After months of practice and preparation, Grand Canyon University‘s new head coach for women’s soccer, Derek Leader, got his first look Saturday at how his new team performs against real competition.
The picture wasn’t pretty.
University of California Riverside hosted the Antelopes, but weren’t at all hospitable. And it was a sophomore, Kyra Taylor, who did the majority of the damage, scoring two goals and assisting on another as the Highlanders rolled to a 4-1 victory.
Yes, it was just a pre-season exhibition game, but it was the ‘Lopes’ lone exhibition game of the 2016 season and will be their only chance to prepare for the season opener, just five days away. Their regular-season schedule begins this Friday with a game against Eastern Washington.
The cause for concern here is that UC Riverside should not have presented a difficult challenge. The Highlanders, who play in the Big West Conference, lost 11 letter winners from a 2015 squad that finished fourth in the conference. They lost their leading scorer, who graduated as the school’s career leader in assists and third all-time in goals scored, and their veteran goal keeper.
They were picked in the preseason to finish sixth in the conference.
GCU, on the other hand, is breaking in a new coach, but returns talent and experience.
Leader took over the GCU program in February, replacing Stevie Gill, who spent eight years directing the program and had guided it through the first three years of a four-year transition period as the school moves from D-II status to become a D-I program.
Gill was named the WAC Coach of the Year in 2014 when his team went 7-3-0 in conference play, but overall hadn’t been able to get any kind of consistent traction. Last year’s squad posted a 7-9-2 overall record, with just four conference wins for a fourth-place finish.
Leader was hired in February with a resume that shows more than 20 years of coaching experience, including four years as an NCAA D-I head coach and 12 years with the IMG Soccer Academy in Florida, where he was an assistant director and spent 12 years as the women’s team head coach.
This will be his third D-I conference in which he has coached. He spent the last three seasons as head coach at Georgia State, which plays in the Sun Belt Conference, and four more as associate head coach at SMU, a member of Conference USA.
He helped the SMU program to four straight conference tournament appearances and finished last season directing a Georgia State program that finished as runner-up for the Sun Belt Championship.
Despite returning nine of last year’s 11 starters, their leading scorer, and their veteran goal keeper, expectations for the ‘Lopes aren’t terribly high. They were picked in the preseason WAC coaches’ poll to finish fifth in the eight-team conference.
Junior forward Milla Benedetti was last year’s scoring leader with 16 points, seven goals, and 28 shots on goal. She will be key to the ‘Lopes offense in 2016 as well, but will be joined by a couple of other top scorers from last season, sophomore forward Deseree Doty and junior defender Madison Cox, who started all 19 games. They each were runner-up to Beneditti, with five goals apiece.
And on the other end of the field, the ‘Lopes will have Blakely Fraasch back in goal for her third season. The WAC Freshman of the Year in 2014, Fraasch combined with a strong back line last season to hold opponents to 1.61 goals against average and posted three shutouts.
There is also a newcomer on the roster that should help provide additional senior leadership. Alexis Roberts is a senior transfer from the University of Texas El Paso, where she played three seasons after graduating from Chandler High School.
Lots of talent. That’s the good news as Leader begins his inaugural season.
The bad news: the first three games on the schedule are on the road, through three different states.
Worse news: the season opener is against an Eastern Washington team that returns all 11 starters – including the reigning Big Sky Conference Offensive Player of the Year Chloe Williams – and set a program record last season with 12 wins.
Oh yeah, the Eagles won their exhibition game against British Columbia, 4-1.
Friday’s game won’t be the best way to ease into a new coaching job – but it should give Leader a good idea as to the size of the challenge that lies ahead.
(Photo: GCU Athletics)