AWK’s 2012 NCAA Soccer Preview – New Mexico – Lobos Set to Wield Defensive Steel

Kelli Cornell

New Mexico Goalkeeper Kelli Cornell Will Be One of The Nation's Top Netminders & Crucial to Lobo Hopes

Preview Index

General | Conference Realignment Breakdown | Final 2012 Recruiting Class Rankings | Early 2013/2014 Recruiting Class Rankings

Big Sky | DI Independents | SWAC

Big XII – Oklahoma
Big East – Cincinnati | DePaul | Pittsburgh | Rutgers | Seton Hall | South Florida | St. John’s (NY) | Syracuse | Villanova
Big Ten – Indiana | Nebraska | Purdue
Mid-Majors – Florida Gulf Coast | Rice
Pac-12 – Arizona | Arizona State | Colorado | Oregon | Utah | Washington
SEC – Arkansas | Mississippi State | Ole Miss
WCC – Gonzaga | Loyola Marymount | San Francisco

New Mexico may well be a program in a metaphorical limbo at the moment. The Lobos proved last season that they have grown into the indisputable class of the field in the Mountain West, a title that figures to become even more stark once San Diego State moves to the Big West. Even the murmurs of a merger with Conference USA doesn’t seem to be able to push New Mexico from its throne at the moment, with most of the power teams from that conference heading out to the Big East. But UNM is still searching for that spark to take the next step as a program and join regional mid-majors like UC Irvine and Long Beach State as significant threats on the national stage.

The Lobos’ ascent took a while, a long while if you’re being picky, but they finally arrived in 2010 and cashed in on its burgeoning potential. If you only knew about the Lobos from the rather unfortunate thirty seconds played ad nauseam on ESPN towards the end of the 2009 season, you might have missed the slow development of a a real quality side out in the desert. Not that it’s been easy or quick in coming. Current Lobos head coach Kit Vela came to town in 2001 after John DeWitt’s reign had tapered out with a whimper and was tasked with taking the New Mexico program towards new postseason heights.

It looked an astute hire by the Lobos after a few years when Vela got UNM up to 12-8-1 and to the Mountain West Tournament title match. But the Lobos’ development then went into stasis as Vela struggled to build a program with the talent and depth to contend in the upper reaches of a conference dominated by behemoths BYU and Utah. After a string of relatively innocuous seasons that finished up just above .500, New Mexico looked to finally be making something happen in 2009 after starting out 6-0-0 and going unbeaten in their first ten. But an upset loss in Albuquerque to Northern Arizona eroded at the Lobos’ confidence and their form was largely indifferent through Mountain West play. And then after an opening round win in the Mountain West Tournament against Wyoming, the Lobos ran up against league heavyweights BYU, prompting the unpleasantness that would be fodder for water cooler talk around the nation.

Given that embarrassment to the program and the general lack of success of the Lobos in breaking their long postseason duck, Vela might have been feeling a little heat going into the 2010 campaign. She wouldn’t be a little more than three months later. The Lobos began the new season on a flyer and would never look back. UNM shocked the nation by destroying Nebraska, 3-0, in their second match and drew with fancied Wisconsin-Milwaukee on the road less than a week later. The Lobos would prove they were for real two days later with a gritty, battling 1-0 win over Marquette on the road.

The league title followed a few months later, with New Mexico vanquishing rivals BYU at home in front of a raucous crowd that may have been a tipping point for the program. The double would elude the club as BYU got revenge in the Mountain West Tournament final, but New Mexico still earned an at-large bid to their first NCAA Tournament. A nightmare draw against Notre Dame did them no favors, and the Lobos would go home after a heavy defeat to the eventual national champs.

With a long and arduous road until league play started last year, New Mexico set their sights on getting a statement win in non-conference play as the new year began. An opening draw against St. Mary’s (CA) wasn’t quite what was expected though, and New Mexico would find themselves coming oh so close many times but failing to put together the complete performance to bring home that big win. The club lost by one goal to Florida State, Oregon State, and Washington, all away from home, while also drawing at Aalbama. The club did manage to beat Oklahoma, but given the Sooners’ struggles, it was relatively little to crow about.

The tough non-conference slate had seemed to take a toll on the club and hadn’t provided any big wins, meaning the Lobos were likely looking at auto bid or bust for the NCAA Tournament. Just one win in their opening three in the league put the club’s title bid in jeopardy, but the team exploded for three straight wins to close out the regular season, pipping San Diego State to lift their second straight league title. The conference tournament was always going to see New Mexico as assured favorites since it was being held in Albuquerque. They handled UNLV in the semi-finals before coming up against a Wyoming team they had drawn with in the regular season.

New Mexico would finally make the postseason breakthrough they had been yearning so long for, winning 2-0 and earning a return to the NCAA Tournament. Again though, they’d be done no favors by the Selection Committee, being paired with UCLA in the opening round. New Mexico would slow the Bruins’ potent offense down, including holding USWNT’er Sydney Leroux to just one off-target shot, but the Pac-12 side would find a way in the middle of the second half, scoring off a rebound. New Mexico’s offense had little to offer on the night against the tough Bruin defense though, and the Lobos fell, 1-0.

Vela’s side certainly had much to celebrate at the end of the season, their two trophies an indication that they’ve become the dominant force in the league. But at the same time, you have to wonder if UNM’s become a big fish in a small pond.

The Lobos will hope that it’ll be like shooting fish in a barrel this season in the new look Mountain West, but they have to get their own house in order before entertaining thoughts of a third straight trip to the NCAA Tournament. New Mexico keep an incredibly settled side in the starting lineup last season, with eight players starting every match, ten starting at least nineteen games, and just twelve starting ten or more.

The bad news is that the Lobos have to replace five of those twelve this season. The losses are far from inconsequential either, as the club’s leading scorer, Jennifer Williams departs after another brilliant season with fourteen goals to her name. With nobody else even managing five goals, there could be some serious concerns in front of goal for the club. Especially given the subsequent loss of Jael Fanning, the supply line to many of those Williams goals, and a player coming off an equally splendid senior season with ten assists to her name.

The Lobos have also made their name with defense these past few seasons though, and last season’s unit gave up just fifteen goals in twenty-one matches on the season, including just three in six league games. This unit does get their key piece back, with goalkeeper Kelli Cornell, the reigning Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year. Cornell’s a good bet to be one of the nation’s best senior keepers this season and will be vital to the club’s hopes for success.

Goalkeepers

With the graduation of Williams, New Mexico’s star figure now is the imposing Cornell in goal, one of the nation’s very best netminders, who’ll be looking to add to her collection of winner’s medals and personal honors as a senior this year. Cornell may have redshirted her freshman season in 2008 but has since been one of the leading lights for the Lobos, really beginning to come on in the title winning 2010 season. It was probably hard envisioning Cornell topping a season in which she was the league’s Defensive Player of the Year, but she just about managed it last year, winning the honor once more as New Mexico achieved the double.

Cornell figures to be one of DI’s top keepers again, benefitted no doubt by playing behind what looks like a stout defense once again. She will likely be doing all of the heavy lifting herself this season, because the only cover for her currently listed on the roster is redshirt freshman Cassie Ulrich.

Defenders

New Mexico’s defense was more than solid last year, and considering the depth of some of the questions in attack, they’ll probably have to be just as stingy this season for New Mexico to contend for honors. The good news is that the club should return all but one of last year’s rearguard. The lone expected loss is of veteran Roxie McFarland, who was sparsely used as a freshman but then ended up being a rock at the back for the next three years, starting every match possible. Though losing such a veteran always hurts, there’s still plenty in reserve for the Lobos.

Likely taking the mantle of veteran leader of the defense this season is senior Lauren Irwin, another who ended up blossoming into a starting role after a nondescript freshman season. Irwin has started every match the past two seasons and earned All-Mountain West Second Team honors for her troubles last year. Joining her last year was junior Liz Nare, who in contrast, was thrown right into the fire as a rookie and did exceedingly well, starting every game as a rookie. Nare improved still last year, earning the aforementioned honor from the league and looks like having the potential of being one of the league’s best defenders going forward.

Classmate Brooke Ellison is likely to be the third sure thing on the back line after starting all but one game last year. Ellison showed immediate signs of being quality as a rookie, with a pair of assists in fourteen starts and made the step up into a full-time starting role last year. The big question obviously is who makes the move into McFarland’s vacated starting role. Senior Sinead Fleming is likely to get a look after mainly being a reserve last year. Fleming started six matches as a sophomore though, so starting minutes are not totally foreign to her.

A former U15 international, true freshman Tera Trujillo has been described by Vela as a player with “a warrior’s mentality” and should see action somewhere, even if it’s not in defense this year. Despite the loss of the solid McFarland, Nare and Irwin are two of the league’s best, and this unit should again be one the stifles many an attack this season.

Midfielders

Many of New Mexico’s problems this season will probably come from the midfield, where the club has to patch a whole bunch of holes heading into 2012. The loss of Fanning, who began her college career with modest expectations and ended it as one of the Lobos’ best players, is especially detrimental given the losses further forward. Fanning showed some flashes of great talent with six assists in 2009, but expectations had been tempered by a junior season which saw just one assist. Ten assists last year though was a great return to form, with two assist performances against Cal State Bakersfield and New Mexico State highlighting the season.

Also gone from the starting core is Zaneta Wyne, who began her career listed as a defender but ended up being a livewire in the attack, scoring thirteen career goals for the Lobos while ending up in the starting lineup for most of the last three seasons. Though she, like Fanning, ended up with All-Mountain West Second Team honors last year, Wyne’s offense slumped to a certain degree, with just a goal and an assist to her name. A further loss is Amanda Collins, who had started every game her first three years on campus and looked to be on course to do so again in 2011 but ended up being very limited in the second half of the season, missing almost all of it, in fact. Depth also takes a blow with the loss of Australian Gianna Cavuoto, who suffered through injury woes her last two seasons with the club, along with fellow reserves Heather Williams and Natalie Zeenni.

With all those losses, Vela will be desperate for what little experience returns to come up big this season. Senior Rachel Montoya looks to be the veteran link to those past few teams of the Lobos, having started every match last season following two years as a reserve. Montoya can add some offensive pep into the UNM attack as well, after a strong three goal, four assist season last year. Junior Elba Holguin looks like another contender for major minutes after something of a mini-breakthrough last season. Holguin was seldom used as a rookie but managed ten starts for the Lobos’ midfield last season.

Beyond that duo though, it’s likely going to be reserves and rookies. Senior Shelbie Luna is the veteran head with three years of reserve experience and a couple of assists last season, but she’ll face stern competition from junior Brianna Webster and sophomores Brianna Martinez, Ashley Espinoza, and Alexis Leyba. Webster and Martinez in particular could be worth watching after the pair combined for five goals last season despite starting just one match between the two of them.

Watch out for true freshman Dylann O’Connor as well. The rookie has impressed for Real So Cal in ECNL action and could find a quick home in the starting lineup this year given the upheaval in the midfield. Though the club has it’s fair share of options for replacements, it’s tough to see this group not taking a step back without Fanning and Wyne in the lineup.

Forwards

Williams, as the team’s primary scoring threat, is going to take some replacing by the Lobos. Closing out her career with back-to-back Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year awards, Williams first made a namer for herself with ten goals and seven assists in 2009, including a whopping seven game winning goals. She would push on after that season and truly saved her best for last last season, with a fourteen goal campaign, including braces against Oklahoma, Air Force, and TCU. Williams scored eight goals in the last seven games before the NCAA Tournament, and astonishingly was never held without a shot on goal in any game through the entire season.

It goes without saying that the Lobos face an uphill climb in replacing her this year. First in line to replace her could be fifth-year senior Natalie Jenks. Jenks did not play at all her first two seasons with the club before scoring three goals as a reserve in 2010. She’d go better in 2011 though, with four goals and three assists as she started nineteen games, with all of her goals coming against Mountain West foes. If she can carry over some of that late season form into the new year, then the drop off from Williams’ departure might not be so steep. Senior Stephanie Rowe was in and out of the lineup last year but did manage a pair of goals down the stretch and could also get a look along with fellow reserve Maddie Olguin, a sophomore.

The wild card could be senior Jordan Craig, who got a sixth year of eligibility thanks to medical hardship after missing all of last season. Craig hasn’t been a big minutes player but did score three goals in 2010 as a top reserve and could theoretically work her way into major minutes this season. The likes of Jenks and Craig have potential to knock a handful in this season, but replacing the production of Williams doesn’t promise to be easy.

Outlook

The last two seasons for New Mexico have inevitably raised standards in Albuquerque to the point that the Lobos should realistically be contending for honors every season in the watered down Mountain West. But it’s not going to be a walk in the park by any means for Vela’s charges this season after the losses the club suffers to graduation.

While the defense still looks to be in great shape, the offense takes some serious blows with the loss of Williams and Fanning, and the replacements will have to up their game for this group to defend their league and conference tournament titles. But that defense, with Cornell the leading figure in goal, should be good enough to see New Mexico in with a chance against most opponents, with the Lobos having a fairly good shot at making their third straight NCAA Tournament appearance.

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