AWK’s 2012 NCAA Soccer Preview – Toledo – Questions Abound for Trophy Hungry Rockets

Natalia Gaitan

Captain for Club & Country, Natalia Gaitan Hopes to Go Out With More Trophies in 2012

Preview Index

General | Conference Realignment Breakdown | Final 2012 Recruiting Class Rankings | Early 2013/2014 Recruiting Class Rankings | Coaching Changes

Big Sky | DI Independents | Great West | SWAC

ACC – Clemson | NC State
Big XII – Iowa State | Kansas | 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 | LSU | Mississippi State | Ole Miss | Vanderbilt
WCC – BYU | Gonzaga | Loyola Marymount | Portland | San Francisco

Once more, the MAC was painted blue and gold in 2011 as Toledo finally broke through and sealed their superiority with a league and conference title double. The Rockets entered 2011 searching for a defining blow in their battle with Central Michigan at the top of the league without the Chippewas emerging victorious more of then not in recent years. Toledo had been searching for a path back to the top after a three year run of great prosperity from 2006-2008 was followed by a chain of near misses. Toledo struggled to achieve liftoff for much of their early history, generally serving to make up the numbers in the MAC for their first decade of existence.

It wasn’t looking all that great for current head coach Brad Evans after five seasons either. The Rockets failed to crack the Top Eight in any of his first four seasons in charge after taking over in 2001 and only just squeaked into the MAC Tournament in 2005 after finishing in eighth in the league. Sneaking in the back door didn’t help the Rockets’ postseason woes though as Toledo entered 2006 still without a postseason win to their name.

And then something clicked for the Rockets. They rose to fifth in the league before curing their postseason win drought in emphatic style, picking up three wins to lift the MAC Tournament title and earn the program’s first major trophy along with their first trip to the NCAA Tournament. That triumph kicked off a Golden Era for the Rockets as they set a program high for wins in 2007, finished as league runners-up, and won another MAC Tournament title. Toledo nearly set an even higher bar in the Big Dance as they pushed Indiana to the limit before falling in extra time, 3-2. With all that momentum in their back pocket, Toledo improved still in 2008, winning sixteen matches, bringing home the program’s first league title, and then doing the double with their third MAC Tournament title in succession.

The Rockets were threatening to create a bit of a mini-dynasty, such was their domination in the league. But Toledo wasn’t above something of a rebuilding year, and 2009 brought a slight step back for Evans’ side. Toledo dipped back into mid-table and fell at the semi-final stage of the MAC Tournament, ensuring the Rockets wouldn’t be in the field of sixty-four for the first time since 2005. 2010 represented an important crossroads season for the Rockets. Would Toledo be back to their old title winning ways or would they be playing second fiddle once more? Rockets’ supporters needn’t have worried about the fate of their side, as the club played very well in non-conference play and looked headed for a league title as well.

But the Rockets fizzled late, losing an undisputed league title with a last day loss and then being upset in the semi-finals of the MAC Tournament. Ironically, Toledo probably would’ve been just fine for an at-large bid had they just won those two matches. Instead, they were left contemplating a good season that could’ve been so much more.

The hangover seemed to linger into 2011 if early results were any indication, as the club lost to a weak Purdue side before getting hammered at Illinois, though the latter loss wasn’t helped by starting keeper Vicki Traven being sent off. The club had no active reserve goalkeeper that day, meaning a field player had to go in, and the results were predictably gruesome, with Toledo losing by four goals. Non-conference form the rest of the way would be spotty at best. A draw with Louisville was great, and the club fattened up against some lesser opponents, but opportunities to fortify their profile went by the wayside with losses to TCU and Big XII sides Texas Tech and Iowa State.

Once league play started though, Toledo proved they were still a force to be reckoned with. The club won their first four in the MAC, all away from home. A draw with Akron busted the winning streak, but the unbeaten streak was extended to seven entering a match against Central Michigan that would’ve all but wrapped up the title had Toledo proven victorious. On hostile ground, Toledo couldn’t withstand CMU’s assault, and a goal in the final quarter of an hour proved decisive for the Rockets’ opponents. Toledo knew that any slip-ups in their final two matches likely would’ve handed Central Michigan at least a share of the title.

But unlike in 2010, Toledo held their nerve and raised the MAC title, two points ahead of their heated rivals after two wins down the stretch. Hosting the MAC Tournament, there’d be no mistake from these Rockets, who blew by Ohio in the quarterfinals, 8-0, before taking out Buffalo in the semi-finals. Upstarts Western Michigan were waiting in the final and proved a stubborn foe, but Toledo got the only goal of the match and completed their double to head back to the NCAA Tournament.

A dangerous first round opponent for just about any big name team, Toledo drew a tough task against Big East powerhouse Marquette. But Toledo hung tough despite being outgunned, getting a string of saves from Traven to keep themselves alive with a chance of the upset until the middle of the first half of extra time where the home side finally made the breakthrough. It may have been a tough way to end the season, but Toledo had still been superb throughout and had done well to slay the demons that had emerged from 2010’s nightmare finish. There’s still plenty of room in an ever growing trophy cabinet in Toledo, and every indication is that this side still can go even further in the coming years.

2011 represented something of a role reversal for the Rockets, as going into the season, most of the concerns were over an offense that had lost some key personnel from the previous season’s squad. Toledo wouldn’t be fazed though, scoring forty-four goals in twenty-three matches, including twenty in the league, both high water marks in the MAC last season. The three-headed monster of Rachel MacLeod, Nicole Gyurgyik, and Kristen Lynn ran riot over opposing defenses, combining for thirty of those goals, along with sixteen assists. Lynn and Gyurgyik depart this season, meaning it’ll be up to MacLeod to keep the Rockets firing true in 2012.

The Rockets’ defense wasn’t quite as bulletproof as in 2010, but it was still good enough to get the job done and returns their leading light, Natalia Gaitan, for one last season in 2012. Gaitan, the captain of the Colombian WNT that will participate in the London Olympics, has quickly become a fan favorite for the Rockets, and the senior right-back will be looking to cap off a fine collegiate career this season. Her legacy could run deeper than just her on-field contributions though. Toledo added Colombian U20 compatriots Angelica Hernandez and Isabella Echeverri to the roster in the offseason as well, meaning the program’s Colombian connection could extend well past Gaitan’s career in blue and yellow.

Goalkeepers

Likely the most pressing concern for the Rockets in 2012 is in goal, where the club must replace club legend Vicki Traven, one of the team’s best players in recent years. Traven wasted no time in showing her talents in Toledo by winning MAC Freshman of the Year honors in 2008 and continuing to shine as the club’s keeper of record after that. A top notch shot stopper who ended up on top of all the career goalkeeping categories for the Rockets, Traven’s shot stopping and veteran leadership will be missed sorely by Evans’ side this season.

The worrying thing for Toledo is the absolute dearth in experience that returns this season. Sophomore Kelsey Borowitz may enter the season as the most tenuous of incumbents, having started just one game last year with two more appearances in mop-up duty. Challenging her for the starting job will be rookies Sam Tiongson and Caitlin McComish. Evans has options but also an uphill climb for the stability that Traven provided in goal the past four years.

Defenders

With the uncertainty in goal for the Rockets, Toledo will probably need every bit they can squeeze out of their backline this year. That’s going to be a bit difficult though, as half of the club’s first choice rearguard from last season graduates. After two seasons of being a reserve and spot starter, Alyssa Niese blossomed into a defensive mainstay, starting thirty-nine matches over the final two years of her collegiate career. Though not the biggest at 5’2″, Niese was praised by Evans for her intelligence and positioning, more than compensating for her like of size.

Case was a great story, having missed most of 2009 with a serious knee injury and having barely played a season later, only to turn into an integral part of the defense as a senior. She would end up starting every match for the club, also chipping in with two goals and two assists in a fine 2011 campaign.

Obviously, the discussion about Toledo usually begins with Gaitan, who may graduate as the Rockets’ all-time best player. The Colombian WNT captain is the heart and soul of this Toledo team and showed her skills to great and deadly effect late last year, with six assists to her name, all against MAC opponents. She’ll be heading up her nation’s Olympic efforts again this Summer and will be looking to end her college career with more trophies come the Fall.

She’ll have a fine partner on the backline in fellow senior Rachael Kravitz, who started every match and played every minute in sixteen matches last season. A converted attacker, Kravitz is a left-back who has proven a quick study and is deadly with her long service, as thirteen assists in the past two seasons shows. Things get a little dicier after that duo though. Center-back Megan Blake was expected to hold down a starting spot last year after featuring prominently in 2010 but was mostly used off the bench before filling in in midfield late in the season. Given the team’s losses though, she could be back in defense this season, and did show a fair touch in front of goal with three strikes last year.

Canadian junior Emily Tustin is another contender who could provide a bit of an attacking bent to the defense after five starts and many appearances off the bench last year, though she could also be needed in midfield. Providing additional depth is sophomore Kirsten Catloth, who saw action in fourteen games off the bench as a rookie last year. Hernandez joins the group this year, and while she’s an unknown commodity at this level, Evans and Toledo will be hoping for a Gaitan-like impact when all is said and done for the Colombian youth international. Gaitan and Kravitz are great building blocks, but finding replacements for the lost starters will be vital.

Midfielders

Losses in midfield are somewhat less pronounced than in other units, but the Rockets don’t escape unscathed. Losing senior Ana Reynolds hurts, with the Mentor native having locked down a starting spot for the club early in her junior year and sticking in the first XI all of last season. Capable either in attack or defense, Reynolds had by far her best year in front of goal last season with two goals and three assists, including one of each in the MAC Tournament. Also gone is Katie Watt, who made thirteen appearances off the bench as a rookie.

The likely centerpiece of this season’s midfield is sophomore Alexis Tice, who had a smashing debut in 2011, garnering All-MAC Second Team honors despite missing the final six matches of the season through injury. Though not a big factor on offense, Tice showed real signs of quality last season and could turn into one of the league’s best midfielders in time. Likely to join her in the starting midfield is senior Kristen Mattei, who has recovered from a knee injury as a rookie to take her place as a constant in the lineup. Mattei started the final fifteen games last season with two goals and two assists and has proven to be a force in the air for the club.

Evans has many options available to him to fill gaps in the midfield. Senior Blair Sorg was a little used reserve in 2010 but ended up being an important factor off the bench last season, starting five games early in the season as well. Junior Ashley Ross and sophomore Meghan Topolewski were two of the club’s top options off the bench last season and should also be in the running for major minutes in midfield.

Ball hawking fifth-year senior Jamie Morsillo missed all of last season through injury but had started all three seasons before 2011, and has a nose for goal as well, usually striking a few times each season. If Morsillo is healthy, she seems a likely candidate to fill the midfield slot vacated by Reynolds. Colombian rookie Echeverri could also be a factor if she acclimates to the college game quickly. Considering the damage done in other units, this group could be the strength of this year’s club.

Forwards

This unit has some serious retooling to do without the services of Lynn and Gyurgyik to fall back on. Lynn had shown some flashes of real talent as a super sub for her first two seasons with the club before emerging as one of the MAC’s most dangerous forwards as a junior with seven goals and four assists. The powerful forward built on that season last year, setting a career best for goals with nine, including a stunning four goals against Niagara in the first month of the season. Lynn would slow down in the league though, with just one goal in conference play and one in the MAC Tournament after scoring seven in the club’s first five games.

Gyurgyik’s a much more unexpected and potentially more damaging loss considering she was only a sophomore. After a three goal debut, Gyurgyik exploded for ten goals last season, with five in the league and one in each of the club’s first two MAC Tournament wins. She was also a clutch performer, with three game winning goals in each of her two seasons at Toledo.

The hope will be that the club can once again depend on the offense of returning starter Rachel MacLeod. MacLeod gave herself a mighty big reputation to live up to as a sophomore after winning the 2012 MAC Freshman of the Year award following a five goal, two assist debut season. She did more than just live up to it though, with a stunning eleven goal, nine assist season to win MAC Offensive Player of the Year honors. MacLeod ended up scoring in every round of the MAC Tournament, while also notching the game winning goal in six matches in 2011. The junior has star potential for the Rockets and looks like the one sure thing in offense for the club this year.

There are plenty of questions around her. Sophomore Rio James was a key reserve last season, with three starts as well, though she only scored twice on the season and may also be needed in midfield. Classmate Sarah Seig also started a pair of matches and made six appearances and figures to get an audition in the frontline as well. MacLeod is money in front of goal, but she’s bound to face a lot of attention from defenders if someone else can’t help ease the pressure for Toledo. If someone does so, this could again be a deadly unit in the MAC.

Outlook

The Rockets may have hit a momentary peak with their double last season, as they face a bit of a rebuilding effort in the face of the loss of over half their first choice starting lineup from last year. The loss of Traven in goal has to be the most worrying one for the club considering the lack of experience from her prospective replacements. With that in mind, the loss of a couple of starting defenders shouldn’t be overlooked as well, as Toledo could be a bit more vulnerable in the back than they have been in recent seasons.

Going forward, the club still has MacLeod, but little else proven at this point. The presence of talents like MacLeod, Gaitan, and Tice should ensure the Rockets are competing near the top of the MAC this year, but the plentiful losses make another trophy winning season far from guaranteed.

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