Monthly Archives: August 2017

NCAA – 2017 Big 12 Preview

Chris’ Big 12 Projections

1. West Virginia
2. Texas Tech
3. Texas
4. Baylor
5. Kansas
6. TCU
7. Oklahoma
8. Oklahoma St

9. Iowa St
10. Kansas State

Last year, West Virginia finally shed their tag of being the best program in DI women’s soccer to have never reached the College Cup. In reality, the Mountaineers came achingly close to lifting their first national title but fell just short against USC in the final. The Mountaineers opened up their 2016 campaign with eight matches unbeaten, including wins against Clemson and at Duke before an extra time loss to Georgetown. It was WVU’s last loss in a long, long time as they ran the table in the Big 12 before winning three more matches in the Big 12 Tournament to do another league-conference tournament double. The Mountaineers’ NCAA Tournament road would be an adventure, as they needed extra time in the second round to beat Ohio State, penalties to down UCLA a round later, and a mighty defensive effort to take out Duke in the Elite Eight. WVU would overcome North Carolina in the College Cup semi-final before running up against USC in the final and giving a valiant effort in defeat. It was a painful end to what had otherwise been a brilliant season.

The Mountaineers will go into the 2017 season with nine starters returning, but it’s the two that don’t that could be tough for WVU to overcome. Gone are Canadian internationals Kadeisha Buchanan and Ashley Lawrence, who were two of the NCAAs best players last season and two of the brightest hopes for their nation’s footballing future. The offense is hit particularly hard by Lawrence’s departure, as the midfielder led the club with ten assists last season while also chipping in with four goals to the WVU cause.

With Lawrence gone, the offense now likely revolves around Michaela Abam, a potential first round pick in January’s NWSL Draft. Abam chipped in with twelve goals and nine assists last season but is also a high volume shooter whose efficiency can suffer at times. There are plenty of other intriguing weapons for the Mountaineers. Sh’Nia Gordon had a breakout season as a sophomore and netted seven goals, second most on the team last year. Senior Heather Kaleiohi also had six goals as she locked down a starting spot for most of the season. The key though could be senior midfielder Carla Portillo, a silently brilliant midfielder who’s been overshadowed by Lawrence here for the past few seasons. Portillo had five goals and seven assists last season and is a good bet to have a big jump towards stardom this season at WVU. Newcomers could make their mark as well, with Heather Kaleiohi’s sister, Malia, a highly rated prospect in midfield, with New Zealand youth international Issy Coombes another contender for early minutes in the middle of the park.

Overcoming Buchanan’s departure on defense isn’t going to be easy either. Buchanan has emerged as one of the world’s preeminent center-backs and was worth her weight in gold as a four-year superstar on the backline for WVU. The Mountaineers do return the other starters on the backline though, meaning this unit isn’t about to drop off a cliff. It seems likely that the surest thing at center-back in Buchanan’s wake is Canadian junior Easther Mayi Kith, who started every match on the backline for WVU last season. The other center-back spot is a mystery, with Carly Black graduating and Dalanda Ouendeno transferring to Miami (FL).

The full-back spots are probably a little more settled with a veteran Canadian connection. Amandine Pierre-Louis actually finished third on the team in shots and can play an attacking role as well as a converted forward. Bianca St. Georges missed about half the season on international duty but remains a steady presence at the back as well. WVU brings in some cover in the form of English youth internationals Lois Joel and Grace Smith who could both work their way into the rotation early on in their WVU careers.

In goal, Rylee Foster should be the undisputed #1 after splitting time with Michelle Newhouse, who transferred to East Carolina in the offseason. Foster is a Canadian youth international and missed a chunk of last year at the U20 World Cup but has outstanding potential to develop into one of the nation’s best keepers.

This West Virginia side will be hard pressed to repeat a trip to the national title match as last year’s side accomplished. However, there’s still a ton of talent on display, meaning WVU are again Big 12 favorites and could make a solid run in the NCAAs.

Few will argue that luck wasn’t with Texas Tech in 2016. The Red Raiders got a fortuitous berth to the NCAA Tournament despite having what looked to be on paper a pretty hollow resume. They’d started out non-conference play well enough, but a draw with a middling Arizona side and 4-0 loss to Cal at home probably revealed much about this TTU side as league play approached. The Big 12 season itself was a nightmare in most respects, as Tom Stone’s side won just one of their first seven, a big win over Iowa State that probably factored into their NCAA appearance. They needed a result in their regular season finale against Oklahoma to just make the Big 12 Tournament and held out for a nervy 1-0 win against the Sooners to claim the #8 seed. Most thought TTU’s goose was cooked after a 3-0 loss to WVU in the Big 12 Tournament considering their awful league performance and dearth of non-conference results, but the Red Raiders were spared and netted an at-large bid. Hopes of a dark horse run in the NCAAs died early, the club losing to Utah in the first round.

The Red Raiders will take heart in knowing that last year was largely a rebuilding effort after the loss of some big hitters, and ten starters returning makes the Lubbock side immediately interesting in the topsy turvy Big 12. It seems crazy for a Tom Stone team and this TTU program in particular, but the Red Raiders’ offense was painful last season, netting just five goals in the league and twenty overall. The club had to replace Janine Beckie’s offense up front, but even with some big time recruits, the task proved a difficult one. Just one player netted more than three goals last season, that being sophomore Jade King, who scored six times but needed a whopping seventy-shots to get there. King clearly needs some help, but the question is where is she going to find it amongst the returners. Rebekah O’Brien was second on the team in shots but isn’t really a true attacking player despite three goals last year, while Jordan Duke’s return of one goal on thirty shots was a big disappointment.

The hope has to be that sophomore Jordie Harr can continue to develop this year after coming into Lubbock as a highly touted prospect last season. Harr missed six games though and finished with two goals and three assists, so the Red Raiders will be hoping for a complete season this year with more production on the stat sheet. Junior Gwennie Puente didn’t make a big dent in the stat sheet but still returns as one of the league’s best midfielders. Much may depend on the club’s addition of Kirsten Davis, a U.S. U20 international who could make a big impact early in the attack. Other newcomers with early potential here include forwards Ally Griffin and Brianna Stewart and midfielder Macy Chilton.

Defensively, Texas Tech probably had one of the league’s better sides last year. However, the Red Raiders could face an uphill climb to match 2016’s pace defensively without the graduated Lauren Watson in goal. Watson was seldom mentioned in the ranks of college WoSo’s superstar keepers, but she was solid enough here in her time as the club’s starter. It would be a surprise if the gloves weren’t passed down to rookie Marissa Zucchetto, a Canadian youth international who has featured extensively for her nation at U17 level and who could become this program’s next great keeper. The backline takes a few hits through graduation as well, with Meagan McCullough and Jade Dapaah graduating. Among the returning candidates at full-back are Gabbie Puente, Cassie Conarty, Margaret Begley, and Cassie Boren. Boren and O’Brien could also factor in at center-back, along with fellow returners Brooke Denesik and Mary Heiberger. TTU also adds some newcomers to boost the ranks as well, with Californian Alexis Rushlow a player who could make a difference early here.

My projections think the Red Raiders have a good shot of rocketing back up the table this season thanks in no small part to a great recruiting class. If the rookies can make a big impact, don’t count this team out of making a little run in the NCAA Tournament either. Continue reading

NCAA – 2017 Pac-12 Preview

Chris’ Pac-12 Projections

1. Stanford
3. Cal
4. USC
5. Washington
6. Arizona
7. Utah
8. Colorado
9. Oregon
10. Arizona State
11. Washington State
12. Oregon State

Stanford faced almost unspeakable cruelty in the second round of the NCAA Tournament last season. In a typically tight match with rivals Santa Clara, Stanford stood on the edge in extra time and saw their fate changed when Andi Sullivan suffered an awful knee injury that would later be revealed to be a torn ACL. The Card would be shell-shocked and then eliminated when SCU scored not soon after. It was a heartbreaking end to a season in which Stanford had been the best team for so long. They began the year with six straight wins and were unbeaten in eleven before losing their only match of the regular season to USC. Downed in the process were sides like Florida, Marquette, Minnesota, that aforementioned Santa Clara side, and everyone in the Pac-12 but the Trojans. They had shown a little vulnerability throughout, but many felt that the Card were the best, most consistent team in the NCAA Tournament and had a great shot at glory, only to be dealt one of their most painful losses in program history.

The best news is that Sullivan is healthy enough to begin the season on the field for the Card, though she is undoubtedly going to have her minutes managed having torn that ACL in November. Stanford aren’t going to be cowed by their leader not playing ninety minutes though, as they’re absolutely loaded. Again. Sullivan, even if she’s not 100%, is one of the best to have suited up for the Card, which is high praise. A complete midfielder, Sullivan is the likely #1 pick in January’s NWSL Draft and has a bright future with the full USWNT. The other two in Stanford’s first-choice midfield essentially combined to form the college game’s top unit. Tierna Davidson is seen by many as the next big thing at Stanford and was simply phenomenal as a rookie here. Junior Jordan DiBiasi has a penchant for big goals and had seven overall last season to finish tied for second on the team and is only scratching the surface of her vast potential.

While the frontline does have to bid farewell to Megan Turner, there are plenty of returning weapons. Kyra Carusa isn’t a huge scorer in front of goal but still managed five and added ten assists as a well-rounded option up top. Michelle Xiao is a slashing type winger to add a different dimension to the frontline and also had seven goals for Stanford last season. Mariah Lee returns after missing all of last season and is a nice X-Factor based on previous potential. But the Card are, of course, welcoming another ridiculously talented rookie class to the Farm. Up top, Belle Briede, Madison Haley, Civana Kuhlmann, Sophia Serafin, and Catarina Macario are all in the frame to see major minutes as rookies. Opposing defenses will likely be most wary of Kuhlman and Macario given their vast reputations, but this group as a whole could be lethal with time. Paul Ratcliffe needs to find the right combo up top, but if he does, opposing defenses could get eviscerated.

There’s work to be done on defense given some graduation losses. The biggest loss is in goal, where the Card must find a way to replace superstar Jane Campbell, one of the most decorated netminders in program history. There’s no ready made superstar replacement, but Ratcliffe does have two capable options on paper. Junior Alison Jahansouz looks first choice given her filling in for Campbell when she was on international duty and serving a ban for a red card last year. However, sophomore Lauren Rood could be hot on her heels and could push her for minutes.

On the backline, All-American Maddie Bauer graduates, leaving a pretty big hole in central defense. Stanford look likely to fill it with only the second transfer in program history, with big time recruit Sam Hiatt coming from Boston College after one season. The other center-back is Alana Cook, who looks to be another in a long line of sensational center-backs to be churned out by this program based on two years’ evidence.

Out wide, left-back looks securely in the hands of Tegan McGrady, who can absolutely fly down the flank and has star potential over the next two seasons. Right-back is a much sorer subject, with the likes of Beattie Goad and Ceci Gee getting run outs there last year. The hope is probably that Kiki Pickett, an undersized rookie, but an absolute stud based on her youth club and international showings, can fill that spot. Serafin and Jojo Harber could also get looks on the backline if need be. Ratcliffe has another undoubtedly talented team that should not be lacking on motivation after how 2016 ended. They look like Pac-12 favorites and have another great shot at picking up their second national title if Sullivan returns to full health and enough rookies make an impact.

The offseason’s longest and strangest soap opera came to an end with UCLA seeing Mallory Pugh decide to go pro instead of sticking it out in Westwood. After one of the worst seasons in program history in 2015, the Bruins were under pressure to rebuild in a hurry last year. The Bruins would take a few knocks in losses to Florida and North Carolina early on, but they showed their potential with wins over Texas A&M and Penn State among others before league play kicked in. League play brought bright spots, such as wins over USC on the road but also some growing pains, with defeats to Colorado and Utah mixed in as well. When all was said and done, UCLA finished fifth in the Pac-12 but looked like a side nobody wanted to play in the NCAA Tournament. The Bruins showed why that was the case, beating Seattle and Nebraska by multiple goals to set up a huge showdown with West Virginia in the last sixteen. UCLA would give the eventual national runners-up all they could handle, only bowing out on penalties after a 1-1 draw in a match that showcased the long-term potential of this program.

That long-term potential might become a present reality in 2017 with another tremendous recruiting class making its way to Westwood. The hope has to be that some of those rookies are going to offset the loss of four starters for the club. The frontline in particular takes some major hits, as two of the team’s three leading scorers, Darian Jenkins and Amber Munerlyn, both graduate after combining for thirteen goals last year. Jenkins’ departure is a particularly difficult blow, as she looked on course for her best season as a collegian with seven goals in eleven matches before suffering a horrific injury that ended her college career.

The Bruins return just one player that scored more than three goals last year, but it’s a singular talent in Canadian wunderkind Jessie Fleming. Fleming missed the first few games of the season while playing at the Olympics, but she hit the ground running and scored eleven goals and added five assists while looking every bit the superstar she was touted as. Also impressive as a rookie was Anika Rodriguez, who may have been a bit wayward with her shooting but who was great setting teammates up with a team leading eight assists for the Bruins.

Beyond Fleming and Rodriguez, it’s a question of which of UCLAs’ bright young newcomers is going to make the biggest impact. The odds on favorite might be Ashley Sanchez, one of U.S. Soccer’s most promising prospects and a player who figures to be in the full USWNT mix before she leaves Westwood. The midfield gets its own injection of blue-chip talent with Marley Canales, who would have been here last year if she was not with the U.S. U20 team last year, as well as Viviana Villacorta, another strong prospect who could see a lot of time early. There are plenty of other dark horses here that would be surefire starters elsewhere, such as forward Issy Bellinghausen and midfielders Melanie Sheehan and Olivia Athens.

Defense has been a sore spot here for a few years, and though they improved last season, they were still rather average by Pac-12 standards. However, this group still has some young key pieces, meaning a breakthrough might just be around the corner. Junior Hailie Mace is a converted forward who still shows some of those roots on forays up the pitch but has a lot of potential and could round into one of the Pac-12’s best defenders with a little more seasoning at center-back. Joining her as an anchor is sophomore Kaiya McCullough, another highly thought of recruit heading into Westwood last year who stepped right in to solidify the spine of the UCLA defense.

The forecast at full-back is a little cloudier, with numerous contenders to fill the gaps, including Mackenzie Cerda, Jacey Pederson, Gabrielle Matulich, and Zoey Goralski, though there aren’t really any stars apparent from that grouping. This group also adds some great prospects as well, with Canadian starlet Kennedy Faulkner another potential star at full international level, as well as American Karina Rodriguez. Towering rookies Dani Satterwhite and Hannah Sharts probably aren’t going to displace either starting center-back, but they’re also both solid prospects who add nice depth here.

After a frightful 2015 in between the pipes, UCLA added some stability with Australian Teagan Micah last year. Micah’s still a little raw but has the potential to be one of the league’s better keepers.

Had Pugh stayed with UCLA, the Bruins probably would’ve been earmarked by many as a potential national title winner. They still might get there this year, but the elite talent might take some time to gel, which means UCLA will be fearsome but perhaps just short of the big prize at season’s end.

Cal’s existence for the past decade has been punctuated by a maddening inability to get beyond the opening few rounds of the NCAA Tournament despite having talented teams and access to a pipeline of some of the nation’s best youth players in California. While Cal has now made every NCAA Tournament since 2003, they also haven’t been past the second round since 2005 and have been knocked out in the first round in three of the past four seasons. Last year, the Golden Bears racked up ten wins in their first twelve, though they also didn’t get an RPI bump given the iffy non-conference strength of schedule. Cal would allay any fears about that early in league play, going 5-0-2 in their first seven and beating eventual national champs USC along the way. But Cal also seemed to hit a wall late, losing three of their final four in the regular season to sink to sixth in the league. Pepperdine were a tough opponent in the NCAA Tournament first round, but Cal took them to penalties before falling short.

This year’s Golden Bears side is likely going to have a very different look on offense thanks to a major chunk of last year’s attacking core graduating. The two big pieces that depart are the deadly frontline duo of Arielle Ship and Ifeoma Onumonu. Ship couldn’t match the pace of her junior season but was more efficient with her eleven goals last season. Onumonu shook off serious injuries in previous seasons to score ten goals herself and ended up being taken early in the NWSL Draft by Boston. Also gone is Emma Fletcher, an attacking midfielder with a lightning quick trigger who had four assists for Cal last season.

Nobody returning netted more than five goals, and just one netted more than three, meaning there’s a massive question as to where the goals are going to come from in 2017. There are high hopes for Abi Kim, who was the other member of Cal’s three-pronged attack last year and who had a solid season with three goals and three assists, though she figures to take on a much bigger role in the attack this season. The frontline also boasts newcomer Emma Westin, a Swedish youth international who could see major minutes early. It could be a bit more stable in midfield despite the loss of Fletcher. Veterans Kelly Fitzgerald, the team’s leading returning scorer, and Miranda Nild should provide some much needed experience, while Mia Corbin is another youngster with a ton of potential in her sophomore season. There are even more impact rookies in midfield, with U.S. U18 international Luca Deza one of the crown jewels of this class. New Zealand international Daisy Cleverley and Carolina Clark are also highly regarded rookies capable of contributions this year.

Cal’s defense is probably going to have to be the unit that leads it to victory while the offense tries to gel. The Golden Bears benefit from having senior Emily Boyd, one of the nation’s best goalkeepers as their last line of defense. A U20 international for the U.S., Boyd is a potential All-American as a senior and likely will hear her name called in the NWSL Draft if she chooses to go that route in January.

The best on the backline in front of her is likely going to be senior full-back Haley Lukas, who saw time on the left and right last year and was generally one of the league’s best defenders. The other full-back spot figures to be filled by Heather Walleigh, a converted forward who was a constant on the backline last year for the Golden Bears. Center-back could be a little less settled, as though senior Indigo Gibson returns for her fourth season, the other spot could be up for grabs with Lynsey Hromatko and Anna Mejia both departing. U.S. U19 international Emily Smith is one of the best defenders in this rookie class and could be an option, while fellow rookies Kailee Gifford and Kai Henderson have also been tipped for big things in Berkeley.

The Golden Bears are a bit tricky to project, as they have a rebuilding offense and a defense which could potentially be one of the nation’s best and most experienced. They’re largely going to be dependent on a great rookie crop coming in and impressing, but they look like a high ceiling side who could become even more fearsome in the next few years.

The Women of Troy marched to the top of DI last season, as USC won their second national title in domineering fashion. The Trojans were a sleeper for a lot of observers considering their growth under Keidane McAlpine, but few honestly expected them to be the last team standing in December. This was especially true once USC had lost their first two matches to Santa Clara and Long Beach State. But USC opened a lot of eyes on a ten match winning streak that featured multiple goal margins of victory in all ten, including triumphs over Pepperdine, Auburn, North Carolina, and Stanford. A few slip-ups in the league down the stretch meant USC would have to be content with second in the Pac-12, but they looked a dangerous side going into the NCAA Tournament. Texas A&M (after penalties), Utah, Auburn, and Georgetown all fell to set up a College Cup final showdown with West Virginia. USC would emerge victorious in one of the most thrilling finals in DI WoSo history, riding to victory to cap off an unbelievable season.

As great a job as McAlpine did last year, he and his staff might need to pull a giant rabbit out of the hat to repeat as national champions. The Trojans get gutted by graduation, as a conference high six starters graduate. In particular, the defense gets hammered, with Mandy Freeman, Savannah Levin, and defensive midfielder/full-back Kayla Mills all departing. Add in goalkeeper Sammy Jo Prudhomme’s graduation, and you’ve got quite the situation for the Trojans to handle. In goal, the club is likely to decide between senior Julia Murphy and redshirt freshman Kaylie Collins, though true freshman Emily Cuthbert is also highly rated.

The new anchor on the club’s backline is likely to be Ally Prisock, though she’s not a newcomer, having served two very accomplished seasons for the Trojans thus far. Also back is Julia Bingham, whose performance at full-back as a rookie allowed the club to move Mills to defensive midfielder, potentially changing the course of USC’s season early last year. Filling the gaps left by Freeman, one of the Pac-12’s best defenders of the decade, and Levin will be crucial. Dominique Randle returns as a fifth-year senior after missing last year through injury and should immediately contend for a starting spot given her quality. Other returnees who could make an impact include sophomore Ashleigh Plumptre and redshirt freshman Samantha Bruder. Rookie Tara McKeown is listed as a forward but played full-back in scrimmages and is considered an elite prospect, while Georgia’s Jessica Haidet isn’t far behind her in terms of freshman quality.

The attack takes some big hits as well. Katie Johnson wrote herself into USC lore with her goals on College Cup weekend and finished as joint top scorer with ten goals as a senior. Also gone is Morgan Andrews, who went out a champion after transferring from Notre Dame a few seasons earlier and also had ten goals for the club last season. Much of USC’s offense this season is likely to be based around the duo of Alex Anthony and Leah Pruitt. Anthony was a transfer from Maryland and was hyped as someone who could be the pure scorer USC needed going into last season. She fit the bill with ten goals, including four match winners and will like her chances of going from strength to strength this year. Pruitt’s probably more of a raw talent and was a super sub for most of the year after transferring from San Diego State but finished with four goals and eight assists herself.

There are many who could step up into bigger roles this year such as Nicole Molen, who netted five goals last year, Amanda Rooney, Sydney Sladek, and Sydney Johnson. The new names to watch are Savannah DeMelo, who delayed enrollment to play with the U20 World Cup team last year, and Arlie Jones, another very promising prospect who could make her mark early here.

Matching last year is probably going to be impossible for these talented but reloading Trojans. They should still be good for a nice Pac-12 finish and a few NCAA Tournament wins, but deeper progress could be dependent on many new stars coming to the fore in L.A.
Continue reading

NCAA – 2017 SEC Preview

Chris’ SEC Projections

1. South Carolina
2. Texas A&M
3. Florida
4. Vanderbilt
5. Arkansas
6. Auburn
7. Tennessee
8. Alabama
9. Missouri
10. Ole Miss

11. Kentucky
12. Mississippi State
13. Georgia
14. LSU

2016 was almost a complete dream season for South Carolina. The Gamecocks would draw on opening night against Oklahoma but then won eighteen matches in a row, taking down the likes of NC State and Clemson before SEC play and everyone in their path en route to the SEC Tournament. Maintaining that kind of excellence for such a long period did wear on the club though, and it wasn’t really a shock to see them lose closely to Florida in the tournament semi-finals. SC didn’t get an easy road to the College Cup getting drawn against great Colorado and BYU teams for their regional but edging past both on the way to the Elite Eight. But despite a valiant effort against North Carolina with a spot in the College Cup on the line, the Gamecocks came up just short in a 1-0 defeat in Columbia. It was an unfortunate end to an amazing season that had seen South Carolina put up a perfect league season and break records at the box office thanks in no small part to their success on the pitch.

There are definitely reasons to expect SC to tail off a bit this season. Gone are six starters, tied for most in the SEC. But Carolina’s fortunes may be more about who is here than who isn’t, as they return one of the best attackers in the country in Savannah McCaskill. McCaskill’s growth has been incredible over the past few years, with the senior netting seventeen goals and adding in eleven assists to go with them last season. McCaskill’s profile has risen to the point that she has been in to train with the full USWNT and will likely be an early pick in January’s NWSL Draft.

Where else the goals are going to come from is a massive worry for the Gamecocks though. The club’s next four top scorers all depart, meaning Carolina doesn’t have a single player other than McCaskill that netted more than two goals last season, with the loss of Sophie Groff and Chelsea Drennan, who combined for seventeen goals and sixteen assists, particularly tough to overcome. It might be up to newcomers to help charge up the attack this season. Freshman Breukelen Woodard is probably the heaviest hitter of the rookies and could get early minutes in midfield. The attack could rise and fall with the addition of Meaghan Carrigan though. Carrigan scored twenty-seven goals for Richmond in her career there but never reached the ceiling of her potential because of injuries. If healthy, she could be the transfer signing of the season, but SC could be in trouble if Carrigan can’t get amongst the goals.

The potential one-dimensionality of the attack means there’s going to be more of an emphasis than ever on the SC defense. Fortunately, the Gamecocks have constructed more than one rock solid defense over the years. Part of that starts from having a strong spine through deeper midfielders, with returnees Lindsey Lane and Dominique Babbitt massively important figures both from an experience standpoint as well as from a talent perspective. As is the case with the frontline, the backline also gets rocked with graduation attrition. Gone are center-backs Kaleigh Kurtz and Paige Bendell and right-back Evelyn Robinson, creating a massive void of experience that Shelley Smith and her staff are going to be scrambling to compensate for. The one returner on the backline that started last year is Anna Conklin, the club’s left-back, who’ll need to be huge while the rest of the defense finds some chemistry.

A key will be a pair of highly rated additions. Rookie Jackie Schaefer is a U.S. U17 international and may need to step into big minutes right away. Sophomore transfer Grace Fisk stepped in admirably for Penn State last season and joins the team after the conclusion of the UEFA U19 Championship and should be a prime candidate for a starting spot as well.

The Gamecocks have been strong in goal more often than not over the years, and Mikayla Krzeczowski is another huge asset for the club after looking spectacular as a rookie. Her mettle will be tested again this year with a new look backline.

Carolina is a polarizing side according to my projections. Their star duo up front and in goal might be enough to lead them to SEC glory if they get enough from last year’s reserves and newcomers. But there’s also a very real downside with so many new moving parts, meaning this year might be more about coaching and system than anything else in Columbia.

2016 appeared to be set up for a big year for Texas A&M. The Aggies were coming off getting to the Elite Eight with a young squad that was returning most of its personnel for 2016. However, reality intervened in inconvenient ways. Ally Watt was chosen for the U.S. U20 team and redshirted as a result. Injuries piled up. And the side which had played beyond its years in 2015 suddenly dealt with some serious growing pains. The Aggies entered league play in a world of hurt, with their best result a victory at home over Rice, meaning there was serious work to do to bolster their RPI. But after two wins over league bottom dwellers LSU and Georgia, the Aggies hit a brutal stretch of six without a win in the league. They’d recover to win their last three in the league, but despite beating Auburn, most felt the Aggies needed a few wins on Orange Beach to keep their NCAA Tournament streak going. They’d beat Alabama but lose to South Carolina, with their RPI dropping to an extent that most felt they were dead and buried. However, not only did A&M get an at-large bid, they got a great draw as well, being sent to NCAA Tournament rookies TCU. The Aggies would win that one and take eventual national champion USC to the limit before losing on spot kicks, which seemed utterly implausible considering Texas A&M’s superhuman record on penalties over the past two decades.

With eight starters and the returning Watt back, it’s easy to look at this Texas A&M team as one that could challenge for a spot in the College Cup, especially given the depth of talent in attack. This Aggie side scored just twenty-seven goals last year, a number that seems almost sacrilegious on paper considering the attacking history in College Station. The number one weapon amongst the returners is likely to be junior Haley Pounds, leading returning scorer last year with eight goals, though her numbers were an ugly five in sixty-five shots if you factor out penalties. Pounds hit double digits a season before, so the talent is there, but she needs a bit of a sharper edge in front of goal.

And some help. Watt might be looked to to provide some of that help after earning her stripes as a super sub at the U20 World Cup last season. Watt scored seven goals as a true freshman in 2015 and has pace to burn but also was a bit inconsistent in that rookie season. Junior Emily Bates could ultimately be an important figure again, as the Aggies often floundered with her out of the lineup through injury. She netted five goals despite that and could be the straw that stirs the drink in 2017 for the Aggies.

More than likely though, this attack could live and die with the contributions of Mikaela Harvey in midfield. The SEC’s resident l’enfant terrible is a wizard with the ball at her feet and space to roam but also was wasteful with her shooting last year with two goals on forty shots. With a full complement of attackers to work with this year, including sophomore standout Grace Piper added to the above, she could be set for a seismic senior season. Unsurprisingly, A&M has also done their part to add even more weapons from this freshman class. The big names are Abby Grace Cooper on the frontline and Addie McCain in midfield, though it could be tough to squeeze into the starting lineup given the returning talent. Also in the mix are Sophie Salverino and Rheagen Smith, giving A&M an injection of young depth on the attack.

It’s not so cut and dry for the Aggies on defense, especially with the club in flux in goal. Danielle Rice went from a transfer who was deep on the depth chart to a cult heroine here after saving A&M’s bacon in between the pipes countless times the past few years. She graduates, and the club loses Mia Hummel to a transfer, meaning the Aggies have two new keepers in 2017. The favorite might be Olivia Ausmus, a U.S. U18 international and highly regarded freshman. The wild card is junior transfer Cosette Morche, an absolute giant at 6’2” but a largely unknown commodity after toiling for two seasons on an insipid Louisiana-Lafayette team. A&M churns out great goalkeepers as well as any program in the nation, so they’ll likely be fine, but there could be some growing pains early.

The backline could be a bit of a puzzle as well. Margaret Schmidt and McKayla Paulson look set to return at center-back after being the first choice pairing last season, though the Aggies might also see Florida State transfer Briana Alston in the mix for major minutes as well. Out wide, Kendall Ritchie returns at left-back, though the club has to find a new right-back with the graduation of Grace Wright. It remains to be seen who emerges with the job, with a returnee likely to get the nod. Though the number of defensive newcomers is much smaller than on offense, the addition of Mexican youth international Jimena Lopez could be worth watching. A&M looks like the top of the class in the SEC this season and should be in the running for silverware once more.

They should win multiple games in the NCAA Tournament but need some stars to emerge in the defense and a breakout season from one of their attackers to still be standing on the final weekend of the season.

It was the same old song for Florida in 2016, for better and for worse. The Gators were largely dominant in stretches in the regular season. A win at UCLA early was indicative of the quality on hand, but the Gators then conspire to lose two of their first three in the SEC. They’d rally with seven wins in their final eight to land in fourth in the final table. While that was undoubtedly disappointing considering Florida’s usual station in the SEC, they made up for it with a run to an SEC Tournament title by beating Missouri (on penalties), South Carolina, and Arkansas. With fresh momentum, some suspected that the Gators could be a contender to reach the College Cup. They started out well, beating Florida Gulf Coast and then getting past Wisconsin in extra time in a thriller. Florida would come up against an Auburn team they had lost to 3-0 in the regular season, thirsting for revenge. They wouldn’t find it. A 3-1 loss was a bitter end to their season that had begun with College Cup promise.

The Gators face the end of an era with the graduation of Savannah Jordan. Jordan finished out with sixteen goals as a senior, finishing with eighty-one for her career to seal her place in history as one of DI’s best ever in front of goal. Losing Jordan hurts, but the club also loses the club’s playmaker in chief, Meggie Dougherty Howard, as well. Dougherty Howard was joint second leading scorer here with eight goals but was more known for pulling the strings, leading the club with twelve assists from central midfield.

Often, the Gators have just churned out more stars once others have graduated, and there’s certainly no shortage of potential on Florida’s roster in the attack this year. The next great Florida midfielder might be junior Mayra Pelayo, who has shown glimpses of brilliant talent through two years but hasn’t been able to put it together consistently. Pelayo netted four goals and had eight assists and could be the Gators’ creative influence, either in the middle or out wide. The club’s leading returning scorer is Melanie Monteagudo, who picked up an efficient eight goals, despite not event starting half of UF’s matches last season. Other returners who could see major minutes include the junior trio of Briana Solis, Samantha Chung, and Sarah Troccoli.

As expected, UF fortified their attack with some promising additions. The highlight is Canadian international Deanne Rose, one of the biggest signings in recent memory here and widely thought of as a future star for her nation. Rose has heavy expectations coming in to Gainesville but could be a replacement for the scoring of Jordan in time. The Gators also bring in some intriguing transfers, with former Kansas midfielder Parker Roberts now eligible after redshirting last season while at the U20 World Cup, and Brazilian JUCO transfer Lais Araujo, another potentially prolific weapon. True freshmen Madison Alexander and Lauren Evans come in with less plaudits but still a solid amount of potential and could fight their way into major minutes here.

Defense has never particularly been Florida’s calling card, but they were among the SEC’s best. At least in league play. But the Gator rearguard actually has a lot of upside this season, as they were a bit young last year. The most intriguing piece is senior Gabby Seiler, a converted attacking midfielder who has slotted in as a “libero” type center-back with license to roam from the back. While it remains to be seen if Seiler’s future is truly on the backline, she helps build play in the customary Florida style and can punish teams who aren’t willing to press from the front and can also play as a full-back if necessary.

Senior Kristen Cardano will occupy the other center-back spot in all likelihood and had a nice season last year as well and could turn into one of the league’s steadier options in central defense. Out wide, Julia Lester figures to be the favorite at right-back, having netted three goals and three assists as a rookie. The other full-back slot could be a free for all, with Sara Wilson, Rachelle Smith, and Sammie Betters having all seen starting duties there last year. Florida has also fiddled with a 3-5-2 in recent years, which could open things up even more given the interchangeability of much of their personnel.

In goal, Kaylan Marckese has shown potential but also inconsistency and could potentially face a challenge from sophomore Susi Espinoza, who did indeed start UF’s opener against Florida Atlantic.

The Gators probably aren’t going to be SEC favorites, but they still have a sneaky amount of quality on display. Their postseason hopes probably rest on a few players making “the leap”, but they’ll still be solid enough to beat most SEC foes this season.
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NCAA – 2017 ACC Preview

Chris’ ACC Projections

1. Florida St
2. North Carolina
3. Duke
4. Virginia
5. Notre Dame
6. Louisville
7. NC State
8. Clemson

9. Syracuse
10. Boston College
11. Wake Forest
12. Virginia Tech
13. Miami (FL)
14. Pittsburgh

For the first time since 2010, Florida State’s season didn’t end in the College Cup. In fact, the Notes’ second round exit in the NCAA Tournament was their earliest exit since 2004. It was an altogether weird year for FSU, as they beat the likes of Texas A&M and UConn in non-conference play but also lost in stunning fashion to South Alabama, one of the very few losses to a mid-major in program history. Then in league play, FSU endured a stretch of just one win in four matches that included a shock draw at Syracuse. A three match win streak that included victories over NC State and Duke put FSU in with a chance of winning the ACC title on the final day of the season, However, the Noles would fall to North Carolina, dropping them into a tie for fourth in the standings. FSU would conjure up some of their postseason magic in the ACC Tournament, beating Duke on penalties, topping Clemson, and then edging past UNC on spot kicks to lift another tournament title. Hopes of repeating that run in the NCAAs were broken by a second round loss to Utah that was hardly a fluke, as the Utes proved more than a match for an off-song FSU side.

Anyone hoping for Florida State to continue to stay out of the College Cup conversation is going to be disappointed. The Seminoles were still incredibly young last season, and they return ten starters from last year’s squad, tied for the most in the ACC. The offense was hit and miss at times last season, with nobody finishing last season with more than seven goals scored. However, that could change in a major way this year, with a ton of attacking potential for these Noles. On the frontline, FSU boasts one of the world’s most promising prospects in the form of Deyna Castellanos. The Venezuelan missed almost half of the season through international commitments, but she likely would have finished with double digit goals had she been with the club all season and remains a talent capable of spectacular things. There are also high hopes for Irish international Megan Connolly, who couldn’t quite match her unreal rookie season, but still scored seven goals as an attacking midfielder and is one of the game’s top midfield prospects.

The underrated Kaycie Tillman, dangerous as a winger, also returns following a three goal, five assist return, and could be set for a breakout season in the FSU attack. Big forward Kristen McFarland also muscled her way into starting minutes and scored a handful of goals in the first half of the season last year and could be a big factor with a little more consistency.

If all of that offensive muscle wasn’t enough, FSU adds a ton of new talent to their attacking corps. Adrienne Richardson is a U.S. U17 international and one of the best forwards in this rookie class. Angeline Daly and Claire Griffiths are two more highly touted prospects who should fortify the midfield. On the international front, FSU adds their customary big names, with few more hyped than Gloriana Villalobos, a Costa Rican international who could follow in Raquel Rodriguez’s footsteps and turn into a DI player of some renown in the midfield. Of equal reputation might be Canadian international Gabby Carle, another midfielder who has seen a burgeoning reputation as another of her nation’s young and promising prospects. It’s less a question of if Florida State has the quality in midfield and attack and more of an issue of the Noles can find the right mix, though they certainly do not lack for options.

While FSU is naturally getting a lot of attention from a wide set of newcomers in the attack, the defense is mostly the same group that took the pitch last season. The one exception is the graduation of Kirsten Crowley, the club’s All-American center-back who continued a long line of fantastic central defenders to have come through Tallahassee over the past decade. Florida State likely won’t be cowed though, as they return another All-American at the other center-back spot in Natalia Kuikka. The only junior to win All-America honors last year, Kuikka is a converted attacker who turned into a brilliant central defender and will again be looked at as a key defender here.

Out wide, Florida State could have two of the best full-backs in the nation. Senior Emma Koivisto is already one of Finland’s brightest prospects and has continued the FSU tradition of having fearless full-backs capable of zipping up and down the line to aid in the attack. Malia Berkely was also an absolute star here as a rookie, one of the best freshmen in America and may be tabbed to answer the pressing question of who starts alongside Kuikka at center-back given her size and skill. The center-back vacancy could also fall to another newcomer, English youth international Anna Patten, part of a golden generation of youngsters reigniting her nation’s fortunes.

FSU will be rock solid in goal as well, returning the nation’s best keeper in senior Cassie Miller and also add great depth with East Carolina’s starter last year Caroline Jeffers and rookie Brooke Bollinger, who reclassified after being one of the top keepers in the 2018 recruiting class.

Florida State looks absolutely loaded with talent going into the 2017 season. They’re deserved favorites to win the ACC and should be on the shortlist of national title contenders if the offense can gel together many talented parts.

A year after a shocking NCAA Tournament exit, North Carolina returned to the promised land, even with a squad that faced injuries and absences during the season and the loss of dependable seniors to graduation before it. The Heels certainly started out well, with a six match unbeaten run that included a win at UCLA. But UNC also faced a challenging period of just one win in five including a stunning 3-0 loss at eventual champions USC. Carolina would turn it around later in ACC play to finish tied for fourth in the league and topped Virginia and Notre Dame in the ACC Tournament before losing a heartbreak on penalties to Florida State in the ACC Tournament final. The defense would clamp down in the NCAA Tournament as they grinded out wins against Liberty, Kansas, and Clemson to put them on the verge of unit another College Cup. The Heels would overcome South Carolina on enemy territory to make it to the final weekend of the season, where West Virginia awaited. UNC fell just a bit short, but had still gone a long way in erasing the postseason nightmare of just one year earlier.

The bar is much higher this season for the Tar Heels. There are injury returns, redshirt returns, and another super recruiting class to raise expectations to the point that UNC should be on the shortlist of national title contenders this year. Not that there aren’t losses to overcome, as the defense and midfield in particular take some hits. In the middle of the park, the club loses key deep midfielder Darcy McFarlane, as well as winger Cameron Castleberry.

Among the returners from last year’s squad, senior Megan Buckingham is among the most intriguing. A winger, Buckingham has teased hints of stardom for three years but showed signs of breaking through last year with four goals and six assists. There will also likely be major minutes for attacking midfielders Annie Kingman, team leader in assists with eight last year, and Dorian Bailey, another year removed from a 2015 ACL tear. There’s big hopes for Joanna Boyles in midfield, coming back from two ACL tears. When Boyles is healthy, she’s been an electrifying presence in the middle of the park with deadly skill on set pieces.

Added to the mix is Emily Fox, a U.S. U20 international expected to make a massive early impact here. Up top, Carolina went without a ten goal scorer last year but probably won’t for a second straight season. Bridgette Andrzejewski was a hit as a rookie here, scoring nine goals and looking like a potential top scoring option the club has been thirsting for. There could be big roles as well for Zoe Redei, who endured an injury interrupted rookie season but looked quality when healthy, and super sub Madison Schultz, who was lethal off the bench. There are plenty of incoming options for UNC as well. Rookies Alea Hyatt, Taylor Otto, and England’s Alessia Russo are all big talents who could get major minutes early.

The return of Jessie Scarpa might be the biggest addition of all though, as she was a revelation as a sophomore with eight goals and eight assists in 2015 before missing last season with the U20 World Cup. Anson Dorrance has almost unlimited options for his front seven (or six), but finding the right mix could be a challenge with so many new and returning pieces.

The defense could be a bigger worry going into the new season. Gone on the backline is the graduated Hanna Gardner, while the Heels suffered another huge blow when Maggie Bill was ruled out for the season. Down two starters, UNC will be hoping for more from junior Julia Ashley, one of the nation’s most underrated defenders and the next in a line of great professional defensive prospects to be churned out in Chapel Hill. Who joins her on the backline is a major question. Otto, as well Maya Worth, who saw action on the frontline last year, could be options on the backline for Dorrance. The arrival of Lotte Wubben-Moy, one of England’s best youth prospects, could be a huge boon if she shows the form of her appearances at international level at U17 and U19 levels. Promising domestic rookie Brooke Bingham could also be pushed into major minutes given the needs on the backline for UNC.

It’s a year of transition in between the pipes as well, as Lindsey Harris graduates following a brilliant senior season in which she stood on her head on more than one occasion to keep the Heels in matches. A program with many a talented keeper over the years, UNC has one this season. As in just one keeper: Samantha Leshnak. The Heels don’t have an established backup, meaning it’s going to be all Leshnak, all the time, for better or for worse given her relative inexperience.

Carolina has plenty of weapons, the envy of most of the nation, and should be able to put together one of the elite attacks in DI with a little luck. But the defense has more questions than answers right now, and though UNC is in the top tier of teams in 2017, it could leave them just short of the big prize.

Injuries are often the first and easiest excuse coaches reach for when a season starts to go haywire. But Duke and their head coach Robbie Church had a legitimate grievance with the injury bug, which ravaged their side in 2016. Rebecca Quinn never got healthy after returning from the Olympics with Canada. Kayla McCoy went down before the halfway point of the season. Taylor Racioppi was lost just a few games after that. It was nigh-incredible that the Blue Devils did as well as they did, beating the likes of Big Ten double winners Minnesota in the non-conference schedule, before going to within a point of an unlikely ACC title. They’d suffer a heartbreaking loss to Clemson to see them fall just short of a share of the title. There’d be no joy in the ACC Tournament either, as Duke bowed out in the quarterfinals to Florida State after penalties. Though some might have believed that the Blue Devils had ran out of gas, they went on to prove that their reputation as serial overachievers in the NCAA Tournament was well deserved. Charlotte and Illinois State fell first, but Northwestern was the first real big test, which was passed with flying colors. Duke would fall just short against West Virginia in the Elite Eight, but considering the challenges faced by the club on the injury front, it had been another stellar season in Durham.

Time heals all wounds, and it’s brought the above injury victims back to full health and put the Blue Devils back amongst the favorites to make it to Orlando and the College Cup. Which isn’t to say that Duke doesn’t have some losses to compensate for, as they do lose three starters from last year’s squad. The biggest losses come in the attack, with the loss of midfielder (and defender) Christina Gibbons looming largest. Gibbons did a little bit of everything in her Duke career, but she was more of an attacking force last year, scoring four goals (mostly from the penalty spot) and leading the team with eight assists en route to All-America honors and ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors. Also departing is Toni Payne, a counter attacking marvel who hit opponents for nine goals and six assists as a senior.

The returning firepower is plentiful. Many eyes will be focused on senior Imani Dorsey, who has upped her scoring total in each of her three seasons with the club and had seven assists to go with her seven goals last year. Last year’s breakout star was rookie Ella Stevens, who came into Durham as one of the nation’s most coveted recruits. She more than lived up to the hype with ten goals to lead the team while also adding six assists. If there’s not a sophomore slump, Stevens is a potential All-American. It’s the returners who could ultimately make or break Duke’s season. Racioppi was being tipped as a potential Hermann Trophy candidate last year after a blazing rookie season. The New Jersey native chose to forego a chance to return to the U20 team for the U20 World Cup and had three goals and five assists through roughly half the season before being lost for the year. If healthy, Racioppi is one of the nation’s best attacking midfielders. Duke also will be counting on McCoy’s return this year to give the club a top level threat on the frontline. McCoy had been brilliant as a rookie and was solid last year before injuring her Achilles’ which is not an easy injury to come back from, meaning a return to peak form isn’t guaranteed.

All of which makes the incoming Blue Devil rookie class that much more important. Church has helped turn Duke into a recruiting juggernaut, and this year is no different. Tess Boade and Gabi Brummett look to continue the program’s long string of having rookies come up big early in their careers, but the player to watch might be Tennessee native Karlie Paschall, long regarded as one of this class’ best overall prospects.

Duke looks solid on defense despite the loss of veteran Lizzy Raben. Raben’s graduation might be offset by the return of Quinn to the lineup. The Canadian international is an elite prospect but has serious red flags on her due to durability concerns exacerbated by the fact that Quinn hasn’t made it through a single college season healthy yet. If she does stay healthy, she can be one of the best defenders in the country, though she could also be used as a defensive midfielder.

There are plenty of other contenders to fill the other backline slots. Schuyler DeBree recovered from an ACL injury in 2015 to start every match last season and could be set for her best year yet a further year removed from that injury. Out wide, Morgan Reid and Chelsea Burns look most likely to start and return with the pair combining for six assists last season. The sleeper might be sophomore Mia Gyau, a heavily tipped player coming into Durham last season who saw time in both midfield and defense and who is an intriguing attacking option at full-back. Added to the mix are rookies Caitlin Cosme and Taylor Mitchell, two more promising prospects who should give Church even more options for his backline.

The goalkeeping situation could bear some watching as well. EJ Proctor would appear to be a safe #1 option going into the season given her showings in goal over the past few years. But the Blue Devils also have Brooke Heinsohn on the roster now, a mountainous 6’1” keeper who is a U.S. U20 international and likely didn’t sign with Duke to play second fiddle to anyone. How Church manages the situation is another tasty subplot going into the new year.

The Blue Devils are again loaded with veteran talent, returning talent, and new talent. They’re easily a top ten team and could be potentially much more if all the pieces fall into place.
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NCAA – 2017 Big East Preview

Chris’ Big East Projections

1. Georgetown
2. DePaul
3. Butler
4. Saint John’s (NY)
5. Marquette
6. Villanova

7. Xavier
8. Providence
9. Seton Hall
10. Creighton

Most believed that Georgetown were going to have a very good season in 2016 with a talented core of returners, including some of the nation’s best players. But few probably believed that that season would extend into the final weekend of the season. That’s perhaps less of an indictment on the Hoyas as it is the modern DI WoSo landscape, which is predominantly tilted towards “Power Five” conference teams. An early season 3-0 loss to Stanford at home didn’t exactly reveal the Hoyas to be hotly tipped for a title challenge either. But they rounded into form as the weeks passed, racking up big wins over Rutgers, Virginia, and West Virginia. Given the Hoyas surge in non-conference play, a Big East title appeared easily attainable. But Georgetown would struggle for consistency and ended up in a shock third place when all was said and done. The Hoyas would put it together in the postseason though, winning three matches to win the Big East Tournament before taking down Saint Francis (PA), Rutgers, Virginia, and finally Santa Clara to advance to their first College Cup. USC would edge them out in the semi-final, but it had still been an unbelievable campaign for a program that has grown exponentially in the past decade.

With the loss of three key starters, it might be hard to replicate that College Cup season, but the Hoyas still have a ton of talent. The biggest of which is senior Rachel Corboz, who has done a more than convincing job of filling her sister Daphne’s shoes with GU, and given last year’s heroics, perhaps eclipsing her legend. Eleven goals and sixteen assists was a stunning return, with Corboz netting at least one goal or assist in six straight postseason matches at one point. At this point, it’s about surrounding Corboz with enough offense to ensure she’s not triple-teamed out of matches.

This is hardly a sure thing, as the club’s two other top scorers others than Corboz graduate, with the twenty-five combined goals of Grace Damaska and Crystal Thomas both gone after each had tremendous senior seasons. The hope has to be that Amanda Carolan, a revelation here with ten goals on just twenty-seven shots, can avoid a sophomore slump and take on more of the scoring responsibility. Others like junior Caitlin Farrell may need to have a big breakthrough for the Hoyas’ offense to not skip a beat.

That turnover on offense might mean an increased emphasis on GU’s defense, which gave up the fewest goals in Big East play last year. This unit also takes a big hit though, as All-American and Big East Tournament Defensive Most Outstanding Player Marina Paul graduates after a typically brilliant season. GU does return a cadre of veterans who could slot in on the backline though, including Drew Topor, Elizabeth Wenger, and Taylor Pak. The Hoyas also add some nice recruits in the form of Lauren Hess and Kelly Ann Livingstone, who could work their way into the lineup quickly. In goal, Georgetown took a risk on Arielle Schechtman, who was unimpressive at UCLA, an watched her blossom into a fine goalkeeper at this level. She should again be a big asset for the Hoyas’ defense which will be in a tiny bit of flux without Paul anchoring it.

The Hoyas probably won’t be able to replicate last year’s College Cup run given some of their losses, but this is still a dangerous team. A Big East title should be within their reach, as could a nice NCAA Tournament run.

If DePaul and the NCAA Tournament selection committee hadn’t become permanent enemies before last year, that might be the case now after another controversial omission of the Blue Devils from the Big Dance. The Blue Demons captured a share of another league title, but the club’s lack of creditable non-conference results would prove fatal in the end, as they would win just one of their first seven. DePaul would win seven of their first eight once league play rolled around, though they ceded important ground in the RPI and a share of the league title by losing on the last day of the regular season to Marquette. The Blue Demons knew that their NCAA Tournament fate might depend on their Big East Tournament performance, which made the shootout defeat in the semi-finals to Georgetown a crushing one. Despite having beaten and technically drawn a Hoyas side that was #7 in the RPI heading into Selection Monday, the Blue Demons were one of the highest profile snubs to miss out on an at-large bid.

Odds are, DePaul is going to come into 2017 fighting mad after last season, and they’ve got a squad that should be able to do some real damage. The Blue Demons have scored goals for fun the past few years and again have a loaded attack despite the loss of Big East Offensive Player of the Year Abby Reed. Reed’s eleven goals and six assists aren’t going to be easy to replace, but the Blue Demons do have their fair share of players that could be capable of picking up that slack.

Reigning league Midfielder of the Year Alexa Ben has twenty goals and twenty-one assists in three seasons and is likely to go out with a bang and could repeat as an All-American with more of the offense likely to go through her this season. Also back is Franny Cerny, who had a breakout season, with nine goals and six assists to her name on fabulous efficiency numbers. Things bottom out a bit after that though, with nobody else who returns having netted more than two goals last year. It might open up a few more opportunities for some newcomers, including highly touted midfielder Mikaela Hoard, the top pick of this class for the Blue Demons.

Defensively, DePaul looks to be in solid shape again, though it also faces a big loss with one of the league’s best defenders in Taylor Schissler graduating after a great senior season. The new leader of the backline is likely to be senior Lucy Edwards, who had a quietly impressive 2016 season, while Avery Hay will also be looking to build on a great rookie campaign. Senior Lauren Frasca is likely to be first choice in goal after taking over as the club’s starter last season.

DePaul are a tick behind Georgetown in my projections, but I do feel there’s enough quality on the roster to warrant a belief they’ll be NCAA Tournament bound this year.
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NCAA – 2017 WCC Preview

Chris’ WCC Projections

1. BYU
2. Pepperdine
3. Santa Clara
4. Loyola Marymount
5. Saint Mary’s (CA)
6. Pacific
7. San Francisco
8. San Diego
9. Portland
10. Gonzaga

The stage was set for BYU in 2016, with almost all of the previous season’s impressive squad returning for the Cougars. BYU entered the season with College Cup dreams and showed why those were realistic ambitions with wins at Penn State, Utah, and Ohio State and over SMU and Long Beach State at home in non-conference play. While BYU would dominate most of the WCC, they did slip up against title rivals Santa Clara and Pepperdine, which resulted in them sharing the league title with the latter. The Cougars would begin their march to the College Cup with wins over UNLV and Oklahoma but fell in the Sweet Sixteen to South Carolina in a close, contentious affair. With West Virginia finally breaking through to the College Cup, it probably leaves BYU with the unwanted mantle of being the best program to have never reached women’s college soccer’s Final Four despite dominating every league they’ve been in and being a national player for ages.

While BYU’s probably never going to totally need a rebuilding season given their traditional strength in depth, there’s no question that the Cougars might need to retool given some of their personnel losses through graduation. Most of those hits take place in the attack, where BYU loses the high powered duo of Ashley Hatch and Michele Vasconcelos, both high NWSL Draft picks, and the former a newly capped USWNT player. They combined for a whopping thirty-five goals and eighteen assists, and their departure, along with losing Elena Medeiros as well leaves a massive gap on the frontline.

The big hope has to be that Nadia Gomes, the third member of BYU’s tremendous frontline trio last year, takes the next step towards superstardom. A lightning quick forward who shined when Hatch missed much of 2015 through injury, Gomes netted six goals and twelve assists last year and will need a big season for BYU to contend again. Where the goals will come from if Gomes is held quiet is a big question, with top reserve Maddie Lyons a contender to step up.

The midfield could also be a bit of a work in progress with Medeiros and fellow standout Paige Hunt Barker graduating. It puts a lot of pressure on senior Bizzy Bowen, the lone returning starter in the middle of the park, to keep the Cougars humming in that area of the pitch while newcomers get settled. One such newcomer is Mikayla Colohan, cousin of club legend Cloee Colohan and a player tipped to be a big factor early here.

Those losses on offense mean BYU might be in the unfamiliar position of being a defense-first side in 2017. This group essentially returns intact, which is a good thing considering they gave up just eleven goals all season last year. The cornerstone of that backline is senior Taylor Isom, an All-American center-back, reigning WCC Defensive Player of the Year, and one of the nation’s best defenders. Opposite her is Danika Bowman, is sophomore who played well beyond her years as a center-back in 2016. Stephanie New and Alyssa Jefferson patrolled the flanks last year, with Jefferson another impressive member of last season’s rookie crop. Newcomer Josie Guinn, is another solid addition and could work her way into the rotation sooner rather than later.

The Cougars should also be fine in goal, with senior Hannah Clark one of the nation’s best. Clark stepped in when Rachel Boaz broke her hand early in 2016 and was a revelation, retaining the starting spot all season and looking excellent in the process.

Despite the drain of offensive talent, this BYU side is still very dangerous, with one of the nation’s best defenses. I don’t think they’ll match last season’s effort, but they have every chance of winning the WCC again and claiming a few more wins in this year’s NCAA Tournament.

A year after their first losing season since 2007, Pepperdine entered 2016 needing a response. The Waves didn’t quite match their amazing sixteen win season of 2014, but they did manage to win the WCC title and earn a return to the NCAA Tournament. Pepperdine managed to pile up wins early in the season that didn’t end up meaning as much as they likely though they would and went through a stretch of just one win in six, though they did manage a good draw against Kansas. After a scoreless draw with Portland to open up the WCC season though, Pepperdine hit a groove and won six in a row to come closer to a championship. A loss to Loyola Marymount put those hopes in danger, but the Waves earned their share of the crown with a win over Pacific in the regular season finale. Pepperdine would threaten to make an NCAA Tournament run, bouncing Cal out on penalties in the opening round but was promptly shocked by NC State in round two, ending a nice season in Malibu.

The Waves look poised to again challenge for honors in the WCC. Though Pepperdine loses four starters, most of the club’s other rivals lose that many or more, and Tim Ward’s side returns some big hitters. However, Pepperdine does have to find a replacement for goalkeeper Hannah Seabert, one of the nation’s best the past few years and another in a long line of great netminders for the Waves. Senior Brielle Preece has seen mop-up duty earlier in her career, but the job looks likely to fall to Zoe Clevely, a former U.S. U18 international.

The backline loses Meghan Schoen but does return many other starters, including Michelle Maemone, Danielle Thomas, and Jamie Van Horn. A year further removed from an injury that cost her 2015, Meagan Harbison is the wild card of the group, while Pepperdine also adds top prospect Erin Sinai to their ranks.

The offense was solid but still lacks the scoring power the club had when Lynn Williams was terrorizing the WCC. Complicating matters is the loss of Rylee Baisden, last year’s leading scorer, though she only netted six goals on sixty-one shots. Realistically, Pepperdine needs more from the three-headed monster of Bri Visalli, Christina Settles, and Hailey Stenberg, who all played a big roll in the offense last year, with Visalli leading the way with five goals. Junior Hailey Harbison is another big X-Factor, a once burgeoning star whose career has been wrecked by injuries. Harbison might also end up on the backline, though with the experience returning there, she might be better served as a winger. Pepperdine also loaded up with promising attackers in their freshman class, with Laura Ishikawa, Calista Reyes, and Brie Welch all tipped to make an impact early.

Pepperdine’s not a perfect squad, they’ve got concerns in between the pipes and in front of goal, but they’re generally solid. I’m not sure they’ll win another WCC title, but Pepperdine still looks like an NCAA Tournament team.

Santa Clara were a bit of an enigma in 2016. They showed their quality on the opening weekend of the season with wins over USC and Cal but then won just one of their next ten matches, though they included four draws in that span. But the light would come on for the Broncos a bit late, as they ended up winning six of their final seven to finish third in the WCC, three points off co-champions BYU and Pepperdine. While most figured Santa Clara might be good for a win or two in the NCAA Tournament, few likely tipped them for a deep run considering a very hard road they were dealt. However, SCU would go on an impressive run, dominating Long Beach State in the first round before shocking the world by upsetting Stanford in Palo Alto in the second round. A win over NC State in the Sweet Sixteen put Santa Clara on the verge of becoming the rare unseeded team to reach the College Cup. They’d bow out to Georgetown though, albeit not before a fantastic run to the final eight of the NCAA Tournament that raised expectations going forward.

There’s some good and some bad for Santa Clara heading into the 2017 season. The Broncos get hit by graduation and attrition, losing six starters from last year’s Elite Eight team, tied for the most in the conference. Particularly problematic are losses to an offense that struggled for scoring form at times, with just one player who netted more than two goals last year returning. Most prominent among the departures is Jordan Jesolva, who netted ten goals and four assists to double anybody else’s scoring totals for SCU, with many of her goals being clutch ones as she enjoyed a wonderful senior season. Add in the loss of the talented midfielder Julie Vass, and SCU’s attack could be a work in progress in 2017.

The lone returner of real note is sophomore Maddy Gonzalez, who is the club’s leading returning scorer with five goals despite starting just about half of the Broncos’ goals. But there’s reason for hope, because Santa Clara has added an armada of new attacking talent. The big hitter amongst the group is Idaho State transfer Maria Sanchez, who sat out last season due to transfer rules, but who looked spectacular playing for Mexico in the U20 World Cup. Also transferring in is attacking midfielder Kelcie Hedge from Washington, who also redshirted last season while playing for the U.S. at the U20 World Cup, and who was once a superstar recruit. SCU has also added a pair of coveted freshmen to the frontline as well, with Julie Doyle and Kelsey Turnbow both having extensive experience in the U.S. youth international setup.

Things should be a bit more stable on defense, where Santa Clara should be one of the best in the WCC. Iceland’s Gudrun Arnardottir was quite the find for head coach Jerry Smith and the Broncos, and all she did last year was win WCC Newcomer of the Year honors and looks like becoming one of the nation’s very best. Also back is senior Kellie Peay, who has quietly been one of the WCC’s best defenders and is a three-year starter for the Broncos. Also added to the mix is another top notch prospect from this class, Arizona native Taylor Culver, who could work her way into the rotation sooner rather than later. Junior Melissa Lowder didn’t completely claim the starting job in goal as her own until about midseason, but she did well for the most part at a program known for its excellent goalkeeping.

Expect Santa Clara to get a lot of hype after last year’s finish, but the Broncos look a functionally different team on paper with all the turnover in personnel. They’re still going to be a dangerous team, but a College Cup run might still be a year away.
Continue reading

NCAA – Chris’ Crystal Ball: Preseason Top 25

While you wait for my final six previews to drop this weekend…

1. Penn State
2. Stanford
3. Florida State
4. North Carolina
6. Duke
7. West Virginia
8. Northwestern
9. Rutgers
10. Georgetown
11. Texas A&M
12. BYU
13. Virginia
14. Notre Dame
15. NC State
16. Cal
17. Michigan
18. South Carolina
19. USC
20. Utah
21. Florida
22. Pepperdine
23. Colorado
24. Santa Clara
25. Arkansas

Also considered:

Auburn, DePaul, Long Beach St, Loyola Marymount, Northeastern, SMU, Texas Tech, UC Irvine, Vanderbilt

NCAA – 2017 AAC Preview

Note: These projections have been updated to reflect late news that UCF’s Stefanie Sanders is likely to miss the 2017 season through injury.

Chris’ AAC Projections

1. Tulsa
2. SMU
3. UCF
4. Cincinnati
5. Memphis
6. South Florida

7. UConn
8. Houston
9. Temple
10. East Carolina

Patience may be wearing thin at Tulsa, where hungry Golden Hurricane supporters are still waiting for the club’s first postseason win in the AAC as they prepare to enter their fourth year in the conference since moving from Conference USA. Tulsa had few non-conference results that inspired much confidence going into league play last year, but wins in three of their first four league matches renewed some faith in the club. However, just one win in four left the Golden Hurricane needing a result in their last regular season match against South Florida at home to make the AAC Tournament. The result was a 3-2 loss and some serious questions in the offseason with a club that ended last year with its first losing campaign since 2010.

Head coach Kyle Cussen’s window for Tulsa becoming a major player in the AAC likely closes after this season. That’s because Tulsa’s two best players, and, indeed, two of the league’s best players, Rachel Thun-Blankenship and Tana Dake are both seniors and likely starving for some success to seal their legacy at the club. There are few as important as Thun to their clubs’ offense, as she had twelve goals and nine assists last year, equalling having a hand in sixty-two percent of Tulsa’s goals last year. Nobody else here had more than four, which only underlines how important Thun is to the Golden Hurricane’s efforts in front of goal.

Dake has never been a big scorer despite being a high volume shooter but found a way to be very productive last year with seven assists to go along with a pair of goals for Tulsa’s potent attack. Tulsa needs a second source of goals to emerge though, and if it’s not Dake, it might be Anna Williams, who was intriguing as a rookie and netted four goals but who also needs to make the next step.

If the Golden Hurricane don’t keep scoring, they could be sunk in a big way this year, as their defense was positively putrid in 2016, shipping more than two goals a game in the league. There aren’t really any massive additions on defense either, meaning Tulsa might be banking on a big improvement from the returners.

My projections have Tulsa much higher than most I suspect, mostly down to Thun’s brilliance. But the Golden Hurricane also have a real Achilles’ heel on defense and could easily be mired in mid-table as the title chase if things go sour.

Any questions on whether the game had passed SMU’s Chris Petrucelli by were answered definitively last season, as the former Notre Dame and Texas head coach brought the Mustangs their greatest success in ages. It was quite the statement considering Petrucelli had probably been feeling a little heat going into 2016 after little success in his tenure thus far. While the Mustangs won their first two games by a combined 17-0, few took them seriously until perhaps they began league season with two wins on the road against traditional AAC powers South Florida and UCF. A further draw with UConn established SMU as title contenders, though losses to Cincinnati and Memphis eventually relegated the Mustangs to third in the table, which meant no quarterfinal bye in the AAC Tournament. It mattered little, as they overcame UCF on penalties and beat Memphis before running out of gas against UConn in the final. They’d fall to Oklahoma in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, but considering few had expected SMU to get this far, it was still a fantastic year.

Now comes the big test, as expectations ratchet up for the Mustangs. SMU were perilously young last season, making their accomplishments that much more impressive, and they return a league high nine starters this season. SMU weren’t particularly great on either offense or defense but were better than most in the AAC in both categories last year. It could be offense that rules the day for the Mustangs in 2017, as they return most of their top attacking personnel. SMU’s attack was led by a three-headed monster of Claire Oates, Vanessa Valadez, and Allie Thornton, who combined for twenty-nine goals last year. Oates is probably the star of the show, and she scored crucial goals in the club’s final two regular season matches and first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.

Thornton and Valadez both feasted on non-conference competition but need to be a little more consistent and productive against league opponents. Additional depth never hurts, so SMU’s signing of Hannah Allred, one of the state of Texas’ best prospects in this class, should further fortify a promising frontline.

The defense could be going through a small transition, as the club’s best defender, Taylor Barg, graduates after a fine 2016 season. Much of the rest of the defense returns though, including sophomore Jessica Cooley who chipped in with an impressive eight assists in 2016. Junior Catie Brown took over in goal last season and did a creditable job and should again be first choice in between the pipes for SMU.

The Mustangs probably arrived a year early with a young squad last season and look like the real deal in the AAC this year. My projections have them being a bit off of the title, but not to the point that they couldn’t win it anyway and win a few games in the NCAA Tournament while they’re there. Continue reading

NCAA – 2017 Big Ten Preview

Chris’ Big Ten Projections

1. Penn St
2. Michigan
3. Northwestern
4. Rutgers
5. Ohio St
6. Wisconsin
7. Minnesota
8. Nebraska

9. Indiana
10. Maryland
11. Michigan State
12. Iowa
13. Illinois
14. Purdue

Penn State probably knew they were going to take some lumps last season as they tried to defend their national title after a dream 2015. The Nittany Lions not only graduated Raquel Rodriguez but found themselves without a handful of players from that team due to redshirting for the U20 World Cup. Growing pains were evident as PSU still showed their quality when drawing with West Virginia in the season opener but also showed what they had lost with losses to BYU and UCLA. Penn State managed to begin league play with nine straight unbeaten and looked like claiming another league title for themselves but were then shocked in the penultimate fixture of the regular season by Michigan State, though they’d beat Ohio State to claim a share of the title. There wasn’t much joy to be had in the postseason. Rutgers would upset PSU in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal before the Nittany Lions would get clobbered by Virginia in the NCAA Tournament second round, as Erica Dambach’s side made it’s earliest exit since 2013.

The odds of such a similar exit in 2017 are exceedingly small. That’s because Penn State should be on the shortlist of NCAA title contenders given the depth of talent from returners from last year’s squad, returners from the U20 World Cup squad, and a handful of newcomers. The one loss in the attack is a rather big one though, as midfielder Nickolette Driesse graduates following a six assist season pulling the strings of the PSU attack.

However, these Nittany Lions have an absurd amount of firepower at their disposal this season. On the frontline, the cheetah-like Frannie Crouse will be looking to make it four straight seasons with at least ten goals. Last season, Crouse hit for twelve and on much better efficiency numbers than her sophomore season and is one of the top attackers in the nation. She’ll be joined by the enigmatic Megan Schafer, the senior a player who looked like breaking out as a sophomore with thirteen goals but who scored just six last year and was held without a shot on goal twelve times. There’s also the addition of Emma Thomson to the frontline, one of PSU’s fabulous class of rookie additions.

The middle of the park is just as loaded for the Nittany Lions in 2017 despite the loss of Driesse. Most eyes will be on Emily Ogle, a potential top five pick in the NWSL Draft in a few years and a player whose presence was desperately missed last season when she was with the U.S. U20 team. If Ogle’s a complete midfielder, Charlotte Williams is more of a gunner, as she led the team in shots last season but needs to do a more efficient job in front of goal with just six goals on sixty-two shots. German youth international Laura Freigang missed a chunk of time at the U.S. U20 World Cup but still showed a lot of potential in her time here. Veterans Marissa Sheva, Haleigh Echard, and Salina Williford will also return, but they could find starting minutes under threat from rookie phenoms Shea Moyer and Frankie Tagliaferri. Tagliaferri could be this rookie class’ #1 player when all is said and done and could be a major factor this season for PSU despite her youth.

As you might expect, Penn State has an absurdity of riches on defense as well, even with the transfer of rookie Grace Fisk to South Carolina. Opposite of the now open spot at center-back is likely to be Elizabeth Ball, who is a three-year starter and a great bulwark of consistency on the backline given the changes around her. There’s likely not going to be a problem filling that vacancy at center-back though as Kaleigh Riehl returns from international duty at the U20 World Cup and is another potential NWSL Draft first round pick down the line given her quality.

Fifth-year senior Brittany Basinger has perhaps not developed into a superstar as expected but is still a more than solid left-back for Penn State and is the favorite on that flank. Right-back is going to be a very interesting dilemma, as Dambach has Maddie Elliston and Ellie Jean, who both redshirted last season for the U20 World Cup, available with the pair splitting time there in 2015. Last year’s starter, Alina Ortega Jurado surely will fit somewhere, though it may be in a more attacking role, while another of this year’s great recruiting class, Kerry Abello would presumably find some role on the pitch given her talent and versatility as a utility player. Dambach’s biggest problem might be finding a way to keep everyone happy considering she has enough defenders to field two lineups of All-Big Ten contenders.

Goalkeeping might be the biggest question on the club, with Rose Chandler back from international duty but having played in just a handful of matches in three years despite coming into PSU with a ton of hype. There’s no guarantee she’ll be able to force her way into the starting job with last year’s starter Amanda Dennis back after a fine freshman campaign.

Penn State is a juggernaut, and likely an angry one after being unranked in the preseason coaches’ poll. If Dambach can juggle a squad of superstars and keep everyone happy, there’s no reason PSU can’t be the last team standing come December.

Michigan got a little bit of vindication for some NCAA Tournament snubs with a return engagement to the Big Dance in 2016. There were certainly a few questions early when the Wolverines drew in their opener to ACC doormat Pittsburgh, but Michigan promptly reeled off nine wins in their next ten to solidify their status. But Wolverines fans were still probably fearing the worst after a horrific late season swoon where Michigan won just one of six at the end of the regular season, needed penalties to advance beyond Wisconsin in the Big Ten Tournament, and then were taken out by Minnesota in the semi-finals. Thankfully for the sanity of all those involved with the program in Ann Arbor, Michigan drew an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament and seemingly an agreeable matchup with Illinois State in the first round. However, Michigan were the ones left on the mat after the match, as the Wolverines went behind twice to ISU and then fell in a shootout to send them out as upset victims.

The bar has been set a little higher for 2017 though, as the Wolverines bring in one of the most promising recruiting classes in the history of the program under Greg Ryan. In addition to some big time freshmen coming to Ann Arbor, the club also returns veteran Taylor Timko (injury) and Sura Yekka (international duty), meaning this could be a Wolverines team infused with a good bit more talent coming into the new year. The attack will be looking to hum again but does get faced with a pretty big loss in the graduation of Nicky Waldeck, who signed off with eight goals to lead the club last year. It likely means a bigger role for Reilly Martin, who had a huge breakout season for the Wolverines with seven goals and eight assists, building greatly on decent rookie season totals. More will also likely be expected from Ani Sarkisian as a senior, with the New Jersey native attempting to add to the seventeen goals and twenty assists she’s racked up in three years here. Timko missed all of last season but was a big prospect in her first two seasons here, netting seven goals in 2015 and could be a big X-Factor for this attack, though she could slot in at full-back.

The Wolverines also have added some serious weapons through their freshman class. The highlight of which might be Canadian Sarah Stratigakis, who has been front and center with Canada’s youth national teams for years and who is being tipped to make the step up to the full WNT in the not too distant future. Also joining up is Martin’s sister, Alia Martin, a much coveted midfield prospect in her own right, and Nicki Hernandez, who should be a prized super sub at the very least. There’s no shortage of talent here, with Ryan spoilt for choice, especially in comparison to some Big Ten rivals.

Given the hype over the offense both through returning players and newcomers, it gets a little easy to forget that Michigan under Ryan has mostly been known for defense. However, last year, Michigan’s defense buckled more than usual, shipping a little more than a goal a game and was easily the worst defense of any team that finished in the top half of the league. It might be a bit of a rebuilding year on the backline, as the club sees standout center-back Anna Soccorsi and full-backs Madison Lewis and Rosalind Porritt, among others. There is some nice talent coming back though, as Jada Dayne will get the chance to show she’s ready to be the anchor of the backline after starting beside Soccorsi for her rookie season. Returning out wide is senior Rubina Veerakone at left-back, and she’ll probably be joined by Yekka, who returns to the mix after redshirting last year while competing in the U20 World Cup for Canada.

The biggest question might be in goal, as Ryan has become an infamous figure in women’s college soccer circles as a “Captain Hook” figure with his netminders. Such was the case last season when senior Megan Hinz, a two-year starter, was quickly displaced by Sarah Jackson, who ended up starting almost the entire season. They may find their positions under threat from newcomer Hillary Beall though. Beall is a much hyped goalkeeping prospect who could potentially be the U.S.’ starter at the U20 World Cup in 2018 and figures to be the #1 here sooner rather than later.

The Wolverines could be one of the nation’s most interesting teams in 2017 thanks to their star-studded recruiting class. They probably won’t be able to take down Penn State at the top of the league, but they could get much closer than some might think if the rookies hit the ground running.

It hasn’t been quick or easy for Northwestern, but last season saw the Wildcats reach the top of the Big Ten mountain and claim a long desired share of a league title. This was a program that won two games in 2011 and three in 2013 but which has grown by leaps and bounds under Michael Moynihan. The Wildcats became a factor at a national level as they won their first nine matches, though the only RPI Top 50 team they played in that stretch was Marquette. They’d cool off a bit in league play, but the Wildcats’ defense frustrated opponents and allowed them to finish 4-0-2 in their final six, though those last two draws kept them from claiming the league title by themselves. Northwestern would top Nebraska on penalties in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal, but would bow out against their defensive doppelgänger, Rutgers, in the semi-final. Northwestern would smash Kent State in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament before getting past Cinderella story SIU Edwardsville in the second round. Their run would stop in the Sweet Sixteen against Duke, but few could argue that Northwestern isn’t a program with a bright future after last year’s success.

The bar is going to be set pretty high for Northwestern this season. While few probably consider them in the top tier of national title contenders, a lot of factors point towards the Wildcats being a side with the DNA like Rutgers’ College Cup team from a few years ago that dominated with defense. Northwestern gave up just seven goals last season, a ridiculously low number considering they played twenty-three matches. At the heart of Northwestern’s defense is perhaps the nation’s best pairing of center-backs, juniors Hannah Davison and Kayla Sharples. That Davison and Sharples played as two of the nation’s best central defenders despite being just sophomores was incredible, and that they have two more years in Evanston doesn’t seem fair for opposing attacks. Left-back Kassidy Gorman doesn’t quite get the same level of attention as the center-backs but is a stalwart in her own right and provides some nice senior leadership and scoring ability after being joint leading scorer here with six goals.. The club does have to replace right-back Kaitlin Moore, but you trust this program to get it right considering how well the defense has come together in the past few years.

Northwestern is also strong in goal, with All-American senior Lauren Clem back for a final season. Clem plays behind a fantastic backline but is a great keeper on her own merits and is surely on the shortlist of senior NWSL goalkeeping prospects for January’s draft. Northwestern’s defense is likely to be a fortress this season and could be one of the best in the nation.

The attack…is a work in progress. You don’t need many goals when you’re this good on defense, but Northwestern averaged just over a goal a game in the league last year. Nobody here had more than six goals last year, and nobody even netted more than thirty-four shots on the season. While many of the Wildcats’ offensive personnel return, the club does lose a valuable piece in central midfield in Nandi Mehta. Mehta’s graduation means Northwestern is likely to rely heavily on the talented junior Marisa Viggiano. Viggiano led the club with five assists and is easily one of the Big Ten’s best midfielders, but she also may have tried to do too much herself, leading the team in shots but scoring just once on thirty-four attempts.

The hope has to be that Brenna Lovera is the forward the club has been aching for, as she scored six goals to tie for the team lead despite missing twelve games. If Lovera can stay healthy for the whole season, she definitely has potential as a double digit scorer. As you might expect, Northwestern has gone pretty heavy on new blood in the attack. Up top, Mikayla Hampton could see major minutes early, while Kylie Fisher, Made Kennel, and Regan Steigleder have all been tipped for success in the midfield. Again, Northwestern won’t need many goals given their defense, but they still need some, especially in the crunch time of postseason.

The Wildcats figure to be one of the nation’s best defensively, but questions on offense might keep them out of the College Cup discussion. Still, it’d hardly be a shock if they end up in Orlando given the right draw, and they should still be one of the best in the Big Ten.

Rutgers was always going to have trouble following up on 2015’s trip to the College Cup, but they still put up a solid season. A win at UConn was the highlight of a solid non-conference season, while a win over Northwestern helped league play start out in fine fashion. But the Scarlet Knights’ form began to go a little haywire in the second half of the season, with a draw against Illinois seemingly the catalyst for some odd results that culminated with a five match winless streak to close out the regular season and push Rutgers all the way down in to seventh place in the Big Ten table. RU would make a run to the Big Ten Tournament final with wins over Penn State and Northwestern before being downed by Minnesota in the title game. Rutgers wouldn’t really last long in the NCAA Tournament though, trouncing Harvard in the first round but losing to Georgetown for the second time in 2016 to send them out in the second round after a twelve win campaign.

While Rutgers have probably done enough to warrant a permanent space in the upper tier of the Big Ten at this point, they have a challenge ahead of themselves after losing six starters from last year’s squad. For all that the Scarlet Knights lost though, they get one huge addition back to the roster with the return of junior goalkeeper Casey Murphy. Murphy missed all of last season while with the U.S. U20s at the U20 World Cup, and her return this season should give the Scarlet Knights a big advantage in goal as compared to their Big Ten competition. Rutgers have carved out space as a defensive powerhouse during Mike O’Neill’s tenure with the club as head coach, and Murphy should have another solid backline in front of her.

The backline does take a loss though, as full-back Erin Smith, a draft pick of the Houston Dash of the NWSL, departs after another brilliant season marauding up and down the line for the club. The rest of the first choice backline should return intact. Junior Kenie Wright is the relative veteran of the group at left-back and has a couple of years of starting experience here. Considering Rutgers used a rookie center-back pairing of Chantelle Swaby and Amanda Visco last season, they fared well enough, and the pair should only get better with more experience and Murphy organizing behind them. They need to find a right-back replacement for Smith, but this should still be one of the league’s best defenses.

With two of the club’s three leading scorers from last year graduating, the offense is probably more of a concern going into 2017. Madison Tiernan was a shameless gunner with a license to foul anything that moved, but she also saved her best for her senior season, with an eleven goal outburst to easily lead the team. With third leading scorer and super sub Erica Murphy also graduating, it means that the only player that returns with more than three goals scored last year is senior Colby Ciarrocca. Ciarrocca can be a bit of an enigma at times, and her scoring total dropped from nine goals to six, as she netted just one in the club’s final ten matches. With little else back in terms of proven scoring, Ciarrocca really needs a breakout season as a senior for Rutgers. Rookie Amirah Ali is a U.S. U19 international from the powerhouse PDA club and could get every chance to make her mark early here.

The midfield takes some hits as well, with Jennifer Andresen and Tori Prager both graduating. The one returning starter is a big one though, as sophomore Nicole Whitley looks like a star in the making after winning league Freshman of the Year honors last season. Who joins her in midfield is a massive question, with rookie Alexa Ferreira tipped as perhaps the next big star in Piscataway.

This might be a bit of transition year with Rutgers having lost so much in the offseason. But the Scarlet Knights still have a handful of the league’s best and a steady hand in O’Neill leading the club, meaning they could defy expectations again in the Big Ten.

After back-to-back finishes in the RPI Top 30, it might be time for a rebuilding season for an Ohio State side that loses a massive class of seniors to graduation. The Buckeyes opened up 2016 with five straight wins and six wins of seven, but they hit a poor patch of form at a bad time, beginning league play with just one win in five. OSU would recover somewhat to win three of their last six, but it still wasn’t enough for the Buckeyes to crack the top eight and qualify for the Big Ten Tournament, with the club finishing in a tie with Indiana but losing on a head-to-head tiebreaker for the final spot in the conference tourney. There wasn’t really a penalty for not making said tournament though, as OSU not only made the NCAA Tournament but even got to host Dayton in the opening round, a match which they won, 3-2, in a thrilling affair. Reality would intercede in the second round against West Virginia, but Ohio State made it a dramatic match, with WVU needing extra time to put the Buckeyes away.

It’s going to be a tough task to repeat 2016’s performance, with the Buckeyes losing six starters. It’s not just OSU losing any six starters either, as they lose some of the conference’s top talents, including NWSL Draft picks Nichelle Prince and Lindsay Agnew. Prince departs after a five goal and four assist season, which is a bit disappointing at first glance, but the Canadian provided much more to the offense than just box score stats with her workrate. Agnew had a breakout season in front of goal as a senior, with ten goals and eight assists to her name, which meant the Canadian youth international had a hand in over half of OSU’s goals in 2016.

With that in mind, the Buckeyes will be wondering where the goals are going to come from in 2017. The top option could be senior Nikki Walts, OSU’s returning leading shot taker last season, though she still netted just four goals and isn’t an out and out forward. A player who is a forward and is going to need to continue to develop is Sammy Edwards, who is the club’s returning scorer with six goals despite starting just about half of the club’s games last year. A score of newcomers also make their way to Columbus with midfielder Riley Bowers and forward Courtney Walker perhaps most likely to make an immediate impact in the attack.

Naturally, the defense has some major losses to compensate for as well. The rearguard was roughly average last season but does return a key figure in sixth-year senior Morgan Wolcott. Wolcott stayed healthy last season, and her presence was invaluable at the heart of the defense for OSU, though she could also see time on the frontline if the Buckeye attack needs it and the defense can do without her. The Buckeyes definitely take some hits out wide, with Bridget Skinner and Nicole Miyashiro both graduating. Junior Kylie Knight, a utility defender capable of playing wide or central, and sophomore center-back Haley Walker-Robinson look likely to reprise starting roles on the backline this season. The player to watch though might be newcomer Izzy Rodriguez, an elite recruit for this class and a U.S. U20 international who could go a long way in replacing some of the star power lost, albeit on the defense instead of the attack.

In goal, it’s make or break time for junior Devon Kerr, a player with a lot of tools but who hasn’t been able to claim the #1 job for herself in two seasons despite being given every opportunity to do so. With just two true freshmen behind Kerr this season though, OSU almost have to lean on Kerr to put it together.

My projections are pretty high on Ohio State this year despite all that they lost, mostly down to a strong recruiting class. There could be some growing pains, but mid-table and another NCAA Tournament trip looks doable.

How do you replace the irreplaceable? It’s a question Wisconsin’s going to have to confront in 2017 after the graduation of club legend and overall #1 pick in the NWSL Draft, Rose Lavelle. Unfortunately, there really wasn’t a story book ending to Lavelle’s college career, with the Badgers slumping to just nine wins last season, the lowest mark here since 2008. After 2015’s high profile snub, Wisconsin had a point to prove but staggered out of the gates with just one win in six and draws against Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Drake to blot their copy. League play didn’t start out swimmingly either, with the Badgers winning just one of their first four and losing to league strugglers Indiana. The Badgers would go on a bizarre stretch of alternating wins and draws over their final seven, with wins over Minnesota and Rutgers helping the club into fifth in the table. A shootout loss to Michigan in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament likely produced a few nervy moments on Selection Monday, but the Badgers still made the cut. Beating state rivals Marquette in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament was nice, and UW so nearly pulled off an upset against Florida in the next round before bowing out in extra time.

The Badgers lose not just Lavelle but three other starters as well, though UW still has an impressive level of talent. Wisconsin weren’t great in either offense or defense as compared to their Big Ten peers, but they were still roughly above average in that respect in goals scored and conceded in league matches. Lavelle was iconic here, but UW was entirely too dependent on her in the attack, even in a deeper midfield role last season. She took a whopping seventy-three shots but netted just six goals, though that also still made her the club’s top scorer. Also gone is winger Micaela Powers, the club’s assist leader last year with six and third leading scorer with four goals.

The club’s leading returning scorer is junior Emily Borgmann, who netted five goals last year, including three in the league. Senior Sydney McGinnis also could be someone to look at given her finishing second on the team in shots last season, though she only netted a pair of goals. UW is likely going to be looking to youth for offense this season though, with sophomore forward Dani Rhodes and midfielder Allie Winterfield returning after promising but not necessarily prolific rookie seasons. The biggest and best news might be the return of Canadian Victoria Pickett to the lineup after she redshirted last season while on U20 World Cup international duty. Pickett was Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2015 and could be in line for a big season for Wisconsin. The Badgers also add some nice rookies, with U.S. U18 international Lauren Rice joining the frontline, while midfielder Gabby Lawlor could be the playmaker heiress apparent to Lavelle if she lives up to expectations.

With the offense still likely finding its feet without Lavelle, it’s going to be important for Wisconsin to be stout defensively, as they’ve been so so many times in the past under Paula Wilkins. For the Badgers, it all begins in goal with senior Caitlyn Clem, who’s surely on the shortlist of best senior goalkeepers in Division I. Clem had big shoes to fill when Genevieve Richard graduated, but she’s done very well to develop into a top calibre keeper in Madison.

The backline alongside her is looking for someone to step up and turn into a star this year. Wisconsin will be on the lookout for a left-back and a center-back after the graduation of the trio of Holly Heckendorf, Morgan Taylor, and Kylie Schwarz. The Badgers do return sophomore Camryn Biegalski at right-back and Jamie Donohue in the middle, but Wilkins and UW are still going to need some new faces to step up. Michigan native Sammy Kleedtke, a freshman, could be one of those new faces, likely in the middle given her size.

The Badgers were much more than Lavelle, of course, over the past four seasons, and they’ll probably get a chance to show that this season. They probably aren’t going to bother the upper crust of the Big Ten, but anyone expecting them to drop from sight and out of NCAA Tournament contention will probably be disappointed.

Most were tipping Minnesota to have a good 2016 season, but I suspect few believed the Golden Gophers were going to be quite as good as they turned out to be. All Minnesota did was win a share of the Big Ten title and then prove they were the league’s best team by winning the Big Ten Tournament. Wins over Utah and Santa Clara were early statements in non-conference play, and Minnesota would at one point win six of seven in the Big Ten to state their title credentials. A couple of scoreless draws at Michigan and Northwestern prevented the club from claiming the league title all by theirselves, but Stefanie Golan’s club with sweep Indiana, Michigan, and Rutgers aside in the Big Ten Tournament to do the double. Minnesota were surely on the shortlist of sides that were potential College Cup sleepers going into the NCAA Tournament, but a first round matchup against ACC side NC State was harsh and ominous. In the end, Minnesota would be frustrated by the Wolfpack, and fell in a shootout on home turf after a scoreless draw. It was a bitter end to a brilliant season.

That defeat was especially frustrating, as Minnesota had everything seemingly aligned for a run and now has to replace many talented seniors. While the Gophers lose four starters overall, the offense takes the biggest blows. The biggest task ahead of Minnesota may be finding a replacement for forward Simone Kolander, who led the team in scoring with eleven goals and picked up the Big Ten Forward of the Year award for her efforts. The frontline still has some firepower, with senior Sydney Squires the likely focal point. Squires won Big Ten Tournament Offensive Player of the Tournament honors last season as a super sub and could slot into Kolander’s vacated starting spot after scoring eight goals last season. April Bockin is another one to watch on the frontline after netting seven goals despite missing a handful of games, while Julianna Gernes and Kellie McGahn also saw starting minutes at times last season on the frontline.

Another big talent departs from the middle of the park with Josie Stiever’s graduation. Stiever was a two-way stud last year, scoring eight goals and also leading the team with ten assists. Molly Fielder is likely the new leader of the offense after finishing with seven assists and starting every match, while Emily Heslin also started every match in the middle of the park for Minnesota. The Gophers don’t quite have the star power on offense as last season, but they still look dangerous.

The offense has to be dangerous, because the defense takes some major hits as well. The backline will have to do now without Rashida Beal, and All-American, the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year, and one of the fastest center-backs in the nation as a senior. The rest of the starting backline should return intact for Minnesota this season though. Beal’s center-back partner from last year, Tori Burnett returns and may need to lead the group as a senior anchor. Out wide, Maddie Gaffney, another senior, should start again, while left-back Nikki Albrecht might have the most star potential of the group after impressing last season as a rookie, chipping in with three goals and two assists.

Perhaps the biggest question for Minnesota this year is who starts in goal after the graduation of long-time stalwart Tarah Hobbs. Last year’s backup, Mara Dougherty, was also a senior, meaning it’s largely a dive into the unknown for Golan’s Gophers. Maddie Nielsen is a true freshman, while junior Kailee Sharp hasn’t played in her two seasons here thus far. Minnesota probably doesn’t need a keeper to stand on her head all the time to bail out the defense, but they still need a viable option in between the pipes.

This Minnesota side will probably head back into mid-table after losing their top stars from last year. But Golan’s sides almost always overachieve, meaning a run in the Big Ten Tournament or the NCAA Tournament shouldn’t be ruled out.

Nebraska desperately needed a season like 2016 after a couple of disappointing campaigns. The Huskers had pulled one of the most shocking seasons for a major conference team this decade in 2013 when they won a Big Ten double, but a couple of eight win seasons had took some of the air out of the balloon in Lincoln. It didn’t take long for the public to see that Nebraska was a serious force to be reckoned with last year when they beat Marquette at home and then traveled to Provo and shocked BYU on their home turf. A further win over Kansas added to the Huskers’ resume, but their league form was spotty. Nebraska failed to string together back-to-back wins at any point in Big Ten play, though they still racked up enough points to bring home a sixth place finish. Nebraska would die by the penalty in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal against Northwestern but used spot kicks to save face against South Dakota State in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. UCLA overpowered them in the second round, but the Huskers could still take solace in a fine season.

Nebraska loses just four starters this season, but among the departures are some of the best players in the league. The biggest blow comes on offense, where All-American Jaycie Johnson departs after an eleven goal senior season. Johnson wasn’t consistent in front of goal for all of last season, but when she was in a groove, as she was against Ohio State, she was nearly unstoppable. The Huskers also lose midfielder Caroline Flynn, who was never a big presence on the stat sheet but was a versatile player who still stood out as one of the Big Ten’s best midfielders. Scoring is a serious concern for Nebraska, not just with the loss of Johnson in the attack, but also because there just weren’t a lot of sources of goals for Nebraska last season. Senior midfielder Haley Hanson is the only player returning that had more than two goals last year, netting seven last season. Hanson’s not an out-and-out forward though, meaning the Huskers really need to find a true center-forward to rely on. While Nebraska doesn’t really add a top notch forward in this freshman class, they do add junior transfer Faith Carter, who scored seven goals with TCU last season. Her signing could be a masterstroke if she adapts quickly, and Nebraska needs her or someone else to step up and provide some goals.

The Huskers take a big hit on defense as well, with the excellent Sydney Miramontez, now of the NWSL’s FC Kansas City, graduating after another fine season as the rock at the heart of the defense for Nebraska. She often played alongside sister Sinclaire Miramontez at center-back, and the younger Miramontez should now move into the role of defensive leader vacated by her departed sister. The younger Miramontez may have been overshadowed, but she still was quite impressive as a rookie and could develop into one of the league’s elite defenders. Out wide, Nebraska should be solid shape with junior Caroline Buelt and senior Alli Peterson among the favorites to start at full-back after featuring there for much of last season.

Nebraska’s backline has often played in a hyper-aggressive fashion in terms of keeping a high line, which means goalkeepers in Lincoln always need to be on their toes to come out and sweep away. Sophomore Aubrei Corder has ideal size for the position and is a former U.S. U19 international and did well to win the job full-time as a rookie but will be under as much pressure as ever with Sydney Miramontez’s departure from the backline.

Losing the star core of last year’s side is probably going to send the Huskers back down the Big Ten table, though how far is up in the air. My projections see them as a mid-table side who might be able to grasp onto the NCAA Tournament bubble if some of their players have breakout years.

Indiana has been a frustrating program for much of its history, but 2016 was perhaps the zenith of frustration for the Hoosiers’ fanbase. It wasn’t because IU was plainly awful, which, ironically, may have been easier to take. Instead, the Hoosiers mixed spurts of staggering competence such as in wins over Wisconsin and Ohio State or draws against Penn State and Rutgers, with bouts of baffling ineptitude, as in losses to LSU and Western Michigan or a draw with Purdue. As is, the Hoosiers were able to squeeze into the Big Ten Tournament based on the aforementioned win against Ohio State but caused little trouble for Minnesota in the quarterfinal. Getting back to the postseason was great for IU, but the reality is, it was still a third straight losing season for the Hoosiers after Amy Berbary’s fantastic debut in 2013.

Relatively speaking, the Hoosier offense was probably better than their defense based on league performance, so IU will probably try to build on a decent attack this year. However, IU was largely scorer by committee with one big exception, as beyond their leading scorer, nobody else netted more than two goals, though a whopping six players netted a pair. Said leading scorer is junior Mykayla Brown, who went from scoring just once as a freshman to eight goals last year. Brown netted the winner in extra time against Illinois and both goals in the draw with Purdue, meaning you could argue she was the difference between the Big Ten Tournament and missing out. The problem for Indiana is that there’s pretty much nothing else assured on the attack after Brown. Maya Piper and Cassidy Blacha were the most willing shooters among the non-Brown sources of offense, but neither were particularly prolific in front of goal. Sophomore Macy Miller might also be one to watch after a solid rookie season. There’s not much in the way of big time freshmen coming on offense either, so if Brown suffers a downturn in form, the attack could be in trouble.

The Hoosiers gave up more than a goal and a half a game in league play, so IU leaning on their defense to make the postseason looks like a bad idea on paper. The club could also face a leadership void in central defense with the graduation of the club’s best defender, Marissa Borschke, who was a solid anchor for the Hoosiers. Sophomore full-back Meghan Scott may be the one to watch this year, as she led the club in assists last year with seven and may be needed to help the attack again this year. An interesting addition to watch on the backline might be Hungarian youth international Hanna Nemeth, who brings size and experience in international competition to the Hoosiers this season. In goal, sophomore Sarah L’Hommedieu started almost every match last year but showed her youth in establishing a presence and dominating the box. That could put her position under threat from the gem of this recruiting class, Michigan native Bethany Kopel.

The Hoosiers have a couple of solid pieces, but they look far from a complete unit, with a one-dimensional offense and a middling defense. It probably equals a season like 2016, with IU having scrap to make the postseason.

I mentioned in previewing Maryland in 2016 that the club was probably as close to rock bottom as any in the history of a Power Five conference. A protracted coaching search and mass defections from the program meant that former Harvard boss Ray Leone was inheriting a bare bones squad that was adding transfers deep into the offseason just to fill out the numbers. And sadly, there wasn’t a miraculous ending to what looked on paper to be a potentially horrifying season. There was the indignities of results like drawing with Gardner-Webb and losing to Appalachian State. And there was the crushing succession of league defeats, including losing the season finale to Minnesota, 6-0. The Terps didn’t go winless in Big Ten play, beating Illinois early on, but that was realistically the only solace in a lost season in College Park.

Supporters expecting some kind of “worst-to-first” miracle for the Terps in 2017 are likely to be disappointed. Maryland does get to return nine starters, tied for second most in the league, but that may have a marginal impact on the club’s fortunes considering how far behind the pack they were last year. There may be a couple of goals in the Terps in 2017 though. Junior Jarena Harmon was tipped as one to watch after transferring from Pittsburgh and was as good as advertised against smaller opposition, netting eight goals, including a brace against Illinois but also faltered down the stretch. Senior Chelsea Jackson netted nine, including four in the league, so you would figure she has the chance to contribute against any foe. However, the Terps will more than likely be counting on some of their newcomers, with Florida forward Maddison Krstec highly rated, and midfielder Alyssa Poarch the Delaware Gatorade State POTY and a former U17 international for the U.S.

But Maryland was an absolute horror show defensively, and few of the additions to the squad seem to be dedicated to that side of the ball. Cal transfer Zoe Clark is a low-risk gamble for a season, but isn’t likely to revolutionize a defense that gave up almost three goals a game in league play. Leone may have to settle on a starting goalkeeper having played musical chairs last year. Fifth-year senior Rachel Egyed seemed to be in favor over Katelyn Jensen at season’s end though and might have a leg up entering the new season, though it’d hardly be a surprise to see both again this year.

Maryland brings in a ton of new faces, but there’s not a blue-chip prospect that’s going to bring back the glory days overnight from this class. The Terps have a little punch going forward, but an overall lack of strength in depth and major defensive worries mean it’s probably going to be another year before challenge for a postseason spot.

A everlong slumber has seemingly descended upon the Michigan State women’s soccer program, as the Spartans have now missed the postseason in five straight seasons and not graced the NCAA Tournament with their presence since 2009. Last year, the Spartans played an atypically difficult non-conference schedule and actually racked up some big wins, topping Baylor and then going on the road to beat Colorado. League play started out in middling fashion, but the Spartans buckled in early October, losing five straight to all but kill their postseason hopes. The Spartans would stun Penn State and beat Purdue, but it still left them in tenth in the league, three points off the playoff places. The disappointing campaign also marked the Spartans’ first losing season since 2012.

The question now is if longtime head coach Tom Saxton can repay the faith shown in him by a very patient administration and get the Spartans back to Big Ten glory. While it doesn’t exactly look like the Spartans are going to be contending for honors in the league this year, at least getting to the postseason isn’t out of the question. MSU wasn’t great really in any area last season, but the offense is probably further along than the defense going into 2017. Netting a little over a goal a game in the league isn’t great though, and the Spartans’ attack needs to find an extra gear if they’re to return to the postseason. Senior Jamie Cheslik is likely the best hope for goals, scoring five last season as the club’s scorer and having netted eight as a rookie in 2014. Hannah Jones had a hat trick against Maryland last year and could see more chances, while Lexy Warner also might see an increased role in attack. Saxton has also added a pair of impressive rookie midfielders in Gabriala Jodzis and Danielle Stephan, and odds are, both may need to hit the ground running to get this offense firing.

Even if Michigan State does make strides on offense, their defense has to get better in turn. MSU gave up a goal and a half a game in conference play, something that when mixed with a middling attack made postseason qualification almost impossible. The Spartans used a time share in goal last season, splitting minutes between the graduated Kaitlyn Collin and returning senior Savanna Wojtanowski. The latter took over as starter for the second half of the season when Collin suffered a season ending injury and should again be the #1 this year. The backline has some work to do, with full-back Marisa Oleksiak, who netted four goals last year, and center-back Jessica Kjellstrom both graduating. Two other starters, Michaela Kovacs and Madison Duncan, return, while MSU also adds in rookie center-back Devin Jaqua to the likely core of the defense. I don’t think the Spartans will make a miracle run up the table, but if some of the freshmen pay off immediately, they have an outside shot at a Big Ten Tournament berth and perhaps an NCAA at-large bid.

Though Iowa head coach Dave Dilanni came to the club with a glittering reputation from his work a Division II Grand Valley State, his endeavors with the Hawkeyes have borne limited fruit in three seasons. After a very promising fourteen win year in 2014, the Hawkeyes have slid back to mediocrity the past two seasons. A 5-3 loss on opening night last season to Creighton was ominous, even if the club rebounded right away by winning at Missouri. A run of wins against weak non-conference opposition was not an indicator of the struggles to follow, as Iowa lost its first four in the league, getting shut out in each defeat. The Hawkeyes would finish with two wins in their final seven matches, leaving them in an unflattering thirteenth place in the Big Ten at season’s end. Iowa’s not an easy place to win at, but Hawkeye supporters must surely be hoping for an upward trend going into Dilanni’s fourth season.

Unfortunately, a rapid climb up the table does not appear to be in the cards for Iowa this year. It’s difficult to see where a big jump is going to come from, as the Hawkeyes are bringing in neither a great recruiting class or an ace recruit that could turn the tide in an instant. The biggest concern has to be on offense, where despite scoring at a solid clip against non-conference foes, Iowa found themselves shooting blanks in Big Ten matches, with just four goals in eleven league games. There’s not exactly great news going into the new season, as Iowa loses leading scorer Bri Toelle, who netted six goals on fifty-one shots. Where are the goals going to come from this season? There aren’t any clear answers, though second leading scorer Karly Stuenkel probably will get a crack at leading the charge, though she’s more of an attacking midfielder. Rose Ripslinger and Devin Burns also figure to get chances up top. The Hawkeyes appear to have a gem in U.S. U20 international Natalie Winters in central midfield, but she’s not a prolific scorer and figures to get swarmed if Iowa can’t find other players to step up in the attack.

Iowa wasn’t appalling on defense, but they weren’t nearly good enough last season to mask the club’s absent offense. There is the potential to improve this season though. First-choice center-back pairing Morgan Kemerling and Rachele Armand return this season after opening most of last season anchoring the backline. The club will have to make a change at left-back to replace departed senior Amanda Lulek, with Leah Moss and Hannah Drkulec among the contenders. The latter could also feature at right-back for the Hawkeyes. Sophomore Claire Graves got tossed into the fire straight away last season in her rookie campaign in between the pipes. There’s little reason to think she’ll lose her grip on the starting job this year.

It’s tough envisioning a side with so many offensive questions climbing into postseason contention. My projections give them an outside shot at the top eight, but Iowa looks destined for another season of Big Ten struggle.

Now entering the third year of Drew Roff’s tenure at Purdue, it’s clear that progress needs to be made after two tepid years of stewardship thus far. The gloom was palpable right away last year as the Boilermakers lost to Montana on the opening weekend of the season before getting pasted by Baylor a week later. Purdue would win their league opener against fellow strugglers Illinois but then weren’t on a season killing six match losing streak that made the final four matches academic, even if they did improve a bit in a 1-2-1 stretch. The end result was a twelfth place finish in the league table with the club a whopping eight points out of the postseason places. Roff came into West Lafayette with a big reputation after dominating at Illinois State but has found going much harder so far in the Big Ten.

Unfortunately, it’d take a very brave person to pick the Boilermakers to make a sudden move up the Big Ten table this year. The Boilermakers have to deal with some major losses in personnel, in numbers if nothing else. Purdue loses six starters, tied for second most in the league, which means some serious upheaval in the starting lineup. Chief amongst the worries here is who is going to be scoring the goals. Purdue netted just nine goals in eleven league games last year, with nobody scoring more than four on the season. That player, Andrea Petrina, does return, but the next two leading shot takers on the Boilermakers, Erika Arkans and Hannah Leinert are both gone. The wild card for Purdue’s attack is fifth-year senior Maddy Williams, who missed all of last season after being hurt in the Spring. Williams netted twenty-four goals in three years before getting hurt and probably had her best season in 2015, but it’s a lot to ask a player to come in after a year out and carry an offense, meaning Purdue really needs to find more than one source of goals.

Purdue wasn’t exactly a brick wall on defense either, giving up just a shade under two goals a game in the league and keeping just a pair of clean sheets in the Big Ten. Roff juggled defenders constantly, meaning it’s not exactly going to be predictable to pick out how Purdue will line up in the back going into 2017, but center-back Vanessa Korolas and junior full-back Hannah Mussallem are likely in the mix, though the team does have to replace graduated center-back Megan Kaser. Freshman Sarah Clark, the pick from this recruiting class will likely also feature early. Goalkeeping is also a question mark, with last year’s top netminder Jordan Ginther graduating. Erika Yohn has starting experience but figures to be challenged by junior Maddy Olsen and rookie Katie Luce. There are questions everywhere for Purdue, and the answers probably aren’t going to conducive to a comeback season in 2017.

It’s hard to classify Illinois’ 2016 season as anything but a total disaster. It wasn’t just that Illinois suffered their first losing season since 2009. It wasn’t just the eleventh place finish in the Big Ten, leaving the club four points out of the postseason. It was more the fact that after missing the NCAA Tournament for two straight seasons coming into last year and with a veteran squad, the Illini were finally supposed to put it all together. Injuries to talented starters like Kara Marbury and Sarah Warren, sure starters if healthy didn’t help, but Illinois still started seven seniors, a league high. The Illini didn’t beat anybody with a pulse in non-conference play, and their paper tiger status showed in the league, as they failed to win in any of their first five, a string which included home losses to Purdue and Indiana and a galling 3-1 loss at Maryland. A late run of form including a win over Michigan and draw with Wisconsin helped, but it only blunted the overall disappointment of the season just a bit.

Losing seven starters is bad, but losing seven starters from a side that already was short on top line talent for this level could be catastrophic. The problems are many for Illinois, but they desperately need to solve their woes on offense. Illinois once had All-American forward Jannelle Flaws to do their scoring, and they’ve never really recovered from her loss, scoring under a goal a game in the league and overall in 2016. Marbury’s return could be big, as she netted seven in 2015, but Flaws was still around then, so there’s no telling how well the senior will respond to being a top option. But frighteningly, Marbury still tied for the team lead in goals with three despite missing half the season. Perhaps even more disconcerting, only two other returnees scored last season, and they combined for just four goals. Fortunately, a little help might be on the way from this recruiting class. Midfielders Hope Breslin and Madi Wolfbauer both come in with a fair degree of expectation, and Illinois is probably going to need some immediate contributions considering the utter lack of proven scoring returning.

The defense wasn’t brutally bad last year, but it also wasn’t good enough to compensate for the aforementioned attacking woes. Warren’s return from injury should help, while Morgan Maroney and Alicia Barker also will be back after starting most of last season. Whether that’s enough is up for debate, and there’s not a rookie savior likely to emerge, unlike further up the field. And that could be a big issue, as both of last year’s starting keepers, Claire Wheatley and Michelle Denley, are gone. Sophomore Jaelyn Cunningham will likely battle rookies Sami Sample and Elizabeth Cablk for the gloves, but with the lack of experience here, the worries are very real.

It’s easy to be pessimistic about Illinois for 2017. They lose a ton of starters, lack talent as compared to league rivals, and don’t bring in a lights out recruiting class. They could scrape their way into the postseason if the injury returnees and youngsters catch fire, but it seems more likely Illinois will flirt with the Big Ten basement in 2017.

NCAA – 2017 Ivy League Preview

Chris’ Ivy League Projections

1. Princeton
2. Columbia
3. Brown
4. Yale
5. Harvard
6. Dartmouth
7. Penn
8. Cornell

The numbers lied for Princeton in 2016. If you judged Princeton’s season by RPI finish, you would consider last season a rousing success for the Tigers, who finished a heady #33 overall at season’s end. By any other measure, 2016 was a bust for a fancied Tigers side that finished without a win against an RPI Top 75 team and which languished in fifth in the final Ivy League table after winning just one of its final five league matches and just two overall in the conference last season. Thus, it was hardly a shock that the Tigers found themselves out of the NCAA Tournament mix despite their lofty RPI.

A little more humble, Princeton will enter a new season, likely with high expectations again. Scoring wasn’t a problem here last year, but the departure of Tyler Lussi after a ten goal senior season could create some problems. Princeton does still have a big weapon to draw on in the form of junior Mimi Asom, who scored nine goals to follow up a twelve goal rookie campaign. Asom’s talented, without question, but Princeton also needs more sources of goals to take the heat off of her. No other returner netted more than three goals, so there’s some serious concerns if players like Natalie Larkin or Vanessa Gregoire can’t pick up some of the slack. Also keep an eye on sophomore Abby Givens, who didn’t have big numbers but did have three goals and three assists in scattered time.

The Tigers’ offense captured most of the attention, but the defense simply wasn’t good enough for a league title push last year. It’s a situation that might not necessarily get better, as the Tigers lose the best defender from that backline, with Jesse McDonough graduating. It’s not a surprise then that a big emphasis in recruiting was on the backline, with Lucy Rickerson and Julia Simkus both tipped to play a big role as rookies. Canadian Natalie Grossi won the starting job in goal as a rookie and is probably going to fulfill that role here for the next three seasons. The Tigers should have enough to be considered Ivy League favorites, though they certainly aren’t miles above the fray. Finding help for Asom in front of goal and tightening up on defense is key, but if it happens, the Tigers should collect another league crown.

The Wizard of New York almost conjured up another unlikely miracle in 2016 at Columbia. Looking for their first league title since 2006, Tracey Bartholomew’s Columbia overcame a rocky non-conference slate to shock the Ivy League by winning their first four in the conference, including a victory over title favorites Princeton that put them on the doorstep of glory. In the end, the Lions just ran out of steam, going 0-2-1 in their final three, though both losses were on the road and by a single goal. In the end, Columbia finished third but with a whole lot of optimism going forward given their relative youth.

The Lions get ten starters back from last year’s side, and the one starter that departs is goalkeeper Allison Spencer, who split time in the goal. Junior Sophie Whitehouse will likely be the favorite to take the gloves, but she could be challenged by freshman Juliet Allen. As you might expect with a Bartholomew defense, the Lions backline was great last year and returns three All-Conference performers in Natalie Ambrose, Amalya Johnson, and Kerry Mannion. While defense shouldn’t be a problem, the big question is if Columbia can score enough goals to challenge for a title. The leading scorer here last year was Emma Anderson with five, but all but one of her goals came in non-conference play. Other returnees Natalie Nest and Amaris Hemmings have scoring potential, but Bartholomew will probably be looking for a pick me up from newcomers Jordyn Geller and Grace Wall. I’m not sure Columbia has a star to put them over the top, with scoring another concern, but they still look an intriguing pick for a potential title push.
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