After sharing the regular season Big West Conference title and losing in the Big West tournament title match last season, the Mustang women’s soccer team is poised for a defining year.
“Just saying ‘a goal away’ is just a slap in the face,” senior midfielder Camille Lafaix said. “It reminds me of how angry and upset the whole team was last year, and honestly, because we got so close, it makes us even hungrier. Getting so close makes everyone believe that we can do even better.”
Lafaix is among the six starters returning for the Mustangs, a group led by head coach Alex Crozier, who’s entering his 30th year at the program’s helm.
Crozier believes the mindset has changed. Going into last season, the Mustangs were picked to finish seventh in the Big West standings by the conference’s head coaches. This season, they are picked to finish second with five first-place votes. According to Crozier, the shift in expectations has led to an “increased level of play.”
“We have a pretty experienced group coming back,” Crozier said. “Our goals are obvious; we want to finish first in the conference, win the conference tournament and go deep into the NCAA tournament. I think those are all realistic. I think last year was a realization that ‘hey, we can do this, we can get this done.’ Within that, the level of training has been pretty high. They know what it takes.”
The Mustangs dominated the Big West conference last year, going 8-2 without dropping a game inside Alex G. Spanos Stadium. The team’s winning is expected to continue thanks to the return of their top two goal scorers: Lafaix and senior forward Nikki Trucco. The dynamic duo accounted for 18 goals and four assists in 2021. However, their roles have evolved into more than just offense this season.
“[Lafaix and Trucco] are demanding of their teammates what they demand of themselves,” Crozier said. “I think they do a good job of showing that. It’s important for the players to see their teammates’ work rather than just what they say. It’s that type of leadership, and it’s infectious.”
Lafaix was named to the Hermann Trophy Watch list, an award presented annually by the Missouri Athletic Club to the Women’s National Player of the Year — collegiate soccer’s most prestigious individual award. Lafaix became the first Mustang to be named to the preseason watch list.
She was also named a “Midfielder to Watch” by the United Soccer Coaches, alongside teammates sophomore defender Emma Brown and Trucco, who were named “Defender to Watch” and “Forward to Watch,” respectively. Both Trucco and Lafaix were selected to the Preseason Big West All-Conference team as well.
Trucco echoed the team-first message that has been permeating throughout summer camp.
“I want to win — I love winning,” Trucco said. “Last year I was a goal scorer. That’s how I fit into the team. However, if I have more of an assisting role this year or whatever role I can do to help the team win, that’s my biggest thing.”
With all that returns, the Mustangs still lost key players in defensive leader Danielle Anderson and forward Brooke Rubinstein. According to Trucco, these boots are still trying to be filled by the influx of new additions.
“We lost some key players like Brooke Rubinstein in her assisting,” Trucco said. “That’s the biggest way we play and score goals: locating those balls wide and driving them across to the goal. We are missing that connection right now and need to figure it out.”
With the mixture of an experienced core and some new faces, the team will look to be ready to go by the conference schedule thanks to a tough non-conference set of matchups.
“Our pre-conference schedule this year, I know, is more difficult than it was last year,” Crozier said. “It all kinda builds to get us ready for conference.”
This conference schedule starts at home against rival UC Santa Barbara in the annual Blue-Green game on Thursday, Sept. 15 at 7 p.m.
With all that returns and new starters’ leaps, the question was imposed on team captain Lafaix; is it championship or bust?
“Yeah, fully, we all know that’s the end goal,” Lafaix said. “If that doesn’t happen, it is an opportunity missed.”
Watch a Mustang News recap of the women’s soccer opener here.