After taking big steps each of the past two seasons, Kansas University's soccer team is poised to leap into the spotlight this fall.
In 2001, the Jayhawks reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time, losing to BYU in the first round. Last year, KU tied Nebraska, 1-all, during the teams' regular-season game.
It was the Jayhawks' first non-loss against the perennial-power Cornhuskers in nine attempts, but KU missed out on a victory because of lackadaisical play that hurt the team throughout the season.
Immediately after taking the lead against the Cornhuskers, the Jayhawks lost focus and couldn't stop Nebraska from tying the game just a few seconds later. Similar lapses late in games against Nevada-Las Vegas, Baylor and Mississippi didn't help KU when it came time to select teams for the tournament.
This season, the Jayhawks know they have to keep their level of intensity up the entire game to get back to the national tournament.
"We've been working really good this summer, and I think one of the things we need to do is to stay strong the entire game," senior defender Maggie Mason said. "Sometimes we kind of let our guard down, like last year when we were playing Nebraska, and it just took one minute to lose it.
"If everyone plays as well as they've been practicing this summer, I think we're going to do very well. We just need to connect with one another and stay focused the entire game."
Nearly a dozen Jayhawks stayed in Lawrence this summer, working out and training together every day and playing against high school boys or other players twice a week.
That kind of camaraderie should be beneficial for a team with just four seniors -- Mason, goalkeeper Sarah Gonzalez, forward/midfielder Carmel Kaplinger and midfielder/defender Lacey Woolf.
That doesn't mean the seniors aren't important parts.
"Our senior class will play a big role," Mason said, "but I think our junior class will be really important because they're so big. We've been through it a couple of times now, and we'll help the freshmen as best we can and stay mentally strong."
The team's junior class, ranked as the nation's 45th-best recruiting class of 2001 by Soccer Buzz Magazine, is the largest, with seven players, including starting goalkeeper Megan Miller, forwards Monica Brothers and Rachel Gilfillan, midfielder Lauren Williams, and defender Stacey Leeper.
Though not as highly ranked as its predecessor, KU's sophomore class gave a strong effort in its first season last year, led by forward Caroline Smith.
The native of Edina, Minn., set the school record for goals (12) and game-winning goals (4) and was named Big 12 Conference player of the week twice, along with newcomer of the week and a co-offensive player of the week honors. She also was named to the Big 12 All-Newcomer Team after the season.
Jessica Smith, a forward from Wichita, also had a strong freshman campaign, finishing second with seven goals after not scoring in the first half of the season. She also earned a Big 12 offensive player of the week award.
KU's incoming class may be its best yet. Ranked No. 31 by Soccer Buzz, the six newcomers include three players from Kansas -- Nicole Alvarez (Wichita Northwest), Holly Gault (Spring Hill) and Lacey Novak (Shawnee Mission South).
"We think that they are going to come in and make an impact right away and make us better, which is what you hope from your recruiting class," KU coach Mark Francis said when announcing this year's signees.
Woolf said the team's youth and ability should help the Jayhawks reach the high goals they have set for themselves this season.
"We're going to be young," she said, "but all the young people are very talented and will go out there and push the older people to pick up their level of play."
The Jayhawks open the season against Northwestern at 5 p.m. Aug. 29 at SuperTarget Field.
The Wildcats are one of just two of KU's nonconference opponents who didn't make the NCAA Tournament last season.
"Every game has to be a win, even out of conference," Woolf said. "We think we're very capable of beating those teams, so we need to go out every game confident. We can't have any of those weekends where you lose games you should have won."