Defense is keeping NAU soccer post-season hopes alive

Lauren Weaver has turned into the Lumberjacks’ biggest weapon.  And she has done it while being restricted to an area no bigger than seven feet deep and 21 feet wide.

At 5’6″, the junior goalkeeper for the Northern Arizona University women’s soccer team is small in stature – especially for a goalie that needs all the length she can get – but she has been playing much bigger than her size lately.

Weaver has posted double-digit saves in three out of the last four matches and is a big reason NAU still has a shot at post-season play.  That’s because the Jacks are having difficulty this season putting points on the board;  they have just nine points in 14 games.

But the athletic Weaver has managed to balance things out by keeping the other team from scoring as well.

The last two games were critical to NAU’s post-season hopes and, while they didn’t get beat in either game, neither did they put anything up in the win column, playing to 0-0 ties against Portland State and Sacramento State.

The shutouts made it five in the last six games, thanks in large part to Weaver’s play in the net.

She notched 12 saves in Friday’s game against Portland State – making her just the sixth goalkeeper since the program began in 1997 to record at least 12 saves in a game – and then came back Sunday and contributed 10 saves against Sacramento State.

Last year, she put up 105 saves, the fifth-best single-season total in program history.

“We’ve buckled down on defense,” said head coach Andre Luciano after the last game.  “We’ve figured out who our four backs are and, once again, Lauren made double-digit saves.  I told the team we’ve figured out how to keep ourselves in games defensively and we’re just really young going forward offensively.”

The Jacks (4-6-4) graduated four of their five top scorers from last season and now the only returning offensive weapon is sophomore midfielder, Sarah Tarver, who recorded two goals last season.  This season’s roster is loaded with young, but inexperienced talent, as 21 of the 29 players are underclassmen.

The defensive back line is where NAU has the most experience – which is paying off this season.  Georgia Folz, a fifth-year senior, captains a back line that includes juniors Alana D’Onofrio and Shawnee Morgan.  It includes a trio sophomores – Diane Buzzard, Mary Harrah, and Emily Roth – but all three started at least six games last year.

Buzzard is one of three Flagstaff natives on the roster.  She was selected to the All-Arizona Team in her senior year at Flagstaff High School and also competed on the track team as a hurdler.

The presence of these local athletes on this year’s squad might help explain the exceptionally good attendance the team gets for its home games.  It certainly can’t be the thrill of a high-scoring offense that brings them out.

NAU has averaged 1,006 fans per game through its first five home matches, which puts them at No. 20 nationally in that category, and two of the games pulled in enough fans to qualify as two of the top-10 attendance marks in school history.  The 2,207 that showed up for the home opener against Arizona State set a school record.

Two of the final four conference games left on the schedule will be played in the Skydome, but one of the four will be against the conference leader, Northern Colorado – and that one will be on the road.

“We have a bunch of fighters on our team,” says Luciano, as he assesses the last stretch of road.  “Our youth shows going forward, but our mentality and hunger to stay in games is there right now, and that’s the most important thing.  We still have four conference games left to pick up 12 points.

“I think the most important thing for us is to take it one game at a time and focus on the next match.”

That would be an afternoon game tomorrow against North Dakota, in Grand Forks.

This should be a chance to pick up some much-needed scoring.  North Dakota is on a seven-game losing jag that stretches back more than a month to their last win.

And Weaver might even get a little much-deserved rest.  The Fighting Sioux have scored just three goals over those seven games.

Which also means this game has the potential to be a real snoozer.

(Photo: NAU Athletics)