Picked to finish first in the Northwest Conference, expectations for the Linfield women’s soccer program are clearly running high among outsiders. The same goes for the Wildcats themselves, who remain focused on capturing a league title regardless of favoritism or hype.
“Our goal stays the same: we’re out there to win a championship,” said head coach Dominic Doty, who has led the Wildcats to runner-up finishes and a record-breaking number of wins in each of the past two seasons.
Linfield must replace a couple of key contributors from last year, but retains a solid core that truly understands what it takes to compete for a conference title after coming painstakingly close twice before.
Offensively, the source of the Wildcats’ dominance (the team lead the league in shots and goals last season) is rooted its personnel: talented, deep and diverse.
Leading the attack are Emily Fellows, Linfield’s all-time leading scorer and two-time conference player of the year, along with Emma Vukic, a first team honoree in 2012 after tallying six goals in her first collegiate season. Veterans Tegan Grunwald, Jessie Hargett, Emily Ing and Marisa Specht are ready to assume greater roles, while Molly McCool is one of the most promising rookies.
The real beauty in Linfield’s offensive scheme lies in how well the Wildcats complement and work with each other, as opposed to competing for scoring opportunities. Linfield recorded assists on 25 of its 40 goals last season, with 13 different goal scorers and 12 assisters.
“We have a lot of creative, talented, explosive attackers, and each one of them has their own niche and strengths,” Doty said. “Different matches will call for different things. Different situations will call for different players.”
One commonality among the Wildcat front line is an increased focus on finishing at the net. Last season, the offense put more than 400 balls on frame, but converted just 40 of those for points.
“We do the hard part, which is creating the chances,” Doty said. “We didn’t lack opportunities (last season), we just lacked the final piece – the goal scoring piece – which hopefully we are going to tighten the bolt on this year.”
In the midfield, Linfield returns arguably one of the league’s top players in Lindzee Baker. A first team all-star who received votes as the conference defensive player of the year, the junior is counted on to do a lot of the dirty work to break up opposing attacks. Jalyn Halstead, Laurel Huth and Erin Harris also provide support in the middle of the pitch.
Lauren Pyrch and Regan Cox have big shoes to fill in the backfield with the loss of NWC Defensive Player of the Year Emily Allison to graduation, but the two are certainly up to the task. Kendra Howard and Ellie Schmidt also return, while senior Julia Vaughan could see increased action on defense after playing in the midfield for much of last year. Linfield’s experienced backfield should provide good leadership for newcomers like Erin Moller.
Three solid goalkeepers fill out the Wildcat roster. Taylor Collinsworth (0.49 GAA in 2012) is the incumbent starter, but senior Amy Hammerquist and sophomore transfer Kallina Haase are two talented keepers that add depth at one of the most important positions on the field.
“We have a good defensive core returning,” Doty said. “We’re confident with our back line in what they can do for us and how they can keep the ball out of our net.”
While most of Linfield’s roster remains the same, many players will assume different roles with regard to position, minutes or leadership. Preseason play, including matches against Warner Pacific, Howard Payne, Oregon Tech and Corban, provide good opportunities to test the waters before conference action gets underway Sept. 18 against Pacific. A date with 11-time defending champion Puget Sound comes early, falling on the first weekend of the NWC calendar.
Linfield was picked to dethrone the Loggers, but the Wildcats recognize that kind of recognition comes with a bulls-eye.
“People are coming after you,” Doty has warned his players, but assuming Linfield stays healthy and the shots go in, this could be the year the Wildcats bring home their first conference championship in women’s soccer.
“A lot of things have to go right to be there at the end of the season,” Doty said. “I’d like to think that we’re going to be there to fight for a championship again. I think we have the capability to be there and that’s our goal, without a doubt.”