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UNM women’s soccer team opens vs. coach’s alma mater

This time, it will begin on time.

And what timing for the University of New Mexico women’s soccer team.

With a little luck and a lot of irony, the Lobos open their 2015 season tonight against the defending national champions and the country’s preseason No. 1-ranked Florida State Seminoles.

Irony?

Yep, the ‘Noles are also the alma mater of first-year Lobos coach Heather Dyche.

“How exciting is that?,” Dyche told the Journal this week. “I’m proud to be a Florida State alum, and I am always pulling for them. I will be pulling for them again on Sunday and against anyone they play – except UNM.”

New Mexico and Florida State play tonight at 7:30, after the 5 p.m. game between 23rd-ranked USC and 13th-ranked Texas Tech (rankings according to TopDrawerSoccer) in the four-team Lobo Invitational at the UNM Soccer Complex.

On Sunday, the Lobos play Texas Tech at 1 p.m. and Florida State faces USC at 10:30 a.m.

UNM goalkeeper Cassie Ulrich positions teammates during Monday’s match against Fort Lewis College. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

UNM goalkeeper Cassie Ulrich positions teammates during Monday’s match against Fort Lewis College. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

It’s a heckuva 1-2 season-opening punch for the Lobos, who are picked to finish tied for fourth in the Mountain West Conference. The MWC campaign doesn’t begin for more than a month, but New Mexico could put itself on the national soccer radar with a couple of strong performances this weekend.

“It’s a win-win situation for us to (open with these games),” said Lobo senior Dylann O’Connor. “I think that every year we just try to continue relationships with the community, and now Heather brings a great fan base, too. I think we will have a larger attendance than we’ve ever had.”

Senior goalkeeper Cassie Ulrich agrees that playing a pair of powerhouses is a great way to start the season, and she thinks the Lobos – who had an incredibly tumultuous season in 2014 – will be ready “because we’ve paid attention to our preparation and our coaching,” said the Rio Rancho High graduate. “We’ve adapted and learned. It’s really put us in a good position.”

That adaptation and learning came from having an entirely new coaching staff. A year ago, things were far from rosy for the Lobos after they had a team initiation scandal that resulted in two of the team’s nine freshmen being taken to the hospital for excessive alcohol consumption. Two freshman quit the team the next day, and an investigation led to then-head coach Kit Vela being suspended for one week without pay, two assistants getting letters of reprimand and all players – except the freshmen – being suspended for one game because of hazing.

Athletic director Paul Krebs also canceled the Lobos’ season opener at Texas Tech.

Vela’s contract was not renewed after the season, and she was replaced by Dyche, an Albuquerque native who was a two-sport standout at Eldorado High. She hired an entirely new staff and started anew.

The Lobos finished strong last year, winning seven of eight games before an overtime loss to Wyoming in the semifinals of the conference tournament. UNM was 10-6-2 overall and 7-2-2 in conference.

Dyche said the team has responded remarkably well to the coaching change, and its attitude has been “just great.”

The Lobos started a bit slowly in the spring exhibition season but showed a great amount of improvement each game.

They lost 3-0 to Arizona State and 6-1 to Brigham Young in a pair of games in Tempe, Ariz. But they closed the spring season with four straight wins – against Denver, Fort Lewis, Texas Tech and UTEP – by a combined 10-1 margin.

“The spring season was all about learning,” said junior Olivia Ferrier, a Volcano Vista graduate. “We got to see everyone’s personality, and everyone was competing for playing time. Everyone was counting on their teammates, and it made us grow even closer, a lot closer.”

UNM women’s soccer head coach Heather Dyche watches Monday’s action against Fort Lewis from the bench. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

UNM women’s soccer head coach Heather Dyche watches Monday’s action against Fort Lewis from the bench. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

That closeness seemingly continued during the Lobos’ 3-1 exhibition win against Fort Lewis on Monday in their only summer/fall exhibition game.

“It was a great opportunity for the players to go against somebody other than each other,” Dyche said. “We got to play 28 players, so it was a very good experience.”

So, are they playing as well as possible for this time of the year?

“Our goal is to be playing our best come Mountain West Conference time,” Dyche said. “We’re not anticipating to be at our best yet. I hope we’re not. We want to keep improving and get to the NCAA Tournament.”

Dyche said the freshman class, which was recruited by Vela, has been a “pleasant surprise. I wasn’t sure how they would respond (to the coaching change), but they have really been good.”

The old staff also made this year’s schedule, which made it ironic that the opener was against Dyche’s alma mater.

“You can’t write a better script for us,” Dyche said last week.

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