Heart of the defense

Carlson, Wiernicki leaders of Mesa's strong back line

The steadying presence of Leilani Wiernicki in the center of the defensive back line has been a huge help for Colorado Mesa this season. The Mavericks have five shutouts heading into this weekend’s games.

They don’t get the awards or recognition, but the Colorado Mesa University men’s and women’s soccer teams wouldn’t be successful without them.

They are the fullbacks — often called the back line.

They are the last line of defense before the goalkeeper and have as much to do with shutouts as the goalies.

The men (8-4-2, 6-3-1 RMAC) have a program-best seven shutouts this season. They have shut out four of their past five opponents and lead the RMAC in goals against average (0.68 per game). Mesa hosts Metro State (8-6-0, 5-5-0 RMAC) at 4 p.m. Friday and Regis (11-0-1) at 3 p.m. Sunday at Walker Field. Regis is ranked second in the NCAA South Central Region poll, released Wednesday. The poll shows the teams in the hunt for an NCAA tournament berth. Mesa is not ranked in the region.

Mesa’s defensive prowess starts with the center fullback or in the men’s case, the two center fullbacks.

“(The center back) sets the line and is always telling us when and where to go,” CMU senior right fullback Jeremy Gwerder said.

That center back is redshirt freshman Blake Carlson, with Skyler Roy, Austin Jex and now Michael Bagheri also having seen time at the position. Roy (hamstring) and Jex (concussion) are out with injuries. Bagheri is playing alongside Carlson now.

Carlson has always played the center fullback, largely because of his 6-foot-5 frame.

“I’ve always been a little taller than everybody,” Carlson said. “It’s easier to win head balls. I have a quicker first step with long legs.”

“I wasn’t especially gifted offensively when I was younger. Defense is about working hard. That’s what I developed into. It’s all about defense for me.”

Although Carlson has been an integral part of the defense, goalkeeper Micah Conrads has received the accolades. Conrads was selected the RMAC defensive player of the week winner last week.

“I think Blake Carlson was a deserving winner for the defensive player of the week,” CMU coach Josh Pittman said. “He wins every ball back there. He anchors the defense and keeps everything steady. Since we put him in the lineup, we’ve been that much better.

“The other guys have been great too, Austin Jex and Skyler Roy, when he was in there. Oliver (Querin), Ethan (Johnson) and Jeremy (Gwerder) have been strong.”

The women got off to a good start this season in large part because of their defense. The Mavericks have five shutouts this season.

Colorado Mesa (8-3-3, 5-3-2 RMAC) is ranked eighth in the NCAA South Central Region. Six teams qualify for the NCAA tournament.

The Mavericks host two teams ahead of them in the region this weekend. Mesa plays third-ranked Metro State
 (10-3-1, 7-2-1 RMAC) at 7 p.m. Friday and seventh-ranked Regis 
(9-4-1, 7-2-1 RMAC) at noon Sunday. Both games are at Walker Field.

“I’ve said the past two years, I think we have the best defense in the conference,” CMU coach Erin Sharpe said. “We’ll occasionally have an off game, but that back line constantly keeps us in games. Our soccer IQ is very high.”

Center fullback Leilani Wiernicki is the leader of the defense.

“I think Leilani is one of the most under appreciated players in this conference,” Sharpe said. “It is shocking that she has not gotten all-conference accolades yet. She’s such a consistent player and leader on the back line. She’s been a captain since her freshmen year on this team. She brings such a presence in terms of her communication and her leadership. It’s felt when she’s not on the field — she’s been injured a couple games — largely because of her ability to communicate.”

Wiernicki thrives on directing teammates and seeing others be recognized.

“I’m like the loudest on the field,” she said. “Sometimes I feel like I’m annoying with my voice, but I feel if I don’t talk, our flow wouldn’t be as good.”

Acquiring accolades isn’t Wiernicki’s way.

“If our team gets an award or the goalkeeper gets it, in a way that shows we’re doing something right on the back line,” Wiernicki said. “I don’t really need my name out there.”


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