NAU soccer to christen Lumberjack Stadium vs. Drake

The NAU women’s soccer team will open its  ‘like-new’ 1,000-seat stadium this Friday, when it hosts the Mortenson Mountain Classic.

However, the Lumberjacks won’t enter the inaugural game riding high, as expected.  Instead, they come into the match-up with Drake University limping along after an 0-2 start to the season.

Northern Arizona, which was coming off a 6-0-1 record in 2010 as the regular-season Big Sky Conference champion, was projected in the pre-season poll to again finish first in 2011.  Its conference success isn’t in jeopardy yet, but losses to Arizona State and Southern Utah have put a little tarnish on the lofty expectations.

Arizona State was the opening game and, despite winning only once in nine tries against the Sun Devils, was one the Jacks were hoping to use as a springboard this season, since they very nearly pulled off an upset last year when ASU squeezed out a 4-3 win.

But this time, they attempted just one shot during the entire game, just the second time that’s happened in the history of the program.

Instead of propelling the Jacks into the season, the 7-0 shutout dropped their spirits to the turf.  The win, in which the Devils exploded for six goals in the second half, tied a school record for most goals in a single game, a mark set twice by the 2000 ASU squad.

NAU tried to rally in its second game, which was against a Southern Utah team that also found itself the victim of an opening shutout loss.

Despite freshman Sarah Tarver‘s first career goal at the 48-minute mark, Southern Utah put another second-half beating on them to break a 1-1 tie and go on to win, 3-1.

It was the first time in 10 games that Southern Utah has been able to beat NAU.  The school is a member of the Summit League, but will be joining the Big Sky next season.

The Thunderbirds have a seasoned squad this year, as they return seven starters, four of whom are the top scorers from 2010.  NAU, on the other hand, puts 10 freshman on the field this season, including a local favorite, Diane Buzzard from Flagstaff High School.

Four of those rookies, including Buzzard and Tarver, will try to make up for the loss of two starters from last year’s defensive line.

The Jacks went into a more aggressive attack mode in the second game, with seniors Chelsea Bednarz and Jenna Samora getting shots on goal within the first 11 minutes and, later, sophomore Shawnee Morgan‘s shot was saved in the 78th minute and Sam Monahan‘s shot careened off the cross bar three minutes later.

When the dust settled, Southern Utah had outshot the visiting Lumberjacks, 14-9.

“I think we played with a little more urgency that we did against ASU,” said head coach, Andre Luciano.  “We’re just not quite there yet, physically and mentally.”

They will get their chance Friday to step up their game another notch when they take on Drake University (1-1) from the Missouri Valley Conference in the opener to the weekend tournament in Flagstaff.  The Bulldogs opened their season with a 2-0 loss against Iowa State, but rebounded to beat Green Bay, 3-1.

Southern Utah will also be on hand for the Classic, joining NAU, Drake, and Northern Iowa.

The opening game will be played in the renovated 49-year-old Lumberjack Stadium, which had been used over the years by the soccer team (NAU has no men’s soccer team) and the outdoor track teams, as well as providing a site for football training camp scrimmages by the Arizona Cardinals.  The NAU football team used it as home field for their games up until 1977, when the Walkup Skydome was built.

A major construction project to rebuild the stadium is part of a $106 million school renovation.

“It’s going to take us some time to get going into a positive direction,” adds Luciano.  “We’ve got some good young players with plenty of potential, but we just haven’t gotten into a rhythm.”

A win against Drake, in front of a cheering partisan crowd in a spanking-new home, may be just what they need to find that rhythm.

(Photo: NAU Athletics)