UCI’s Natalia Ledezma Will Be One of The Big West’s Top Forwards in 2012
ACC – Clemson | Miami (FL) | NC State
Big XII – Iowa State | Kansas | Oklahoma | TCU | Texas | Texas Tech
Big East – Cincinnati | DePaul | Georgetown | Louisville | Notre Dame | Pittsburgh | Providence | Rutgers | Seton Hall | South Florida | St. John’s (NY) | Syracuse | UConn | Villanova
Big Ten – Indiana | Iowa | Michigan | Michigan State | Minnesota | Nebraska | Northwestern | Ohio State | Purdue | Wisconsin
Mid-Majors – Boston University | Central Michigan | Dayton | Denver | Florida Gulf Coast | Harvard | Illinois State | La Salle | New Mexico | Rice | Richmond | Samford | Stephen F. Austin | Toledo | UMass | Utah State | Western Michigan | William & Mary
Pac-12 – Arizona | Arizona State | Cal | Colorado | Oregon | Oregon State | USC | Utah | Washington | Washington State
SEC – Alabama | Arkansas | Georgia | Kentucky | LSU | Mississippi State | Missouri | Ole Miss | South Carolina | Tennessee | Vanderbilt
WCC – BYU | Gonzaga | Loyola Marymount | Portland | San Diego | San Francisco | St. Mary’s (CA)
One of the nation’s biggest surprises in 2010, UC Irvine showed that they were no one-hit wonders by winning the league again in 2011 and continuing to prove themselves one of the fastest rising mid-majors in the country. It was the continuation of a meteoric rise for a program that had been a non-entity on the national stage for the longest time. Before 2010′s breakout, the Anteaters had been burdened by a history of losing and had only just started to turn things around under charismatic head coach Scott Juniper.
Indeed, UCI had been most known before as the place where former U.S. WNT head coach April Heinrichs had attempted a coaching comeback in 2006 with disastrous results, specifically a 3-13-1 season that was the worst in school history. Heinrichs promptly scurried off to a new position within the hierarchy of U.S. Soccer, leaving UCI no better off than when she had charged through the doors a season earlier. It was the latest affliction for a program that had essentially fallen off the map since the early days of Marine Cano’s reign in the mid-nineties that had seen the program collect its only major trophy heading into 2010, the 1997 Big West Tournament title. The Anteaters began to take on water at the end of Cano’s tenure though, winning a combined nine matches in his final two seasons, including just two in Big West play as UCI finished rock bottom for two straight seasons.
The hiring of Heinrichs was a gamble, as the polarizing figure had made few friends in recent seasons at the head of the USWNT but had achieved college success at both Maryland and Virginia in the nineties. The endeavor was essentially doomed from the start though and Irvine only scored six goals in seventeen matches, including none in a winless Big West campaign, while conceding forty-one.
Juniper, an assistant at the time who had just come in when Heinrichs had, was the man entrusted to pick up the pieces. All things considered, he didn’t do such a bad job, delivering the program’s first winning season since 2003 and getting the club back to the postseason. After a slide back to sixth in the league the year after, Irvine made more positive strides in 2009 with the program’s second winning season in three years under Juniper and another berth to the postseason.
But despite the brightening fortunes for the Anteaters, few would’ve likely had them on the shortlist of Big West title contenders heading into 2010. Most probably concurred that UCI would contend for another spot in the Big West Tournament but likely fall short of a major trophy. Instead, the club put together a seventeen match unbeaten streak to go along with a fourteen match winning streak that included victories over San Diego, Oregon State, and Long Beach state en route to a perfect league season and a spot in the NCAA Tournament for the first time.
Irvine would polish off Arizona State in the first round, before upsetting ACC Tournament winners Wake Forest despite playing with only ten for the final twenty minutes. Chaos in the bracket meant they’d be hosting in the Sweet Sixteen, this time against fellow upstart Washington. But the clock would strike midnight on the Anteaters, as the Huskies would just shade it in extra time, ending what had been a dream season for Juniper and UC Irvine.
Having made their mark on the college soccer world in 2010, Irvine began 2011 with a bang as well, going down to College Station and shocking Texas A&M, 1-0. It was part of a five match win streak to open up the season, and UCI extended an unbeaten run to six matches with a draw against Santa Clara. With a chance to upset the odds again against Stanford, a game Anteater squad would battle hard but lose, 2-0, on the afternoon.
The club may have dwelled on that one a little too long though, as they were upset by St. Mary’s (CA) the next time out. A pair of wins over WCC powers Portland and San Diego helped ease the pain, but the club would open up league play with a big stutter, taking only one point from opening weekend against UC Davis and Pacific. Already behind the 8-Ball as far as retaining their title, UCI almost assuredly needed to be perfect the rest of the way to emerge triumphant in the Big West. They’d do just that, winning their final six in the league and conceding just one goal in those six wins to pip Long Beach State to the post, taking home their second title in a row by a single point.
The double would elude them for the second straight season though, as UCI would come up short in the title game against arch-rivals Long Beach State. It was the second straight season the club had lost out on the Big West Tournament title by a 1-0 scoreline on home turf.
Unfortunately for Juniper and his squad, the similarities to the postseason of 2010 stopped there for the Anteaters. In a rematch of their regular season win over San Diego, Irvine instead found themselves trailing for much of the match before equalizing at 2-2 with ninety seconds remaining. After a scoreless extra time, it’d be the visiting Toreros who held their nerve, advancing 5-3 on penalties. Irvine may not have been able to make the deep run into November they had been hoping for, but the Anteaters still managed to bring home another league title and their second straight at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament. Given some of this program’s big wins over the past two years, UCI doesn’t look like they’ve come anywhere close to hitting their ceiling either.
If Irvine are to maintain their contender status though, they’ll have to overcome heavy losses all over the pitch due to graduation. In all, the Anteaters lose a whopping six starters from last year’s team, including three of the club’s rearguard which gave up just six goals in eight league matches. The biggest loss by far is of CoCo Goodson, the Big West Defensive Player of the Year and a Second Team All-American. A towering central defender blessed with a rocket of a shot, Goodson was one of the best transfers of the last half-decade, turning into a pillar of strength after coming over from Texas.
Less well known but equally as important midfielder Judy Christopher also departs after a sterling career with the Anteaters. In many ways the heart and soul of Irvine’s soccer revival these past few seasons, Christopher was effusively praised by Juniper throughout her career, and the club will dearly miss her senior leadership. For all the talk about defense, Irvine also had the league’s top offense last season as well, scoring better than two goals a game in Big West action.
The eleven goals of Lexi Kopf depart though, meaning junior Natalia Ledezma is the only returnee with more than five goals last season. Ledezma was just another in a long line of successful transfer additions to Irvine in the recent few years, and Juniper will be hoping to strike gold again with North Carolina transfer Rachel Wood this year. A hulking presence, Wood has a national championship ring from UNC’s 2008 triumph and has fought off illness to return to the pitch in recent seasons. Though she played mainly on defense with the Tar Heels, Juniper envisions her as a forward with the Anteaters, with her senior leadership and experience likely to be just as valuable as goals this season.
At least UCI can count on some blessed stability between the pipes this year, with the return of Jennifer Randazzo after a highly impressive rookie season for the Anteaters. Irvine appeared to have worries in goal going into last season with relatively little experience on the roster while dealing with the graduation of a well entrenched starter. Though not highly heralded coming out of the youth ranks, Randazzo settled into the starting role right off the bat and caught attention with some great displays in goal as the Anteaters rose up the rankings with a quick start. With a full season of experience under her belt, Randazzo should be better this season and could round into being one of the nation’s top keepers by the end of her tenure in Irvine.
Who backs her up isn’t quite as set in stone. Last season’s backup, Kala Gabler, departs, leaving a host of newcomers to try and fill the void. Saint Peter’s transfer Morgan Williams has the very slightest of edges in experience but was redshirted last year and still hasn’t seen competitive action. She’ll battle with true freshman Corey Tobin and sophomore walk-on Virginia Orozco for what remaining minutes are left in Randazzo’s wake. Don’t expect there to be many though if she can avoid a sophomore slump. Given the losses on the backline in front of her, it’s vital that she does.
This unit absolutely gets waylaid by graduation, with the loss of three starters. Goodson isn’t the only big loss, but the Ramona native is the one that will obviously draw the most attention. After a solid start to her career at the University of Texas, Goodson came back home for her junior and senior seasons and was a superstar for the Anteaters. A dominant center-back who also had a nose for goal, Goodson combined for twelve goals in two seasons with the club, including nine in 2010. A two-time Big West Defender of the Year, Goodson will go down as one of the very best to have ever played at UCI, which is quite the feat considering she played just two seasons with the club.
Another big loss is Sarah Devine, who departs with a season of eligibility remaining for the Anteaters after initially redshirting in 2008. After that injury shortened season, Devine promptly turned into a rock at the back for the club, starting in her three remaining seasons for the Anteaters. Devine would fully blossom last season, earning All-Region Third Team honors for the UCI defense that so dominated league opposition.
Also gone is Laguna Niguel product Amanda Hardeman, who began her career as a star at Santiago Canyon College before transferring to UCI and rounding into a fine player for the Anteaters. Hardeman was a super sub in 2010 but turned into a full-time starter last season, also netting game winning goals against San Jose State and UC Davis as a senior. Hardeman was also one of the club’s most versatile players, able to play in defense or midfield for UCI.
The veteran, stabilizing force in defense this season looks like it will have to be junior Zoya Farzaneh. A hometown product out of Irvine, Farzaneh was one of the club’s top reserves as a rookie, also chipping in with a couple of assists. Last year, she would see her minutes increase exponentially as she joined up with the starting lineup on seventeen occasions. Farzaneh’s experience will be absolutely crucial this season considering the changes happening all around her on the backline.
It will likely be a mad scramble to fill the gaps around her. Junior Jordan Bruce looked like a potential starter on last year’s line after eight starts as a rookie and five assists but was instead mostly used off the bench, though she still contributed with a pair of assists for the Anteaters. Monique Pendleberry was one of the club’s top recruits a season ago but struggled to make an impression as a rookie, playing in just seven games off the bench. Both she and Bruce will likely have to play much bigger roles this season if UCI is to have a successful season.
Two more from this season’s rookie class may need to also come right in and find their feet in a hurry. Tenacious Mandi McBroom has been touted for her competitiveness by Juniper and could fill a spot at either full-back or out on the wing this year, though the former seems more likely considering the club’s needs. Also joining up is Kelsey Texeira, a mainstay of the Region IV ODP team in the past few years while also coming from the powerhouse So Cal Blues club. Tipped to feature in central defense, the towering Texeira could well find an immediate home for herself in the heart of the club’s backline this year. While Juniper’s done well to reload with some fine talent the past few seasons, this unit is almost assuredly going to take a step back given the enormous losses faced going into this season.
The losses certainly don’t get any easier to replace further up the field. Christopher was a player who never really put huge dents into the scoresheet, but the Ontario native was the heartbeat of the club as its midfield fulcrum. Three straight All-Big West First Team nods really speaks for itself, while she also was All-Region First Team last season after a season where she started twenty-one games and racked up a four assists, tied for a career best.
Nobody close to her calibre returns in midfield, but Juniper does have many options on hand. The focal point now and likely for the next few years figures to be sophomore Cami Privett. Another of UCI’s well regarded recruits last year, Privett ended up being the best of the rookies, not just on the Anteaters but in the whole Big West, winning the league’s Freshman of the Year award. Five goals and five assists as a rookie, including a brace in the 3-2 win over San Diego in the regular season certainly showed a glimpse of Privett’s potential. Given the losses on offense, those goals may be needed more than ever this year.
Also likely to be heavily involved is senior Devon Delarosa. Delarosa had been one of the club’s best outlets for offense her first two seasons in Irvine, with eight goals and eight assists combined as she was a fixture in the starting lineup. Starting just six games last year though, Delarosa saw her numbers plummet, and Juniper has to be hoping for a return to form this year. UCI will also be hoping that junior Zuri Walker can hold down a starting spot this season. Walker is a big, physical presence in the middle that has shown the ability to chip in with an odd assist or two here and there. Walker’s size and versatility also make her an option at center-back, though the junior has only started twelve games in her career.
Canadian classmate Mady Solow wasn’t quite the hit that some of UCI’s other transfers have been lately after coming over from Florida before 2011 but still was a confident reserve who made a handful of starts and will be hoping for more time this season. Another expat, Janelly Farias, came from New Mexico, and much like Solow, saw reasonable time off the bench in her first season with the club and will likely be asked for more with all the losses suffered. Highly touted sophomore Jenna Pellegrino is yet another of last year’s key reserves that will be battling for one of the club’s starting spots in the middle of the park. Senior Jackie Samis doesn’t figure to win a starting spot but adds experience and further depth to a unit that gives UCI plenty of options.
Calculating the value of Christopher’s loss is tough, but needless to say, it’s pretty big. While Privett makes a fine cornerstone for the present and future, the sophomore will likely struggle to replicate the leadership and intangibles of the departed Christopher in the short-term. Around her, Juniper’s got plenty of options, it’s just getting the right balance that might prove tricky early on.
Losing Kopf is an extra bitter blow considering the Sonora native appeared to be just hitting her peak last season. From a reserve who went pointless as a rookie, Kopf saw her goal total rise dramatically over the next four seasons, culminating with last season’s excellent eleven goal haul. That included a couple of game winners early on, including in the club’s upset of Texas A&M in College Station, with Kopf finishing with five game winners overall, with perhaps her finest moment coming with a hat trick against UC Riverside in the regular season finale. Also gone is Alexis Rafael, who had scored four goals as a key reserve in 2010 but who struggled with injuries last year, making just a handful of appearances.
The club’s top offensive weapon in 2012 is likely to be junior Natalia Ledezma. The UCLA transfer was a big hit for Irvine in her first season after transferring from Westwood, leading the team with twelve goals and eight assists in her Anteater debut. Ledezma was electric early, with five goals in UCI’s opening six games before a cold streak saw her score just once in eight games. She rounded into form at just the right time though, with six goals in a critical four game stretch in the league. With two years yet to develop, she could end up as one of the club’s best ever. Finding a suitable strike partner (or two) is critical without Kopf in the ranks though.
Senior Dana Sanderlin was more of playmaker last season, finishing with five assists but certainly knows where the goal is, after scoring ten goals in her first two seasons with the club. Sanderlin’s a versatile asset though and might be needed to add some veteran heft to the midfield. Classmate Mar Rodriguez looks like another option for Juniper this season. The Mexican U20 international never really hit her stride last season after joining up from international duty, having to suffice with being a reserve and not managing a single point. Rodriguez has the talent though, having been All-Big West First Team in 2010 after a six goal performance, while also having eight career game winning goals. Getting Rodriguez firing alongside Ledezma could well be a key to UCI’s season.
Proven depth on paper’s not the greatest, meaning sophomore Laura McGrail could also be in line for more minutes after seeing time in a handful of matches as a rookie. Wood, of course, is the big X-Factor. The Laguna Niguel native has battled her way back to health after a debilitating illness and will be eager to impress after mainly serving as a reserve at North Carolina as of late. Five goals and nine assists in her UNC tenure may not seem like a big total, but consider she played a whole lot of defense in that time for the powerhouse Tar Heels. Wood could be a brutally effective target forward for the Anteaters this season and adds another dimension to a potentially excellent attack. It goes without saying that the big senior could also put in a shift at center-back if needed, and considering some of the losses UCI takes, she might just be.
Though losing Kopf stings, this group still has some potent firepower, especially if Wood is a hit and some of last year’s strugglers get back to hitting the target. This group has nice potential and should be the strength of the Anteaters this year.
Juniper’s worked mini-miracles during his tenure at UC Irvine, and it’s almost a minor miracle itself that the talented young coach hasn’t been snapped up by a bigger school. While a miracle isn’t quite needed to get UCI back into the NCAA Tournament this season, serious work does need to be done. The losses across the pitch are major, and the Anteaters lose two club legends in Goodson and Christopher, both of whom helped lead the revolution of the past few years in Irvine.
There are great building blocks like Randazzo, Privett, and Ledezma all around UCI, but is there the senior leadership needed to rest at the heart of almost all contenders? Wood could certainly help there, but she’ll still have to acclimate to her new surroundings, though facing off against Big West defenses should be more desirable than the gauntlet that is the ACC. There’s a lot of potential for a good showing going forward this year, but the defense could be exposed at times given all that was lost.
There’s enough talent for a run at another NCAA Tournament appearance and more Big West silverware. UCI might be needing the auto bid this season though, especially with a very testing non-conference schedule ahead of them, unless Juniper can pull another rabbit out of his hat and get the Anteaters a few precious upsets in the opening weeks of the season.