Lacing up for a national title defense
The Western women’s soccer team is coming off the program’s most successful season in its history. Now, as the 2017 season approaches, they must start all the way back at the beginning.
The Vikings avenged their 2015 national semifinal loss, when they defeated reigning champion Grand Valley State University 3-2 in the championship game last season. The Vikings, having been to the semifinals in three of the last four seasons, finally brought the title back with them to Bellingham.
For senior defender Sierra Shugarts, the beginning of last season was anything but historical.
“We actually lost our first two preseason games,” Shugarts said. “We were all kind of freaking out.”
That apprehension turned out to be short-lived, as the Vikings set numerous school and conference records, including 24-straight wins on their way to the program’s first national championship.
Now, they have a different bridge to cross, as the team begins a new season and attempts to defend its title.
“It’s all going to be mental from here,” Shugarts said. “I think our biggest competition is going to be ourselves.”
Competition amongst the team will be a formidable task. The Vikings are returning all but five players from last year’s team, which delivered the program’s first number one national ranking. They scored a school record of 2.64 goals per game, and allowed just 10 goals in 25 games. They also tied the Great Northwest Athletic Conference record of 17 shutouts.
Sophomore midfielder Jordyn Bartelson said she thinks such a successful season could lead to a championship hangover this year, but doesn’t anticipate it being a problem for this team.
“It’s all going to be mental from here. I think our biggest competition is going to be ourselves.”
Sierra Shugarts, senior defender
“I don’t think our group of girls are like that,” Bartelson said. “We play for the next, and always work hard. [We] have a great coaching staff that keeps us focused on the goal, which is to get better each game.”
The Vikings will be adding seven recruits, and embarking on a season where there will be new positions to fill on a different team from last year’s.
“A lot of people are going to have to step up. A lot of people are going to play in roles where they haven’t played before. It’s going to be a completely different team,” Shugarts said.
The Vikings must replace pieces from last year’s record-breaking season. Along with the incoming players, the returning players who may not have had as large of a role the previous season will get the chance to carve out significant roles for themselves on this year’s squad.
“Obviously we lost some really good players, but I think the freshmen coming in have really good pace,” Bartelson said. “They’re going to be good contributions to our team, and [for] a lot of the people that left, we had other players being put in those spots to take over.”
One way Shugarts thinks the team can start with a leg up on last year’s season is to come into this year’s with improved fitness levels, something she says can be difficult in the off season.
“It is really easy not to go out on a run, or on your day off not to recover,” Shugarts said. “I think it is going to be a huge factor that everyone comes in fit, so we don’t even have to worry about fitness and we can just play.”
Nevertheless, Shugarts’ goal for the season is no different from last year’s outcome.
“I think we should have a lot of energy, and I think, hopefully, the girls’ mindsets are to win again,” Shugarts said.
While every year is different, the Vikings will look to build off last year’s historical success. With a large amount of returning talent, they hope to make their fourth Final Four appearance in five years, and repeat as Division II Champions.