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Utah women’s soccer team hoping long season of fall practice pays off in the spring

Utah’s Anna Escobedo, left, prepares to kick the ball against Oregon on Oct. 6, 2019, in Salt Lake City.
Steve C. Wilson/University of Utah

SALT LAKE CITY — If there is such a thing as a silver lining in the pandemic that canceled all fall sports at the University of Utah, for the Ute women’s soccer team it means some extra practice time.

Of course, the Ute players and coach Rich Manning were extremely disappointed when the fall schedule was shut down in August. After first having their nine nonconference games canceled, the Utes had their league games canceled by the Pac-12, leaving the Utes with three months of no games.

But the fact that the Utes have such a young and inexperienced group, it might allow them to be more ready for competition if it starts up again in the spring.

The Utes lost the majority of their starters from last year’s team that went 8-8-4 in the regular season and made it to the NCAA tournament, and left the Utes with what Manning calls “a really new team.”

So instead of playing games all fall, the Utes will try to improve with daily workouts that could stretch through the most of the rest of 2020.

“There’s definitely some ups and downs and adjustments, but I think they’re in a pretty good place and have committed to wanting to prepare for a potential spring season,” Manning said of his young squad.

While some schools in the eastern part of the country are going ahead with games, most western schools, including the Pac-12, have canceled their fall schedules. Some schools such as Cal and Stanford, aren’t working out at all, while Utah and others are practicing under strict guidelines set by the Pac-12.

The Ute players wear masks and practice social distancing, which means they are limited in the types of drills they can do and they aren’t allowed to scrimmage.

“It’s a little challenging because we can’t do your typical soccer practices,” Manning said. “It’s a lot of technical work, running and shooting and stuff like that. We can’t even do a little one-on-one drill, you have to stay 6 feet apart. It’s hard to get a workout in and then you’re worried about losing fitness — there’s a lot of challenges with it for sure.”

The Utes practice about 12 to 14 hours a week and have strength and conditioning sessions and take weekends off. Like other fall sports, the Utes are awaiting guidelines from the NCAA on Sept. 16 that could keep the 20-hour maximum weeks or cut them to eight hours as in the offseason.

“We’re going to take the fall and treat it like our spring and prepare for a championship competitive schedule in the spring,” Manning said.

Manning said his players were stressed out by all the uncertainty earlier in the summer, but relieved about the NCAA’s decision to grant all underclassmen an extra year of eligibility even if they play a spring season this year.

“That was a big deal for our kids,” he said. “They were stressed about ‘what if we only play eight games and I burn one of my years,’ prior to that announcement.”

If Utah and other Pac-12 schools play a spring schedule, it will likely be league-only with a seven-week season and 12 to 14 games mostly in March and April. Manning said it shouldn’t be a problem to come back for a regular season in the fall of 2021 if they play in the spring.

Manning said just a couple of players decided not to return after last spring’s shutdown and he has 21 returning players and 10 newcomers on his team.

The top returnees are Hailey Stodden, a two-year starter from Colorado, Courtney Talbot, a midfielder from Fremont High School, who played a lot as a freshman and Eden Jacobsen, who returned from a church mission after being a starter.

Manning is excited about the freshmen who have joined the program, including Taliana Kaufusi, a forward from Highland High School, and Avery Brady, a midfielder from Missouri.

Two top players who are likely to be out through the spring due to injuries are midfielder Jessica Hixson and defender Alexis Rushlow.

“We have some opportunities for people to step up,” he said. “We’ve got to get them some training and games to see how that plays out.”

Manning said the fall sports being moved to the spring will take a backseat to the regular winter and spring sports that lost their championship tournaments last spring. He also said there has been talk of cutting the NCAA soccer tournament from 64 to 32 teams with one representative from each conference, which would hurt a league like the Pac-12, which sent nine teams to the tourney last year. He just hopes there is some sort of season in the spring.

“We’re optimistic and assuming we’ll have a spring season but there’s a lot of uncertainty for sure,” he said.