Reaching unprecedented heights awaits the New Mexico soccer program as it eyes a third straight Mountain West Conference championship and a third consecutive NCAA Tournament berth.
Both would be firsts for the Lobos, who open their season Thursday night at home against No. 6 Rutgers.
“For us, what makes us successful is who we are,” said coach Heather Dyche, who enters her eighth season at the helm. “This is an incredible group. Pretty cool kids. They’re humble, hard-working, bad-ass young women and I feel so privileged that I get to coach them. At the end of the day, these championships are cool and very rewarding, but I wouldn’t trade my time with these women for anything.”
New Mexico will have a bit of a new look. Longtime goalkeeper Emily Johnson has finally moved on, as has holding midfielder Alexa Kirton, who is playing professionally overseas after setting a Lobos career minutes-played record.
Most likely redshirt sophomore Allie Davis will be stepping into the net, and Dyche said she’s earned her shot as No. 1.
“This will be her third year, but her first year playing,” the coach said. “She played a ton in the spring. She’s special, but it’s a different kind of pressure when the whistle blows. So we’ll see.”
To replace Kirton, a player Dyche called the “heart of our team for the past two years,” the Lobos are looking at some new, to-be-determined faces while rolling out a revised alignment with two holding midfielders playing in front of a veteran defensive back line.
The idea is to put speedy Zaria Katesigwa, a scoring sensation as a freshman with 10 goals and three assists, up top with Leilani Baker, who is coming off two injury-marred seasons after leading the team in goals in 2019 with seven.
This will free up dynamic playmaker Jadyn Edwards, who finished with 11 goals and nine assists, to freely roam about the midfield wreaking her special kind of havoc.
With a mostly tried and true cast returning, however, the Lobos know that once conference play hits, they are going to be singled out for everybody’s best effort.
“We kinds of experienced that last season, having that target on our back,” Edwards said. “Kind of being the team to beat, which I think is a huge honor in itself, but it’s kind of fun to play that way. Everyone is gunning for you. Everyone wants to beat you. And that makes them play better, which make us play better.”
Katesigwa, an Albuquerque High alum, is looking forward to showing that her rookie season was no fluke.
“I’m not even looking at last year. I’m just trying to improve on what I need to do,” she said. “And every game is a just a step forward in being better. I’m also trying to give other freshmen confidence as I did receive from the other veterans. And obviously, pushing people around me as well as myself while learning what I need to improve on. Yeah, I scored a bunch, but there is always room for improvement.”
Kicking off the season against a program like Rutgers coming to Albuquerque confirms how far UNM has grown, Edwards said.
“I think our program has come a long way, especially in the five years I’ve been here even,” she said. “In my freshman year, I wouldn’t even think we’d have this type of team coming to us. With the success that we’ve had, these types of teams just want to play us. To see how we stack up against them is huge for us, too, and to see how we can be like them and be better. It’s a huge honor and a great challenge, for sure.”