Opinion: Strengths and shortcomings of women’s soccer

Hailey Price bumps a soccer ball off her head during a game against UNC in 2021.

The 2021 Big Sky women’s soccer tournament was filled with massive upsets and close games. Strong teams like the University of Northern Colorado lost early while Cinderella story teams like Weber State University were able to make it to the championship game. With a new season coming, it’s time to take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of each team in the Big Sky conference.

University of Northern Colorado
Strengths: After their senior-led team lost unexpectedly early to Weber State in the Big Sky tournament, the Bears were forced to make moves. The team signed players like Alex Michael, Dylan Drennan, Maddie Smith and Olivia and Ellie Grayson. Led by head coach Tim Barrera, these young players are starting their careers under the leadership of the winningest coach in Big Sky soccer.
It’s hard to place where the Bears will land in the long run. Northern Colorado’s new roster will enter each match with unpredictability. The Bears also have home field advantage in the tournament next season.

Weaknesses: It’s impossible to look at this team and not think of what they’ll do without forward Lexi Pulley. The Big Sky Offensive MVP graduated. Their dominant core, consisting of Pulley, forward Taylor Bray, defender Maddie Duren and defender Erika Hall, is breaking up. Although a young team can make surprises, that senior leadership will be missed, especially during the tournament.

University of Montana
Strengths: Any team coming off a championship run carries confidence. The Grizzlies weren’t immune to losing great graduating players, but they were able to keep some of their key stars including goalie Camellia Xu, defender Allie Larsen and midfielder Sydney Haustein. Despite losing defenders Taylor Hansen and Caitlin Rogers, this defense still has what it takes to be elite in the Big Sky.

Weaknesses: The Grizzlies lost three of their best players in Hansen, Rogers and forward Taylor Stoeger. Although Montana has a good scorer in Haustein, they’ll need to find someone to help lead the offense if they want a shot at going back to back.

University of Northern Arizona
Strengths: After losing early in the tournament last year to Sacramento State University, head coach Kylie Louw’s Lumberjacks are poised to return with their high-powered offense this season. Last year’s team led in shots and were second in points. Midfielder Maddie Shafer will return next year along with star defender Abby Donathan.

Weaknesses: Obviously, Northern Arizona is also dealing with some of their best players graduating. Forward Sam Larberg and midfielder Mikhail Johnson won’t be returning this season. However, the Lumberjacks are also dealing with momentum issues. The team hasn’t won a Big Sky title in over eight years. This season, they’ll need to prove that they can handle the tournament to break their streak.

Weber State University
Strengths: The Wildcats made a statement in last year’s Big Sky tournament by reaching the championship game only to fall to the Montana Grizzlies by one goal. It was a success the team hadn’t seen since its regular season championship in 2018. With a good mix of returners and newcomers, the team looks poised to make noise in the tournament again under the direction of head coach Craig Sanders. The Wildcats also have star goalkeeper Mekell Moss returning next season along with defender Hailey Price.

Weaknesses: Like most teams, the Wildcats are losing elite players. Midfielders Sadie Newsom and Taylor Slack are hard to replace, along with the 9 other athletes they’ve lost. Without players like Newsom and Slack, the team will have to find a way to maintain their high-powered offense in 2022.

University of Idaho
Strengths: Finishing fifth in the Big Sky last season and losing 0–3 to Weber State early in the Big Sky tournament, the Vandals are likely to seed high in 2022. With an offense led by forward Jadyn Hanks, this team has the experience and veteran presence of a potential title contender.

Weaknesses: The Vandals will need to recover from the loss of goalkeeper Avrie Fox. Goalies Katie King and Hallie Byzewski will fill the position next season. Byzewski had a great game against CSU Bakersfield last year, but neither goalie has a lot of Big Sky in-game experience.

Sacramento State University
Strengths: The Hornets made the tournament by the skin of their teeth last season, but they made sure to do something with their spot as they beat Northern Arizona 1–0. Although it was a team with a lot of senior talent, two freshmen were able to stand out last season. Midfielder Abigail Lopez and forward Dana Restom will return this season, helping Sacramento State break its offense away from the middle of the pack.

Weaknesses: Sacramento State seemed to stay in the middle of the pack in almost every big statistical category last season. Losing most of their games by 2 points or more last season, the Hornets will have to strengthen their defense in 2022.

Eastern Washington University
Strengths: If any team that didn’t make the tournament last year has a chance at making a title run this season, it’s Eastern Washington. This team was too young in 2021 but comes into 2022 with depth and experience. Unlike their Big Sky opponents, most of Eastern Washington’s best players are returning next season, including their ace midfielder Madison Kem.

Weaknesses: The Eagles offensive production was lacking last season. They finished last in shots and 8th in goals. Becoming a high-powered offense is something Eastern Washington will have to do to make last season look like only growing pains.

Portland State University
Strengths: Like Eastern Washington, Portland State has their best players returning this season in midfielders Lucy Quinn and Sienna Higinbotham. It’s a team with a great amount of newcomers and returners that can make some noise this season.

Weaknesses: While their offense was middle of the pack last season, they’re defense was their weakness. The Vikings allowed the second most goals of any team in the Big Sky last season. Goalkeepers Enya Hernandez, Sidney O’Billovich and Natalie Cunningham will need to change the narrative if Portland State is going to succeed this season.

Idaho State University
Strengths: Idaho State was extremely young last season. Although they’re still a very young team this year, they’ve played together, giving them an advantage that most teams lack. Their lone Big Sky All-Conference team member Gabby Warta will return this season as a sophomore.

Weaknesses: This team is built more for 2023 than it is 2022. It’s still an incredibly young team that didn’t finish high in any category other than saves last season, and that was thanks to goalkeeper McKayla Wetsel who won’t be returning.. Idaho State has to finish in the tournament, or at least in tournament contention, to show that their current lineup is working.