ACC – Clemson | NC State
Big XII – Iowa State | Oklahoma | TCU | Texas | Texas Tech
Big East – Cincinnati | DePaul | Pittsburgh | Providence | Rutgers | Seton Hall | South Florida | St. John’s (NY) | Syracuse | UConn | Villanova
Big Ten – Indiana | Iowa | Michigan State | Minnesota | Nebraska | Northwestern | Purdue | Wisconsin
Mid-Majors – Central Michigan | Denver | Florida Gulf Coast | Harvard | Illinois State | New Mexico | Rice | Richmond | Samford | UMass | Utah State | Western Michigan
Pac-12 – Arizona | Arizona State | Colorado | Oregon | Oregon State | USC | Utah | Washington | Washington State
SEC – Alabama | Arkansas | Mississippi State | Ole Miss | Vanderbilt
WCC – BYU | Gonzaga | Loyola Marymount | Portland | San Francisco
Seemingly the SEC’s perennial almost team, LSU came close to breaking the club’s major trophy duck last season, only to see their nerves fail them in spectacular ways in the biggest games. Though the club may have fallen just short of a league title and been blown out in their two postseason matches, the Tigers still had to appreciate a thirteen win season and a return to the NCAA Tournament after an atypically mediocre 2010 campaign. After a few seasons of swashbuckling, attacking football that delighted neutrals and terrorized SEC defenses, the Tigers have still struggled in some part in replacing some of the most successful attacking talent the program had seen come through Baton Rouge in a long while.
Lee had inherited a large scale rebuilding job in Louisiana after four years of the ill-fated reign of George and Danielle Fotopoulos bore little fruit and saw the Tigers propping up the SEC table in two of those four years, including in the final season of that era in 2003. Lee came over from Furman after turning the Paladins into a SoCon juggernaut, with the Tiger brass hoping that he’d be able to do the same with a largely dormant program in Baton Rouge. It certainly wasn’t a quick fix by any means, with Lee struggling to lift the Tigers out of the doldrums in his first three seasons in charge, before finally making a breakthrough in his fourth season in Baton Rouge in 2007.
In that season, the Tigers won twelve matches, their most since 2002, finished with a winning record in the league for the first season since 2000, and most importantly, finally broke the program’s long NCAA Tournament drought, grabbing an at-large bid and even advancing to the second round after a win against Samford. 2007 seemed to mark the beginning of a mini-Golden Age for the Tigers who promptly finished runners-up to Florida each of the next two seasons in the league. Postseason play would be a bit of a roller coaster for the Tigers though as they were eliminated at the semi-final stage on penalties in 2008 in the SEC Tournament before running out of gas after building a 2-0 lead against Washington in the NCAA Tournament in the same season and losing 3-2.
2009 looked to be their year in Orange Beach, especially after Florida went down in the semi-finals, but the nightmare of penalties crept up once more after the team blew a late lead against South Carolina and lost a tense shootout to the Gamecocks. The Tigers’ penalty hoodoo would continue in the NCAA Tournament that year also as despite hosting a regional, LSU crashed out to Texas A&M on spot kicks. The end of the 2009 season also essentially marked the end of that Golden Generation for the Tigers as the program was racked by graduation up and down the starting lineup. Gone was the deadly attacking trio of Malorie Rutledge, Melissa Clarke, and Rachel Yepez, but the team also lost the services of stalwart defenders like Chelsea Potts as well.
To try and compensate, Lee signed a star studded recruiting class that ranked among the nation’s best with the hope that the talented youngsters would be able to come in and keep the Tiger machine rolling. Injuries ravaged that recruiting class in 2010 though, and as a result, LSU was often far from their best on the pitch. Lee’s squad was mostly unimpressive in non-conference play, with things only getting marginally better in league action as the Tigers would sink to sixth in the league. They pulled one SEC Tournament upset over Tennessee, but fell again to South Carolina, this time in the semi-finals, ensuring the club would not make a fourth straight NCAA Tournament.
Hoping for a little bit more luck on the injury front in 2011, LSU also had to contend with beginning the season with five straight road matches as stadium renovations were completed in Baton Rouge. The Tigers would struggle on their travels, losing three of five, including matches to potential bubble rival NC State and an upstart Rice side. It turned out a little home cooking was all LSU needed to spark into life, as the club went 7-0-1 on their midseason homestand. While most of the non-conference wins were only marginally impressive, the Tigers also managed to record a draw against a Pepperdine side whose confidence and form was sky high in early September.
The club also benefitted from having their first four league matches at home and swept the two home weekends, vaulting to the top of the league table on the back of an offense that was beginning to resemble the club’s old wrecking crew. That long homestand meant a rough run-in to the regular season though, as LSU finished with six of seven away from Baton Rouge. The perfect league mark would go first as the club split games over two weekends, but LSU still held out hopes of a title thanks to some of the inconsistencies of their title rivals.
Much would depend on a two game stretch against South Carolina and Florida. The match against South Carolina looked to be in LSU’s favor, with the contest coming on Senior Night in the intimidating confines of Baton Rouge. Instead, it turned into the program’s worst home defeat in half a decade, as South Carolina hammered the Tigers’ weakness in set piece defense, scoring three unanswered goals from dead ball situations, rolling to a 4-1 win. As unlikely as that result had been, the one against Florida may have been just as improbable. Off a crushing defeat, LSU rolled into Gainesville and beat Florida for the first time in their history and ended the Gators’ five-year unbeaten run at home against league opponents with a 1-0 upset win.
The Bayou Bengals would wrap up second with a win over Arkansas, but the club must have wondered a little about what could have been had they not fluffed their lines against South Carolina, or had they not suffered earlier defeats at the hands of Auburn and Vanderbilt, two clubs who finished in the bottom half of the league table. Any hopes of a SEC Tournament run died quickly, as LSU suffered through an impotent display in front of goal in a 3-0 upset loss to rivals Auburn in the quarterfinals.
It was the first time the club had lost in the opening round of the SEC Tournament in five seasons and was an ominous way to head into the NCAA Tournament. Ominous or not, LSU were on the receiving end of a ludicrous first round matchup in the Big Dance, being shipped to College Station to face Texas A&M despite the pairing making little sense when looking at RPIs and other potential matchups that could’ve been made. The Tigers would be overmatched from the opening whistle and ended up taking a drubbing from the Big XII Tournament champs, going down, 4-0, against their future conference rivals.
Despite some decidedly poor results in big matches, LSU had still managed to get a little of their groove back after 2010’s down season. Postseason failings aside, the Tigers’ strong performance in the league was an important step for a program yearning to keep pace in a league which appears to be growing increasingly competitive towards the top, more so now with Texas A&M and Missouri joining the mix.
If things run in cycles though, the Baton Rouge club could find itself in a bit of bother this year thanks to copious losses throughout the club. LSU struggled in 2010 with graduation before facing a much easier time of it last year. This year though, the club sees five of the twelve players who started twelve or more games graduate. It’s not just a case of quantity over quality either for Lee’s side. Gone are Taryne Boudreau, the club’s leading scorer and only player with more than four goals and Natalie Martineau, the club’s leading assister with ten. Midfield destroyer Allysha Chapman, center-back Kellie Murphy, and starting goalkeeper Mo Isom also depart, meaning LSU has holes everywhere going into the new year.
The cupboard isn’t totally bare for the Tigers though. Utility midfielder Alex Arlitt and powerful center-back Jodi Calloway were both among the SEC’s best rookies last season and will have to form part of the Tiger core this season if the club are to challenge for honors. As has been the case in recent years, youth internationals are coming to Baton Rouge in abundance this year with Canadian Jade Kovacevic, Mexican Fernanda Pina, and U.S. U15 international Morgan Ruhl all joining up. Pina’s debut may have to wait though, with the Puebla native a contender for a U20 World Cup spot for El Tri in the Fall. Lee will need every body he can get to try and reshape LSU back into a contender in time for another run at the postseason this year in the new and improved SEC.
The words “goalkeeping stability” and “LSU” haven’t exactly gone together for the past half-decade (or more), with the Tigers struggling to establish a strong situation in between the pipes for any extended length of time. It’s arguable as to whether that situation changes this year with the graduation of last year’s starter, Mo Isom.
Isom’s career at LSU was eventful if nothing else and most certainly a roller coaster ride. Nothing short of a sensation as a rookie, Isom even made SportsCenter after scoring against BYU on a long free kick. She never really developed into the superstar that some projected her as before coming to Baton Rouge though, and 2010 was a low point for the Georgia native, as she lost her starting job to rookie Megan Kinneman in the middle of the season after some erratic performances in goal. Isom ended up winning the job back as a senior, but her career didn’t end on a particularly happy note, with the club taking the odd decision to start Kinneman in the blowout loss against Texas A&M in the NCAA Tournament.
It was an abrupt and surprise decision considering Kinneman had been dropped early in the season after committing a horrendous error against NC State that ended up being the only goal in a 1-0 loss. Not that Kinneman doesn’t have potential. The Texan had after all wrested the starting job away from Isom a season earlier and delivered by most accounts an impressive rookie season. Kinneman will enter the new year as the favorite to start in goal but does face competition from another highly regarded recruit, Morgan Ruhl.
Ruhl, a product out of Maryland, is a former U.S. U15 international and considered by many to be one of the top goalkeepers coming into the college ranks from this class. Considering the program’s history of blooding netminders early, you wouldn’t rule out Ruhl seeing some time early this year, especially if Kinneman can’t recapture her freshman form.
While LSU’s defense wasn’t a steel curtain last season, it was still comfortably in the top half of the league and should have a chance of being solid again this season with a good many of last season’s contributors returning to the fold. Some of the other club’s departures shuffled offensive and defensive duties, but the main departure from this group is Kellie Murphy, who herself juggled a role as a midfielder and center-back for the club the past few seasons. Murphy first nailed down a starting role in the midfield late in 2009 before shifting to center-back in 2010 despite standing at a modest 5’5″. Murphy would see a lot of time back in the midfield last year and showed her attacking chops for the club, with three goals, including a pair of game winners.
The anchor of this season’s defense looks to be sophomore Jodi Calloway, one of the league’s most promising young center-backs. Recruited as a center midfielder, Calloway would have to wait for her college debut after a knee injury at club level forced her into a redshirt in 2010. She was worth the wait though, immediately proving herself to be a force as a full-time starter both defending and as a set piece target. Another season removed from that knee injury, there’s no reason Calloway can’t develop into an SEC Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
Junior full-back Alex Ramsey has been a starter for both of her seasons in Baton Rouge, with her versatility having turned into a big asset for the Tigers. After playing most of her freshman season at right-back, Ramsey switched things up and ended up the club’s mainstay at left-back in 2011. Such versatility is worth its weight in gold at this level and should allow Lee to tinker with personnel to give the club a better shot at wielding a strong defense this year.
Sophomore Alex Arlitt was another starlet for the Tigers as a rookie last year, playing in both attacking and defensive roles in the midfield while also taking post as the club’s right back while starting every match for LSU. Two goals and three assists were a fine return for her freshman season, and while Arlitt shone as a defender last year, her ability in the midfield might make her a tempting option up there considering the massive losses that group faces. Junior Shannon McLain made a big breakthrough after being a utility reserve as a rookie, starting twelve games at right-back in 2011. The Texan looks a likely contender at right-back again if Arlitt ends up in midfield.
Another contender for a starting role in defense is senior Reyna Lubin, who has essentially been the club’s Swiss army knife these past three years, making appearances everywhere on the pitch for the Tigers. Lubin, mostly used as a reserve for her first two seasons, worked her way into the starting lineup twelve times last year, first as a forward, before switching to right-back towards the end of the season. Lubin would also add some much needed size to the defense, with most of the other defensive contenders besides Calloway being 5’6″ or below, which is worrisome in the SEC, a league with some hefty forwards.
The protagonists are quite talented in Baton Rouge, but depth is a bit iffy, not helped by most of the recruits from this year’s class being mostly of an offensive bent. Though LSU has shown squad versatility in the past, an injury or two could wreak some havoc on this defense.
This group gets absolutely hammered by attrition this season, losing full-time starters Chapman and Natalie Martineau, in addition to the likes of Murphy and Boudreau, who also saw plenty of time in the midfield. The club has the bodies to fill all the vacancies, but replacing all that quality may not be a one-year process for Lee and the Tigers.
After beginning her career at UAB, Chapman turned into one of LSU’s best ever, with three wonderful seasons in Baton Rouge. One of just five Tigers to be named All-SEC three times in her career and only one of two to twice be named an All-SEC First Team selection, Chapman was also an extremely versatile player for the club. Equally at home in the midfield throwing in crunching tackles or in defense as a fleet-footed left-back, Chapman excelled everywhere for Lee’s side and is a massive loss after winning SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year honors last year.
Martineau was yet another member of the club’s excellent Canadian pipeline, starring for the Tigers for two seasons after a pair of distinguished campaigns at DII Montevallo. The team’s playmaker in chief last season, Martineau dropped ten assists for the the Tigers as a senior, including an incredible run of seven straight games with an assist that stretched into the first four games of league play. She also chipped in in front of goal with nine goals in two seasons.
The returning experience, or lack thereof, in midfield is harrowing to say the least. The likes of Arlitt and Lubin could get a look having racked up extensive time in the midfield in previous seasons, but both may be needed in defense as well, meaning it might be up to reserves and newcomers to fill the sizable gaps. Relatively speaking, senior Natalie Ieyoub is the most experienced member of the midfield, and started nineteen matches on the right wing in two seasons to begin her LSU career. She shifted back into a reserve role last season though, albeit one that provided some fine fruits for her labor, with Ieyoub netting a pair of game winning goals for the club off the bench.
Junior Nina Anderson came into the club as a winger with no limit to her potential and was expected to be a potential star for LSU but has not developed as hoped so far in Baton Rouge. Through two seasons, Anderson has just four starts, one goal, and one assist, perturbing numbers for the Bayou Bengal faithful. Anderson still has a lot of upside though, and the likely influx of minutes could do her a lot of good this year. Classmate Danielle Murphy, sister of departed senior Kellie, has mainly been a reserve these past two seasons and netted a pair of assists last season and will be looking to make a step up this season.
Another junior, Emily Cancienne, is a hometown product who started every game as a rookie at both center-back and as a defensive midfielder. With the shifts in personnel last year, Cancienne was switched into a reserve role in the midfield and was one of the club’s top bench options. Given her starting experience though, it’s a good bet that she’ll be in the starting lineup to provide some of the steel lost with Chapman’s graduation. Sophomore Nicole McLaughlin saw time off the bench in a handful of games last year and will be striving for an increased role this season for the Tigers. Redshirt freshman Victoria Sample could be a sleeper to watch after sitting out last season with a knee injury suffered in preseason. Sample came in relative highly regarded and might just be thrust into sizable action right off the bat.
The pick of the litter for the Tigers in midfield from this season’s rookies is Heather Magee, a big-time recruit out of Texas who has U.S. U17 experience and played on the powerhouse Solar SC club. Given the unsettled nature of the midfield, you wouldn’t put it past her to be a big member of this group right away. Canadian Jade Kovacevic was a veteran of her nation’s 2010 U17 World Cup exploits and already looks like a bright prospect at international level for her country. A star in Summer league, Kovacevic was a late call-up to Canada’s July domestic U20 camp and could be a potential member of the nation’s U20 World Cup squad.
Such a move would obviously garner some great international experience but would also be a blow for the Tigers, who would lose the Canadian for a month in all likelihood. Some of the club’s attacking options are also fair bets to be auditioned back here this year, including newcomer Fernanda Pina. Despite a long list of options, this group looks like the club’s weakness by some margin this year.
Boudreau’s emergence as a deadly offensive threat last season could be seen as a bit of a double edged sword for the Tigers. On the one hand, it allowed the club to finish second in league goals in the SEC and second overall in the table behind South Carolina. On the other hand, it means that LSU in many ways are back to where they were going into the 2011 season, with a bunch of inconsistent forwards who have shown flashes of greatness but also misfired en masse at times.
Boudreau got the green light from the coaching staff with the ball at her feet and made the most of it, shooting a whopping eighty-four times but netting twelve goals, including six game winners and nine in the league. The Canadian was able to put at least one shot on goal in every league game and scored against seven SEC opponents, including one goal in the final four league games. Her departure leaves a massive void in the offense. The club also loses Alex Cook, who came to Baton Rouge as a very highly touted prospect last season and scored on her debut but eventually fell out of favor and barely featured down the stretch.
The options are plentiful but hardly sure things for Lee going into 2012. Senior Carlie Banks looked like the center forward the club had been craving upon her debut in 2009 after seven goals, including six as a rookie. It hasn’t been close to that easy for Banks since. She’s been a surefire starter for the Tigers in the two years since but has seen her goal total dip in the two seasons since. After five goals as a sophomore, Banks scored just twice last year, though she did have seven assists, including four in the league. That might be an indicator that while Banks is an important member of the club’s offense, it might be as more of a complementary option for the Tigers than an out-and-out offensive leader.
Junior Addie Eggleston also has been a starter for her two seasons with the club and was yet another big name recruit coming into Baton Rouge after a glittering youth career. Eggleston turned some heads with a fine three goal, eight assist showing as a rookie and was tabbed by some as a breakout star going into the new year. Eggleston was more solid than spectacular though, scoring four goals and adding five assists. While all of those goals came in the league, three came against clubs who didn’t qualify for the SEC Tournament. Like so many on this club, Eggleston still has a ton of potential, but there are growing doubts as to whether she can become a star at this level.
Watch out for sophomore Kaley Blades, who could be in store for a breakout season. Blades looked like a potential star early in her rookie season in 2010 but tore an ACL after a handful of games and was forced to take a medical redshirt. Blades wasn’t all the way back last season but still showed some flashes of talent as one of the club’s top offensive reserves with three goals and three assists. Blades has also reportedly been showing well in Summer league action and could find herself back in the mix for a starting spot this season.
Lee also has no shortage of newcomers to try and work into the club’s rotation this season. Lexi Gibbs, a Region III ODP player coming into LSU, should be in with a shout after redshirting last season and was one of the state’s top players coming out of the club ranks last year. There’s plenty of continental flair as well from some of the Tigers’ international recruits. In addition to Kovacevic, the club also adds Mexican youth international Fernanda Pina, a dynamic player whose flair could be put to good use on the flanks, either up high on the frontline or out wide in a traditional 4-4-2. Pina’s goal against South Korea in the 2010 U17 World Cup was a stunner, and LSU fans will be hoping for more of the same in Baton Rouge this season and for many more to come. Pina’s a likely member of Mexico’s U20 World Cup squad though, meaning LSU might have to wait a little while to see their tantalizing new attacking option in action.
Florida native Colby Maffei, a Region III ODP member, also joins up as a highly touted prospect and played club ball for the Tampa Bay United club coached by former LSU head coach George Fotopolous. As has been the case so often in Baton Rouge the past few seasons, there’s upside and potential galore within this group, but getting that potential to perform is the task ahead of Lee now.
LSU has been the SEC’s program that hasn’t been able to quite get over the hump despite being agonizingly close on so many occasions in recent years. While the Tigers’ rise up the SEC table has no doubt been pleasing for a program that was once struggling mightily in the league, the lack of a major trophy, along with the club’s struggles to progress in the NCAA Tournament has to be frustrating to so many associated with the program. Lee has done an incredible job of recruiting strong talent to Baton Rouge in the past half-decade, but fully developing that talent has been a bit more scattershot in that time span, with a good many Tiger putting together a good year or two but with their form also fluctuating wildly at times.
In the long-term, LSU can be very happy with this class which has the potential to be a very good one indeed if things break right for the club. The short-term? Well, LSU doesn’t look likely to repeat last season’s runner-up finish in the league. Kinneman still has to convince many in goal, while the situation in midfield might be a case of trial and error with the amount of upheaval through attrition. Up front, neither Banks nor Eggleston have been convincing as top scoring options as of late, and goals may be difficult to come by if the engine room sputters.
With Kovacevic and Pina potentially missing time early on international duty and the overall youth of the squad, LSU might be much better late than early. With just three seniors, it’s also safe to say that this side’s best days are ahead of it. As for this year, the defense should be strong enough to land the Tigers in mid-table in the league and with a shot at making it back-to-back trips to the NCAA Tournament, though the latter is far from guaranteed.