The ASU women's soccer program is optimistic about a bounce-back in the Pac-12 season after going undefeated in nonconference play. The Sun Devils have opened the year strong, winning their last three games.
Last year, the Sun Devils went into the Pac-12 season with a nonconference record of 8-1-0. Despite the strong showing in nonconference games and having the country's leading goal scorer, ASU finished 2-7-2 in the Pac-12, good enough for only 10th. The Sun Devils were only two points ahead of last place.
"We were in many one-goal games last season but found ourselves on the wrong side of them," said head coach Graham Winkworth. "Our job is to try and win a few of those matches this year and we feel like we are in a better position to do so this year."
With a nonconference record of 4-0-2 this year, it is only the second time under Winkworth that ASU has entered the Pac-12 season undefeated. The last time the team finished nonconference play undefeated was the 2020 season played in 2021 due to COVID-19. That season was coincidentally one of the best seasons the program has had, with its highest ranking in 17 years at No. 16.
The Sun Devils managed to make the 2020 NCAA tournament for the first time in seven years, advancing past the first round with a 4-0 win against Siena College but falling just short to No. 9 seeded Duke, 2-1 in overtime.
Of the 17 players who made a start during the illustrious 2020 season, eight are still on the squad including the team's captain, graduate student Alexia Delgado, and ASU all-time leader in goals and points, graduate student Nicole Douglas.
However, the Pac-12 will be a tough challenge for a squad that struggled in 2021.
"One of the biggest improvements we made as a team during the six nonconference games was chemistry," Delgado said. "Grambling gave us a lot of momentum and the team is feeling very confident."
ASU beat Grambling State University 5-0 on Sept. 14.
Douglas added that the team's confidence has been elevated because the team as a whole has improved. She said every athlete on the team has refined their technical skills, which has had an effect on the success of the team.
"We can move the ball a lot quicker than last year," Douglas said. "We have also become better at reading the game and moving off the ball to create space. We all work hard for each other which has helped us find the form we are in."
Douglas has taken advantage of the extra room as she has managed to score nine goals in just six games this season. But she says it is not just her ability to put the ball in the net that has contributed to her success.
"My teammates as well as the talent that we have on this team make my job a lot easier," Douglas said. "We have wingers that will go one-on-one with fullbacks and put in cross time and time again. We also have very talented midfielders who create assists and even score themselves."
While the Sun Devils have found their form on the field, there also has been growth from veteran players as they have filled leadership roles.
The mentorship from Douglas and Delgado has allowed young players on the roster to prosper in the short time they have been with the team. Delgado remembers what it was like to be a freshman and makes every effort to help the newcomers.
"I always try to be there for them off the field and let the freshman know I am always here to help them," Delgado said. "On the field, I try and help especially with vocabulary and the style of play we like to play here."
Douglas said the team's success is due in part to the fact that leadership can rely on any athlete and trust they will perform well. Looking ahead to Pac-12 play, Winkworth acknowledged it will be an upward battle from here on out despite the great start.
"I am not sure we have felt this confident going into a conference season before, but we also respectfully know that anybody can beat us," Winkworth said. "We feel like we can control our success with our work rate."
The Sun Devils will open the Pac-12 season on the road against Colorado on Friday, Sept. 23 at 3 p.m. MST.
Edited by Kathryn Field, Logan Stanley and Piper Hansen.
Bennett Silvyn is a reporter for the sports desk at The State Press. He has previously worked for Walter Cronkite Sports Network and FC Tucson.