Settin' records on way to redemption

Nov. 9—A late first-half goal from Idaho redshirt freshman forward Naomi Alvarez during the Big Sky women's soccer championship against Northern Arizona on Sunday created program history.

The Portland native scored her second career goal 28 seconds following the Lumberjacks' equalizer in the 39th minute off a Hannah Alfaro feed.

Alfaro led Alvarez away from a pack of defenders, and she immediately took the shot, finding the back of the net.

Idaho's defense did the rest, standing tall for 51 minutes to earn its first Big Sky Conference championship and NCAA Division I tournament berth in program history.

"I thought they executed really well," Idaho women's soccer coach Jeremy Clevenger said of Northern Arizona. "We were able to negate some of the things they like to do, and I was impressed with what we were able to do in front of a big crowd."

The Vandals (12-4-2) open tournament play at 5 p.m. on Saturday against No. 8 Gonzaga (13-3-2) at Luger Field in Spokane (ESPN+).

Idaho's win against Northern Arizona was a redemption story of sorts, as the Lumberjacks toppled the Vandals in penalty kicks during last year's Big Sky championship match. And it doesn't stop there — prior to the '23 season, Clevenger and the Vandals were 1-4-2 against their rivals from Flagstaff.

This season, however, the Vandals downed the Lumberjacks both times they faced off on the pitch, picking up a 2-0 win against them in their regular-season finale on Oct. 22.

"We have a lot of respect for them and for what they're doing," Clevenger said. "For us to lose in penalty kicks last year really drove us this year, and we came into the tournament with the mindset that this is our year. And when we saw who we were playing in the finals, we were playing with even more expectations, and it was definitely a driving force."

The Vandals' win over the Lumberjacks during the regular season had its share of historical significance as Clevenger picked up his 51st career win, the most in program history.

It only took six seasons for the Stockton, Calif., native to pick up this landmark achievement.

"Idaho has been an amazing home to me," Clevenger said. "When I came here and did my interview, I knew I was going to love this place. ... To do what we've done and to set multiple records in different types of ways has been really awesome."

The climax of the '23 season will also end the collegiate careers of 10 seniors who were part of Clevenger's first-ever recruiting class. Of those 10 upperclassmen, four earned All-Big Sky honors.

Senior defender Alyssa Peters earned first-team honors and was the backbone of the Vandal defense.

The Bremerton, Wash., native's marquee moment was a feed to fellow first-teamer Jayd Sprague for the game-winner against the Lumberjacks in the regular season.

Peters had a team-high seven assists.

Jadyn Hanks also earned first-team honors after scoring five goals, two game-winners, and two assists.

"I can't say enough about this senior class," Clevenger said. "It's the first recruiting class that I've had, and they've grown and developed into great people on and off the field. They're talented, and they care about the program."

The experienced seniors are joined by one of the best goalkeepers in the Big Sky, sophomore Kira Witte.

The Buhren, Germany native had a stellar freshman season in 2022 that included 13 clean sheets, which tied the top spot in the NCAA. She also had a save percentage of 0.854 (17th in the NCAA) and earned multiple accolades along the way.

A season like that is hard to replicate, but the sophomore still stood out in the net, earning second-team all-conference honors.

The sophomore keeper recorded her 16th career shutout in a 1-0 victory against UTEP on Sept. 14, making her the program's all-time leader in just 26 games. She now has 20 career shutouts.

"I've been more impressed with her this year," Clevenger said. "We have the backline and we've protected her very well. We're being more active, so she's had more work to do, and she's stepped up. She's been so impressive and she hasn't missed a beat."

Idaho is kind of familiar with its opening-round opponent, Gonzaga, having faced off numerous times for unofficial spring games and scrimmages. But this will be the first official matchup since a 2-2 draw in 2016.

The Vandals are 4-10-2 overall against Gonzaga, who, like Idaho, won the West Coast Conference title for the first time in program history following a 3-1 win over Pepperdine on Sunday.

The Bulldogs rank in the top 10 nationally in goal differential (34), total goals (54) and total points (152). Gonzaga's leading scorer is sophomore Gianna Riley, with 12 goals on the season.

Pixley may be contacted at (208) 848-2290, or on Twitter @TreebTalks