To say Washington State’s 2018 soccer season was a roller coaster would be an understatement.
The Cougars were the last unbeaten team in the nation when they flew out to a 10-0 record — the best start in program history. But injuries piled up and WSU lost its next five games, only to recover late in the season to earn a second consecutive NCAA Tournament berth, where they lost in the second round to No. 2 Georgetown. The Cougs finished with a 13-6-1 record.
Now, WSU is back with eight returning starters, including the Pac-12’s third-leading scorer Morgan Weaver (13 goals) and goalkeeper Ella Dederick, who returns for her sixth season after tearing her ACL against Idaho.
This team could be WSU’s deepest in years.
“We’re definitely excited. I feel like we’re deeper, more athletic,” WSU coach Todd Shulenberger said. “Competition is in full effect. I think we’re getting tired of playing each other.”
The Cougars open the regular season Thursday against Seattle University in Seattle. WSU demolished San Diego State 5-0 in an exhibition contest Friday.
WSU’s home opener is Aug. 30 against Montana in a rematch of the first round of the 2018 NCAA tourney.
For the Cougs, Weaver is back to lead the attack for the fourth consecutive season. The senior from University Place has 28 goals to her name and was picked to the watch list for the Missouri Athletic Club’s Hermann Trophy, which goes to the nation’s best player.
“She’s a winner,” Shulenberger said. “She’s got a big heart ... she’s a fun player to be around, she’s easily coachable, she’s an awesome athletic performer here and she scores goals. So to have her back for her senior year was a big bonus for us.”
In goal, Dederick returns for her sixth season with a 37-23 career record (5-0 last season) and a .799 save percentage. Her knee injury last season was an emotional blow to the team.
“We definitely got really emotional when that happened to us last season because we wanted to see her play, we wanted to see her go pro and do everything she wants to do,” defender Mykiaa Minniss said. “I think it just brought everyone’s spirits up to see her back on the field (this season).”
With Dederick out, Rachel Thompson stepped in. Thompson, a Nikiski, Alaska, product went on to win two Pac-12 weekly honors. With a proven backup in place, Shulenberger said WSU might have one of the best all-around goalie units in the nation.
The Cougars also bolstered their lineup with the addition of Stanford transfer Averie Collins. The senior midfielder was a part of three straight Pac-12 titles for the Cardinal. She’s already shown what she can do by scoring the team’s first goal in the exhibition win.
In the back, Bri Alger moves from forward to left back to help replace Maddy Haro, who graduated and was second in the nation last year with 15 assists. Like Haro, Alger started her career as a striker.
The Cougars also brought in nine freshmen, led by forward Mackenzie Frimpong-Ellerrtson, who Shulenberger said could make an immediate impact.
With the newcomers coming in and a host of players returning from injuries, competition in fall camp has been fierce.
“It’s very competitive,” Weaver said. “Every day we come out here, everyone knows their spot is not (guaranteed).
“You never know when you could lose that starting spot because there’s someone that’s fighting for it right next to you, and I think that’s a good thing for our team because it makes the people that are starting even better.”
The Cougars were picked by the Pac-12’s coaches to finish fourth behind Stanford, UCLA and USC. Coincidentally, all three of those teams also landed in the top five in the nation in the first NCAA rankings: Stanford at No. 3, UCLA at No. 4 and USC at No. 5. WSU was unranked.
The Cougars historically play well at home — WSU went 10-1-1 at Lower soccer field last season — but this year, they’ll play Stanford, UCLA and USC on the road.
“We could play them here or play them at their place, it’s always going to be a game,” Shulenberger said. “Outside of that, this conference is (still) a deadly one. Nos. 4-12, it’s anybody’s ball game.”
Shulenberger said the biggest takeaway from last season was in how it handled the midseason adversity. Dederick, Haro, Maegan O’Neill, Elyse Bennett and Aaqila McLyn were among the key players to miss time last season.
“The biggest thing we learned last year is don’t feel sorry for yourself when we had some injuries,” he said. “We got pouty and felt sorry for ourselves, so the next player needed to step up, and they did.
“We learned that and I hope we can bring that into this year regardless of who is playing on the field for us.”
Stephan Wiebe can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter at @StephanSports.