Power Rankings: Strong recruiting class awaits Cal women’s soccer

Alex Turney/Staff

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Halfway through the 2013 season, few would have guessed that Cal’s women’s soccer team would finish outside the top 10 teams among Cal sports.

The team began last season looking like they could make an impressive run in the NCAA tournament. The Bears kicked off the year with an unbeaten 9-0-4 record, their best start since 1987, and had battled their way into a top-10 national ranking. By October, Cal had set its sights on the program’s first conference title since it earned a three-way tie with UCLA and USC in 1998.

But after their strong start, the Bears embarked on a losing streak that left them far short of their Pac-12 and postseason aspirations. The squad went on a six-game winless streak, which eventually set the team up for its first-round loss to Santa Clara in the NCAA tournament. The early exit left the Bears with the lukewarm memory of a solid, but ultimately unremarkable, 2013 campaign.

Arguably, the beginning of Cal’s struggles can be traced to its first loss of the season to eventual national championship winner UCLA. Until that point, the Bears had looked dominant behind veterans such as forwardRachel Mercik and goalkeeper Emily Kruger, who had been significant contributors in the team’s 13-game undefeated streak. Yet, that early success failed to reflect how Cal would fare against some of the top teams in the country.

Against then-No. 2 UCLA, the Bears faced a level of physicality and speed that exposed their defensive weaknesses. Often forcing Kruger off her line, the Bruins left Cal scrambling to adjust to its fast-paced offensive attack — a strategy that proved effective in a 27th-minute goal that eventually secured the elite squad’s 1-0 victory.

After their first loss of the season, the Bears would never fully recover. Cal proceeded to lose to underdogs such as Oregon State, Oregon and Washington State as its national ranking slipped from No. 8 to No. 21.

Yet, as highlighted in Cal’s last two games of the season, the Bears demonstrated that they have the potential to bounce back from last year’s disappointing results with the development of their more inexperienced team members next season.

Heading into its penultimate regular-season matchup against Washington, Cal was missing both Kruger and backup goalkeeper Kathleen Messinger to injury and foul trouble, respectively. This left only freshman Maddie Julian to keep the team’s postseason hopes alive against the Huskies. The relatively inexperienced Julian thrived, recording four saves and keeping Washington scoreless on the way to the Bears’ 1-0 victory.

“(Messinger’s) red card put us in a tough position, but (Julian) really stepped up and played the whole 90 minutes,” said forward Celeste Boureille after the game. “Our back line was a wall, and the defense did really well today.”

The win increased Cal’s chances of making the NCAA tournament and boosted the slumping team’s confidence heading into its rivalry match against Stanford. Against the Cardinal, the Bears proceeded to clinch a thrilling 1-0 win in overtime, showcasing the performance of their veterans and underclassmen alike and likely securing their postseason appearance.

Though Cal will miss several four-year starters next season, such as Mercik and Kruger, the team’s performance at the end of the season hinted at the promise of its underclassmen. Next season, Cal will welcome the arrival of a strong recruiting class and will likely see continued improvement from its deep junior lineup.

Among the Bears’ continuing juniors are Boureille and midfielder Samantha Witteman, who each had breakout sophomore seasons. Their performance will be supported by a recruiting class that was ranked No. 5 in the country by TopDrawerSoccer.com and will need to start immediately in the absence of more experienced options.

Cal’s incoming freshman class features Indigo Gibson, who ranks as the No. 12 recruit in the country and should supply much-needed support on defense. Other incoming defenders include Annia Mejia, Isabel Damiani and Haley Lukas, who are all rated as four-star recruits. Meanwhile, the Bears will have plenty of options at goalkeeper even with the loss of Kruger as they welcome Emily Boyd, who ranks among the top 50 recruits in the nation.

“We are very excited about our 2014 recruiting class,” said head coach Neil Mcguire to Cal Athletics. “We have been fortunate to attract many highly talented players to join us, and it is a class that will help us continue Cal’s strong soccer tradition.”

Contact Dani Jo Coony at [email protected].