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Long Beach State came into 2011 on the back of a great season that had seen them win fourteen games and the Big West Tournament title but that had also seen them suffer a loss in the NCAA Tournament that might have haunted head coach Mauricio Ingrassia, his side barracking Santa Clara but not finding a way through en route to a first round defeat. There were likely very few regrets a season later as the Beach made the most of their postseason, winning five straight matches to lift the Big West Tournament crown again before an inspired run to the Elite Eight.
It was the latest sign that LBSU is well on its way towards turning into not just one of the region’s top mid-majors but one of the region’s top teams period. It all began with the introduction of Ingrassia as head coach of the 49ers after the abrupt retirement of Peter Reynaud after three seasons in charge. Ingrassia’s coaching star rose meteorically with his team’s fortunes, the 49ers lifting their first major trophy in his third season in charge in 2006 after winning the Big West.
The Beach would repeat the feat the year after, but LBSU wouldn’t taste their first NCAA Tournament until 2008, also a title winning season, the program’s third in a row. Long Beach couldn’t solve their Big West Tournament hoodoo that season but managed to garner an at-large bid at any rate. Coming into 2009 as three-time defending champs, LBSU looked to stamp their claim as a budding Big West dynasty. But instead, the 49ers suffered through a bizarre downturn, ending in their worst season since 2001. The odd thing was LBSU beat teams like Missouri, Harvard, and Pepperdine out of conference but laid an egg in Big West play, only winning one match in conference action all year.
Ingrassia’s side entered 2010 with much to prove to themselves and to the rest of the league as they tried to show they weren’t a fading force in the ultra-competitive Big West. They did so and then some, playing reasonably well before league play with wins over Virginia Tech and Arizona State among their successes. Despite finishing as runners-up in the league, Long Beach needed to win the conference tournament to truly be at ease with their NCAA Tournament hopes. They’d prove to be masters of the Big West Tournament, beating Cal State Northridge and UC Irvine to lift the tournament title before the tough loss in the NCAA Tournament’s opening round.
Aiming to lift some more silverware and make it back-to-back Big Dance appearances, LBSU opened up 2011 with two wins, including a victory over USC that would mean relatively little at the end of the campaign. A trip out to Milwaukee resulted in two close shaves, with the Beach losing by a goal each to Milwaukee and Marquette. It took a while, but the 49ers finally got a much needed quality win with a 1-0 triumph at eventual WCC champs San Diego a few weeks before league play started up.
Three straight wins to open up the Big West campaign had the natives thinking title, but one disastrous weekend that saw the club shutout against Cal State Northridge and arch-rivals UC Irvine saw those hopes seriously dented. Not that Ingrassia’s team didn’t push the issue all the way to the wire, winning their final three matches but being pipped to the title by a point by UCI. LBSU looked to be in good shape for an at-large bid regardless of what happened in the Big West Tournament, but they likely needed one win just to be sure of their fate.
They got it, beating Cal State Northridge in the semi-final, seeing up a rematch against UC Irvine in the final in a reprisal of last season’s title match. And as had been the case in 2010, the 49ers went onto enemy turf and emerged victorious, beating the Anteaters in the final, 1-0, for the second straight season. And like 2011, LBSU was drawn against a fancied WCC team in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. That’s where the similarities stopped though, as the Beach survived a barrage of Pepperdine offense to nick it late in the first half of extra time in a 1-0 win over the Waves.
It was another late show in the second round, with LBSU scoring in the eighty-first minute against Miami (FL) to advance to the team’s first ever Sweet Sixteen. The amazing run continued a few days later as Long Beach State overcame a ferocious downpour and WCC champs San Diego to advance to the Elite Eight after a 1-0 win that extended the club’s unbelievable postseason shutout streak to five matches. Duke and their suffocating defense would just be too good for Long Beach in the last eight though, holding the Beach without a shot on goal and breaking through with two goals in the second half to end Ingrassia’s side’s amazing season.
While coming close to last season’s striking postseason success would be a victory in many regards, the preeminent goal for the Beach this year might be to finally usurp fierce rivals UC Irvine at the top of the Big West. Though LBSU has managed to top their nemesis in the Big West Tournament, they’ve also fallen painfully short in the league against the Anteaters.
Change could be in the air this season though, with the 49ers returning some of the key members of last year’s side for another go of it. First and foremost is the return of senior Nadia Link, one of last year’s breakout stars offensively. Link exploded for sixteen goals and ten assists, including seven game winners, and seemingly carried LBSU on her back across the line at times. The big question is what’s going to be surrounding her on offense though, as the club gets rocked by graduation. Gone are the club’s next four highest scorers, and just one player other than link who scored multiple goals last season returns.
It might mean a renewed emphasis on defense, with the Beach set to return the bulk of last year’s backline. That includes senior Alex Balcer, a budding star in her own right, who also chipped in with four assists last season. LBSU also must replace last year’s starting goalkeeper, Kaitlyn Gustaves, though, meaning Ingrassia will have plenty to think about before season’s start. In a league full of hungry teams, the margin for error is scant, and if the Beach can’t fill some of the holes by the time Big West play rolls around, they may be in a battle for more than just a title.
For the second straight season, Long Beach enters the new campaign with no shortage of questions in between the pipes. It all worked out in the end for the club last year though, with the emergence of Kaitlyn Gustaves as a reliable starter for the club. Gustaves had endured a long and wining career which had seen her stuck as a backup at Oklahoma State before transferring back home before the 2009 season. She initially fared little better with the 49ers, redshirting in 2009 before making a pair of starts in 2010. The hometown heroine would seize her chance with both hands last year though, monopolizing the minutes in goal and earning All-Big West Second Team honors in the process.
The returning keepers are a pair of sophomores who didn’t see action last season and who split duties in the club’s preseason exhibition against San Diego State. There appears to be little separating sophomores Kaci McCain and Marrina Meyers, meaning it’s really anybody’s guess as to which will be in goal on opening night for the 49ers. Given the inexperienced nature of the duo, it’s also questionable as to whether we won’t see both in goal at some point this year. No matter who wins the battle though, it will likely be tough to replicate the form of the departed Gustaves right away.
Given the uncertainty in goal, LBSU will be happy to return most of their defense intact for the new year. The one exception would be attacker Jazz Strozier, who also played a little full-back for the club in her tenure with the Beach. The focal point is likely to be the center-back duo of Alex Balcer and Jordan Nelson, who form a strong spine for the Beach. A former U15 international, Balcer had been a two-year starter for LBSU going into the 2011 season but only really began to receive recognition after a wonderful junior season. The anchor on a great 49er defense, Balcer netted All-Region Second Team honors, as well as Big West Tournament MVP plaudits for her efforts and should again be one of the league’s best defenders in 2012.
Likely partnering her in central defense will be Nelson, one of the program’s many transfer success stories. Unlike some of LBSU’s other expats though, Nelson was already an established starter when she moved to the club before last season. Having been a starter at Loyola Marymount, Nelson made an easy transition to the Beach, starting every match for the club while also netting All-Big West Second Team honors in her first year with the club. There’s a good deal of experience out on the flanks as well for LBSU.
Senior Jenny Soza had played her first two seasons with the club as a forward, taking on the role of key reserve and spot starter while netting a few goals in the process. She made the transition to full-back last season, and it turned out to be an inspired move, as she started every game, though her offensive impact was limited. Soza should be a bit more comfortable in the role a year removed from the switch, meaning she could well blossom this year.
Likely occupying the other slot is junior Kelsey Wilson, another who transferred from Loyola Marymount. She had looked to be a revelation for the Lions early, earning All-Region Third Team honors as a rookie but then transferred and redshirted at LBSU in 2010. Back in action last year, Wilson was superb for her new club, starting every game and generally being a threat both ways with two goals and four assists, including the winner against Miami (FL) in the NCAA Tournament. Wilson’s also capable in midfield, with her versatility just another asset for the San Clemente native.
There’s a little bit of depth as well, though minutes may be limited if the returnees stay on the pitch. Junior Camille Berg has been a solid reserve the past two seasons, including last year, where she saw time in sixteen games for the Beach. Also joining up is sophomore Natalie Zeeni, a transfer from New Mexico, who should at least provide some cover in her first season with the club. Even with the change in goalkeepers, LBSU’s defense should still be in fine form with all of last year’s starters returning, meaning this unit should be among the league’s best in 2012.
The midfield could be a problematic area for the 49ers in 2012 with the loss of a pair of starters, including heavy hitter Shawna Gordon. A U20 international, Gordon leaves Long Beach State as the reigning Big West Midfielder of the Year and a All-Region First Team selection after a spectacular senior season. Gordon entered the 2011 season having been a three-year starter who had been coming off a junior year that had seen her rack up four goals and seven assists for the Beach. She’d continue her offensive ways last year, finishing with a whopping seven goals and ten assists for LBSU. That included a goal and four assists in the win over St. Mary’s (CA) in one of the season’s best individual performances. She slowed a bit on the scoresheet down the stretch but was still a tremendous performer for the club throughout her career.
Also departing is Sidney Garza, who began her career as a defender at St. Mary’s (CA) and ended up playing a major role for Long Beach State for the final two years of her collegiate career. Garza was a mainstay in the starting lineup, starting all but one game for the Beach last year and even throwing in a couple of assists for the club as a senior. Depth takes a bit of a hit as well with the loss of graduated senior Marysol Rosas, who made nine starts as a junior in 2010 before taking more of a reserve role last year. Rosas would net a brace in the clubs’ rout of Cal Poly but missed the final six games of the season for the Beach.
Sophomore Taylor Nelson, sister of defender Jordan, is the lone returning starter in midfield for the Beach this season, which is a bit foreboding for LBSU considering she’s entering only her second season with the club. Nelson was more than up to the task as a rookie though, winning a spot in the starting lineup eighteen times and dropping in four assists for the Beach. Nelson also netted the game winner against UC Davis and should continue to develop into a fine midfielder for LBSU.
The only other real tenured returnee is junior Kassidy Hause, a hometown product who’s been mostly used as a reserve this far. Limited somewhat by injury early last year, Hause nonetheless managed four starts in fourteen appearances and could be in line for more minutes this year. As you might expect, rookies and newcomers will play a major role in midfield this year. The addition of junior Eileen Maes could be a huge one after the Washington State transfer had a fine year with the Cougars last season. Maes totaled nine goals combined in her two years on the Palouse and could add some much needed experience and firepower to a rebuilding midfield.
Also arriving via the transfer route is Mexican U20 international Jessica Oseguera. Oseguera has spent the last two seasons at Middle Tennessee State and started twenty-one matches in two years while netting four assists last year for the Blue Raiders. Ingrassia will be hoping she can acclimate to her new surroundings quickly, because she may be needed in the starting lineup sooner rather than later. The club also adds highly touted rookie Kiana Mendoza to their ranks. Impressive for Arsenal FC in ECNL action, Mendoza could well make an early impact for the Beach this season. Given the losses endured by this unit, the midfield could very much be a work in progress this season and looks potentially problematic should the newcomers not pan out right away for LBSU.
While Link is without a doubt one of the nation’s premier scorers, the question is if Long Beach State will have anything to surround her with. The club loses some serious firepower around her, potentially making Link’s life much more difficult this season. Towering attacker Nicole Hubbard was equally competent either up front or in defense but ended up doing considerable damage in the attack as a senior last season. Eight goals was good enough for second on the team, and Hubbard added five assists to that haul as well. The big senior was on fire in the middle of the season, scoring six goals in five games, including a hat trick against St. Mary’s (CA).
Another versatile departure is Jazz Strozier, who had a great second act to her collegia career after initially being a star at JUCO level with Ventura College. Though she struggled in 2010, another year to acclimate proved a godsend, and Strozier netted four goals and two assists as a senior, including the winner against UC Irvine in the Big West Tournament final. Strozier’s versatility and ability to play just about anywhere on the pitch will also be missed.
Also gone is Nicole Sweetman, who started her career at UCLA but ended up playing a large role for LBSU later in her career. She’d only start ten games last year, but Sweetman would enjoy her most successful season in front of goal by far, with six goals, including four against league opponents and a goal and an assist in the Big West Tournament against Cal State Northridge. Depth takes a bit of a hit as well with the loss of freshman Sarah Dryden, who made sixteen appearances as a rookie last year.
With all those losses, LBSU will be even more dependent on the goals of Link, a newly crowned U23 international who enjoyed a meteoric rise in 2011. Link had previously proven herself to be a dangerous threat in front of goal, most notably in 2010, when she scored eight goals for the surging 49ers. But little could’ve prepared anyone for the offensive explosion that came last year, where sixteen goals and ten assists made her an easy pick for Big West Offensive Player of the Year and Third Team All-America honors. Link needs ten goals to break the club’s all-time goals record and looks a good bet to do so this year, with a good many chances likely to fall to the Walnut native in her senior season.
It’s paramount Ingrassia finds a complement to Link up top though, because otherwise, she could be hounded by defensive pressure all season long. Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot there on paper. Junior Sierra Mack was a top reserve last year after sitting two seasons out, but the Anaheim native was hardly prolific in front of goal, scoring just once in her sophomore season in a blowout against St. Mary’s (CA). Likewise, neither sophomore Ashley Roese nor senior Shannon Bullock made a consistent impact in front of goal, though the former did have one of the season’s most memorable moments as she scored the winner against San Diego in the NCAA Tournament.
Link will undoubtedly get her fair share of goals this season for LBSU…it’s just a question of whether everyone else will be able to get enough to boost the 49ers to great heights this season, a proposition that looks shaky when you consider all that’s lost.
Every true contender needs a top notch striker, and Long Beach State has one in Link, who should again be a big-time threat in front of goal for the 49ers. Additionally, the team’s strong rearguard basically returns intact for the new season, meaning the Beach should, at the least, be a stingy side that doesn’t concede too terribly match to opponents. But there are notable holes on the club. The goalkeeping situation is worrisome, with two untested sophomores having to step up to replace the solid Gustaves in goal. There are even concerns going forward, where the midfield needs to be retooled and the frontline needing some weapons other than Link to step up.
Ingrassia’s been a shrewd developer of talent acquired as both freshmen and transfers though, and you wouldn’t bet against him finding solutions to some of those problems by season’s end. Sooner would be much better than later though, as the Beach’s season may start out comfortably, but it gets rockier in non-conference play, with Baylor, BYU, Michigan, and Texas A&M coming in quick succession in August and September. If Ingrassia gets the club humming on all cylinders, more Big West silverware and perhaps a win or two in the NCAA Tournament is possible. But a repeat run to the Elite Eight looks unlikely with the losses suffered in the offseason.