By Rhett Wilkinson
Domestically, the Utah State University athletic department has great appeal.
That has at least been the message from Utah State Athletics Director Scott Barnes in the past.
“I have said that athletics is to Utah State University what the front porch is to one’s home,” Barnes said in July. “It’s not the most important room in the house but it is the most visible. We couldn’t be more proud of the coaches and student-athletes who stand on our front porch representing us every day.”
While many members of the cross country team competed in this fall’s NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships and the football team, of course, broke into college football’s bowl postseason for the first time in 14 years, a third program in the department certainly also made the porch look more than fine during fall semester.
The women’s soccer team made history in more than just one way this season. Led by the winningest senior class in USU history, Heather Cairns’ bunch became the first team in Aggie history to win a WAC Tournament when they defeated Fresno State 1-0 Nov. 6. The victory enabled the group to advance to the NCAA Tournament, where they lost 2-1 at Auburn of the Southeastern Conference, who sent eight teams to the 64-team field. The Aggies finished with a 15-5-2 overall record this season while seeing Shantel Flanery break the university’s all-time points record.
“It’s fantastic to be a part of championship athletics and bring the (WAC) title back to Logan,” Cairns said. “We appreciate the community support, we appreciate the support from the Utah State student body and we’re really proud to be a part of the bigger picture as well. I love when everyone succeeds; it creates a great buzz around the athletic facilities, with athletes congratulating each other and going to each other’s games. The alumni laid the foundation down as well. We want them to be excited about knowing that.”
The notoriety didn’t come without adversity—and leadership to help the team endure. Cairns said she was impressed with the direction of goalkeeper Molli Merrill after the Aggies were winless in five consecutive road matches in September. USU went on to win seven consecutive matches until the NCAA Tournament clash.
“We kept our focus on the little things,” Cairns said. “In soccer, one thing can change a 90-minute game. We knew that as we just focused on the little things and the little victories, they would add up on the scoreboard. Molli really took that to heart and helped instill it in the players. She sees things from an individual’s point of view and helps them. She’s so smart in each situation, has great courage and is not afraid to speak her mind. That is so refreshing that she puts herself on a limb like that. People would jump on board with her and support what she said, so it was really a good mix.”
The Aggies may be hard-pressed to fill the roles that guided the team to new heights this fall. USU will be saying goodbye to a collection of seniors, including Merrill, Flanary, Summer Tillotson, Marissa Sanchez and Chandra Salmon-Christensen. Outside of notching the most wins in the program’s history, the group marked the first collection of Aggies to win a WAC Tournament. The group was also WAC Champions twice in four years.
Despite the personnel losses, Cairns was optimistic about the team’s ability to re-tool, much as they did after the 2010 season, when they lost USU all-time goals leader Lauren Hansen.
“As a coach, my biggest job is to make sure the system brings out the best in the players to execute and win games,” Cairns said. “If that means tweaking the system from year to year, I do that. I don’t recruit the best players for a system; I adjust for what’s best for them.”