Aug. 19, 2003
In what has become commonplace around the Westwood campus in recent years, the UCLA women's soccer team enters yet another season as one of the elite programs in America. The Bruins return nine starters from a squad that advanced to the third round of the NCAA Tournament in 2002 and have added their second No. 2-ranked recruiting class in as many years. Heading into the season, head coach Jillian Ellis has already proclaimed this year will be the most competitive since she arrived five years ago, in terms of competition for playing time. With a 25-person roster featuring a number of youth national team members, high school All-Americans and seasoned collegiate veterans, Ellis has assembled a team capable of making a serious run at the NCAA title come December.
Leading the forward contingent in 2003 will likely be the Bruins' top scorer from a year ago, redshirt junior Lindsay Greco. Following a season-ending injury just four matches into 2001, Greco made an impressive return to the field in 2002, registering 21 points on seven goals and a team-best seven assists. She finished last season tied for seventh in the Pac-10 in scoring and ranked tied for fifth in assists. Another player sure to see a lot of time up top will be sophomore Iris Mora. A regular on the Mexican National Team, Mora burst onto the scene in 2002, recording 14 points (7g) in only 14 matches. A second-team All-Pac-10 performer in 2002, she enters her sophomore season even more seasoned than a year ago, as she spent much of last summer helping the Mexican squad nearly qualify for the 2003 World Cup. Joining Greco and Mora in the attack this year will also be newcomer Bristyn Davis. Although only a freshman, Davis enters the collegiate game as one of the most sought-after recruits in the country after being tabbed National Player of the Year by Student Sports Magazine. She is also fresh off a Nordic Cup title run with the Under-21 U.S. National Team and headlines a recruiting class that features three Parade All-Americans. Davis' brother Chadd was a member of the UCLA men's soccer team, which captured the 2002 NCAA title. Another player with a legitimate chance to start up top is junior Kim Devine. After arriving from BYU following her freshman season in 2001, Devine was spectacular in her first year at UCLA, ranking tied for third on the team in scoring with 16 points (7g, 2a). She played in all 22 matches a year ago, ending the season second on the team in game-winning goals with three. Also joining the forward contingent in 2003 will be senior Katherine Bjazevich. A three-year letterwinner for the Bruins, Bjazevich played in 11 matches a year ago, registering two assists. Two players who are coming off solid years but enter the season with a bit of uncertainty are sophomore Katie Rivera and junior Crystal James. Both suffered ACL injuries in the offseason yet could see time depending on how quickly they heal. Rivera tied for third on the team in scoring last year with 16 points (6g, 4a), while James tallied eight points on a pair of goals and four assists. A late edition to the team, Christina Eskridge, will also be vying for playing time.
"We would definitely be a lot deeper if Crystal and Katie were healthy enough to compete for playing time," says Ellis. "However I think that with Greco, Davis, Devine, Mora and Swanson, we still have a formidable front line, and I expect a lot of production from this talented group."
Considering that the six players vying for time in the midfield have all been regulars with the U.S. Youth National Team Program, this will without a doubt be the Bruins' most competitive area in 2003. Bringing a familiar face to the midfield once again will likely be three-year starter Whitney Jones. A first-team All-Pac-10 selection in 2002, Jones is one of the best players in the country at winning the ball in the air. She started 21 of 22 matches last season, finishing with five points (1g, 3a). Unlike most players who take a break following the season, Jones doesn't quite have that luxury as, come December, she immediately heads off to join the UCLA women's basketball team. Two more likely starters in the midfield are sophomore Stacy Lindstrom and senior Sarah-Gayle Swanson. As only a freshman in 2002, Lindstrom started 20 of 22 matches, recording 15 points (5g, 5a). She graduated from high school a year early to join the Bruins last season, however consistently performed as a veteran. At 5-11, she and Jones will likely dominate the air in this part of the field. Swanson, who could also see time up top depending on the Bruins' needs, will assume more of an attacking role. She led the Bruins with nine goals last season and ranked second on the team in scoring with 19 points (9g, 1a). If that wasn't enough, she also led the team with five game-winning goals en route to second-team All-Pac-10 honors. Two impact freshmen with enough talent to start right away are Stephanie Kron and Caitlin Ursini. Ranked No. 14 on Soccer America's list of the top-25 recruits, Kron is coming off a European tour with the Under-19 U.S. National Team, and was a Parade and NSCAA/adidas All-American in 2003. Although she did not play her senior season of high school due to injury, Ursini is back at full strength and has the credentials to warrant a starting nod. She was an NSCAA/adidas All-American in 2002 and has played on both the Under-16 and Under-17 U.S. National Teams. The only question mark in the midfield is sophomore Jill Oakes. A freshman All-American and first-team All-Pac-10 performer in 2002, Oakes suffered a serious knee injury against USC in the second round of the NCAA Tournament last year and has been in rehab for much of the offseason. When healthy, she is no doubt one of the best players in America.
"We have tremendous depth in this area of the field," says Ellis. "Our returnees are some of the best in the country and our newcomers are capable of coming in and making an impact right away."
UCLA's back line has earned a reputation of not giving up too many goals in recent years and 2003 looks to be no different. First-team NSCAA/adidas All-American Nandi Pryce is back for her senior season and is looking to go out on top with only one season of eligibility remaining. Pryce recently devoted her summer vacation to helping the Under-21 U.S. National Team capture its fifth straight Nordic Cup title. She played and started in 21 matches last season for UCLA, anchoring a Bruin defense that ranked second in the Pac-10 in goals allowed (13), goals against average (0.57) and shutouts (12). Pryce will likely be assisted in the back by fellow senior Kathryn Lee. Lee made 21 starts a year ago and was one of only eight Bruins to see action in all 22 matches. Kendal Billingsley and Amy Fazio are two juniors who saw significant action in 2002 and will be counted on heavily once again in 2003. Despite playing primarily in the back, Billingsley finished with eight points (3g, 2a) last season, registering two game-winners in more of an attacking role. Fazio played in every match but one and was instrumental in holding Bruin opponents to just 13 goals all season. Following the veterans, a trio of freshmen expected to register plenty of minutes include Mary Castelanelli, Jessica Harris and Michelle Gleason. Castelanelli is another one of the Bruins' Parade All-American recruits and was rated as the 16th best prospect by Soccer America. Her recent time with the Under-19 U.S. Team will no doubt pay dividends in the back. Both Harris and Gleason were stalwarts on the Cal South ODP Squad and are capable of making an impact in their first season of collegiate play. Rounding out the defense is sophomore Julia Jones, who saw action in three matches as a freshman in 2002.
Says Ellis, "With all of our defensive starters returning, this is by far our most experience unit. However I expect some of the newcomers to challenge for starting roles, as we are fortunate to go with a number of options in the back."
Not many schools feature three players capable of starting in goal, however that's exactly what the Bruins have in junior Sarah Lombardo, freshman Arianna Criscione and senior Jaclyn Harwood. Lombardo was the starter a year ago, going 18-4 with an impressive 0.56 goals against average, good enough for second in the Pac-10. She played in all 22 matches, starting 20 and ranked second in the conference in shutouts with nine. Criscione is a talented newcomer who is expected to seriously contend for a starting nod. A former member of the Under-16 U.S. Team, she has played extensively with the ODP Region IV Squad and has honed her skills as a member of the highly successful Southern California Blues club team. Harwood could also figure into the mix after playing in four matches last season, making two starts. She gave up just one goal in 114 minutes of play for an 0.79 goals against average.
"With a full year of starting already under her belt, Lombardo has the most experience at this positon," says Ellis. We were able to get Harwood some time last year, which was good, and Criscione is very exciting freshman, so I expect a tight race for this position all season."
In order to prepare properly for the always competitive Pac-10 Conference schedule, the Bruins have once again scheduled a very difficult non-conference slate, opening the season at NCAA runner-up Santa Clara. UCLA will be looking to avenge its narrow, 2-1 loss to the Broncos at Drake Stadium in 2002. Two days later, the Bruins will make the short drive to Malibu for a meeting with Pepperdine, a team that was seeded third in last year's NCAA Tournament. UCLA's non-conference schedule is also highlighted by meetings with Duke and North Carolina at the Duke adidas Classic in mid-September. As for the Pac-10 schedule, defending Pac-10 Champion Stanford, along with Arizona State, Cal and Washington look to be the main roadblocks for the Bruins' conference title run in 2003.