Stevens: Women's Soccer Team Wears the Target Now

Aug. 24, 2012

By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/

The expectations for Kit Vela's Lobos in 2012 are really self-inflicted. The Lobos created them with success. They earned them with excellence and titles. The expectations are high.

They are the two-time Mountain West regular-season champions. They earned the program's first ever automatic NCAA bid by winning the 2011 MW Tournament. They are back-to-back NCAA participants.

They are fit, fast, focused, motivated and deep. They accept what the past has created with an eye to do even better in the future called the 2012 season.

That's their nature.

"We have high expectations for ourselves," said senior keeper Kelli Cornell, the two-time Mountain West Defensive Player of The Year.

These Lobos also will be - and are -- targeted in 2012 a little bit more than they were in 2010 and 2011. That's what happens when you end up on top of the Mountain West's mountain; the block bully for consecutive years. And this year the coaches of the MW didn't snub the Lobos in preseason predictions. UNM was picked to win the 2012 title. The respect level is at the proper level.

"We are a blue collar team with some special players and that's never going to change," said Lobo Coach Kit Vela. "We have quite a good group of girls. We will be an exciting team to watch. Now, we have to go do it."

Two-time MW Defensive Player of the Year Kelli Cornell

The Lobos take to the 2012 pitch with seven seniors, who have helped forged the expectations of 2012 with exceptional work over the three previous seasons. They have won MW titles and played on NCAA pitches. They know what it takes.

They provide talent, experience and leadership.

"You need great leadership," said Vela. "You are always going to have obstacles. There are bumps in the road and without great leaders, bumps in the road can become monumental.

"We also have ten freshmen and they (seniors) have a lot of leading to do." Vela says this year's freshman class is clearly one of her best ever, but they are "young and raw." Senior Natalie Jenks says the 2012 freshmen, "Will be filling some big roles this season."

That probably will happen. But there is some experienced talent in front of those Lobo pups.

Jenks, Cornell, midfielder Rachel Montoya, defender Sinead Fleming, defender Lauren Irwin and forwards Jordan Craig and Stephanie Rowe are all seniors with three varsity letters on their resume.

These seniors will be on the field. But they will need some help. Vela has a solid junior class including Liz Nare (2 letters), Elba Holguin (2L), Brooks Ellison (2L) and Brianna Webster (2L). Alexis Leyba, a promising sophomore, has one letter. A number of the freshmen look ready to help early as D-I rookies, including Dylann O'Connor, Cassie Hanson, Annie Wheeler, Lindsey Guice and Alyssa Coonrod. A few others are close to cracking this talented and experienced lineup.

For sure, there are a few seniors and juniors, who will be tough to dislodge. Cornell is the two-time Mountain West Defensive Player of The Year and a rock in front of the net. Montoya, Irwin and Jenks all played more than 1200 minutes in 2011. Juniors Nare, Holguin and Ellison each played more than 1,300 minutes in 2011 and Webster got in a solid 743 minutes. Irwin and Nare started all 21 games last season.

Stephanie Rowe is one of seven seniors

"This team has been in place and we're not really changing the team," said Vela. "We're changing the look a little bit. (We're) very dynamic. We'll be coming from all over the place - very fit, probably the best team speed we've ever had." Of course, the Lobos lost one of the fastest Lobos ever in Jennifer Williams, the two-time Mountain West Offensive Player of The Year and UNM's leading scorer in 2011 with 14 goals. Jenks was second last year with four goals. There is a big hole to fill in a huge category.

Williams not only will be missed in the scoring column, but she also extended the field for the Lobos with her speed and she deflected defensive pressure off other Lobos. UNM's attack in 2012 might be more by committee and, as Vela said, "coming from all over the place."

UNM also lost Jael Fanning, Roxie McFarland and Zaneta Wyne, who all logged more than 1400 minutes in 2011 - McFarland with 1938.

UNM averaged 15.3 shots in 2011 and scored 1.76 goals per game. They gave up only 8.1 shots last season, allowing 0.71 goals per game. UNM got off 322 shots in 2011 and yielded 171. The UNM defense is expected to be an early strength in 2012 with the offense expected to improve steadily as chemistry is built during the season.

"It's going to be a good year," said Jenks, who also said one team goal is to get past the first round of the NCAA Tournament and then see what happens. Said Cornell: "We're looking to build off the foundation we have established the past couple of years. We're ready to compete and move forward."

Which is what Vela's Lobos have been doing for many years.