When Utah State soccer coach Heather Cairns plays Creighton at 4 p.m. On Friday to open the season, she wants to make a good impression.
Not just because she wants to win (she does). Not just because she wants to instill her Aggies with confidence for the season to come (she does).
Cairns' last stop 10 years ago was Creighton, working as an assistant for coach Bruce Erickson. Now she'll face him as the winningest coach Utah State has ever had.
"He was my boss up there, and when you come up against your friends, you want to show how well you're doing," she said.
It would be hard to argue against the notion that the Aggies are doing very well. The team wrapped up the WAC era with a tournament championship and a trip to the NCAA tournament. They return several all-conference honorees along with most starters.
That doesn't mean there will be no challenges along the way. Utah State must enter a deeper, more competitive conference and replace some key contributors: forward Jade Tarver, goalkeeper Ashlyn Mulford and defender Natalie Norris, a three-time WAC defensive player of the year.
"Natalie is my best friend and I will miss her every day," defender Taryn Rose said. "But we have to pick up the legacy she left behind. We've got to step up. We've got to make sure our program is headed in a good direction."
Utah State should have the right components, even though the team skews toward youth in some critical areas. Rose is one of three returning starters in the back end, and will be counted on to help organize the Aggies' protection and take some pressure off of keeper Jeannie Woller. The team hopes it can keep up last year's standard, when it allowed only 0.55 goals per game.
Cairns said the strength of this team is competitiveness, and she hopes that shows in a front line bolstered by all-WAC returners Jennifer Flynn and Mari Miyashiro who are switching positions to play up top. The Aggies play possession soccer, but are always looking to attack, and the duo should help lead that charge.
"Attacking-wise, we have a lot more veterans," Cairns said. "We are really hoping the goal scoring comes around sooner than last year. It sometimes takes a while, so we'll stress that in our non-conference portion of our schedule."
The biggest shuffle is at midfield, where a variety of players with less experience - or, in Lexie Morgan's case, coming off injury - will look to take on new roles.
With non-conference games against Nebraska, Arkansas and Utah next month, they'll have to adjust quickly. Rose has confidence that it won't be too much trouble.
"There are definitely girls stepping up, and most of it is you just kind of take it day-by-day and try to get better," she said. "We have a lot of players with great work ethic who want to make an impact. We're going to have to bring our team up to meet the challenge."
Kyle Goonkgoon@sltrib.comTwitter: @kylegoon