20210123 WSOC v Eastern -CMcInelly

Gonzaga Women's Soccer matched up with Eastern Washington University on in a season-opening exhibition game on Jan. 23.

After 450 plus days of practicing and waiting, the Gonzaga women’s soccer team will finally get the opportunity to compete. With the fall season cut altogether due to COVID-19, head coach Chris Watkins and the team look to bounce back from a season that brought promise and ambition to the future of GU women’s soccer. 

Last season, the Bulldogs were 12-6-1 on the year and 5-3-1 in conference play. Headlined by the play of then seniors Madeline Gotta, Samantha Heilman and India Jencks, the Zags now look to continue from last year’s play with veteran leadership this season. Led by captains Jordan Thompson and Sophie Braun, the senior defender and junior midfielder, along with the rest of the team are excited just to get out on the field and play some soccer.

Thompson was recently named to the pre-season All-West Coast Conference (WCC) team. Surprised by the honor, Thompson said she’s looking forward to the challenges that will come this season, looking to capitalize on every chance they get.

“I wasn’t expecting it at all,” Thompson said. “I think it’s just a testament to the program and to the team and to the coaching staff itself. I’m just one player and I don’t make or break anything. Everyone around me is what makes a team and what makes a season.”

Along with the veteran presence on the team, 13 freshmen will be added to the roster this season. Veteran players include Maggie Conners, Payton Stiles, Maddie Cooley and Haley Archuleta.  The younger players include names like Erin Healey and Lauren Elwer. The mix of veterans and underclassmen representation on the squad this season will be something to look at going forward.

Even though the Zags lost their top goal scorers last season, Watkins said this is still an extremely talented team. 

“We’re so excited,” Braun said. “It feels like it’s been a super long time, and it has been a super long time, but we’ve been able to keep training for the past year and a half since we’ve played a game. It’s been really cool to finally get the opportunity to actually prove that we’ve grown and that we’ve improved and to be able to reap the benefits of all the training. We’re really excited and we can’t wait.” 

Prior to the team’s matchup on Feb. 3 against Dixie State, Watkins said the team had only been able to play 11 vs. 11 within the team for only a month or so. The team would only practice 3 vs. 3 when the pandemic first started, only having a total of six players at training at a time. Abiding by all the guidelines set by the county, the university and by the WCC, Watkins said the team has been working every day for the past 450 days, as a team and individually, and now it’s time to get things going.

Watkins said this will be the first time in his time at GU that he will be coaching a relatively youthful team. Nevertheless, Watkins said it is still a very talented squad, and with that, expectations are high coming off a strong performance last season.

Coming off a fourth place finish last season in conference play, the Zags have challenges that come with the heightened play of WCC women’s soccer. Teams like the University of Portland, Santa Clara, BYU and Pepperdine will provide the Zags with much-needed tests throughout the conference schedule.

GU beat Dixie State 5-1 on Wednesday night to start the year, and before the start of conference play, the team will have a match against the University of Oregon Feb. 7. Braun said the matchup in Eugene will be a good test to see where the team is and how they will look to continue to build off that performance. 

Watkins and the Zags have patiently waited their time to play and now it’s finally time. Feeling relieved and thankful to have some normalcy by having the chance to play soccer, the GU women’s soccer program is poised to have a strong and competitive 2021 season.

“It’s hard to put into words,” Watkins said. “The girls have worked really hard, and all of us want life back to normal. This is just a little bit of normalcy for us… We’ve really enjoyed having the chance to go out and do what we love to do.”

Vinny Saglimbeni is a sports editor. Follow him on Twitter: @vinnysaglimbeni.

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