Jayhawks boast abundant talent

Mark Francis has been doing a lot of head scratching.

In his fifth season as Kansas University’s soccer coach, Francis still isn’t sure who to put on the field when the Jayhawks open at 5 p.m. today against Northwestern at SuperTarget Field.

“I’ve never been in this position, going into the first game not knowing who to start,” Francis said. “But it’s a good position to be in because it’s because of competition.”

Francis definitely will open with two-year starter Meghan Miller in goal, and it’s a cinch sophomore Caroline Smith will be one of the forwards. Smith, a 5-foot-2 sophomore from Edina, Minn., is the Jayhawks’ only preseason All-Big 12 Conference selection. Despite missing five games last season because of a knee injury, Smith led the 11-7-2 Jayhawks with 12 goals.

If Smith has had any lingering problems with that knee, Francis hasn’t noticed.

“She’s actually quicker, and she’s actually faster,” Francis said. “Our training and strength staff did a great job.”

With Smith and returnees Jessica Smith, Rachel Gilfillan and Monica Brothers up front, the Jayhawks should boast a potent attack. Jessica Smith, no relation to Caroline, was second in goals scored last season with seven. Gilfillan had six and Brothers has 12 career goals.

“I think we’ll score,” Francis said, “but we need to give up less goals. It’s hard to lose if you don’t give up a goal.”

Kansas has three seasoned defenders returning in seniors Lacey Woolf and Maggie Mason and junior Stacey Leeper, but Francis has four talented freshmen defenders, too, in Danika Erickson, Holly Gault, Lacey Novak and Nikki Alvarez. Any of the four could push for a starting job, according to Francis.

“We’ll be very fast in the back,” Francis said, “and that’s good because speed can make up for tactical errors.”

Kansas finished sixth in Big 12 standings last season. In this year’s preseason coaches poll, the Jayhawks are seventh.

“When I told the girls that, they laughed,” Francis said. “They feel they have something to prove. I’m actually glad we were picked seventh. I’d rather have that than first. Nobody’s expecting anything from us.”