Things weren’t looking all that good for Utah after four games in the 2011 season. The Utes were coming off a horrid 2010 that had seen them lose fifteen matches and generally look ill-prepared for the impending move to the cutthroat world of the Pac-12 in a season’s time. Utah certainly wasn’t inspiring much confidence early in 2011 either, with their record blighted by a humiliating 4-0 defeat to arch-rivals BYU. Unfathomably, the team may have suffered a worse loss five days later when they went down to a horrible Nevada side that would finish 2011 with sixteen losses.
It looked distinctly like it could be curtains for the reign of Rich Manning, the long serving Utah head coach who had faithfully steered the program through good times and bad. The Utes were one of the best mid-majors in America for the first half of the decade gone by, reaching the NCAA Tournament in five straight seasons from 2002-2006 while winning four Mountain West titles and a pair of Mountain West Tournament titles in their tenure in the league. The program brought home a trophy every season from 2003-2006, including doing the double in 2003. A 2006 regular season title capped off a virtuoso 16-5-1 season that saw the Utes finish the year ranked at #18 in the final RPI.
But Manning’s program tumbled since. Utah came to the Pac-12 in a dry spell without a trophy or NCAA Tournament bid since the 2006 season, although they were on the outer fringes of the bubble in both 2007 and 2008. The Utes’ competitiveness eroded in 2009 and 20120 though. 2009 marked the team’s first non-winning season since 1997 as the Utes went 10-10-2. 2010 marked the team’s first losing season since that same year. A tough non-conference slate saw the Utes battered and bruised by the time they reached Mountain West play. They’d pull it together a little bit to finish in fourth in the league but ended up losing in the first round of the Mountain West for the first time in program history, certainly not the way the Utes wanted to leave the conference.
The beginning of 2011 had rekindled many of those painful memories, likely leading some to wonder if the Utes would even win a game in the exceedingly tough Pac-12. But those who wrote off Utah for dead were hasty, and the Utes quietly started to turn it around by the Pac-12 season opener, having won four of their final five non-conference matches. Still, the level of competition in those wins hadn’t been great, making the team’s 2-0 upset win over Oregon in Eugene something that was entirely unexpected. Also unexpected was the team’s two wins after that, taking the club to 3-0-0 in the league. Suddenly, Utah was a team that was at the very least formidable in the Pac-12.
While the club would taper off thanks to some tough road trips, losing four of their next five, the one win in that span was a big one, as they topped Oregon State in Salt Lake City. Manning’s side closed out the season with two wins in their final three, seeing them finish in fifth place in the league in their debut season. To say this was a monumental achievement would be an understatement, considering many a pundit had the Utes pegged for the wooden spoon in their first season in the Pac-12.
It was a phenomenal job of coaching by Manning, who likely quieted a lot of critics wondering if his tenure had run its course. Utah’s non-conference struggles ensured they weren’t in the NCAA Tournament discussion, but the team’s conference performance in 2011 has ensured that the club will likely enter the new season on a fresh wave of momentum.
It’ll be interesting to see if all that fresh momentum brought about by last season’s stellar performance in the league translates to staying power with nobody in the Pac-12 likely to take Utah lightly now. The Utes find themselves in a familiar and unwanted position going into 2012 though, as like last year, Manning’s side must replace last year’s leading scorer. This time, it’s Erin Dalley who departs after a fine senior season. With seven goals, Dalley was the club’s leading scorer by far last season, with the top returning scorer Harley Spier scoring just three times in 2011. In a league where scoring is usually at a premium, Manning will be desperate to find a source for goals for the Utes this season.
Defensively, the club could stand for some improvement as well, finishing in the bottom half of the league in goals conceded in Pac-12 matches. Things don’t figure to get easier right off the bat either, as the club loses its starting goalkeeper and two starting center-backs ahead of the new year. Manning’s coaching job last season was among the best in the country in terms of degree of difficulty. Getting Utah back into mid-table in the Pac-12 this year would be almost as impressive.
The Utes will go into battle this season with a new starting goalkeeper after the graduation of Hannah Turpen, who started every match for the Salt Lake City outfit last season. Turpen got her feet wet as a rookie in 2008 before taking over as the club’s full-time netminder for the next three years. As you might expect with a team that had such a dominant keeper minutes-wise, experience is lacking from the returnees. Junior Cheyanne Mulcock started a pair of games in 2010 when Turpen was injured but was limited to mop-up duty in five games last season with Turpen healthy.
Mulcock may not be favored for the starting job this year either, with the club bringing in transfer Lindsey Luke from Wake Forest. Luke, a U18 youth international, made the bizarre decision to go to the ACC powerhouse despite her path to the #1 shirt seemingly being blocked by Aubrey Bledsoe. A year on, Luke comes to the Utes with plenty of potential and four years of eligibility left after redshirting last year. If she can shake the rust off quickly, the Utes should not skip a beat between the pipes this year.
The Utes have some serious work to do in defense given the departures of their starting center-backs, Lauren Porter and Lauren Dudley. A sizable duo that was unsurprisingly good in the air and dangerous on set pieces, their loss leaves a big vacuum in the backline. Porter had been one of the Mountain West’s best defenders when Utah still competed in that league and looked to hardly miss a beat in the Pac-12 last season. The hometown product seemingly was done for the year after suffering a bad looking knee injury against BYU but fought back valiantly to finish out her senior year with eleven starts, earning All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention distinction in the process. Dudley’s season was less eventful (well, other than a red card against BYU), but the other center-back for Utah was no less important in the club’s march up the Pac-12 table and will also be dearly missed. Reserve Percie Allen, who also played up top in stretches, also departs, cutting into the unit’s overall depth.
The club does return a fair amount of experience to the fold though. Junior Harley Spier started all twenty matches last season and has been a big asset in the air in midfield for the Utes but may be called upon to slide back into defense given the club’s needs this year. Then again, given the club’s needs in attack, the Utes might not be able to afford her playing so withdrawn as the club’s top returning scorer. Sophomore Sarah Duncan did ever so well as a rookie, stepping into a spot on the flanks and could quietly develop into a solid Pac-12 defender after seventeen starts as a freshman.
Junior Jenny Hutton missed a chunk of games at the very beginning and in the middle of the campaign but still made twelve starts and is another viable option this year, with her experience a definite plus for the Utes. Sophomore Abby Groth was also an impact defender in her first season with the club last year, making fourteen starts, and could be a solution at center-back given her size. With the club not particularly flush with numbers in this unit, the club could also move Avery Ford, impressive in midfield last year, back into defense to give this group a boost. Those concerns about depth, as well as trying to replace two huge influential defenders like Porter and Dudley, might mean a step back for this unit this year.
There are few personnel worries in the midfield for Utah, as the club returns last year’s group essentially intact. Spier was a rock in midfield for the club, starting all twenty games a season after a series of spot starts for the Utes. Whether she plays in midfield or a needy defense is a big decision for Manning this year though. Ford is another who showed real signs of quality as a rookie, with three assists last year to boot, and another who might end up in defense depending on the team’s needs. One who should definitely retain a starting spot in midfield is sophomore McKel Wall, who had goals in back-to-back games in September before a pair of assists against USC in a 3-0 win. The West Haven native looks another fine prospect on this Utah team and could be another source of offense if she avoids a sophomore slump.
There’s plenty in reserve for the Utes to select from as well. Junior Jen Ericson has been a key member off the bench and versatile enough to play in midfield or up front but has shown little cutting edge in front of goal thus far. Fifth-year senior Katie Martinez has been crushed by injuries thus far in her career, missing all but the opener last season but is back for one more go of it with the Utes. Juniors Stephanie Lemeza and Leslie Muirhead, along with sophomore Ashton Hall also all featured in varying degrees off the bench last season and could push for major minutes. Amongst that trio, Muirhead could be the one to watch, the defensive midfielder having started almost every game as a rookie in 2010.
Speaking of rookies, the club also adds in Region I ODP mainstay Katie Rigby this season. Rigby is a jack-of-all trades type who can play almost anywhere and will surely find a home somewhere in this Utes lineup this year. It’s not a unit of stars, but this group does have plenty of experience and depth which should serve them well this year.
Replacing Dalley doesn’t figure to be the easiest of tasks, though the graduated forward was hardly the most consistent figure in her Utes career. Dalley was great as a sophomore and senior, combining for sixteen goals but just six in her freshman and junior campaigns. Still, Dalley was the only proven goalscorer for the club last year, and her departure is cause for serious worry for the Utes. Junior Allie Wisner is another of the Utes to have been afflicted by serious injuries in her college career but stayed healthy last season and ended up starting nineteen matches. Capable in midfield or attack, Wisner hasn’t shown much in front of goal yet but should get every opportunity this year.
Another likely to feature up front is sophomore Katie Taylor, yet another of the youngsters blooded by Manning last year, with the Kaysville native starting every game as a rookie. Manning must hope Taylor shows more of a scoring touch this year though, the sophomore scoring just once last year. Ericson could also see time up front, along with fellow reserves Jill Robison and Lexi Krantz. Krantz could be a natural fit in the starting lineup having started most of 2010 before settling into a reserve role last season. Robison was one of the club’s top reserves last season, making an appearance in every game and starting five, but also scored just once.
With the shortage of proven scoring options, Manning might be leaning on some rookies to do damage in front of goal. In that regard, Sammi Swan looks most likely to establish herself as a rookie. Starring in recent ECNL action for the Utah Avalanche club, Swan should get every chance to hammer down major minutes in a mostly unproven frontline. Given the loss of Dalley and the absence of proven scorers though, it’s safe to say this is an area of worry for Manning this year.
Utah looks to be in a transition year, effectively being between two generations, and are very, very young with just one senior on the roster in Martinez. With sizable losses in goal, defense, and attack, the Utes are in tough again this year, though Manning’s wise decision to feed lots of playing time to his youngsters last season should reap dividends this year. The most pressing concern seems to be in front of goal, where the club is desperately in need of an offensive talisman following the loss of Dalley.
Given all of those losses and the relative youth of the squad, many will likely write the Utes off again this season. But be wary. Lots of critics (including yours truly) did likewise last year and were made to look foolish when Utah landed in the upper half of the table come the end of the season. A slight dip into lower mid-table does seem more likely this year though than a top half finish in the Pac-12.