UVU head women’s soccer coach Chris Lemay knows a little bit about big-time players.
As teenagers, Alex Morgan and Christen Press played for the Cal South Olympic Development Program and Lemay was their assistant coach. In 2019, both Morgan and Press were on the U.S. women’s soccer team that won the World Cup.
That was a moment he savored but his overall goal is to have his Wolverines become the same type of big-time players.
“The players you need to go and throw punches with big dogs want to play big teams,” Lemay said in an interview on Thursday. “We have shifted our recruiting towards players who have aspirations of playing postcollegiate soccer. It’s a lot more realistic for players now and when we get players who see it as an opportunity to develop for something greater, it gives us a real advantage.”
UVU is three games into the 2019 season and while the 1-2-0 record might not be headline-grabbing, the Wolverines have started well.
“It might be odd that we are as excited as we are,” Lemay said. “The quality of the players, the buy-in that we have, the athleticism, the fitness level, our technical and tactical abilities, all these things point in a direction of success and that we are going to win a lot more games than we lose.”
Lemay has been building up the team during his three years at UVU and is now seeing a squad that knows his expectations.
“This is one of the first classes that is solely my recruiting,” Lemay said. “We got a couple transfers in that we are happy with and a number of freshmen in that we are happy with.”
Just how good can the young players be? Lemay pointed to the game at Michigan on Aug. 25 where the Wolverines started five freshman, overcame a 1-0 deficit to force overtime and had a chance win before coming up short in the extra period.
“We are young — but we are young and good,” Lemay said. “We also have sprinkled in some great leadership from our upperclassmen.”
The two UVU losses were at Michigan and at Michigan State, so the Wolverines have already gotten a taste of playing big-name competition.
“With the number of players that we added this year, it was important for us to have an opportunity to gel socially as well as on the field,” Lemay said. “Spending 10 days together gave them a real opportunity to get to know each other. I think that was positive. We also feel like we can play with anyone. The University of Michigan has some of the finest facilities in the country. They have really, really good players, a number of national team players, on their roster — and we played 93 minutes with them.”
When UVU faces teams like Santa Clara and BYU, both of which are in the Top 25 rankings, Lemay believes his team will know it can succeed.
“I think we go into those games less timid and with more confidence, having played that level this early on,” Lemay said. “Since I’ve been here, we’ve played big-time schools because that’s where we want to be. We seek out the opportunity to put our players in those big-time environments with the expectation that we can compete and win games.”
He knows his team has to be ready for Western Athletic Conference play and the tournament at the end of the season, where likely the NCAA tournament bid will be decided.
“We know if we achieve what we are hoping to achieve, our NCAA first round match is almost certainly going to be a BYU or University of Utah or a University of Colorado,” Lemay said. “We can’t show up to that match having that be the first time we’ve seen that level of competition.”
A number of the athletes on the UVU squad stayed closed to home, players who competed at Utah Valley high schools.
“Jocelyn Bybee has given us big, big minutes,” Lemay said. “She’s been impactful already. She got our first assist of the year. Jenna Shepherd came here, redshirted due to injury, served an LDS mission, came back and so she is a freshman. She is starting in the center back position alongside Katie Haskins, another local kid. We have two redshirt freshman starting at center back for us.”
Lemay said Michigan head coach Jennifer Klein singled out Shepherd as the best player on the field.
“That’s a pretty big compliment to be identified by a coach of that level,” Lemay said. “That was pretty cool.”
The Wolverines certainly have a lot of things going in the right direction but it’s still early in the season. Lemay thinks the key to continuing to grow is to build confidence and believed getting the 2-0 win over Cal Poly on Friday was big.
“You need to reap the benefits of all the hard work you’ve put in,” Lemay said. “I think our leadership is significantly better this year, so I think that is going to allow us to reach our potential as well. We need to keep everyone engages and bought in, not just 13 or 14 players. Everyone needs to be on the same page.”
The Wolverines next host Cal State Fullerton at 1 p.m. today at Clyde Field in Orem.