Keeping the “fighting spirit”

- Erin Burns

At the beginning of the 2014 season, Utah handed out scarves to celebrate its 20th season as a team. Throughout those years, there have been both good times and bad times for the Utes. Head coach Rich Manning has had the privilege to witness 13 of those 20 years firsthand and has noticed a change in the sport.

“The game of soccer has evolved,” Manning said. “So we’re getting players with more experience and more skills. They’ve watched a higher level of soccer.”

He has watched the program grow and change with time, and even the current players know how important it is to be part of such a program. Manning can recall many memories as if they happened yesterday.

Manning’s first and favorite memory is of his very first game as the head coach in 2002 when he faced highly-ranked Portland. In a tough match, Utah came away with a victory, an accomplishment made even better by the fact that Portland would go on to win the national championship that year.

Another favorite memory was the Colorado game a season ago. The Utes were able to come back from an early deficit to win the game, which helped them earn a spot in the NCAA tournament.

“God, it was great, so happy for those kids,” Manning said of that game against the Buffaloes in 2013.

Along with the good times Utah has had, there have also been some rough patches. The memory that stings the most was a game against Idaho State in 2003. The Utes had 16 shots on goal while allowing zero shots on their own in the second half, but somehow lost the game in a penalty shootout.

Despite the bad times, Utah’s players feel privileged to be involved in the history. Senior Avery Jenkins was two years old when the U started its women’s team.

“I feel blessed being a part of it,” Jenkins said. “The alums that played before me — I look up to them so much.”

Jenkins and her teammates have made this season even more special by having the best start in team history. The Utes went undefeated in their first 10 games this season before a loss to No. 1 UCLA. This bested the former record start of the 2002 squad, which went seven games without a loss.

Utah’s best season came in 2003 when it finished with a record of 16-2-2. That season, the team won a conference championship and earned a spot in the national tournament. If the current Utes want a chance at touching that record, they will have to win the rest of their games without another draw.

When the program began, Utah started competing in the Mountain West Conference. It was a competitive conference but was passed off as a weak contender when it came to talk of national championships. However, the Utes made it to the NCAA tournament a few times while in the Mountain West.

As Utah became a front runner in the MWC, the school decided to switch over to the Pac-12, a conference that Manning calls the best when it comes to women’s soccer. After the change, the interest and desire to play for the Utes rose significantly.

“I definitely think it is high on the list,” Jenkins said.

The program has seen a lot of change during its time at the U. Many players have come and gone, and conferences have changed, but there is one thing that remains the same.

“I think the common thread has always been a hard-working group that’s ambitious, passionate, works well together and will take on anyone,” Manning said.

Manning is a coach who likes to focus on the very next game and keep the past where it belongs. But he can’t help but think about where this program will be in the future.

“The main thing is that we want to keep the fighting spirit,” Manning said. “It represents loving the sport you’re doing and competing at the highest level. I think if we are able to continue and grow in that, then the accomplishments will come. Whether it be a championship in the Pac-12 or advancing in the NCAA tournament.”

d.garcia@chronicle.utah.edu

@dominic2295

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