One moment defined what Liv Larson means to the Western Washington University women’s soccer team.
The Vikings were facing UC San Diego in the round of 16 of the NCAA Division II national tournament, and in the first five minutes Larson received an elbow to the mouth which knocked one of her front teeth out.
How did Larson react? The Arlington High School graduate spent five minutes on the sidelines getting cleaned up, then went right back into the game.
That moment characterized why Larson, as an unheralded freshman, was able to play a major role in Western’s run to the national championship last year. And it’s a big reason why the Vikings, who begin their title defense Thursday when they open the season against Notre Dame De Namur in Belmont, California, believe Larson will be able to make an even bigger impact this year.
“What comes to mind is the word, ‘Grit,’” Western coach Travis Connell said about Larson, who is entering her sophomore year. “She’s one of the toughest and most competitive kids going. She’s not only talented with fantastic skill and able to beat players off the dribble, she’s also inspirational because she’s as tough as nails and will do anything to win.”
Larson played a critical role as the Vikings went 24-0-1 en route to the first national title in the program’s history. Larson started 23 of Western’s 25 games, scoring seven goals and adding five assists to finish as the team’s fourth-leading scorer. She also was a bulldog in Western’s high-pressure system, harrying the opposition defenders when they had the ball and forcing them into mistakes.
Larson did her best work when it mattered most, scoring twice in the Vikings’ 5-1 national quarterfinal victory over Colorado School of Mines and providing an assist in Western’s 3-0 semifinal win against Kutztown.
And Larson was on the field when the final whistle blew to declare the Vikings the champs.
“When the whistle blew and the team was running together, we ended up in a dogpile like a movie scene,” Larson recalled. “It was incredible.
“It was crazy [being a national champion], especially for a freshman coming in not knowing what to expect,” Larson added. “A season like that was amazing to be a part of.”
Larson, being a freshman who was not a high-profile recruit, was an unexpected member of Western’s core.
“She definitely was a pleasant surprise,” Connell said. “She showed a lot of ability and promise throughout her recruitment. But she wasn’t playing club soccer at the highest level in the state, so she was a little under the radar. One question we had was whether she would be able to adjust to the speed of this level so that she could play right away. Well, she hit a home run right out of the box. We were definitely surprised how fast she made the transition, and her level of production was fantastic.”
So much so that Larson is being given more responsibility this year as a sophomore. Last year Larson was deployed as a left-sided forward in Western’s 4-3-3 formation. This year she’s been handed one of the team’s two attacking midfield roles. That means Larson will be more in the thick of the action, while also being in a position to continue scoring and providing goals.
It’s also more of a role Larson is used to, as she was primarily a midfielder for her club team and in high school.
“It’s a new role on the team and I’m trying to figure it out,” Larson said about the position change. “A big role for me will be finding my teammates, but also to take the ball and score when the opportunity is there.
“I have more confidence in my ability,” Larson added. “Just having a year under my belt, knowing the competition I’m coming up against, knowing what it will look like, I’m a stronger player. I’ve learned so much.”
Larson has a chance to be a part of another national champion, too. Western returns 20 players from last year’s team, seven of whom were starters. Among the returning players is senior defender Sierra Shugarts, the 2016 Great Northwest Athletic Conference Player of the Year; senior midfielder Emily Webster, the 2016 GNAC Defender of the Year; and junior forward Gabriela Pelogi, the team’s leading scorer last season with 11 goals. As a result Western was ranked No. 1 in the United Soccer Coaches Division II preseason poll.
“I honestly think we can do whatever we want,” Larson said. “If at practice we get a little bit better very day, by the end of the season we’ll be unstoppable as long as we take care of ourselves and work together.”
And should the Vikings find themselves lifting another trophy come December, no doubt Larson will have played a big part.
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