The heat is rising in Eugene on Oregon head coach Tara Erickson after a half decade of underwhelming seasons at the head of the Ducks. All of Phil Knight’s mounds of money hasn’t been able to buy Oregon any success as the hapless Ducks have traditionally been consistently among the Pac-10’s cellar dwellers. Erickson looked to be changing that a few seasons into her reign after a second place finish in the Pac-10, but that still was tinged with disappointment as the Ducks were one of the very last teams out of the Big Dance despite the runner-up finish in one of the toughest leagues in the country.
Then again, the winning season was a nice breath of fresh air for a program that had long suffered through nightmarish season after nightmarish season under Bill Steffen, including a 3-13-3 year in 2004 that finally got Steffen the chop. Erickson came in from Portland State after a reasonable run of success, and after a predictable season of transitionary struggle in 2005, had the Ducks back on the right track with the aforementioned 2006 second place finish in the Pac-10. But instead of being a jumping off point for further success, the Ducks have slid backwards in subsequent seasons.
A pair of seventh place finishes in 2007 and 2008 were one thing, but the dismal 9-10-1 season of 2009 that pushed Oregon back to ninth in the league was another thing entirely and was the program’s first losing season since Steffen’s final year. 2010 was only marginally better, as Erickson coaxed her team up to seventh in the league but also saw the win total dip to seven while the RPI also dropped noticeably.
Under pressure to improve results in Eugene, Erickson’s Ducks began 2011 with some style, winning four straight with clean sheets, though the level of competition wasn’t exactly elite. What did catch some eyes was the team’s fifth game of the season, a battling 0-0 draw against fancied WCC contenders Santa Clara. The recent success by hated rivals Oregon State likely made the sting of mediocrity all that much worse for the Ducks after their second straight season with double digit losses. Results against further stiff competition would not be as flattering, the club losing five of their next six, including being pounded, 5-0, by Illinois, while also dropping their last non-conference game against Sun Belt side Florida International.
Oregon had trouble turning things around in league play also, dropping four of their first five and being shut out in each of said losses. The Ducks hardly got the best draw though, playing five of their first six Pac-12 matches away from home. There was a brief blip of improvement, with Oregon beating Colorado before taking four points from a weekend against the Washington schools, including a nice 1-0 win against Washington State. But the Ducks would take just one point from their final three matches, though nicking a draw from rivals Oregon State in the final offered the tiniest bit of solace in a lost season.
With little movement on the RPI front, the team’s third losing season in a row and fifth straight non-winning season, and an uninspiring tenth place finish in the league, many though Erickson was ripe for the chop after the season. But the Ducks brass kept the faith with their coach, though their patience can hardly be eternal, and Erickson figures to be one of the hottest seats in the nation at the beginning of 2012.
Not all is doom and gloom in Eugene this season though. The Ducks are christening a beautiful new stadium that should give another boost to recruiting efforts that have been going pretty well at any rate. The question of course is whether the opening of the new ground will be marked with a winning team. Erickson’s side entered last season with no end of worries about the club’s offense, with the club losing their top three scorers, including the program’s all-time leading scorer, Jen Stoltenberg. The Ducks didn’t do much to ease those worries last season, with nobody making it to five goals, while the club only managed eight goals in the league and nineteen overall. The defense wasn’t quite able to bail the Ducks out either, giving up eighteen goals in the league, fourth worse in the Pac-12.
Erickson will likely be preaching patience in Eugene after bringing in a great recruiting class last year and following it up with another solid effort this year. Senior defender Scout Libke is one of the best in the league, and her veteran leadership will be priceless on a club rife with underclassmen this season. Erickson will be hoping that the old adage of “not winning anything with kids” doesn’t apply here, because if she doesn’t start winning in Eugene, her days in the hot seat could be numbered.
The Ducks should be able to boast one of the best underclassman goalkeeping prospects in the nation this season with the return of sophomore Abby Steele to the starting lineup. Steele had been expected to make a big and lasting impact right off the bat in Eugene last season as a rookie after coming into the program already established as a U20 international for the U.S. Steele would be forced to win the position early in the season though, getting a half in each of the club’s first four games before Erickson decided to run with the rookie for almost the rest of the season. The youngster would only be knocked from her perch briefly for the rest of the season, locking down the starting job as hers, though she took her fair share of rookie lumps as some of the league’s top offenses took aim at her. She should continue to grow in ability with age though and looks like a keeper to watch in the Pac-12 this season. With backup Lindsay Parlee graduating, there’s little experience behind Steele in reserve, with little used junior Casey Wilhelm battling with true freshman Dana Connors for the understudy role this season.
The Ducks will also be hoping for a show of improvement from the backline after last season’s relatively tepid display. Like most of the other units for Oregon, this unit comes into the new season mostly unscathed by losses. The club does have to find a replacement for the minutes of Taylor Jones, a spot starter as a senior who had broken into the starting lineup in 2010 before being felled by a serious injury.
As has been the case in recent seasons, senior Scout Libke will lead the charge for the Ducks in defense and beyond. Arguably the club’s top player, Libke has started every match possible for the Ducks in her three year career, shifting between defense and midfield in her tenure in Eugene. No soft touch in front of goal, Libke is also the club’s designated penalty taker and scored three times from the spot last season en route to All-Pac 12 First Team honors.
Another constant on the backline this year is likely to be fifth-year senior Lauren Thompson. A little bit of a late bloomer, Thompson wouldn’t establish herself in the starting lineup until her redshirt sophomore season but has been a rock ever since, playing the entire game last year on all but one occasion. The veteran duo’s experience will be crucial with what looks like a young supporting cast around them this year.
Sophomore Kiyomi Cook nailed down a starting spot early last season, and the Gresham native likely would’ve added to thirteen starts had she not been injured down the stretch. Junior Achijah Berry, a starter for much of her freshman season, ended up filling more of a spot starter role last season but still saw major minutes, including enough to see her record the game winner against Washington State in the league. Sophomore Riley Smith was something of an afterthought of Oregon’s recruiting class last season but ended up being a pleasant surprise, starting three games and coming off the bench in eleven others and should continue to be a reliable option for Erickson.
The club makes another big addition through their recruiting class this year with Mariah Powers-Young joining up. A player with great pace who’s comfortable in both defense and attack, Powers-Young has been a Region IV ODP mainstay through the years and got her just reward in June with a call-up to the U18 national team. Given her pedigree and upside, Powers-Young will definitely find a place on the field this season, it just remains to be seen if she’ll be breaking into to this group. Oregon’s defense has a fine amount of depth and experience, along with a great leader in Libke, meaning this group should be above average at the very least.
Erickson should have no shortage of options available to her in midfield this season, with a youthful group eager to impress. Last year’s lynchpin was sophomore Shanelle Simien, who had come into Eugene with no shortage of plaudits from her club days. Simien would mostly live up to the considerable hype, starting every match for the club and generally showing a great degree of potential in the midfield. While Simien looks like a general lock to continue to feature, the key will be finding the right balance around her.
One of the few seniors in the midfield, Nicole Bakke has been a versatile asset for the club in three seasons thus far, starting thirty-nine matches on both the backline and in midfield. The burly Californian could provide veteran leadership in the starting lineup this year or end up serving as a valuable reserve in both defense and midfield. Sophomore Kelsey Foo was another accomplished youth player who came into the UO program with considerable hype and ended up seeing significant minutes as a rookie with twelve starts. She wasn’t a huge effect on the offense, not logging a point, but the former U15 international still has plenty of time to grow into her potential.
Fellow sophomore Allie Rodriguez was also heavily involved as a rookie, making thirteen starts and is yet another contender for starting minutes in a crowded group. Senior Mo Fitzgerald began her career at Boise State, catching some eyes with seven assists for the Broncos before transferring here before the 2010 season. A spot starter with the ability to knock in the odd goal here or there, Fitzgerald also led the team in assists last season with four. She’ll battle another sophomore who tallied nine starts last year, Georgia native Ryann Davie, for major minutes.
As if all those choices weren’t enough, the club adds Kira Wagoner to the mix as a part of this year’s rookie class. Great on the dribble, Wagoner can play on either flank and has shown well for San Juan Spirits in ECNL action as of late. This group has incredible depth but may still be waiting for that star figure to emerge to help drive this unit forward.
Goals will still be the name of the game for the Ducks, as they try and find a reliable outlet for offense to keep pace in the Pac-12 this season. The club must compensate for the loss of junior Julie Armstrong though. A full Canadian international by the time she came to Oregon, Armstrong never really developed for the Ducks though. Three goals and six assists was impressive as a rookie, but Armstrong struggled to be first choice after and finished with just four goals and three assists last year, though that was still good enough to leave her as the club’s leadings scorer, a designation that included three straight game winning goals early in the season. Also departing is Cody Miles, who oddly made the shift from former Pac-10 All-Freshman Team performer to reserve forward last season.
A Pac-12 All-Freshman Team selection from last season, Bri Pugh, could end up being the focus of the offense both in the near term and the long term. Pugh started fourteen matches as a highly touted rookie last season and tied for the team lead in goals with four, including three in league play. Pugh also missed four games early in the season, and you get the feeling the best is yet to come for the second-year striker. Senior Maddy Mercier seems a good bet to partner her after breaking into the starting lineup last season. A reserve for almost all of her first two years with the club, Mercier ended up starting eighteen matches last season, scoring three goals in her junior year, with a pair going down as game winners.
Junior Brynne Konkel had a pair of game winning goals as a rookie in 2010 and held down a starting spot late last season after missing most of the first two months of the season. She was kept mostly silent offensively though and may have to fight for starting minutes within this group. Senior Kelsey Hones had been a starter in 2010, chipping in with three assists, but had been a reserve early last season when she was felled by a serious knee injury. She should be back and looks like a top option off the bench, along with sophomore Ally Aschbacher, who saw action off the bench in almost all of the club’s games last year and managed to score against Colorado in league play.
The club also makes another exciting addition in the form of former Oregon Gatorade State Player of the Year Maryn Beutler. Touted by Erickson as a top notch playmaker, Beutler could well slide into an attacking midfield role to serve as a supply line to the forwards if necessary. There’s a fair amount of depth here, but it’s all a matter of Pugh or someone else developing into the ten-plus goal a year striker the club so desperately needs right now.
You can understand the reprieve that came Erickson’s way after last season when you take into account just how young Oregon were last season and what they had had to replace in the lineup. But such reprieves aren’t likely to be repeat occurrences, especially with the Ducks brass likely looking for the club to impress in their beautiful new facility. Inexperience isn’t such a readily available excuse now, and while the club is still miles away from challenging the likes of Stanford and UCLA at the top of the league, improvement is both necessary and possible.
Erickson’s last two recruiting classes have given the club a solid talent base, but Oregon is still searching for that star that all top clubs need to propel them to glory. In the meantime, this year’s Ducks squad has plenty of potential to grow into and should aim for lower mid-table in the Pac-12 and ten wins overall at bare minimum.