While the University of Colorado football team dominated the national headlines on signing day last week, the CU women’s soccer team got a good head start on next season, signing a talented group of high school seniors to reload after another successful season. Last Thursday, head coach Danny Sanchez announced the addition of seven student-athletes to the Buffs soccer team for the 2015-2016 season. The fourth recruiting class for Sanchez brings a variety of positions to the squad, who will lose five starters from an NCAA tournament team that upset Brigham Young University this past season.
But roster turnover doesn’t phase Sanchez, who views Colorado as a team that has earned the ability to reload with good players each year as opposed to rebuilding after a season such as this, when five starters depart.
“I think we’re at the stage of the program where there’s an expectation to be successful,” says Sanchez. “That puts more pressure on us but also the players have more confidence and we have a lot of experienced players in our program that maybe their roles haven’t been big but they’ve seen it, they’ve improved and they’ve stuck it out so you never know until preseason.”
The Buffs brought in a midfield-heavy class, headlined by Sarah Kinzner, who competed with the Canadian U-20 team at the FIFA U-20 World Cup and Stephanie Zuniga-Herrera, who captained the remarkably successful Bay Oaks Botafogo club team in Northern California.
But Kinzner and Zuniga aren’t the only talented players joining CU this coming season. Amy Alexander of Highlands Ranch, Colorado and her club teammate, defender Alexandra Vidger, bolster a Buffs team losing center back Tori Cooper and center mid Darcy Jerman. Both incoming girls were part of the club team Real Colorado, and have also taken part in the U.S. Olympic development programs.
Sanchez and his staff added a trio of players from California, with midfield/forwards Erin Greening and Brooklyn Varnadore accompanying the aforementioned Zuniga-Herrera in the upcoming class. Greening and Varnadore also played for Bay Oaks Botafogo with Zuniga-Herrera, where they won two state championships.
Rounding out the class at the goalkeeping position is Jalen “JJ” Tompkins, a three-time outstanding goalkeeper award winner for her high school team. She has also competed in various Olympic Development Programs, winning the 2012 top goalkeeper award in the Puma Women’s Elite Showcase.
With championship pedigrees and a proven winning history, it looks to be a reloading year for the Buffs. But reloading a women’s soccer team isn’t as simple as it is in revenue-driven sports such as men’s basketball or football. While student-athletes in those sports receive interest as early as eighth grade, there isn’t pressure to commit to a school until their junior or senior year of high school. Some players, such as no. 1 football recruit Byron Cowart, wait until National Signing Day their last January before college to sign their letter of intent.
While girls can flip commitments the same way any other athlete can, giving a verbal or written commitment usually means they are locked into the program. In that type of recruiting system, the earlier the better.
“This class committed when we were a .500 program because we have to recruit so far out, so this year was really when we started getting on these players and that was their sophomore year of high school, believe it or not,” Sanchez explains. “It’s just the world that we live in and there’s not a college coach in women’s soccer that likes it but it is what it is, as they say.”
The women’s youth soccer system in the United States has been vibrant and consistently growing since the United States Women’s National Team has entered the public eye with their global dominance. Stars such as Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach have become icons to a growing movement of female players who not only play for their high schools, but also ply their trade on club teams. According to U.S. Youth Soccer, the largest youth soccer organization in the United States, 48 percent of their roughly 3 million registrants are female.
What that creates is an extremely competitive market for collegiate level soccer players, and one that forces schools such as CU to recruit players when they are just beginning high school. But it is not without its benefits, creating a system in which programs can continue to grow in years of solid play and good results, which is a period that the Buffs are enjoying right now. Immediate success can even mean getting some last minute recruiting power, which Sanchez attributes to his teams’ recruiting of players like Kinzer.
“I think our success in the last couple of years will be shown more in 16, 17 and 18 believe it or not with those players and having a stretch of consistency and results and hopefully tournament bids and staying competitive in the Pac-12,” says Sanchez. ” I think the fruits of our success fully in recruiting won’t be seen until next year or 2017, but having said that I think we picked up some transfers and some late players like Sarah because of our recent success.”
Other options include finding transfers from other universities or looking to international players to improve rosters. Junior midfielder Kahlia Hogg is both a transfer from Florida State University and an Australian international. The status and prestige of U.S. women’s soccer has, according to Sanchez, created an environment where it is easier to scout and recruit players from outside the country, although they make their desire to play college soccer known later than American girls who have been in the system for their whole life.
Still, Sanchez sees nothing but growth for the program. From a sweet 16 trip in 2013 to an upset victory over BYU in the NCAA Tournament First Round this past season, the coach believes Colorado has now put itself in a position to continue to progress into a top program in one of the most difficult and competitive soccer conferences in the country.
“I feel that all these players have played at a high level in their club where they won’t be imitated by playing in the Pac-12,” Sanchez says. “There’s always an adjustment for freshmen who are playing at that level but having said that they all have great experience. So there’s not one thing particularly we look for, it’s qualities we feel can compete in the Pac-12 and I think they all have some or a lot of them.”
The class will have a crash course once they enter a conference that has produced stars such as Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux, but Sanchez believes that his team will continue to ride the momentum they’ve gained in the past two years into the near future.
“We feel good about where we’re at, the direction of the program, the direction of the athletic department as a whole. I think that all of those things have built momentum and that it help us continue the momentum that we’ve built going.”
Contact Sports Editor Andrew Haubner at email@example.com and on twitter @A_G_Haubner