Highlands women's soccer growing

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By Dave Kavanaugh

Growth has been the operative word in describing the recent path of New Mexico Highlands women’s soccer program.

Growth in fan interest? Uh huh. Crowds have been increasingly robust at Perkins Stadium in support of the Cowgirls, particularly in comparison with the friends-and-family-only turnout of the program’s early years.

Growth in a chronological sense? It’s been a decade and a half since Highlands added the sport, making Cowgirl soccer a teenager.

Growth in competitiveness? You bet. Although the program has had its moments — notably, a first-ever playoff appearance a few years back — the recent trend has been promising.

In 2009, head coach Justin Wagar’s first season at the helm, the squad finished 4-16. But get this — the Cowgirls were a respectable 3-7 at home, and they won two of their last three overall, punctuating the campaign with an 8-0 blowout of Nebraska-Kearney. Of the team’s 16 losses, seven were decided by a single goal.

“We started nine freshmen last year,” Wagar noted. “We were a really, really young group. Not knocking freshmen, but it’s hard to be competitive when you’re so young. This year we’ve got leadership and talent. Those same girls bring another year of experience, and they’re fit and ready.”

With nearly a dozen players returning and welcoming eight transfers and another half dozen freshmen, NMHU enjoys unprecedented depth this fall. And Wagar is pumped up about all of them.

The returners:

• Krista Mashak, whose three goals paced the team in ‘09. “She will probably be our central forward,” Wagar said. “She has improved a lot.”

• Goalkeeper duo Shannon Delarosbil and Scottie Prince. Delarosbil began as a backup and shared time at the net last season but finished as a starter. Prince returns from a year off.

• Ashley Kramer, “a fast, fast player,” in her coach’s words, and an all-league defender.

• Durable Heidi Nakoaka and Susannah Hertz, each of whom started all 20 games in ‘09. Los Alamos native Nakoaka, who’s recovering from knee surgery, is “a little fighter,” said Wagar. Hertz is a likely starter in the midfield.

• Amanda Piho, who Wagar calls “a great girl” and a veteran who can play either the middle or up front.

• Yolanda Elias, Cianna Chun-Ming, Aztec product Erika Miller and Heather Jensen, who got more and more time late in the year once she got healthy.

In addition to being pleased with his returning group, Wagar is enthused about his first major recruiting class as a Highlands coach.

“I took the job last year about three weeks before the signing date,” he recalled, “and that’s just not enough time to fill all the positions you need.”

Consequently, when the injury bug bit last season, it kind of hurt. Probably the most severe injury in more ways than one came when Jessica Heninger — one of the anticipated team leaders — was sidelined with a particularly troublesome concussion. Other key players, including Piho, missed significant time along the way, thinning the ranks.

This fall, after a full recruiting season with which to work, Wagar bolstered team depth with coveted talent.

Julissa Rodriguez, a transfer from Columbia Basin College, was a league MVP in the NWAACC with 28 goals to her credit. She is projected as part of a strong front line that also includes sophomore Mariana Brito Neves (a Brazilian by way of Arizona) and freshman Ariana Strickland.

The team is rounded out by Amanda Rose Johnson, Brooke Schmelter, Chelsea Carew, Britney Cottrell, Jordan Dineen, Ashley Haprov, Nicole Plaska, Jamie Sawchuk, Casey Rubin, Taylor Gonzalez, Tierra Saban and Jessica Williams.

“We’ve got a good group,” Wagar said. “With the goals we have, these girls are shooting for the stars.”

The Cowgirls seek a return to the postseason and the program’s first winning record, along with a high finish in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference.

That won’t be easy, given that four RMAC teams made it to last year’s NCAA Division II tournament. Metro State was ranked high as No. 3 in the nation, and Fort Lewis, Colorado School of Mines and Regis all joined the Roadrunners in soccer’s big dance for Division II.

But even with a youngish crew a season ago, the Cowgirls put up a fight. Against mighty Metro on Oct. 18, the team hung tough until the Roadrunners slipped in front on a second-half goal.

This past offseason has offered more glimpses of promise. Highlands tied both NCAA Division I New Mexico State and West Texas A&M, a Division II Elite Eight team last season.

Will this latest growth spurt translate into a first winning season? Wagar says stay tuned.

The season begins on Labor Day weekend with a trip to Phoenix, where the Cowgirls play St. Martin’s on Sept. 5 and Grand Canyon on Sept. 7. The home opener is Sept. 10 against Eastern New Mexico.