NAU soccer striving for Big Sky title in 2021

The NAU women’s soccer team celebrates after scoring a goal against University of Houston at Lumberjack Stadium, Sept. 27, 2019.

The span of time between NAU soccer’s last match and its 2021 season opener will be 492 days. The Lumberjacks’ last match took place Nov. 6, 2019, a 2-1 overtime loss to the University of Northern Colorado in the first round of the Big Sky Soccer Championship. 

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Big Sky postponed the 2020 fall season and pushed it back to spring 2021. There will be no out-of-conference opponents for the Lumberjacks as they will only face off against their Big Sky rivals. 

It has been a tedious offseason for NAU soccer as players and coaches were forced to grind and stay strong through a long delay until the spring. Specifically for seniors, it has forced a change in mindset.

“For a normal year for seniors, you’re done in the fall and you don’t compete your spring season,” senior goalkeeper Taryn Benham said. “It’s not an ideal situation for anyone, so it’s just all about having a positive attitude about it and a growth mindset. I wanted them to see that we’re [the seniors] even more motivated to get better over the fall and be prepared for our final spring season.” 

This is head coach Kylie Louw’s second season with the team after taking over for longtime coach Andre Luciano, who spent 18 seasons with the program. 

In 2019, NAU finished with an overall record of 8-8-3 with a 4-3-2 record in conference play, achieving fourth place in the Big Sky. During the season, NAU established a program record in minutes without conceding a goal and led the conference in fewest goals allowed. 

Like many head coaches in sports nowadays, Louw has adjusted with the times and communicated with her players in different ways during the long layoff.

“The biggest thing to navigate was how they were doing,” Louw said. “It just made us as coaches shift the intention of what we were trying to do. It came more about how the student-athlete was doing and how we could keep them safe and healthy.”

NAU lost several key players to graduation, including forward Tatum Heeres, midfielder Mei-Te Coco and defender Amanda Bennett. 

However, the Lumberjacks return their two leading scorers from last season in junior defender Madison Montgomery, who recorded seven goals and two assists in 2019,  and senior forward Paige Maling, who scored five with two assists. Junior forward Sam Larberg and senior midfielder Kayla Terhune return and look to be key contributors after dishing out three assists each in 2019. Senior defender Emma Robson, who scored two goals as a defender last season, will lead the backline. 

Benham will play her third consecutive season as the full-time goalkeeper for NAU. In 2018, Benham burst onto the Big Sky scene with 66 saves, 10 shutouts and a record of 9-5-4. She broke the NAU record for longest streak without conceding a goal. She also was named Big Sky Co-Goalkeeper of the Year and earned All-Conference First Team honors. Last season, Benham recorded 53 saves and five shutouts with an 8-7-3 record.

Benham, like the rest of the team, adjusted to the long layoff while still preparing to be at her best for the 2021 season. 

“I started watching a little bit more film than I would normally do just because it was hard to get out, especially when you are supposed to be social distancing from people,” Benham said.

There will be no fans in attendance for this season due to the pandemic. However, this allows the players to enjoy the game purely for the love of the sport while not having to focus on external pressures. 

 “You don’t do it for the fans,” Benham said. “You do it because you love the sport.” 

With NAU playing only eight conference matches this season, the focus is to win the Big Sky Conference title, and with their returning players and a handful of leaders, NAU will be a team that can compete for that title.

After a 492-day layoff, the players are more than excited to get back on the pitch. 

“They want to play and are dying to play,” Louw said. 

NAU will kick off its season March 12 against Weber State University at Lumberjack Stadium.