The learning curve for the Creighton soccer team won't be as steep as it was a season ago.
There still will be plenty of integrating and adjusting required, and the Bluejays will need to mesh quickly to handle a meat-grinding nonconference schedule as well as their move to the new Big East.
“We need to start it off right instead of taking awhile to get going,” senior midfielder Zach Barnes said. “Hopefully we can keep climbing the ladder instead of falling back.”
Creighton headed into last season having to replace seven key players, including three All-Americans, from the team that went 21-2-1 and reached the semifinals of the 2011 NCAA tournament.
The Bluejays struggled early last season, losing three of their first 10 matches and tying two others. They managed to build momentum by October, stringing together a 14-match unbeaten streak that carried them back to the College Cup before Indiana ended their season with a 1-0 semifinal win.
“Last year we made up a lot of ground as the season wore on and got really good by the end,” junior midfielder Eric Miller said. “I think this year we're at a little better spot at the start. Hopefully, we can make the same strides and be a really good team.”
Miller, who spent the spring training and playing with the United States' under-20 national team, is one of seven starters returning from last season's 17-4-3 team. Overall, 16 lettermen are back, raising hopes that Creighton can avoid some of the growing pains it experienced at the start of last season.
At the same time, seven of Creighton's wins in its closing run came against Missouri Valley teams. The players know they might not have the same luxury this season — the move to the new Big East figures to raise the level of competition.
Georgetown, picked to win the first new Big East title, also reached the College Cup last season, finishing as national runner-up. St. John's, Marquette and Xavier were NCAA tournament teams.
One of Creighton coach Elmar Bolowich's concerns is juggling the tougher conference schedule with a difficult nonconference schedule, which he had already put together by the time Creighton was accepted into the new league.
Creighton will open the season Aug. 30 at home against No. 14 Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane are one of five 2012 NCAA tournament teams on CU's nonconference schedule.
“It's going to be a challenge,” Bolowich said.
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Like Miller, Bolowich believes his team is further along than it was at this time last season.
“I think our returning players have a better understanding of what we want to do,” the coach said. “I'm seeing their leadership emerge a little bit. The way we play is a little bit of a different style, and it takes time to adjust to it.
“We give the new players time to adjust, but some do it quicker than others. Those are the guys that will contribute right away.”
“The players coming back recognized they had a really rough season,” the coach said. “They dug deeper over the summer. They came (back) very prepared and very fit. I'm pleased because there was a reaction to our rather lackluster performance in spring matches.
“I think it was a wake-up call. I don't want to make excuses, but we didn't compete as much as we should and can.”
With just more than two weeks to prepare for the season opener, Creighton can't afford many stumbles in its preseason work. Mastering the physical demands in practice is just part of the process.
“It's all about the chemistry of the team and how quickly it forms,” said Alex Bolowich, the No. 1 goalkeeper last year until a midseason elbow injury took him out of the lineup. “There are a lot of new guys, and we don't know them and they don't know us.
“It's about getting to know each other and learning to play for each other. It's about sacrificing yourself for your teammate. That's what it comes down to, and that's the chemistry we're looking for.”
Video: Coach Elmar Bolowich
Video: Goalkeeper Alex Bolowich
Video: Midfielder Timo Pitter
Video: Midfielder/Defender Eric Miller