger was not satiated. After graduating only four seniors — two of them starters — most of last year’s Bears are back and eager for another try at the Pac-12 title.
“Everyone that is starting and getting big minutes are returning players who feel comfortable playing with each other and are starting to develop a tighter understanding on the field of each other,” Kruger said. “Hopefully, this year, we can let it all come to fruition a little bit better.”
While the Bears hope to contend for the conference title, traditional powers UCLA and Stanford are again poised to be dominant forces among Pac-12 competition. However, significant portions of both teams graduated, and neither team is in the advantageous situation Cal finds itself in — the position of essentially having last year’s squad back again.
“Last year, we got closer than we had been in a long time, and I think we can see it coming down to those last couple of games this year as well,” Kruger said. “As for the (NCAA) Tournament, I think we can go further than we have, and I know that if we play well, we will get the results that we want.”
With the season already under way, the Bears are positioning themselves well to achieve these goals. The squad notched three wins and a tie in its first four games of the fall. While Cal easily handled UC Irvine on the road and San Jose State at home, the team only topped Detroit by a one-goal margin and had to settle for a tie against Pepperdine, which it defeated in last season’s NCAA Tournament.
Despite Cal’s initial success, the team is acutely aware that formidable foes loom ahead. The team’s first significant challenge will likely come from Santa Clara in mid-September, and the competition will heat up through October with the onset of conference play.
“We are feeling good about the result, but I think we know that we can push ourselves to perform a little better,” Kruger said. “With that being said, the result is important, and we will use that momentum going forward to keep improving.”