Dynamic offense, stifling defense lead Gonzaga to first national ranking since 2005 | Gonzaga University

Dynamic offense, stifling defense lead Gonzaga to first national ranking since 2005 | Gonzaga University

Maddie Kemp stepped up in front of the cameras, her persona oozing with confidence.

And why shouldn’t she be?

The redshirt sophomore is on an absolute tear to begin the season, scoring eight goals in 10 matches – good for seventh in the country and tops in the West Coast Conference – helping charge the Gonzaga women’s soccer team toward its first national ranking since 2005.

Kemp leads the nation in shots on goal per game at 3.1, and her 5.4 shots are third.

When she woke up on Tuesday, she said she didn’t expect to be ranked, but that the team deserved its ranking.

“The reason I chose to come here my sophomore year of high school was for us to achieve that, and it feels better to be part of something that wasn’t already in the top 25 and to work into the top 25,” Kemp said. “It feels really good.”

Head coach Chris Watkins and Kemp worked to adjust her role this season after playing as a No. 9 – a true striker – last season.

Kemp finished fifth in the country with 52 goals her senior year as a Camas Papermaker. Then, her redshirt freshman year, she scored two goals in nine games.

An adjustment before this season sat her back in an attacking midfield role. It has allowed her to focus less on pressing and more on finding the back of the net.

“If we’re smart, we can still find her enough shots to still feed a great goal scorer,” Watkins said. “And we’ve been able to do that so far, but some teams are going to adjust to that and probably get harder as we go.”

While the attack has been dynamic, the defense has stonewalled every opponent who has tried to put one past keeper Lyza Bosselmann.

The Bulldogs have scored 34 goals while giving up three goals while earning seven clean sheets.

Nationally, GU has sprung to the top of most statistical categories.

Its 34 goals are the second-most and 28 assists are seventh-most. On the backend, the Zags are fifth with a .30 goals against per game and sixth in save percentage with 91.4%. GU hasn’t even allowed a goal in the last 324 minutes of gameplay.

The lack of goals allowed definitely falls on the keeper who is the last line of defense, but Bosselmann said to look a line in front of her at her defenders.

She focused on her two senior leaders in Haley Archuleta and Jordan Thompson – the two lead the team in minutes played. They headline a veteran-laden backline.

Watkins said the team from front to back is unique in they all press to win the ball back. Defensive success is only possible if the team commits to it.

While the players were excited about the ranking – and rightfully so – Watkins was there to temper the celebration, saying there is still business to attend to. One thing that he wants to see is another winning season to make it five-straight – which is a feat considering the program has only had eight total in 30 or so seasons. But at 9-1-0 the Zags are three wins away from cementing the winning season streak. It also is their best start to a season in franchise history.

Watkins was still prepared to celebrate with his team after practice on Wednesday, but he said only for five minutes before they move on and focus on the rest of the season, specifically for this weekend.

The Zags play Nebraska-Omaha on Saturday at 7 p.m. at Luger Field, then host BYU a week later. The Cougars were ranked all season until this week when they dropped out of the top 25.

On Oct. 9, Santa Clara comes to Spokane for what GU hopes will be a battle of two ranked teams.

The Bulldogs will get to test their chops very early in WCC play. Historically, the WCC has been a breeding ground of high-end soccer talent.

“If we finished the season with one loss, then I’ll be surprised,” Watkins said. “Because it’s a tough season. And the West Coast Conference is one of the very top conferences in the country. So, we’ve got a long road ahead, but where we’re at today, not super surprising.”

Most recently, Santa Clara won the 2020 NCAA Tournament, knocking off Florida State to take home the title.

Currently, Pepperdine (6) and Santa Clara (19) are ranked in the West Coast Conference.

“So we’re hopeful,” Watkins said of competing in the WCC. “But as you’ll see in training everyday, we don’t take our foot off the gas, we’re going and we’ll let the chips fall where they may.”

Cougars climb standings

The Zags aren’t the only women’s program in the area who have gotten off to a torrid start.

The Washington State Cougars, who made the College Cup in 2019, have gone 6-1-1 in first month of the season.

Fifth-year player Sydney Pulver has seen the program rise over the last few seasons, seeing the Cougs make the NCAA Tournament every season they were held.

She also will tie the all-time games played list for WSU with 86 when she appears during the Arizona game on Friday at 5 p.m. in Pullman.

The Cougs have spent half their season on the road so far, strengthening their confidence to win anywhere. With more than half of their games away from Pullman, it was important to schedule away from home and the wins have trickled down confidence to the team.

Being picked to finish fifth in the conference also caused a little added motivation to the start of the season and that energy was definitely passed on to Pulver.

“It’s our time to shine in the Pac-12,” Pulver said. “We’ve been very close to the top, and we always make a run in the postseason. So it’s definitely time that we make it a presence with who we are.”

The defense has given up three goals and have kept six clean sheets. Pulver sits just above the backline and center back Bridget Rieken, the commander of the defense.

Rieken, a junior, played at Lake City High School in Coeur d’Alene. The former Timberwolf is second on the team in minutes played and has three goals and assist.

“Bridget is a great leader back there,” Pulver said. “And very good on the ball and off the ball and defending and heading. She organizes the backline very well as well as the rest of the team. And she has been scoring a lot of goals this year, which is great with her being a center back.”

The offense has been led by 10 different players scoring a goal which helps keep the defense from honing in on one player.

WSU is led is scoring by Elyse Bennett and Grayson Lynch who each have found the back of the net five times.

Idaho has historic start

Also topping their best start in program history, the Idaho Vandals matched the Cougs at 6-1-1.

Idaho was projected to finish fourth in the Big Sky, but currently, they top the league through nonconference play. Head coach Jeremy Clevenger said his team didn’t look at the projections, instead playing within themselves, worrying about their play on the field.

“We’re focusing on us and how we can be the best team and we have aspirations for competing for a championship,” Clevenger said.

It starts with in the back with two fifth-year type defenders in Taylor Brust and Kathryn Blickenstaff. Both 5-foot-8 defenders play every minute and lock down the center of defense.

Up top, two Spokane-area players: Margo Schoesler and Maddy Lasher.

Schoesler played at Mead High School, and Lasher was a Timberwolf.

The sophomore Lasher leads the Vandals with three goals.

“We’re very excited about her,” Clevenger said. “She is kind of the tip of our attack, she is she is very athletic, can play in a lot of different ways. She can play back to goal, she can run at defenders one v. one. I think she’s great in the box, just kind of poaching goals.”

Schoesler, also a sophomore, has been key to the link up play and to hold the ball up in transition.

“She’s just so good,” Clevenger said. “She can do pretty much anything; she has the ability to strike the ball well from distance. A smart player too, as well. Those two players are very critical to our success.”

Big Sky play begins Friday at 6 p.m. in Ogden, Utah against Weber State.

“It’s just about refining things, sharpening things,” Clevenger said. “You get in conference, it gets sometimes a little bit tighter, more physical. We just want to take care of ourselves, have confidence and continue on what we’ve done and get better.”

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