Women’s soccer kicks off season with experience

National competitor · Sophomore forward Tara McKeown recorded the third-most goals (4) for USC last season as a true freshman. This season she is competing for the United States U-20 National Team. (Emily Smith | Daily Trojan)

Coming off an early exit in the second round of the NCAA tournament with a loss to Baylor, the USC women’s soccer team is ready to start its 2018 season set on a deep run in the tournament. Touting a sizable roster of young talent, the Women of Troy will open their season at UC Irvine on Aug. 16.

“One of the things that aligns with our deficiencies last year is our new thing: trust,” head coach Keidane McAlpine said. “We got caught up with ourselves a bit, we forgot about the grind, the togetherness, the unity, forgot to trust each other. So we started this past January trying to rebuild what we’re about. We’re more talented top to bottom than we were a year ago, but more importantly we’re a year older.”

The Women of Troy have some great talent returning, namely seniors defender Ally Prisock and forward Leah Pruitt. Prisock earned a spot on the All-Pac-12 first team and the All-West Region first team for the 2017 season, while Pruitt was a member of the All-West Region third team. As consistent starters throughout the previous season, the duo will be regarded by the rest of the team as strong leaders on the field.

Just Pruitt · Senior forward Leah Pruitt winds up to drive the ball past a goaltender in a game at McAlister Field. She is one of four seniors on the women’s soccer squad. (Emily Smith | Daily Trojan)

During the offseason, USC picked up two powerhouse transfers who are both eligible for the 2018 season: redshirt junior defender-forward Natalie Jacobs and sophomore midfielder Alea Hyatt. Jacobs, a transfer from Notre Dame University,  made the ACC All-Freshman Team, was her team’s leading scorer as a forward and played for the United States U-20 National Team in the 2016 U-20 World Cup. Even though she will make her debut as a Trojan this season, expectations are high for the Notre Dame transfer to demonstrate both versatile gameplay and experienced leadership.

Hyatt will join the Women of Troy from the University of North Carolina where she played in 19 games to help UNC win the ACC title in her freshman season and competed in the NCAA Sweet 16. A standout at Santa Barbara High School, she was also a member of the 2015 United States U-18 National Team.

Further contributions come from Jacobs’ former teammate midfielder Megan McCashland, a graduate transfer student from South Bend who earned All-ACC Academic Honor Roll each season at Notre Dame.

The Trojans have also added seven incoming freshmen who show promise as contributors for this season and for the future of the program. Midfielder Madeline Vergura enters USC ranked No. 17 in the 2018 recruiting class. Along with forward Penelope Hocking, who was the 20th-ranked player, Vergura is expected to be a standout player.  

A few Trojan returners have spent the offseason improving their games with the U-20 Women’s National Team. Sophomores midfielder Savannah DeMelo and forward Tara McKeown, along with Hocking, have been training with the team and are competing in the U-20 World Cup in France this month, while incoming freshman defender Ashley Soto will play for Mexico. These four players bring  invaluable international experience to McAlister Field this season.

Following the 2017 season, USC’s women’s soccer program underwent some coaching changes but remains stable under McAlpine’s leadership after.  Jen Klein, former USC associate head coach and recruiting coordinator, left to take over the head coaching position at the University of Michigan. McAlpine has since hired Sammy Towne as assistant coach, replacing Jason Lockhart who held the position since 2014. Towne was an assistant coach at UNC Greensboro until 2015 when she returned to her alma mater as the director of soccer operations at Auburn University.

This season will mark McAlpine’s fifth as a Trojan. He has lead the Women of Troy to four consecutive NCAA tournament appearances and to their second national title in 2016.

“I think this year’s team is going to be super exciting to watch because we are more technical, because we are a year older with players who were around that national championship year, who had smaller roles taking bigger roles this year,” McAlpine said. “The expectation of them is to have grown in their roles. I think this team has the ability to keep the ball for longer periods of time, play some exciting soccer, and I think we have the opportunity to win a lot of games.”