Freshman look to fill roles left by graduates

For the newest members of the Cal women’s soccer team, filling the shoes of some of last year’s top contributors was never going to be an easy task.

This summer, former seniors Emily Kruger, Rachel Mercik, Nina Pedersen and Genessee Daughetee all left for professional careers in Europe — marking one of the largest departures to professional leagues that Cal has seen from a single graduating class. In June, Pedersen joined Liverpool L.F.C., and in the following months, Kruger, Daughetee and Mercik followed suit. The three signed with KR Reykjavik Women, Montpellier Herault Sport Club and FFC Turbine Potsdam, respectively.

Together, that group of now-alumni formed an essential part of last year’s starting lineup. Mercik and Daughetee played in all 21 games last season, while Kruger and Pedersen both appeared in 18 games apiece. And with Mercik, Daughetee, Kruger and Pedersen each at different positions on the field, the Bears enjoyed experienced ball handlers in every facet of the game.

Without that leadership, uncertainty abounded heading into the team’s 2014 campaign. It was unknown what kind of impact Cal’s recruiting class — heralded as fifth best in the country — would have on the team’s performance this season. Was it realistic to expect this group to play right away, and, if so, would they have enough time to adjust before Pac-12 competition began?

Eight games into the season and one match away from the start of conference play, those questions can finally begin to be answered.

Clearly, the biggest unknown at the start of the season was whether freshman Emily Boyd would be able to fill the significant hole left at the goalkeeper position by Kruger. A four-year starter for the Bears, Kruger remains Cal’s all-time leader in saves with 279 and ranks third in career shutouts with 20.3. And though Boyd joined the Bears as the No. 5 incoming goalie in the country, it was uncertain up until the season began as to how the freshman would adapt to immediate playing time.

Fortunately for Cal, Boyd has mostly put those concerns to rest. Appearing in all eight games this year, Boyd has kept her opponents to an average of .52 goals per game — good enough for fifth in the Pac-12. And though she hasn’t yet topped the performances of Pac-12 rivals such as Stanford’s Jane Campbell, she seems to be on track to become a linchpin in the Bears’ defense.

But Boyd hasn’t been alone in anchoring her team’s defensive effort this season. Freshmen defenders Haley Lukas, Indigo Gibson and Annia Mejia have all seen significant playing time this season. Mejia leads the group with 600 minutes and six starts this season, and Gibson follows with 506 minutes and five starts. All highly regarded recruits — Gibson is a five-star recruit, and Mejia and Lukas are four-star recruits — this batch of newcomers has nicely rounded out the Bears’ backfield in the absence of former contributors such as Daughetee.

Still, this freshman-heavy defense hasn’t been flawless. Of the areas that could use the most improvement, defense stands out as an area that could grow. Miscommunication — possibly related to the squad’s relative inexperience — on defense has proven costly over the Bears last several outings against Texas Tech and Cal Poly. Against the Mustangs, Cal gave up one of its own goals after two defenders collided on the recovery of a ball and sent it rolling into its own net.

If the Bears hope to stay competitive against Pac-12 powerhouses such as UCLA and Stanford, they will need to continue to work on building their defense into a fully cohesive unit. While solid performances from many of the team’s freshmen have contributed to Cal’s impressive 7-1-0 start to the season, this young squad still has a long way to go if it hopes to see success against some of the top teams in the country.

Dani Jo Coony covers women’s soccer. Contact her at [email protected].