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Season Preview: Vikings Shooting for NCAAs

Published: August 7, 2014

PORTLAND, Ore. — The 2013 Portland State women's soccer season left the 2014 Vikings with a tough act to follow after completing one of the best seasons in program history, but also left them with some unfinished business.
Despite winning the program's third straight Big Sky regular-season title with the program's first-ever unbeaten Big Sky record (8-0-1), the 2013 Vikings fell just short of their ultimate goal, a berth into the NCAA Tournament. The Vikings lost to Weber State in penalty kicks in the Big Sky Tournament final, denying the program its first-ever berth to the national tournament.
Consequently, that task falls to the 2014 Vikings, who should have a good chance at making it to the national tournament with 10 starters back from last season.
"Most of the starters from last year gained a lot of experience," head coach Laura Schott said. "The ways we won, and the ways we lost last year, provided valuable learning opportunities and experience, and I hope to see some leaders emerge out of that who will continue to lead the team in a positive direction."
The Vikings should have plenty of players primed to assume those leadership roles, including Big Sky Defensive MVP Kayla Henningsen, Big Sky Co-Goalkeeper of the Year Caitlin Plese and Big Sky Newcomer of the Year Abbey Bergquist. All three of those players return to the Vikings this season, and should help lead a loaded defensive unit that returns a lot of its core.
Besides Plese, Henningsen and Bergquist (the team's starting defensive midfielder), the Vikings also return starting center backs Kelsey Henningsen and Torie Morris, both of whom received All-Big Sky honors last season. That unit led the Vikings to the best defensive season in program history last season, as the team set records for shutouts (12) and goals-against average (0.76) in 2013, and only gave up three goals to Big Sky opponents, two of which came on penalty kicks.
"I think the defensive unit and I are on the same page when I say they want to set high expectations and set a tone that will continue their dominance from last year," Schott said. "Again, mentality will be the most important contributor in putting that into practice. We have a great non-conference schedule, and we will face some of the best attacking units in the country. This should help us develop our mentality because there will be highs and lows, but most importantly we will have the opportunity to challenge ourselves and see how good we can be."
The Viking defense will be especially tested on a four-match road trip that immediately follows the team's season-opening home tournament. The Vikings open the road trip at the USF Tournament in San Francisco, Calif., where the team will face host USF and Dons goalkeeper Madalyn Schiffel, who was invited to the U.S. U-20 Women's National Team spring camp. The team will also face Schott's alma mater, California, at the USF Tournament, which made the NCAA National Tournament last season behind then-junior forward Rachel Mercik, who was called up the U.S. U-23 Women's National Team training camp over the summer.
The Vikings will then play at Colorado State on Friday, Sept. 5, before traveling to Lubbock, Texas, for arguably their hardest match of the non-conference schedule, a road match against No. 17 Texas Tech. The Red Raiders feature two 2014 Women's MAC Herman Trophy Watch List selections in senior defender Jaelene Hinkle, a third-team NSCAA All-American last season and member of the U.S. U-23 Women's National Team, as well as junior forward Janine Beckie, a 2012 second-team NSCAA All-American and member of the U.S. U-20 Women's National Team.
The Vikings will then return home for matches against Oregon and San Jose State on Sept. 12 and 21, respectively, before opening Big Sky play on the road against Northern Arizona on Sept. 26.
The Vikings' defense should be plenty tested by then, while the team's offense should also have had a chance to find its identity after losing last season's leading scorer in Eryn Brown. Brown was responsible for eight goals and five assists last season, making her part of 13 of the team's 31 goals scored.
Brown's departure leaves a void in the offense that someone will have to step up and fill.
"We worked on finishing all spring and we need to continue to work on it," Schott said. "Ultimately goal scorers develop from within, not from without. It takes a special mentality to score. It is one of the hardest things to do in the game of soccer. Our attackers should return with a lot of reps under their belts from the summer, and I look forward to a new leading scorer emerging this season."
The Vikings should have plenty of candidates to replace Brown, as the next eight players behind Brown in terms of points last season all return this season. Among those, the team returns its second-leading scorer in junior midfielder/forward Cori Bianchini (5g, 4a), who was named to the All-Big Sky first team after ranking tied for the Big Sky lead with four game-winning goals last season. Behind Bianchini, senior midfielder Ariana Cooley also returns for the Vikings after finishing third on the team with 10 points (4g, 2a) last season, while junior forward Tamia Hasan also returns after finishing fourth on the team with three goals scored. Additionally, Kayla Henningsen and junior midfielder/forward Lynsey Gaines return after tying for third on the team with three assists last season.
Bianchini and Cooley should also help lead a deep midfield for the Vikings, along with Bergquist and returning starter Emma Cooney. Those four should help the team maintain possession this season, something Schott said the team focused on in addition to attacking during the offseason.
The Vikings' midfield should gain depth from the team's 10 incoming freshmen, too, as well as the rest of the team.
The team's depth will let different players emerge at different points during the season, something the Vikings will need as they become the hunted within the Big Sky Conference as the three-time defending regular-season champions.
"We expect ourselves to be good and other teams now expect us to be good," Schott said. "That is a different situation than we were in two years ago. We should embrace that because it is a great place to be, and it was earned. However, continuing success requires a special form of mental toughness. We need to be more aggressive, take ownership of our talent and push each other in practice and games."
Mental toughness will be key throughout the season, according to Schott, between the early tests in the non-conference schedule, and the offense's search for a leading goal scorer. Mental toughness will also be key in getting the Vikings back to the Big Sky Tournament, and back to the verge of clinching the team's first NCAA Tournament berth.
And if they can finally clinch that berth, then they'll have wrapped up the unfinished business left to them by their 2013 counterparts.
The Vikings enter the 2014 season as the three-time defending Big Sky champions after winning regular-season titles in 2011, 2012 and 2013. The Vikings won their most recent title in the most convincing fashion, as they went unbeaten in the Big Sky Conference for the first time in program history. The Vikings won the Big Sky regular-season title in 2009 as well, giving them titles in four of the last five seasons. The Vikings should be well positioned to defend their title in 2014, too, as they return 10 starters from last season, and 17 letterwinners.
Big Sky coaches picked the Vikings as slight favorites over Weber State in the Big Sky Preseason Coaches' poll, released Wednesday. Both teams received five first-place votes in the poll, but the Vikings finished with one more point in the poll at 93 to Weber State's 92. Besides the Vikings and Wildcats, Northern Arizona picked up the remaining first-place vote to finish third in the poll with 86 points, while Northern Colorado (69), Montana (62), Idaho State (52), Sacramento State (51), Southern Utah (32), Idaho (29), Eastern Washington (27) and North Dakota (12) rounded out the poll.
The Vikings can break a Big Sky record in their first match of the season in 2014, as they tied a conference record with a 13-match unbeaten streak to end last season. A win or tie in the team's season opener against Utah Valley on Aug. 22 will give the Vikings the record. Additionally, the Vikings enter the 2014 season on a 388:08 shutout streak, and hold an 11-match unbeaten streak in Big Sky regular-season matches.
The Vikings dominated the Big Sky Conference defensively last season, as they gave up only three goals to Big Sky opponents, two of which came on penalty kicks. Consequently, the Vikings led the Big Sky with a 0.32 goals-against average in conference matches, more than half a point lower than the next-best team, Northern Colorado at 0.84. The Vikings also led the Big Sky with 12 shutouts overall last season, four more than any other team. The Vikings should be loaded again defensively this season, too, as they return last season's starting goalkeeper in Caitlin Plese, as well as all three of four starters on the back line and defensive midfielder Abbey Bergquist. Plese returns to the defense as the Big Sky Co-Goalkeeper of the Year last season, while Bergquist and senior defender Kayla Henningsen return as last season's Big Sky Newcomer of the Year and Defensive MVP, respectively. Center backs Kelsey Henningsen and Torie Morris also return after earning All-Big Sky second-team and All-Big Sky honorable-mention honors, respectively.
Senior defenders and twin sisters Kayla and Kelsey Henningsen enter their fourth and final year within the Portland State women's soccer program this season. The Henningsen twins, prized recruits when they came into the program, have seen unprecedented success since joining the Vikings. Neither has been on a team that didn't win at least a share of the Big Sky regular-season title, and have both have earned numerous individual honors during their PSU careers. Kayla was named the Big Sky Defensive MVP last season, while both Kayla and Kelsey were named All-Big Sky honorees (Kayla: 1st team; Kelsey: 2nd team). Additionally, both Kayla and Kelsey earned CoSIDA Academic All-District VIII second-team honors last season.
The Vikings have set up a tough non-conference schedule for themselves in 2014. Of the Vikings' eight non-conference opponents, four of them finished in the top half of their respective conferences, including 2013 NCAA National Tournament participants Texas Tech of the Big 12 and California of the Pac-12. The Vikings will also face several individual stars during the non-conference schedule, as four of their opponents have members playing some level of international youth soccer.
Opposing players with national team camp or playing experience:
            Madalyn Schiffel, junior goalkeeper for San Francisco – U.S. U-20 Women's National Team
            Leticia Torres, sophomore defender for San Francisco – Chile U-20 Women's National Team
            Rachel Mercik, senior forward for California – U.S. U-23 Women's National Team
            Jaelene Hinkle, senior defender for Texas Tech – U.S. U-23 Women's National Team
            Janine Beckie, junior forward for Texas Tech – U.S. U-20 Women's National Team
            Bri Pugh, senior defender for Oregon – U.S. U-23 Women's National Team
Despite returning 10 starters from last season's championship team, the Vikings lost their leading scorer from last season inEryn Brown. Brown led the Vikings in goals (8), assists (5) and points (21) last season, and was part of 13 of the team's 31 goals scored. The team does return their next eight leaders in points from last season, however, which should ease the search for a new leading scorer. Junior midfielder/forward Cori Bianchini returns as the second-leading scorer from last season, as she ranked second on the team in goals (5), assists (4) and points (14). Senior midfielder Ariana Cooley also returns for the Vikings after ranking third on the team in goals (4) and points (10), while senior defender Kayla Henningsenand junior midfielder/forward Lynsey Gaines return after ranking third on the team with three assists each.
The Vikings added 10 incoming freshmen during the 2014 signing period, giving the team extra depth going into the season. Of the 10 incoming freshmen, the Vikings signed two goalkeepers, one defender, five midfielders and two forwards. The 10 freshmen also come from six different states between Oregon (3), California (2), Washington (2), Colorado (1), Arizona (1) and Illinois (1).
The 2013 season was easily one of the best in program history, as the Vikings completed their first unbeaten run through the Big Sky Conference at 8-0-1, and advanced to the Big Sky Tournament final for just the second time in program history. The Vikings also set program records for shutouts (12) and goals-against average (0.76) during the season, and only gave up three goals to Big Sky opponents during the season, two of which were penalty kicks.
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