New Mexico women's soccer learning to lean on underclassmen
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M., -- Alexis Leyba could not have imagined in 2011, when she first arrived in these parts, that four years later she would be the lone member of her class on the UNM women's soccer team.
And while she would have liked to have had another senior in the program, she is having so much fun with her younger teammates, she doesn't mind.
"There are so many different personalities," Leyba said. "It makes it so fun to work with people who go at you with speed, then others come at you with quick passes. It's really fun. It's a good mesh."
Leyba is not alone in her enthusiasm for this team of seven juniors, eight sophomores, 15 freshmen and herself.
"They're fun," UNM coach Kit Vela said. "They're athletic. They're young. They're going to make mistakes, but they're young in a good way -- not, 'Oh my gosh, we don't know what to expect.' We have high expectations for them, probably higher than we have in a while because they have so many gifts."
One of the more gifted Lobos is junior goalkeeper Cassie Ulrich of Rio Rancho. Ulrich, who went from not playing at all in 2012 to playing every minute in 2013, had nine shutouts in 21 games and a 0.85 goals-against average last year.
"It was a dream," Ulrich said of last season.
"It's nice to have Cassie back again," Vela said. "Last year was her jump into the real world, and now she's solidified it."
Ulrich will have a younger group of defenders in front of her this year.
"They're great," Ulrich said. "They're coming together. We're all really good friends back there, and it makes the whole dynamic work so much better. They have confidence in themselves and each other."
Vela said the Lobo defense "will be as good as we've ever had. They just haven't had as much repetition as our older players did last year. But they're going to be very, very good. A lot of size, which is good. And hunger. It's a very hungry group."
Offensively, UNM has some firepower returning. In 2013, the Lobos had 20 goals with 12 assists. Sixteen of the goals and nine of the assists were recorded by freshmen or sophomores. Junior midfielder/forward Lindsey Guice had five goals last season, while her classmate and fellow midfielder Dylann O'Connor contributed four goals and three assists. The Lobos open the season Aug. 22 at Texas Tech, which went 18-2-3 last year and reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
"They're always a good opponent," Ulrich said. "It's always a battle with them. We get down and dirty. Technically good, but very aggressive."
The schedule includes games against No. 15 Marquette (in the Colorado Cup in Colorado Springs on Sept. 5) and a home match with eighth-ranked Florida on Sept. 14.
"It's good competition," Ulrich said. "We're expecting to put up more than a fight. They're not going to see us coming."The home opener is Sept. 12 against Loyola-Chicago and Vela is pleased with the team's dynamic.
"They like each other a lot, so they're going to die on the field together, fight for each other," the coach said. "They're goofy, because they're so young. There are some really good personalities coming out, some dynamics we haven't had for a while."
And linking them on and off the field is Leyba.
"Alexis is the connector between the backs and the attacking group," Vela said. "It's nice to have a senior in there. She did a great job for us last year. She grew into that role. She's super consistent, even-keeled, very competitive."
Leyba, from Long Beach, Calif., knew little about New Mexico before her recruiting visit, but was smitten.
"I loved the culture," she said. "I loved the environment. I loved the work-hard attitude. ... This being my last season, it's kind of sad. You're excited to be a senior, but it hits you more and more every day that it will be the last day that you have."
Leyba said the older players feed off the younger ones.
"The older girls go, 'Oh, we've done this before.' Sometimes you get into the motion of things and that's not good. So the youth definitely helps spice it up and gets us excited."
How good can these Lobos be?
"We can be awesome," Leyba said.