NAU soccer has a chance to grab AZ bragging rights

Something truly unique is about to happen in the Northern Arizona University athletic program, as the Lumberjacks women’s soccer team gets ready to play both Arizona State and the University of Arizona in the same season – the first time that’s happened in the history of the program.

The teams will meet up in a couple of weekend games in Lumberjack Stadium on the NAU campus.

But a whiff of something even more unusual is drifting through the clear Flagstaff air… a chance for the Jacks to secure bragging rights among the three Division I colleges in Arizona.

(*Opportunity lost:  The Jacks couldn’t find the net for even one score in either game, losing 4-0 to ASU and to UofA, 3-0.)

ASU, which earned a mediocre 6th place pre-season prediction in the Pac-12 coaches’ poll, just lost its opening game to Cal State Northridge, 1-0.  The Sun Devils posted a losing record last year (8-11) and are trying to work 13 newcomers into the program this season.

Arizona is almost a gimme.  After a 1-16-2 season last year, the Wildcats are projected to finish at the bottom of the conference standings this season.  They dropped their opener to Long Beach State, 1-2.

With that said, it needs to be pointed out that the Jacks didn’t fare any better in their opener, dropping Friday’s game with UNLV, 2-0.

Makes you wonder if a golden opportunity is about to slip away because NAU isn’t prepared to take advantage of their wounded Pac-12 prey.

The Jacks opened with a confidence-building 6-1 exhibition win over nearby Embry-Riddle University, outscoring the small Prescott school 25-14 and taking a 5-1 advantage in corner kicks.  But the loss to UNLV brought the squad back down to earth, as the Rebels bombarded freshman goalkeeper Natalie Gilbertson with five shots in the first 25 minutes and went into halftime with an 11-1 shot advantage, which accounted for both first-half goals.

UNLV certainly was expected to give NAU a better game than Embry-Riddle, but the Rebels won’t likely be one of the tougher teams on the 2012 schedule.  They finished 8-10-3 last year and return seven starters from that team, as the Mountain West coaches predicted a fourth-place conference finish this year for the Las Vegas school.

It was an especially difficult loss for the six freshman players on the NAU roster that hail from the Las Vegas area.  The loss put a damper on a much-anticipated collegiate debut that was also supposed to be a homecoming of sorts.

Gilbertson, the goalie, was one of the six that also includes Alexia Gonzalez, Syrina Lopez, Cassidy McLean, Sarah Pate, and Haley Wingender.  The group played with, and against, each other through years of club programs and high school seasons.

The NAU head coach, Andre Luciano, is a Las Vegas native who knew what we was getting by recruiting heavily in the area.

“I’m really excited for everyone to see what I’ve newly joined (here at NAU),” said Wingender before the UNLV game.  “I want everyone to see how good our team is and that we all came here together to prove a point as a unit.  We want to show our hometown what they produced.”

The 5’7″ forward from Bishop Gorman High School, who was named the Gatorade Soccer Player of the Year as a senior, had scored three of the team’s six goals against Embry-Riddle.

But the UNLV game wasn’t a true indication of the impact the six players will have on the Lumberjack program, which went 3-9-7 last season, because three of them are out of action right now as they try to recover from ACL injuries.

It may be expecting too much to be able to blend 15 newcomers into this year’s program this early in the season.  And 14 of those 15 are freshmen, which helps account for the middle-of-the-pack pre-season prediction in the coaches’ poll; they were tied for 5th with Sacramento State in the 10-team list.

Leadership for the young team – 21 of the 29 players are underclassmen – will come from senior Georgia Foltz, who returns for a fifth season after an injury cut short her 2011 season after just one game, and a pair of juniors who saw significant time last year, Alana D’Onofrio and Shawnee Morgan.

But if the Jacks want to scoop up the bragging rights for this year, they have just a week to re-group and smoothe off the rough edges on the blending effort before the Sun Devils show up on their doorstep Friday, followed by Arizona’s arrival Sunday.