A close-knit, winning culture has been built within the Eastern Oregon University women’s soccer team.
And with most of the starters returning from a team that shared the Cascade Collegiate Conference title and picked up its first-ever win at nationals a year ago, players and coaches have every reason to believe this culture will continue in 2019.
“With the caliber of players we have and the team chemistry we already have, as long as we can keep that together, I think we’re capable of doing some nice things,” third-year head coach Jacob Plocher said.
Among the 14 returners for EOU are eight players who started 14 or more matches last fall for the Mountaineers, who went 16-3-2, shared the CCC title, reached the CCC tournament title game and secured a 2-1 road playoff win against Grace, Indiana, before falling in the round of 16 to eventual national champion William Carey, 3-0, at the final site in Alabama.
In that match with William Carey, EOU played to a first half draw, and senior goalkeeper Cydni Cottrell — who last year was a first-team all-CCC keeper — said Eastern saw what the next level of soccer looks like.
“In the first half of that game, we kept up with them, so we know what to expect now,” she said, adding that the team learned from that match about “the pace of how they play, and we know what kind of teams we’re going to be going up against (at that level).”
Plocher noted that there were times in the second half of that game when EOU made mistakes that William Carey took advantage of as it scored three goals.
“We played a good first 45 (minutes), and then had moments where we had lapses, and the great teams will make you pay for that,” he said. “We’re capable of being a great team, it’s just (eliminating) those lapses and letdowns. With this group’s focus so far and everybody’s buy-in, it’s hopefully another step we can take to improve our program.”
Mixing in with that group are a dozen newcomers, and Plocher believes several of them — even some of the freshmen — have an opportunity to see ample playing time this fall.
“We feel we have added four or five who could start. That just helps us with our depth,” Plocher said. “Anytime you can add competition to any position it just helps individuals get better and then the team gets better as a while. Iron sharpens iron, so to be able to have competition day in and day out at all positions hopefully will make our team able to play at the highest level.”
Josee Bassett, the reigning conference defensive player of the year, said the new Mountaineers have brought a heightened level of intensity to the team.
“It makes me want to work harder,” she said. “I feel like our incoming group, transfers and freshmen, have worked so hard, and I don’t think there’s a big gap between the starters, and the transfers and freshmen.”
The senior said one of the vital components of team success — chemistry — is being built more quickly than she’s ever experienced with any team she has been a part of at EOU.
“This is the fastest we’ve connected as a group,” she said. “Usually it takes a couple weeks to get in the groove of everything and get to know each other and our style of play, but I think this is the fastest we’ve clicked.”
Cottrell said that on a team retreat they did activities “to open each other up, and get people talking and connecting. If you bond together, then it’s easier to play with each other because you know the person, you know how to play with them on the field.”
Kara Gooderham, one of the freshmen, said the returners have already taken the new players in.
“I feel like I know all of them just as much as I know my old team,” the former La Grande standout said. “We have great team chemistry.”
In response to Bassett commenting that the freshmen are challenging the returners, Gooderham said, “I take it as a compliment, because if we’re making them better, that makes the whole team better, we’ll be better as a whole.”
EOU did lose a key component to the offense with the graduation of Taylor Boyer, last year’s CCC offensive player of the year, who scored 16 goals and added five assists.
But among the returners on the offensive side are sophomore Mackinley Gregus, who had 11 goals and three assists. Returners Morgan Farrington and Kaitlyn McLeod each added three goals a year ago, and Plocher said there is the potential for Eastern to be more well-rounded on offense this fall.
“It’s going to be more of a collective unit, but having some of our freshmen getting valuable experience last year and coming into a sophomore year where hopefully things slow down (and) they’re able to process things quicker,” he said. “Along with our transfers and incoming kids, (we’ll be) able to play a lot of different formations depending on what we need to get the desired result.”
Eastern also gets back senior Nan Kiebert, who played in only six games last fall, and among the transfers are two Division I additions — Alexis Jordan and Anna Hager.
EOU, which finished ranked 14th last season, will get a set of early tests against four teams who also finished in the top 25 last fall — No. 11 Hastings, No. 9 Midland, No. 10 Embry-Riddle and No. 25 Hope International. Those last two matches are at home on Aug. 30 and Sept. 10.
EOU’s matchup against No. 15 Northwest, which defeated the Mountaineers in the CCC title game, is Oct. 25 in La Grande.