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Saturday, November 25, 2017

Cross Country

New season offers fresh start for three Cougar teams


The volleyball team had a nightmare season last year thanks in part to an injury-plagued roster. | Courtesy UH athletics

The 2017-2018 NCAA season has finally arrived and with that comes the opportunity for University of Houston Athletics to start fresh after a year in which the Cougars experienced both the thrills of victory and agony of defeat.

Although football season is routinely the most anticipated by fans in the latter-portions of the summer, UH Athletics is chock-full with teams that have potential to compete for NCAA Championships in their respective fields.

Football is sure to dominate local and national headlines when they kick off early next month, but here is a glimpse at some other team’s worth keeping your eye on:

Soccer

Soccer was arguably the most improved team at UH last season when they finished with a 6-7-3 record after multiple years of sub-par play. However, the team’s American Athletic Conference woes persisted as they managed to fare just 1-6-2 within the highly-competitive AAC.

Following the up-and-down season, the University announced Nov. 15 that former head coach Chris Pfau had resigned from his position after five seasons at the helm of UH Soccer. Just weeks later on Dec. 5, former University of Notre Dame assistant coach Diego Bocanegra was named the fifth head coach in UH program history.

Bocanegra inherited a team that experienced an improved offensive attack in 2016 and impressive play from transfer goalkeeper Rachel Estopare.

Estopare was a two-time AAC Goalkeeper of the Week last season. She earned the first nod after recording back-to-back shutouts, first against Incarnate Word University Aug. 26 and then against Texas State University Aug. 29. The University of Arizona transfer would again earn the honor Oct. 17 after tallying a career-best 11 saves against East Carolina University the day before.

Junior forward Desiree Bowen returns to the pitch in 2017 after finding the net a team-best seven times in 2016. Coupled with the play of senior midfielder Selena Peters, the Cougars will boast an offensive attack that can make them a threat all season.

Peters’ aggressive style of play earned her a team-best 27 shots that she converted into four scores.

The first chance to see the team in action is Aug. 18 when they welcome cross-street rival Texas Southern University to the Carl Lewis Complex.

Volleyball

The volleyball team had a nightmare season last year thanks in part to an injury-plagued roster. After starting the season 5-4 through the season’s first three tournaments, the Cougars went on to suffer 20 consecutive losses en route to a dismal 5-26 finish.

Entering the 2017 season with seven upperclassmen, the Cougars will try to prove that their previous struggles served as a growing experience.

Some of the Cougars’ top performers from 2016 are set to return to the court when the season gets underway later this month. Senior outside hitters Sarah Afflerbaugh and Briana Lynch led the team in kills last year as juniors and can prove to be a dynamic duo in the Cougars’ attack.

Volleyball enjoyed significant contributions from standout freshman defensive specialist Katie Karbo who finished with a team-leading 489 digs. Karbo’s mark was good for fifth place in the AAC and second among freshman.

Senior setter Keandra McCardell makes her 2017 debut on the heels of a junior season that earned her the top spot among the team’s assist leaders with 729, while her 254 digs were good for second on the team. McCardell is a coach’s dream in the setter position as she brings versatility and experience to the Cougar lineup.

With a more mature roster that will be eager to atone for last season’s struggle, head coach Kaddie Platt and the volleyball team are poised to rebound. Volleyball begins with a clean slate Aug. 25 when they take on the McNeese State University Cowboys in Arlington.

Cross Country

The highly-anticipated return of redshirt senior Brian Barraza promises to be one of the top headlines going into the 2017 cross country season. After an outstanding first three seasons that filled his mantle with hardware, the junior opted to redshirt all the 2016 season.

The absence of the three-time All-American Conference Team runner could be felt by the Cougar men all season. Without Barraza, men’s cross country failed to earn a top-three points finish in any of their races.

A silver-lining of Barraza’s redshirt is that it allowed other runners on the team to gain experience as leaders on the team.

One runner who raised eyebrows was sophomore G.J. Reyna.

In his first collegiate cross country season, Reyna stepped up in a big way by becoming the team’s top finisher in six of seven races. The Mission-native built his résumé by twice finishing the top-10.

The first two meets of his career throttled expectations as Reyna secured the eighth spot in the SFA Lumberjack Preview followed by a ninth-place finish in Rice Invitational.

Chances to see Barraza, Reyna and the rest of the team are plentiful in the early stages of the cross country season. The Cougars are slated to open the year in Houston at the HBU Invitational on Sept. 1, followed by a return to the Rice Invitational a week later.

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