WALLA WALLA - A new era for Whitman women's soccer begins in 2010 with Heather Cato taking the reins as head coach of the Missionaries, who are looking to improve on an up and down year that saw the team fall just short of .500.
Cato, who was a four-year starter at Arkansas during her playing days, inherits a roster with a trio of players who appeared in all 19 games for the Missionaries last year, but the squad must also must fill the void left by three of their top four 2009 scorers graduating, including Corrina Gabbert, who knocked home 19 goals last year.
"This is a young team," Cato said. "Still, it's kind of nice to have such a young group because we're changing our system so we can attack more on offense."
The Missionaries have been practicing in both a 3-5-2 and 4-5-1 system, which will raise the tempo and utilize the added depth on its 24-woman roster.
"One of the benefits of having 24 players on the team is the fact that we can practice 11-on-11," Cato said. "It's allowed us to test different combinations to see what works. And, of course the best way to practice and improve is by playing the game how it's actually played."
Junior forward Amy Hasson, who had eight assists and earned all-conference honors in 2009, will be looked upon to lead the offense, while fellow captains defender Libby Watkins and midfielder Jaclyn Rudd figure to control the field.
"Amy is capable doing a lot of scoring for us, and I think she will" Cato said. "All three of our captains have done a great job of showing the newcomers what Whitman's tradition is all about and how to act on and off the field."
Eleven freshmen join Whitman's veteran core, which features only two seniors, defender Kate Newman and forward Kristin Innes.
Among the freshmen, midfielders Hallie Swan, Taylor Thomas, MacKenzie Hughes and defender Pam London appear most likely to see significant time on the pitch.
"With a first year coach and so many freshmen it would be easy to think that this would have to be a rebuilding year," Cato said. "In all honesty though, it isn't. We have enough talent to play at a very high level and compete for the conference championship."
Whitman will also look to fill a void in goal after losing keeper Courtney Porter to graduation. Junior Lauren Brougham looks to be the most likely candidate to take over between the posts, but 5-foot-8 freshman Emily Davis will also get a crack at the position.
"Lauren is comfortable with the intensity at the college level," Cato said. "She also has the confidence that it takes to be a good goalie so right now she pretty much has the spot, but every starter on this team knows one of the most important parts of our system is that every player has to compete every day to keep her spot."
With a new coach and a new team philosophy the Missionaries are poised to get back on the right side of .500 in 2010. Whitman opens in LaGrande, Ore., Friday against Eastern Oregon, and their first home game is Sept. 11 against Northwest Nazarene.
"I'm really excited to compete and take this team in a new direction," Cato said. "The group has really bought into what we are trying to do, and we all believe that we can reach our goal of making it to the postseason. Every day we strive for perfection."