LAS CRUCES, N.M. (July 31)-The New Mexico State soccer program enters its fourth year when the team begins practice for the 2012 season Wednesday, Aug. 1, with two sessions at 7-9 a.m. and 6-8 p.m.
The Aggies have 22 returning players on the roster including nine starters, and they welcome five newcomers to a squad that won a school-record 10 matches in 2011. NM State returns to the field after making its second WAC Tournament appearance in three years and winning its first postseason contest last year.
Head coach Blair Quinn is eager to begin his second season with the Aggies after a successful inaugural campaign.
"I'm excited for it," Quinn said. "We lost only a couple of players from last year's team, and we are bringing in five new players. I think preseason will go a little bit quicker in terms of the teaching aspect. We are only teaching five new players, and we have the entire team to help us teach that as opposed to us teaching all of the players."
With the transition to his system complete, Quinn anticipates achieving many preseason staples quicker than a year ago.
"We always start with defending," Quinn said. "The bottom line is you can't give up goals, if you are going to win soccer games. We'll start in the back on Wednesday and literally defend one versus one. It's a building-block process, and the first block is always defending in small numbers."
Following a very successful 2011 season, Quinn believes the teams is taking their expectations for the season to a new level.
"This is a unique senior class for most of the country in that they started a program as freshmen," he said. This is a chance for them to have all that hard work and effort and growth come to fruition and have a fantastic senior year. We broke records last year but there are a lot of records to break or things we haven't done as a program that they want to do. So I think that first and foremost they want to win the WAC and go to the NCAA Tournament."
The Aggies have two experienced goalkeeping returning to anchor the defense. Junior Jessica Schutter started seven games last year and recorded a pair of shutouts, while redshirt sophomore Mikaela Bitner is back after missing the 2011 season due to an injury. Bitner started in 11 contests in 2010.
"It's very similar to last year that we have two healthy goalkeepers again," Quinn said. "It's a wide open battle. We have Jessica Schutter, who we know. She played a limited role early on last year, and she came on really big for us when we needed her the most at the end of the year. She's a known commodity, which is a good thing. Mikaela Bitner, who I know very little about, because but the time I got here last April I had one practice with her and then she tore her ACL the week after we were done. She wasn't able to get back into this year's spring training because of some complications with the knee. This will be our first chance to see her full go. I haven't seen her at 100 percent yet. I think that will be an interesting battle."
The Aggie defenders are a veteran core with seniors Courtney Irwin, Vanessa Thomas, Megan Hendler and junior Mickey Giles. Sophomores Alexys Brownell and Katelyn Smith and freshmen Mikaela Haley and Tatiana Raygoza could also contribute.
"The back line is pretty solid, Quinn said. "I don't anticipate many changes from last year. I think there are a couple more people in the mix to play more, which is exciting for me.
"We made a swap at the center back position with Elise Nordin and Amber Harrington," he said. "We think their qualities were better served to switch them individually speaking what they bring. But Amber started with an injury in the spring and wasn't able to get on the field with us, and so she's going to have to pick that up very quickly to make that work."
Quinn believes the Aggies' depth at midfielder is significant this season with Nordin, senior Lauren Cope, juniors Daisy Hernandez, Mary Kate Koziol and Olivia Sierra along with freshmen Miranda Valdez and Cat Acosta.
"I think our midfield spot is really our deepest and most talented spot overall," he said. "Daisy can play the holding mid spot that Elise plays plus she is a great attacking mid. Katie Smith is a very, very technical and talent attacking center mid. Mary Kate Koziol is a great attacking threat. She improved a ton in the spring in terms of her positional understand and her ability to finish for us. I think Miranda Valdez is a freshman that is competing for minutes. She is a very technical and talented player. Lauren Cope is a senior that probably is pound for pound is the most hard-nosed on the team, toughest on the team regardless of her size.
Senior Yolanda McMillion leads the returning NM State forwards after a second team All-WAC selection in 2011.
"We bring back, I think, one of the most dangerous players in the conference in Yolanda McMillion," Quinn said. "She has great pace. I know she spent a lot of time working on cleaning up her technique so she's a little more dangerous in front of goals. She creates a lot of chances, and we asked her and put it on her a little bit to be more successful and finish those chances. I think she took that to heart and has made a great effort to improve that."
The forwards also have returning goal-scorers in senior Cassie De Leon and sophomores Bree Luhrsen, Jennae Cambra, Layla Todd, Katelynn Tupponce and Meghan Gerry along with freshman Samantha Sandoval.
"Bree Luhrsen is very technical, target type of forward, and we're hoping to get her into the system a little more and getting her to interchange and not just play central because she is very good on the ball," Quinn said. "The one senior we are replacing in Cassandra Branch played a lot out wide and a lot of times on the left. So that's an opening that a lot of people could fill. We have Layla Todd, Jennae Cambra, Samantha Sandoval, who is left-footed freshman similar to Jennae. Cassie De Leon we have typically used in the center, she is an option to play out wide in that role. We have Katelynn Tupponce who also plays that central role that Bree plays."
This year also marks the first season that Aggies have a soccer-only facility, which is located between the Coca-Cola Weight Center and the NM State Softball Complex.
"We are super excited to be playing in our own home now," Quinn said. "We are going to have a full-sized soccer stadium that exceeds NCAA expectations. We have brand-new goals, new stands, new benches that are covered with the NM State logo, and I think it is going to be exciting for the players to have a home field and their own place. The senior group gets to go out not only leaving a mark on the program, but also having played the first ever games in the Aggie soccer stadium."