Kansas University soccer coach Mark Francis doesn't know if his team will improve on its Sweet 16 appearance of a year ago, but he's certain this year's club is better.
"This is definitely the most talented team we've had," said Francis, now in his sixth year at KU. "We're a lot further along at this point in preseason than we were at this time last year, so I think that's a good sign. The kids came in really fit."
The Jayhawks will open at 2 p.m. today with an exhibition match against Creighton at the Jayhawk Soccer Complex. Regular-season play will begin a week from today at UNLV.
Francis said it was evident his players worked on their offseason conditioning more this summer than in past seasons, but he said he wasn't surprised. The Jayhawks had plenty of motivation.
For one, a 1-0 loss to a physically superior UCLA team in the Sweet 16 last fall hammered home the belief that the Jayhawks needed to be bigger, stronger and faster. Second, last year's 18-6-1 season and No. 13 national ranking in the final poll fueled expectations.
"We had a good season last season," Francis said, "but this season is going to be a little bit more challenging because to top what we did last year obviously is going to be tough to do."
Tough, yes, but not impossible.
Seven starters are back -- including junior All-America forward Caroline Smith and senior All-Big 12 Conference goalkeeper Meghan Miller -- and six more Jayhawks saw extensive minutes with the starting unit. Plus, sophomore midfielder Nicole Cauzillo, a transfer from West Virginia, and junior forward Nicole Braman, an Ohio State transfer, both came from Top-25 programs.
The deeper talent pool has breathed new life into the Jayhawks' workouts, Miller said. Practices are more up-tempo at all times and the players have been more aggressive and played with more confidence, she said.
"This year is the most competitive year I've ever been a part of," she said. "It's going to be a battle for every position this year, and only time will tell who gets to step out onto the field as the starting 11 at the beginning of the game. Right now we're all battling."
- In preseason polls, the Jayhawks are ranked No. 11 by SoccerBuzz magazine and No. 19 by Soccer America.
- For the last nine years, the Jayhawks have played home matches at SuperTarget Field. Now KU officials have decided to retain the field's name, but refer to the entire facility as Jayhawk Soccer Complex.