Under the stadium lights of MacPherson Stadium in North Carolina, the University of Colorado soccer team walked off the pitch for the final time of the season on April 27.
It was a disappointing ending for the Buffs as they exited the NCAA tournament early with a 1-0 loss to South Alabama. As a team that had overcome the many challenges of playing a season during a pandemic, the Buffaloes won three of their final four regular season games to finish fifth in a stacked Pac-12 conference with an overall record of 9-6-2. Now just four months later, the Buffs will have the opportunity to build off their 9-6-2 season as they enter their 2021 campaign.
The new season officially kicks off at Prentup Field on Thursday at 4 p.m. MST against in-state rival Colorado State.
Continuity is the name of the game
Heading into last season, CU had to deal with the departure of several key players including the team’s all-time leading scorer, Taylor Kornieck and one of the best goalkeepers in team history, Jalen (JJ) Tompkins. This year, one of the team’s biggest strengths will be the chemistry the team has with so many players returning.
“We went through one of the tougher seasons that I’ve ever experienced at CU because of COVID,” said senior midfielder Sofia Weiner. “But I think that it made us close. Our freshmen and transfers have melded very well into our group. I think the energy and attitude is the primary thing to focus on because all that soccer stuff will come after that because if we don’t have everyone bought into what we’re trying to do as a group, it doesn’t really matter what you do with the ball.”
The only players that the CU is losing—who saw a sizable amount of time last season—are senior forward Libby Geraghty, junior midfielder Jesse Loren and sophomore midfielder Roo Yarnell- Williams. Geraghty was one of two graduating seniors alongside Katie Joella, while Loren and Yarnell-Williams both transferred to Kansas State this spring.
As a unit, the Buffs were ranked 54th in the country in terms of average goals allowed. A large part of that defense was First Team All-Pac-12 defender senior Hannah Sharts. In addition to being a lockdown defender, Sharts was also a strong contributor on offense as her 5-foot-11 height made her a weapon on set pieces. She scored four goals on the season which was good for second-most on the team.
In addition to Sharts, the Buffs are bringing back fifth-year senior Haileigh Adams. Adams excelled after sliding into a starting role in the second half of last season. Two other important players on defense for CU are sophomores Lawson Willis and Jayden Newkirk. Both Willis and Newkirk performed well and received significant playing time in their first year of college action. Rounding out the defense is a cast of experienced players that are looking to bounce back from injuries: senior Sofia Weiner, senior Hannah Cardenas and a junior transfer from Utah, Hailey Stodden.
But where would a strong defense be though without a lockdown goalkeeper? The Buffs have just that as they bring back junior Dani Hansen, who put on an absolute clinic in the net for the Buffs last season. Hansen led the Pac-12 with 92 saves, all while collecting a save percentage of .876, which was 12th best in the nation.
With a strong defensive core returning and Hansen in the net, opposing teams will have a difficult challenge scoring goals against CU.
Questions on Offense
While Colorado’s defense was consistent throughout the season, the same wasn’t always true on the other side of the ball as CU struggled to generate consistent goals. That being said, there are reasons to believe offensive performance can improve.
“I think we have more options than we did last year,” said head coach Danny Sanchez. “It will still be a little bit of a fistfight. I don’t think that there is a built-in 20-goal scorer, but you look around the country and there’s very few of them. It is going to be a bit of work in progress.”
The Buffs have a trio of returning scoring options with sophomore forward Shyra James, senior midfielder Shanade Hopcroft and junior forward Tessa Barton. James led the team last season with five goals during an electric freshman season that saw her earn the honor of Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week following a game-winning overtime goal against USC. Hopcroft routinely made things difficult for opposing defenses with her speed. In total, she scored three goals and tallied three assists in her first season with the Buffs after transferring from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
In Barton’s 2019 freshman year, she was second on the team in scoring with five goals but got off to a slow start coming off an injury. She found her form in the Buffs’ last four regular season games, however, and will have some momentum coming into the fall.
A few other returning names to watch are sophomore midfielder Rachel Rosen, junior midfielder Allie Palangi, junior midfielder Jade Babcock-Chi and junior midfielder Amaya Gonzalez.
A Challenging Schedule
Except for three non-conference games, the Buffs regular season was limited to only Pac-12 matchups due to COVID-19 precautions. This year, Colorado’s 19 game schedule features a competitive non-conference schedule on top of an always challenging slate of Pac-12 games. Below are a handful of must-watch games for the Buffs this season:
Florida State (Aug. 29): The Buffs will face a major challenge early in the season when they host No. 1 Florida State. The Seminoles enter the season as the top-ranked team in the country following a loss in the 2020 National Championship game to Santa Clara.
For CU, the game will be a chance to get some payback against the Seminoles who narrowly edged the Buffs 3-2 in overtime the last time the two teams met in 2019.
“We are excited that Florida State has agreed to return the match,” Sanchez said. “They have everybody back and some to their team. There are other games obviously, but we’d be lying if there wasn’t gonna be a little extra energy and focus for that. Just like if Alabama football is coming to play at Folsom, imagine the energy around that. That is what we are expecting.”
TCU (Sept. 2): Colorado’s difficult schedule continues as not even a week after playing FSU, the Buffs will square off against another top-10 opponent on the road. The TCU Horned Frogs are the defending Big 12 conference champions and are ranked No. 8 in the NCAA preseason poll. TCU hasn’t lost a home game at Garvey-Rosenthal Soccer Stadium since Oct. 20, 2019.
Stanford (Oct. 17): Since joining the Pac-12 in 2011, there is just one conference opponent that CU has never won against: the Cardinal. The Buffs are 0-9 against Stanford and have scored just two goals while allowing 29 goals. Those numbers may sound bad for CU, but there are signs of hope. Last season, the Buffs were close to coming away with a win against Stanford on the road, but a surrendered goal in the 88th minute sent them home empty-handed. With the added benefit of home-field advantage, the Buffs might finally snap that losing streak.
Arizona State (Oct. 28): CU got the benefit of having its final three games of the regular season at Prentup Field last year. The tables have now turned as the Buffs will have to play three straight road games to conclude Pac-12 play. Arizona State is the first team on this road trip, followed by Arizona and Utah. This opening road game against the Sun Devils will be crucial if the Buffs intend to repeat their top-half finish in the Pac-12 standings.
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Matthew Lenneman at email@example.com.