2014 Position Previews: Defenders
July 24, 2014
There are few guarantees in life. Found on that short list is Jim Thomas' soccer teams being anchored by an incredible back line.
"We start everything we do at the defensive end," said Thomas, Boise State's second-year head coach. "What we do with our back line determines everything we do. It will always be our first focus."
This season in particular, the Bronco defense could be special. Boise State returns many familiar names from a team that surrendered just 0.78 goals per 90 minutes, leading the Mountain West and ranking 40th in the country.
"We are very fortunate to have phenomenal personnel there," Thomas said. "We are basically returning the entire starting back line. We lost Gabby (Garcia) to graduation but she was sharing starting obligations with Dominique Banks."
Senior center back Mikhaila Bowden leads the crop of experienced Broncos. Bowden led Boise State in minutes played each of her first three seasons and enters her senior year already having started 62 games. She was named first-team All-Mountain West in 2013.
Bowden is joined in the center of the defense by sophomore Hailey DeVries. After playing in all 23 games as a freshman, including 21 starts, DeVries will look to take on an increased leadership role. That will be a key for the team as the entire Bronco defense will be playing in front of a new goalkeeper this season.
"We have a lot of experience, a lot of technical capability and a lot of attacking ability out of the back," Thomas said. "Specifically we have two incredibly strong central backs in Mikhaila and Hailey. That enables us to send the attacking players like KT Clayton very, very high in the attack because we can trust those two to cover the breakdowns."
Clayton, a redshirt junior, has made 35 starts in her career. She appeared in the starting 11 in all 23 games last season. Banks, a junior, has played in 38 games with 15 starts during her Boise State career.
"The other cool thing about this year is we have three really young and really, really exciting players coming in," Thomas said. "Freshmen Jessie Vogel, Jenna Club and Kelly Jameson have the opportunity to compete for a starting position and spend a year learning next to some of the best."
Vogel, Club and Jameson are joined by Sierra Carrington in a loaded freshman class. The quartet will join sophomore Kelli McCluskey in a battle for key reserve minutes and comprise a group that gives Thomas and the Broncos a lot of depth.
While the abundance of talent is cause for excitement, Thomas said Boise State fans will be thrilled with the continued progression of the incumbent starters.
Bowden has been a stalwart on the defensive end for years. She enters her senior year on pace to become the first Bronco to log 7,500 minutes in her career; but this year she will bring something new to the table. Not only is she still capable of being a one-woman wrecking crew on an opposing attack, Bowden will have more say in igniting the Bronco offense.
"She has worked incredibly hard over the last year on her distribution range and the texture and quality of passes she can play," Thomas said. "She has always been a defensive-oriented player who was very good at limiting mistakes. You could always count on her to win the ball back, but what she did with it from that point forward was somewhat rudimentary. In the last year she has morphed into one of our most cultured passers. The actual technique of her striking is phenomenal and she has developed it to the point where she can strike a lot of different shaped passes."
One of the outlets Bowden could be playing to on a counter is fellow back-line returner Clayton. Thomas
"With that kind of consistent center back play, she has a license to do that," Thomas said. "That's why we're able to play someone with KT's attacking ability in the back."
In Clayton's 2013 season, marked mostly by learning a new position, she flashed the speed and offensive skill set that led her to be recruited as a forward. Clayton had two goals and one assist last season, including perhaps the biggest score of the season for the Broncos. Clayton sent Boise State to the Mountain West Championship Final when she netted the sudden-victory winner against Fresno State in the 109th minute of the semifinals.
"It was a new position for her last year and she was learning a lot on the fly," Thomas said. "Now she's learned it. She has a much better idea of when and where to insert herself into the attack. I think there will be a lot more synchronized movements from her. She is very clear on what the expectation of her role is: to produce a high volume of crosses in the final third of the field."
Clayton's memorable strike against the Bulldogs came after carrying the ball from midfield, juking her way around a defender at the corner of the box and slipping a shot past the keeper in a one-on-one situation. Thomas assures fans that awe-inspiring ability has not escaped her, but she has added to her repertoire.
"KT has improved her ability to move the ball, whether that's more combination plays in the middle of the field or improving the shape of her passes," Thomas said.
With such accomplished upperclassmen, it's easy for a steady youngster to be overshadowed. Such is not the case for DeVries. Whether it's her speed drawing the eyes of spectators or her natural leadership abilities pulling her teammates in, people gravitate toward her when the sophomore is on the field.
"She is so pace oriented. She is so fast," Thomas said. "She is able to cover and pick up ground that has been lost. As the season went on she learned how to conserve some of that pace and become more tactically in-tune with what we were doing."
Now she's not merely in tune with the team's tactics, in some ways DeVries is in charge.
"In the offseason we've actually taken her lead," Thomas said. "She has a few ideas and wrinkles she would like to see added to the back line. We used the spring to add some of these things. So I think we've got a young leader in there who is capable of not only playing 20 games and a conference tournament as a freshman, but also bringing something to the table to tactically improve our team."
The Bronco defense is in capable hands. For a team coached by Thomas, that could mean big things are in store.
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