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Electrifying start leads Utah women's soccer team to 2-0 win over Utah State

Natalie Vukic celebrates her goal as No. 23 Utah Soccer advanced to the third round of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history with a 2-1 win over No. 10 Florida State Friday, Nov. 18, 2016.
Natalie Vukic celebrates her goal as No. 23 Utah Soccer advanced to the third round of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history with a 2-1 win over No. 10 Florida State Friday, Nov. 18, 2016.
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SALT LAKE CITY — The University of Utah women's soccer team hosted its in-state rivals, the Utah State Aggies, Thursday night at Ute Field, in the annual clash between the state universities. The Utes have dominated the all-time series, claiming 14 wins in 19 contests, including a resounding victory in Logan last season. Utah has been especially impressive at home against Utah State, posting an 8-1-0 record. And yet, the last time the game was played in Salt Lake, just two years ago, the Aggies defeated the Utes. That victory, in particular, seemed to set the stage for a fierce and competitive contest.

The Utes had other plans.

Utah netted two rapid-fire goals in the opening minutes of the game and then gutted their way to a 2-0 victory.

“You want to be a team that starts fast,” said Utah head coach Rich Manning. “I think the girls were focused, but they were also energized by the crowd. This was a great environment to play in.”

Whatever the reason, the Utes' start was somewhat difficult to comprehend. Less than a minute into the game forward Natalie Vukic emerged with the ball on the left wing, and, with what seemed to be little to no effort at all, drilled a shot into the far side of the net.

“I don’t even know what happened. It happened really fast,” said Vukic. “We wanted to come out with a lot of intensity in this game. I had a lot of space up top, and I just kind of went for it. It was kind of a blur.”

Before the Ute crowd could finish celebrating that score, Utah struck again, this time off the foot of freshman defensive back Tatum Thornton.

The goal, the first of her Utah career, was almost a perfect mirror image of Vukic’s. Thornton raced up the right wing, beat the nearest Aggie defensive back, and then delivered a perfect shot into the far left corner of the net.

“I don’t know if we have let Tatum pass the half line in practice or not. She is supposed to be a defender,” joked Manning. “Both goals came from the wide positions though, and we have been working hard on that the past few weeks.”

Vukic backed up her coach, noting “we just said, ‘Be aggressive. Be intense’. That was our mindset and for us that means go to goal.”

With the Utes' electrifying start, the Aggies could have easily folded, and, for the first 10 minutes or so, it seemed that was what happened. Utah controlled possession, appeared faster to the ball, and stronger once they had it. Somehow, Utah State held firm, and as more time passed the game began to turn in the Aggies' favor.

“Once they settled in, I thought Utah State did a great job,” said Manning. “They could have lost their composure completely, but they settled down and posed a few challenges for us.”

Utah State was particularly improved in the second half, breaking down the Ute defense on many occasions. Unfortunately for the visitors, the final touch just wasn’t there. Multiple Aggie shot-attempts sailed wide of the goal, or, as was more often the case, well over the crossbar.

The challenge for Utah, meanwhile, was maintaining the energy and intensity displayed early on.

“That is what is really hard about being ahead early,” said Vukic. “It was really important to just sit, stay strong and shut it down. Really, they had more (scoring) opportunities than us. We wanted to keep getting those goals and just didn’t have the opportunities.”

“Utah State posed some challenges for us,” added Manning. “I was pleased that we solved them, but we have room for improvement.”