With a mix of veteran players coming off two years of success and underclassmen with lots of potential, Gonzaga women’s soccer will take on one of the most high-profile schedules in program history this fall. They do so with an eye toward finishing near the top of the highly competitive West Coast Conference.
There will be no easing into the season for the Zags under third-year head coach Chris Watkins. After falling 2-1 in double overtime in an exhibition vs. Washington on Aug. 16, GU will open its regular season on today in Austin, Texas, against No. 19 Texas.
Texas will be the first of four Big 12 opponents on the road for the Zags. The team also will travel in September to play Kansas State, Nebraska and No. 14 Baylor.
“This year we play five ranked teams,” Watkins said. “Along with Santa Clara and BYU in our conference, we play three ranked teams in the nonconference season… It’s going to be a great challenge for us and great preparation for WCC play.”
Much of the team has the experience to deal with this stretch, as they played a similar road-heavy schedule last season. It is a necessary step to play more upper-tier teams, build the program and have those teams come back to Spokane as a part of home-and-home series.
“Our nonconference schedule is about as good as anyone in the country,” Watkins said. “In that way, it gives us a great opportunity for an [NCAA Tournament] at-large bid, which is the first time in a long time that has been the case for women’s soccer at Gonzaga.”
The road trips will be interspersed by a group of games at home. These matches include a matchup with a Washington State team that received votes in the United Soccer Coaches preseason poll.
This tough schedule gives GU an opportunity to make a strong case for making the postseason if it picks up favorable results in the nonconference and against high-profile WCC teams like No. 13 Santa Clara and BYU, who received votes in the polls.
GU’s WCC slate is backloaded with home matchups against Santa Clara and BYU, also the top two teams in the WCC preseason poll, in two of its last four matches.
The Zags have veteran players in place to help lead them through what could be their most challenging season yet. Preseason All-WCC midfielder India Jencks and senior forwards Sophia Viviano and Samantha Heilman will front what has the potential to be a potent offense.
“Our attacking group is very dynamic,” Watkins said. “We showed it in our first game in outshooting Washington. We just have to make sure that we are finishing those chances.”
The biggest area of concern for GU will be on defense. Much of last year’s defense, which included second team All-WCC defender Aria Pumpelly, graduated last spring. This will force young defenders to make an impact early.
Junior defender Jordan Thompson, who was named a team captain alongside senior forward Madeline Gotta, will play an important for a defensive unit that is inexperienced overall.
“Defenders don’t often get much praise, but in Jordan’s case, she’s a great player and also a spectacular leader—it’s deserved,” said Watkins. “She is going to be huge in rallying the back four and the defensive side of the midfield. If she can get the group down, we should be in great shape.” With Thompson at the head of the defense and redshirt junior Isabel Jones in her third year in goal for GU, there will be plenty of leadership around the young Zag defenders.
“When you have someone like Isabel who’s back for their third year as a starter, you should be able to expect her to win some games for us in goal,” Watkins said.
The familiarity among veteran players has allowed the Zags to hit the ground running in the preseason. Watkins focus for this year’s team is for every practice to be treated like a gameday. This will allow the team to be used to the focus and drive it takes to beat the tough teams on its schedule.
After a fourth-place finish last year, GU was tabbed to finish fifth in the WCC this fall, a pick that shows respect for what the program has built. However, that ranking can still serve as motivation to show what a team that has grown together for years can now accomplish.
“I think we have an established culture now,” Watkins said. “Our players know what to do on the field and where and where to do it. They know what we want from them and what our captains would like. That’s where we feel like we can finish higher in conference than expected.”