It’s not unfair to say Linfield endured its share of growing pains during the 2016 season. But even while featuring as many as eight freshmen on the field at times throughout the year, the Wildcats unquestionably built a solid foundation for the future and managed a top-three finish in the Northwest Conference.
Finding the right combinations and building chemistry among such a young but talented squad was a season-long challenge. But once that happened, the ‘Cats achieved success, ending the year with three straight victories and wins in four of the last five.
The late surge allowed Linfield to move into a share of third place in the final NWC standings and notch one more league victory, topping last season’s performance in both areas. Among those last three contests was a 1-0 overtime triumph over Whitman, Linfield’s first in 12 extra-period battles dating back to the 2014 season.
“We consistently got better throughout the entire year,” Cole McCool said when reflecting on his third season as head coach. “We talked about having a mindset of improvement and not necessarily worrying about reaching certain standards as far as wins and losses. It was more about getting better each time we went out, and we absolutely did.”
McCool commended seniors Kendra McSheridan, Dani Nurmi and Karlee Willcox for their ability to provide leadership for Linfield’s young squad, quickly bringing them up to speed on the rigors of collegiate soccer. Nurmi and Willcox also combined for five of Linfield’s 20 season goals.
“It’s a lot to ask them to lead 18 underclassmen when they are the minority,” McCool said of the departing seniors, adding, “They don’t get to enjoy the payoff from the work that’s been put in. It’s tough for them to keep that awesome attitude when they’re not going to see the benefit.”
Dealing with various injuries to key veterans and striving to maintain high levels of energy and effort on the field, Linfield’s greatest point of maturation and growth came in the midst of a long road stretch, when ‘Cats played six consecutive and seven of eight away matches. With the lineup solidified and invaluable experience gained by the freshmen, Linfield was able to relax and play its best soccer at the end of the year.
“Our ability to adjust tactically, with leaders going out all the time, was pretty impressive,” McCool said. “Once we figured out the right pairing at the back and in the midfield three, we were a lot better.”
In addition to its senior leaders, Linfield benefited from and built around its key veterans:second-year goalkeeper Sarah Bailey, NWC honorable mention defender Annie Ferguson and second team all-league selection Shelby DeRocher, an unselfish, big-time utility player who started in eight different positions throughout the year.
Much can be said about Linfield’s talented freshman class, which contributed in multiple areas of the pitch. Taylor Cole, the Northwest Conference Freshman of the Year, led the Wildcats with four goals, three of which were game winners. Mary Cait Moriarty added two more goals, including an eye-popping 40-yard free kick, and a team-best four assists.
Fellow rookies Natalie Amara, Bailey Cameron, Amidee Colleknon, Lexi Kerr and Carole Thomas also factored heavily into the team’s success.
Statistically speaking, the Wildcats yielded about as many goals (22) as they scored (20) en route to their 8-9-3 overall record. It was a relatively quiet year for Linfield, known in recent years for its prolific offense, as the team focused on building for the future.Integral to the program’s development: determining the appropriate roles and opportunities to contribute for each player, and a true understanding of the amount of work it takes to win against every team, top to bottom, in the competitive Northwest Conference.
“We took our bumps and bruises based on results, but the actual strides the team took were pretty massive,” McCool said. “We probably won’t see the fruit of that for another year or so. It’s all about building.”