A UC Irvine women's soccer program coming off a pair of disappointing finishes the last two seasons, is facing an imposing start in 2014.
Coach Scott Juniper's Anteaters, who were eliminated in the semifinals of the Big West Conference Tournament and missed the last two NCAA tournaments after making NCAA appearances and winning conference titles in 2011 and 2010, open the season Friday at No. 10-ranked Santa Clara, which reached the NCAA quarterfinals in 2013.
Two days later, UCI visits defending national champion UCLA, ranked No. 1 in the preseason poll, before heading to Alabama for host Auburn (Aug. 29) and Indiana (Aug. 31) in the Auburn Classic. Indiana qualified for the NCAA Tournament last fall.
"We try to schedule as many tough teams as are willing to play us, at home or away," said Juniper, who enters his eighth season 16 wins shy of 100 for his career. "And we're anxious to get back on the field and set [last year's season-ending loss to UC Riverside] right."
That setback proved to be the wrong way to end the collegiate careers of All-Big West honorees Zoya Farzaneh (the Big West Defender of the Year in 2013), first-team all-conference forward Natalie Ledezma, and second-team all-conference picks Mady Solow and Jordan Bruce.
But there are six returners who started at least a dozen games last season, while goalkeepers Corey Tobin, a junior, and Jennifer Randazzo, a senior, have started 23 and 18 games, respectively, the last two years.
"With 13 new players, 43.4% of my roster is brand new," said Juniper, whose 2013 squad went 11-7, 6-2 in the Big West to finish second behind Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. UCI was picked second, behind Cal Poly in this season's conference coaches preseason poll.
"But I think we are very well-balanced this year and the seniors have done a great job in making sure we have an inclusive environment," Juniper said. "I think we are further ahead this year in terms of freshmen figuring out how not to play like freshmen. Some of the freshmen are unrecognizable as freshmen in training and a handful of them all have a chance to start this first weekend. If you roll that into the mix with the quality we have coming back, we're excited, for sure."
Foremost among the returners is senior forward Laura McGrail, a first-team all-conference honoree in 2013 who led the team with seven goals and 17 points (two points for a goal and one for an assist). She was joined by senior midfielder Cami Privett on the coaches' preseason all-conference team.
Midfielder Jenna Pellegrino was second-team all conference as a junior, when her three goals and nine points were tied for third-best on the team. Pellegrino is the only returner who started all 18 contests last season.
Midfielder Sammie James made the conference's all-freshmen team last season, while defender Haley O'Brien was an all-freshmen performer in 2012.
Juniper said James figures to share the defensive midfield spot with sophomore Jasmine Nickelberry, who played all 18 games last season (one goal and two assists), but did not start.
Adding dynamism up front, where Ledezma had five game-winning goals last fall and amassed 21 goals and 15 assists in three seasons after transferring from UCLA, will be Noel Baham, a freshman who redshirted at Santa Clara last season before transferring.
Baham, noted for her speed, had 25 goals and seven assists as a senior in 2012-13 at Redlands High, where she amassed 64 goals and 27 assists in four varsity seasons.
Bianca Frontino, a forward/midfielder played in 18 games and made seven starts last season after twice earning All-American honors at Santiago Canyon Community College in Orange. She had two goals and one assist in 2013, but is hungry for a breakthrough campaign, said Juniper, who saw her produce 24 goals and 21 assists in two junior college seasons.
Juniper said freshman midfielder Kiana Palacios, out of Mission Viejo High, could add to a balanced scoring attack.
On the back line, O'Brien and junior Alana Sooy are returning starters, while junior Clarissa Robles, sophomore Kelsey Texiera, and freshman Andrea Mensen are also candidates to start this season.
Robles started all three games for Mexico in the U20 World Cup over the summer.
Juniper said Alex Karlowitsch, a freshman out of Long Beach Millikan High, is another potential contributor in the midfield.
Tobin (1.26 goals against) and Randazzo (1.28) had three shutouts apiece last season and figure to share time once again, Juniper said.
"It's a double-edged sword," Juniper said of Tobin and Randazzo. "They can both step in with a lot of experience, but neither one knows who's going to start any given day. But I think overall, the competition is good for our training environment."
Juniper said PJ Woolridge (formerly at USC) and Danielle de Seriere, a former standout goalkeeper for the Anteaters, are quality additions to the coaching staff.
After playing its initial four games on the road, where UCI was 7-2 last season, including a win over then-No. 6-ranked BYU, UCI plays all seven of its September nonconference games at home.
The 'Eaters then open Big West play at UC Riverside on Oct. 9.