2006 Women's Soccer Outlook

Aug. 24, 2006

Looking to build upon its successful first season in Conference USA, the UCF women's soccer team travels to South Florida this weekend, where makes its season debut at Miami on Friday at 7 p.m. followed by a 1 p.m. match-up at Florida International on Sunday.

The Golden Knights return 20 of 27 players from last year's squad that won a share of the 2005 C-USA regular season championship with an 8-1 league record. The team will depend on the veterans' experience playing against top-level competition to help lead the newcomers.

"We have a very strong senior class this year," said head coach Amanda Cromwell. "They are strong both in number and in their desire to have a successful senior year. We have no doubt that they will lead by example and we also look to them to be vocal in their leadership as well."

The freshmen are an impressive group that includes three All-America selections and two players listed among the top 150 recruits in the nation by SoccerBuzz.com. The recruiting class as a whole was ranked 24th in the country by the website, making it the highest ranking ever in program history.

"The commitment that UCF has made to athletics has enabled us to compete against some of the best schools in the country when it comes to recruiting," said Cromwell. "Conference USA is also establishing itself as one of the top women's soccer leagues in the nation. That has been a huge help in attracting players from across the country."

The combination of veterans and newcomers gives the Golden Knights a wealth of potential as they focus on their goal of winning the conference championship and earning a berth in the NCAA Tournament.


After graduating both Beth Harless and Julie Snaman, the Golden Knights look to a new generation of goalkeepers to compete for the starting role in 2006.

The most experienced of the trio is junior Jennifer Manis. After transferring from Middle Tennessee State prior to last season, she played in six matches and posted a 1.50 goals-against-average in 2005.

Competing with Manis for the starting role are sophomore Jessie Gardner and freshman Mandi Mawyer. Gardner is a strong goalkeeper who has continued to improve during her time at UCF. Her positive attitude continues to be an influence on the team. With her strong voice and presence in goal, Mawyer continues to demand the best from the defense.

"We're expecting the goalkeeper position to be very competitive this fall," said Cromwell. "I am confident that Jennifer can be the bedrock of our defense, but it will be a battle with Mandi and Jessie. What I like about our goalkeeper squad is that they are concerned with helping each other grow, but continue to maintain an intense and competitive environment. I am excited to see who emerges as our starter."


Despite the fact that 2005 Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year Courtney Baines graduated, the Golden Knights boast a tremendous amount of depth in the back, where the defense will be led by core of veterans that includes seniors Kate McCain, Jessalyn Withers and Michelle DeCespedes and juniors Stacey George, Jessica Hallgren and Kelsey Kravec.

"In Baines, we lost a great all around player, who defended well, got forward out of the back and was always a threat to get an assist or a goal in any game," said Cromwell. "However, we have defenders and midfielders who are very skillful on the ball and talented playmakers who will fill that void."

After excelling in the midfield during the beginning of her career, McCain made the seamless transition to wide back last season and didn't falter. Playing in 63 matches over the last three years, McCain uses her fitness and skill to start the attack out of the backline.

Another player who moved to the backfield last season and flourished was DeCespedes. She has a toughness that gives her an advantage against the opposition's offense and also strikes the ball well.

With her tackling skills, George continues to be a reliable part of the team's defense, but her service ability from midfield could allow her see time there as well. Similarly, although Withers also began her career in the back, she has also gradually moved forward on the field and should see time in the midfield or up front.

Hallgren looks to return healthy after an injury sent her to the sideline 13 matches into the 2005 season. A versatile player who is both strong and athletic, she could see playing time at either center or left back.

Kravec was named the team's defensive MVP after starting 20 of 21 matches last year. The coaches see her and Hallgren as the anchors at center back.

Sophomore Jessica Jackson provides valuable leadership skills and the talent to spark the attack from the back.

In addition to the returners, several freshmen could also impact the team in the backfield. Freshman Yvonne George joins her sister at UCF this year and will use her own brand of athleticism to make her own mark on the team. Her classmates Nikki Moore and Sarah de Leon are also ready to step in and contribute immediately. An All-America pick, Moore brings her speed and technical know-how, while de Leon is athletic and a great organizer.


Much like with the defense, the Golden Knights can also rely on considerable depth and experience in the midfield thanks to the leadership of players like Withers and senior Kristin Bilby.

While Withers, who uses her speed down the line to create chances in front of the goal with dangerous crosses, competes for playing time on the wing, Bilby is a playmaker who should log significant minutes at center midfield. Junior Arielle Orr, meanwhile, looks for 2006 to be her breakout year as she looks to start at the outside or center of the field.

At defensive midfield, junior Kate Begley returns after suffering a season-ending injury last year. She and senior Shannon Wing both use their tenacity going one-on-one against opposing players and challenge well for the ball in the air. Wing also proved to be an impressive shooter a year ago as she scored three goals on seven shots.

Sophomore Erin Hopkins continues to build upon an impressive freshman season. With 18 matches to her credit at the position, she has become an important part of the defense.

Returning at attacking midfield is another sophomore, Hanna Wilde. She played in all 22 matches during her rookie campaign and not only creates chances for herself, but also for others.

Sophomore Lydia Jones, an asset with her versatility, could also see time in the midfield or in the back.

Several freshmen will compete with the veterans for minutes in the middle. Listed as a midfielder, Becca Thomas has the skills to play anywhere on the field and loves to join in the attack. Brianna Schooley and Jenny Baker, both former high school All-American selections, are ready to challenge for time at center midfield.


With 90% of the firepower returning to the lineup and an influx of new talent up front, the Golden Knights look to their balanced attack as one of their biggest strengths in the upcoming season.

"There will be plenty of competition to start at forward, especially if we play a two-front system. Not only do we return our leading scorer in senior Roberta Pelarigo, but junior Jessica Newport comes back from injury," said Cromwell. "We also have multiple players with the versatility to play up front or in the back."

A transfer from Young Harris College, Pelargio exploded on the offense a year ago as she led the team with 14 goals and 32 points. Newport had scored two goals prior to suffering an injury just eight games into the season.

Both Bilby and Withers also worked their way into the attack and accounted for a combined 18 points, including five goals, while Jones, Hallgren, DeCespedes and Moore all have the talent to move up front as well.

Added to the mix are freshmen Cara Bortz and Courtney Whidden. Bortz was the leading scorer all four years at Merritt Island High School, while Whidden tallied 29 goals during her senior season at Palm Harbor University High School.

"Our strength is that we are a team that doesn't depend on one person to score goals, get assists or ensure shutouts. We have multiple leaders, many goal scorers and great playmakers coming out of the midfield and defense. This is the deepest team we've had during my seven years at UCF," said Cromwell.


UCF is never a team that shies away from a tough opponent, so as tradition dictates, the Golden Knights once again look forward to a competitive schedule this year that includes seven 2005 NCAA Tournament participants. After hosting exhibition matches against in-state rivals USF and Florida, the team opens the regular season in South Florida, where the Golden Knights debut against Miami on Aug. 25 then face Florida International two days later.

Also on the non-conference slate are home contests against Florida Atlantic, Fresno State and UC-Santa Barbara and road games at Florida State and Kansas as well as a trip to the UNLV adidas Classic to take on the host Rebels and Arizona State.

"Our strength of schedule will prepare us well for C-USA," said Cromwell. "We hope to get some key wins early so that we are ranked nationally when we begin conference play."

The Golden Knights start their second campaign in C-USA when they travel to Houston on Sept. 29 for games against Rice and Houston. They are also slated to play at East Carolina, Marshall and Southern Miss, while Memphis, UAB, SMU and Tulsa visit Orlando.

UCF's goal is to not only take home the regular season title but to capture the tournament championship and return to NCAA Tournament. One lesson that the team took from the inaugural season in C-USA was that the path to the C-USA title is not easy.

"We learned that just about any team in C-USA can win the season or tournament championship, which means we have to be at our best for every conference match," said Cromwell. "We expect the preseason favorites to be SMU, Rice, UAB, Memphis, UTEP and UCF, but I believe any team can make the run for the conference title."