PHOENIX – New field. New season. New outlook.
With a newly renovated soccer facility and a dynamic mix of new and returning players, the Arizona State women’s soccer team appears ready to make a rapid improvement in 2021 and beyond.
When the Sun Devils restart play next year, they will do so in new physical surroundings, and possibly on the other side the ongoing global pandemic.
The NCAA announced in September that the spring soccer season, which replaces the fall schedule postponed by COVID-19, will begin February 3.
When the ASU women finally kick off, things will look dramatically different than the last time the Sun Devils took the field in November 2019. Facial coverings, physical distancing, health screening and heightened sanitization measures will be in place and seem likely to remain part of the college sports landscape well into the foreseeable future.
But with the new season, the Sun Devils will be unmasking a sparkling new, state-of-the-art playing facility thanks to a recently completed renovation at Sun Devil Soccer Stadium.
Despite growing impatience over the ongoing shutdown, ASU coach Graham Winkworth said his players have shown great resilience, and they have made the best of a trying situation.
“I just can’t believe how many positive steps the women are taking, in such challenging times,” Winkworth said. “It’s been a really productive six, eight months for the team, and I can only give all the credit to my staff and my players for the work they’ve put in both on and off the field.”
The COVID-19 pandemic only increased an already high level of sacrifice required of ASU’s athletes.
Many have had to endure isolation and quarantine while adapting to unconventional, sometimes highly uncomfortable, training conditions.
When the team first returned to practice following the shutdown, players had to wear masks in the scorching desert heat during training activities in which physical distancing was impossible.
Imagine training at full intensity in 110-degree heat while wearing a mask and without knowing if – or when – the effort would result in the payoff of playing a season.
“Our girls have been very, very professional. They want to play soccer. They’re missing out on a lot of the social side of attending university, and I think for them to act with such class in such challenging times is commendable,” Winkworth said. “I’m really proud of them.”
During the shutdown, ASU soccer coaches focused on turning the negative circumstances into something positive by “training in a safe environment, and the girls have really embraced it,” Winkworth said.
“My saying for the year is: ‘We’re turning lemons into sweet lemonade.’ This is probably the fittest group of women I’ve ever coached,” he said.
After finishing last in the Pac-12 in 2019, Winkworth expects improvement in 2021 and looks forward to breakout seasons for returning players Lieske Carleer, Isabel Dehakiz and Kiki Stewart.
Winkworth called Carleer “our most consistent defender last year,” and said the 5-foot-9 sophomore has added strength and muscle in the offseason.
Winkworth believes Carleer, already solid defensively, will add more punch to the Sun Devil offense in 2021, primarily through her ability to play the ball out of the back.
Meanwhile, Dehakiz made 15 starts as a midfielder for ASU in 2019, providing three assists for her teammates.
Winkworth expects to see improvement from the junior in 2021, and said he is “really happy with how she’s progressed over the last year.”
Winkworth said that while sophomore defender-midfielder Stewart did not appear in a game as a freshman, she has “been fantastic so far this fall.”
“Kiki has really come on (in) leaps and bounds, and it’s through pure hard work,” WInkworth said.
The Sun Devils are coming off a disappointing 2019 season in which they finished 6-11-3 overall, and didn’t win a Pac-12 game.
“We just want to be better,” said Winkworth, who added that the building process will remain the priority in 2021.
“We’re not too focused on wins and losses,” he said.
Winkworth hopes to lay the foundation of a program that can become an NCAA contender soon.
And the Sun Devil Soccer Stadium renovation promises to help speed along that building process.
Winkworth expects the new facilities to enhance the image of ASU soccer nationwide, and improve the Sun Devils’ ability to attract and recruit talented young players from around the country.
“We’ve got the greatest facilities and grounds crew in the country,” Winkworth said. “It (the new field) looks like a carpet. We’re getting to kick a ball around every day right now, which is an absolute joy. There are so many millions of people suffering around the world with this (pandemic) right now – we can’t complain. We’re lucky people.”
Winkworth praised ASU President Michael Crow and Vice President of University Athletics Ray Anderson for their vision and leadership in getting the renovation project completed during the COVID-19 shutdown.
Now, the Sun Devils can concentrate on their own renovation.
“We want to be better than we were in 2019..” Winkworth said. “We want to be better in ‘21 than we were in ‘20, and we want to be better in ‘22 than we are in ‘21. We have the potential to be a nationally ranked program at that point in 2022.”
Junior forward Nicole Douglas echoed her coach’s optimism.
“We’ve all worked very hard individually to get to the point where we are,” Douglas said. “And then coming together for the last couple of months, it has been amazing to see how much people have improved.
“It’s not just like the best players on the team are improving. It’s everyone as a collective, and it’s so good to see.”
Douglas put up consistent numbers in her first two seasons with the Sun Devils – nine goals in 2018, eight in 2019, and four assists in both seasons – but expects to be more productive in 2021.
“The amount of goals I scored is not bad,” she said. “But for me, I want to be one of the best players in the Pac-12. And for me, I feel like I can achieve more than I have in the past two years.”.
Senior Olive Jones also expects to contribute more to the Sun Devils offense next year.
Jones started out playing forward as a freshman in 2017 before moving to defense later that season. She remained there as a sophomore and junior, but is back at forward for her senior season.
Jones has four career goals and a pair of assists at ASU, but she intends to add significantly to those totals in her final season.
“I love seeing my teammates score, and of course I love scoring myself. They’re both great feelings,” said Jones, who is looking forward to pairing with a familiar face to fuel the Sun Devil attack.
She played with junior midfielder Olivia Nguyen at SC Del Sol, a Valley youth soccer powerhouse and they’ll join forces again in the ASU lineup.
“So, we kind of just know each other and can feed off of each other, and know where we want each other to be,” Jones said.
In addition to their understanding on the field, Jones and Nguyen have another thing in common – a genuine distaste for ASU’s biggest rival, the Arizona Wildcats.
“We always come out a little extra hard against the people down south,” Jones said.
In 2021, Jones and company will look to avenge a 1-0 loss to the Wildcats that ended ASU’s disappointing 2019 season.
Coach Winkworth said he also targets the matchup with the “team down south.” It’s “the first game we look for (on the schedule) every year,” Winkworth said.
Though still unconfirmed, the Pac-12’s spring 2021 soccer schedule could provide the Sun Devils two opportunities to avenge that loss to the Wildcats.
“We will be looking for them, potentially, twice. We’ll see what the new schedule looks like,” Winkworth said. “We’ll be ready to give them a game. Hopefully, our style of soccer will prevail.
“Arizona State athletics is moving forward, despite all the challenges we face.”