By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Defense was an essential element in San Diego State’s record setting womens soccer season with former Empire greats Haley Palmer and Carli Johnson anchoring the effort.
Yielding less than a goal a game and especially tough in second halves, San Diego State set a school mark for wins including a pair of NCAA tournament contests.
“This season was unbelievable,” said Palmer, from Windsor High. “It started out real well and just kept getting better and better.”
A close squad that put team goals first, the Aztecs’ inspired play was reflected in Johnson. Moving to the back line after playing midfield her first two seasons, Johnson helped make the defense truly formidable.
“Our back line worked really well together. No one could get by us,” said Johnson, from Maria Carrillo.
“It was awesome. Next year we should be even better.”
Indeed, the Aztecs expect to be a force on the national soccer scene following a stellar campaign. Four all-region or conference standout players return, led by Palmer and Johnson.
“These players along with the 14 other returners are a great indication that this year’s successful season won’t be the last,” said head coach Mike Friesen.
What sparked the strong season was a willingness to work hard. Summer training led by the players a month before practice opened in August was indicative of San Diego State’s determination.
“When we started the season we were all in really good shape. It also made it a lot easier for the incoming players,” Johnson said. “We got really close together and became a family.”
Off the field, the team came together for days on the beach, movie nights and dinners.
Defense set the tone at the season’s start.
Following six consecutive shutouts to open the campaign, San Diego State was the last NCAA Division I team to allow a goal in the 2012 season.
“On defense, we just had our own little thing going. We held each other accountable,” Palmer said. “Pretty much in every game we just had a feeling we couldn’t lose.”
Not known as a soccer power, San Diego State players stayed composed and resisted becoming cocky as the Aztecs rolled to a 21-2-1 season.
“We were almost underdogs and we made people think different about San Diego State,” Johnson said.
A highlight was San Diego State’s comeback win over Cal for the Aztecs’ second NCAA tournament win.
“We had a lot of people who put the game on their shoulders,” Palmer said.
The magical run ended in a Sweet Sixteen loss to perennial powerhouse UCLA.
That former Santa Rosa United club teammates and All-Empire prep players Palmer and Johnson were big reasons for San Diego State’s success was expected.
Both are three-year starters who adjusted quickly to the faster, more physical and mentally tough major college game.
“We have stuff to build on now,” Johnson said.
The Aztecs expect to continue their winning ways with another influx of talented players from high school and other colleges.
“This season really made us one of the top programs in the country,” Palmer said.
“I think we can rise up and be even better next year.”
Three year starter
Honors: 2012 First Team All-Pacific Region, Mountain West First Team; 2011 Mountain West First Team; 2010 Mountain West Second Team, Freshman of the Year
High School: Windsor
Three year starter
Honors: 2012 Second Team All-Pacific Region, Mountain West First Team
High School: Maria Carrillo