WALLA WALLA - With a roster anchored by a bevy of returning veterans, the Whitman College women's soccer team is poised to leapfrog its way up the Northwest Conference standings this fall.
"There is no way we're not going to have a significantly better season than a year ago," second-year coach Heather Cato said.
"We have seven seniors who can play and some juniors who contribute as well," she said. "We have experience, talent and depth, and our mental toughness and teamwork are better than it was last year.
"We're excited about getting started. We think we're going to have an amazing season."
Losing seven games by a single goal last fall, Whitman finished seventh in the NWC standings with a 4-10-2 record (6-11-2 overall).
A recent preseason coaches poll, however, picked the Missionaries to finish fourth in 2011.
"If we accomplish all of our little goals along the way, we've got a good chance to finish in the top three," Cato said.
The seven savvy seniors at the tip of the 2011 spear are midfielders Amy Hasson, Taylor Chock and Marisol Fonzeca, defenders Libby Watkins, Kate Potter and Claire Westcott and goalkeeper Lauren Brougham.
"This is a senior class that will make a big difference this season and in the next few years as well," Cato says. "They will help grow our program for the future because all of the younger players respect them and continue to learn from them.
Throw in junior Erin Flannery, who made the All-NWC Second Team last fall, and "you've got a very solid, experienced defense," Cato said.
"We have some talented younger defenders, but it might be hard for any of them to break up those four. They have played together a lot and, if anything, they solidified themselves as a unit during our summer games in England."
As she did a year ago, Brougham is battling sophomore Emily Davis for the goalkeeper's spot.
Brougham played in 14 games last fall, starting 10 and posting one shutout. Davis had a pair of shut-outs in five starts.
"Both of our keepers played well in England," Cato says. "Both impressed me. They did a much better job of talking on the field, moving their defense and letting people know when they weren't happy. That's what we need."
Cato has yet to name a starting goalkeeper, and there's a definite possibility the assignment could be shared throughout the season.
Joining Flannery in the junior class are midfielders Jaclyn Rudd and Julianne Masser, midfielder-forward Marisa Poorboy and forward Misha Evertz.
Of the eight returning sophomores, midfielders Hallie Swan and MacKenzie Hughes saw the most playing time in their rookie seasons.
Whitman's depth at the outside midfield spots will come in handy, Cato said. "We're going to need more than just a few. Those players will be running constantly during the games."
Other returning sophomores are forward Pamela London, midfielders Kelsey Roehner and Liz Clagett, and defenders Sara Sonnenblick and Taylor Thomas.
This year's first-year class includes a pair of top-notch defenders in Raechel Gano out of Sammamish High in Bellevue and Nicolette Carnahan from Thomas Jefferson in Federal Way, Wash.
Helen Brown, a first-year player from McLean, Va., is changing positions this fall, moving to forward after playing defense during her prep career at The Field School in Washington, D.C.
Rounding out the first-year class are midfielders Justine Kovak (Portland, Ore.; St. Mary's Academy) and Jade Anderson (Claremont, Calif.; Claremont HS).
While her defense might be more of a proven commodity, Cato is confident her offense will produce more scoring in the weeks ahead.
"We didn't create enough scoring chances last season, which meant we were in trouble when we failed to capitalize on what few opportunities we had," she said.
"Based on what we saw in our eight games in England we're going to create a lot more quality chances this season. If you have 15 to 20 chances, it's a lot easier to get three or more goals."
Whitman kicks off its season at home against Eastern Oregon University at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday.
After road games in Minnesota against Augsburg College on Sept. 8 and Bethel University on Sept. 10, Whitman returns home to open its NWC season against Whitworth on Sept. 14.