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Ducks offense celebrate the win after a goal was made during overtime. Oregon Ducks Soccer take on the Oregon State Beavers at Papé Field in Eugene, Ore., on April 16, 2021. (Maddie Stellingwerf/Emerald)

When former U.S Women's National assistant coach Graeme Abel took over as the Ducks coach in 2019, the expectations for the program skyrocketed.

Now, just a year and a half later, Abel is fulfilling these projections and then some.

After recording their first winning record (6-5-5) last season since 2006, Oregon has the capability to one-up that and potentially play for something much bigger in 2021.

A team is only as strong as their goalie; and, fortunately for the Ducks, they have one of the Pac-12’s best in Leah Freeman.

Freeman burst onto the scene in a big way last season. As a freshman, she allowed just 0.74 goals per game –– the lowest for a Duck keeper since 2006. This earned her a spot on the Pac-12 All-Freshman team and the All-Pac-12 third team.

“There’s still always more to improve on,” Freeman said. “One of those things is just making sure I’m mentally locked in at all times, and I think another is making sure that everything builds up from the feet.”

Freeman wasn’t the only underclasswoman last year to draw some serious attention. As a sophomore, Ally Cook had a historic season patrolling the forward position.

Cook had four game-winning goals last year; she ranked No. 10 in the country and first in the Pac-12. She was also the team leader in goals, assists and shots.

“[Cook] is an extremely driven young woman,” Abel said. “She’ll put pressure on herself with anything in life, but we don’t want to put any pressure on her.”

Now, as a junior, Cook is adding to her resume by the game. Both in Oregon’s exhibition game and in their first match against Fresno State, Cook scored twice. She will be a handful for any defender this season.

Jordan Warmdahl, Cook’s frontline mate, is another name to watch. The Eugene native has eight career goals as a Duck, including an exhilarating game-winner last year against Arizona.

In addition to the young firepower, the veteran presence is just as strong for Oregon. This year, four players opted to use their fifth year of eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic: Chardonnay Curran, True Dydasco, Eden Hardy and Mia Palmer. With this, Oregon returns all of their shots, assists and goals from last year.

All four of these women have witnessed and contributed to the program’s transformation in the last five years. Now, they’re looking to go out with a statement this season.

The team’s success will largely revolve around two of the bigger names: Zoe Hasenauer and Croix Soto. Both players are coming off of all-conference seasons.

Hasenauer, a senior, has made plenty of memories on the pitch in green and yellow. She enters this season sixth all-time in Oregon assists (11) and seventh in shots (121).

“What you’ve seen from Zoe over the past 18 months [has] been her evolution as a player to an all-around player –– a player that can defend, a player that can pass exceptionally –– and she’s still a threat scorer,” Abel said.

Soto’s impact may not be as visible, but it’s just as forceful. She plays defense –– which may not come with the exciting highlight-reel plays, but it was Oregon's bread and butter last year. The program allowed just 0.69 goals per game, their lowest since 1981, and Soto was on the field for every second of it.

Oregon’s freshman class has been nothing short of amazing in their small sample size as well. Midfielder Alice Barbieri has already played 140 impressive minutes off the bench in just two games. Meanwhile, Kaitlyn Paculba, a forward and former all-league track and soccer player in high school, scored in the Ducks’ very first game.

“All the freshmen have been amazing so far,” Wormdahl said. “The main thing that I think is great about all of them is that they’re great people first.”

With proper coaching, veteran leadership, young talent and depth, it’s apparent that Oregon has all the tools to be a successful team. The only step left is to continue building camaraderie, something they couldn’t do much of last year because of COVID-19.

“We were very separated last year having to be stuck in our own rooms,” Cook said. “That didn’t allow us to develop complete chemistry. But this year we are able to do more as a team, and it’s making us so much closer.”

Daniel Friis is a sports writer from Belmont, California. He enjoys covering all Oregon sports but mostly softball and baseball. When he’s not writing, he enjoys playing video games, sleeping, fishing, and anything outdoors related.