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 | Toledo | 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
Anyone needing convincing that the world of college soccer can be a cruel one indeed need only look at Stephen F. Austin last season. The Ladyjacks were about as dominant as any club within one conference could be in 2011, going a perfect 9-0-0 in the league while scoring thirty-four goals and conceding just one in those nine wins, that coming in the regular season finale. But there would be no NCAA Tournament joy for SFA, as they were stunned in the Southland Conference Tournament final against Texas State.
It was a shocking blow for a program that has propelled more than one coach to bigger things in its lifespan. The program first rose to Southland prominence before the turn of the millennium under the hand of Rachel Skinner who brought home back-to-back league titles in 1997 and 1998. It took a while (and a few more coaches) before Nicole Nelson came in and set the program back on the right track, winning the Southland Conference tournament in her second year in charge in 2003, delivering the program’s first NCAA Tournament bid in the process, before winning the league in 2004.
But Nelson departed for the greener pastures of one of the best assistant coaching jobs in the country at Texas, and the Ladyjacks promoted assistant Jaime Frias to the helm of the program. The new coach was more than effective after the promotion, delivering a league title in 2005 before doing the double in his final season in Nacogdoches. With nothing left to prove at this level, Frias moved on to Nevada, prompting another change at the head of the program.
This time though, the Ladyjacks opted for a rather surprising choice in George Van Linder. Van Linder had looked to be on his way to the top of the college soccer world after four very productive years at SMU but then had been a monumental flop in five seasons at Baylor. Whether Van Linder succeeded in rehabilitating his reputation is up for debate. The team’s W-L-T record in his two seasons in charge wasn’t anything overwhelming, but the team had some good finishes in the league, although they never really got close to silverware. After 2009, Van Linder hightailed it back to the Big XII as the associate head coach at Oklahoma.
Perhaps a little jaded from going down the retread route, SFA chose to opt for some young blood, hiring Rollins head coach Tony Amato after Amato had turned the DII school into a quality side in the Sunshine State Conference. SFA showed much promise in Amato’s first season in charge, racking up a few impressive non-conference wins before rolling to second place in the league. Their postseason journey would be a short one though, as they paid the penalty in the Southland Conference Tournament semi-finals against UTSA. With many key figures returning for 2011, the time looked ripe for a push for trophies at SFA.
The season would begin with a bit of a whimper though, as the Ladyjacks lost their first two matches of the season, against C-USA sides SMU and Tulsa, both on the road and both by a goal. They’d be the last losses for the program for over two months. SFA rolled through the rest of their non-conference schedule with a draw at Louisiana Tech the only blot on a copy that included wins against UTEP and TCU. Most of the rest of the league was overmatched to say the least, with only Texas State and Lamar getting within a goal of the triumphant Ladyjacks in their dominant Southland campaign.
SFA looked like one of the biggest favorites to prevail in tournament week and made it to the final on the back of another strong performance against UTSA. Then came that fateful final, where an early second half goal that marked the first time the team had trailed since August against Tulsa also marked the end of their NCAA Tournament dream. SFA’s RPI was very good, but their bubble burst with a paucity of quality wins on their resume. It was simply another case of the nature of the beast for SFA and many other small schools across the nation, but it was still painful to see such a talented mid-major come so close only to fall by the wayside before their big chance to shine.
SFA’s window hasn’t quite closed yet though, as the club returns nine starters from last year’s title winning team, including many of the biggest pieces. Three of the club’s top four scorers from last year’s blistering offense return to the fold this season, meaning the Ladyjacks’ Southland Conference rivals figure to get little respite from the arsenal that rolled over all of them last season.
The centerpiece of this club is senior Kylie Louw who may well go down as the league’s best ever player by the time she graduates at the end of this year. A two-time Southland Conference Player of the Year, Louw will be in London for the Olympics with South Africa and may just have a chance of being her nation’s best ever player as well given some of her displays, which included fourteen assists last year. Many of those assists went to sophomore Chelsea Raymond, who scored seventeen goals last season, a single season record for the Ladyjacks.
Lest one thinks that SFA was all offense last season, this group did concede just one goal in the league, with returning goalkeeper Lacey Lee set to guard the net once more for the Ladyjacks. Amato’s club will likely be overwhelming favorites to win the Southland again this season, but it’ll be the postseason that again tests their mettle. For the likes of Louw to not taste the NCAA Tournament would be a shame indeed.
SFA’s defense made it easy for her much of last year, but junior keeper Lacey Lee likely had few complaints as she earned All-Southland First Team honors following a successful sophomore season. Lee had gotten her feet wet as a rookie, making a handful of starts for the club but found her path to the starting job unimpeded heading into last season. Lee would end up having her breakout season in goal for the Ladyjacks, keeping seven clean sheets as she cleaned up behind the SFA defense. Lee found herself much busier in non-conference play than in Southland action though. Against league foes, Lee was called upon to make more than three saves just once, in a 1-0 win over Lamar. In five games, Lee wasn’t called upon to make a single save.
The likely backup is sophomore Morgan Glick, who saw action in relief in six of the club’s blowouts but was otherwise untested last season. With most of SFA’s defense returning this season, Lee could find it smooth sailing once again against many foes.
There’s going to be little possibility of improvement in the league for this defense which gave up just a single goal against conference foes last year. The big question of course is whether that defense will be able to hold up against the likes of LSU, Baylor, and Rice, who all populate the club’s non-conference schedule in 2012. Amato gets most of his starting backline back intact for the new season but does have to do without one of the league’s best defenders in Jordan King.
After a nondescript beginning to her collegiate career at Oklahoma, King blossomed with SFA, winning Southland Newcomer of the Year honors in 2009 while becoming a bulwark at the back for the Ladyjacks. Also capable as a forward, King showed her attacking muscle in 2010 with eight goals, which was tied for top on the club. King may have only scored one goal with two assists last year but was invaluable with her defending, earning All-Southland First Team honors for her efforts. Also gone is sophomore Kelsey Allen, who started fourteen games over the past two seasons, a loss that really hurts as she was likely a favorite to fill King’s vacated spot in defense.
Canadian senior Breanne Vernon is likely to lead the line for SFA in defense this year. Vernon missed her true freshman season through injury but has been a key member of the club ever since. Vernon was recruited as a versatile attacker but has shown great defensive chops in her time with the Ladyjacks, including last season, where she earned All-Southland First Team honors for her efforts. Vernon still packs a little offensive punch though, finishing with two goals last year. Likely to join her on the starting backline is senior Leslie Shurtleff, another ex-Oklahoma player. Shurtleff barely played here in 2010 but was a revelation last season as she played in all but ten minutes for the club in defense.
The other almost sure thing starter for the club in defense is sophomore Megan Dunnigan. Dunnigan showed no rookie jitters last season after starting every match as a rookie and looks like a key part of SFA’s future already. The big concern is with filling King’s vacated spot, as there is basically no proven depth in defense other than the likely starters listed above. It means that the Ladyjacks will likely have to roll the dice with another unproved rookie, but if that works out, this group should be in great shape with the return of the other starters from last year’s squad.
The engine room for SFA’s high powered attack returns most of its pieces ahead of the 2012 season, which is bad news indeed for the Ladyjacks’ conference rivals. The team does need to replace Australian Edwina Forbes though. The club’s midfield destroyer that added some much needed balance to the Ladyjacks in the center of the park never really put a dent in the stat sheet so much but was an invaluable starter for four seasons that did pick up All-Southland Honorable Mention plaudits last season.
Louw is the obvious star of the show for SFA and will be looking to cap off her career with an NCAA Tournament appearance after returning from the Olympics this Summer. The South African has already broken the club’s career assist mark with one season left to play and could be in line for a stunning senior season if last year was indicative of what Louw will bring to the table. She matched her seven goal total from her sophomore year but nearly tripled her assist output to fourteen, logging eight of those helpers against league opponents.
She won’t be going it alone though, as SFA has plenty of firepower surrounding her in midfield. Quick triggered senior Laura Sadler could also play up front but has been just as effective in midfield for the club and comes into her final season with SFA as a three-year starter. Coming into 2011 having scored six goals in each of her two previous seasons, Sadler upped her total to eight last year and added four assists as well. Just as importantly, four of Sadler’s goals were game winners, and the All-Southland First Team honoree looks a fine secondary scoring option behind Raymond if need be.
Canadian junior Melissa Gaudet looks a good bet for a starting spot also after twenty-one starts in two seasons for the club. Her offense has been overshadowed a bit by her teammates, but Gaudet was solid last year with four goals, including the winner against UTSA in the Southland Conference Tournament. Depth is a bit of a worry though, with the main experienced returnee being senior Abby Susman, who made just seven appearances off the bench last season and who missed all of 2010 through injury. Newcomers and some of the club’s many forwards may end up having to fill in if needed for SFA this season. But if the starting core stays healthy and on form, this group will terrorize many an opponent again this year.
With most of last season’s firepower set to return, Stephen F. Austin looks like being the class of the field in offense again in the Southland. Depth does take a bit of a hit with the loss of reserves Janae Lee and Jayne Jahnke, but this unit is best equipped on SFA to absorb a couple of losses. Lee was a reserve for almost all of her time with the program and had been a sporadic scorer at best up until last season where she exploded to life offensively. Seven goals, including five against league foes, was a fine return for a player who only started four games as a senior. Jahnke wasn’t quite as prolific, seeing time in just a handful of games last year as a junior.
Raymond will be hoping for an encore to her amazing debut season which saw her destroy defenses to the tune of seventeen goals and seven assists. That total included hat tricks against UTSA, McNeese State, and Nicholls State in the league and a string of goals in five straight Southland matches in October. The only team to hold Raymond without a shot on goal was Texas State in the regular season, and she put three on frame against them in the postseason. While nothing’s guaranteed by a great freshman season, Raymond still looks like the club’s go-to player offensively and could turn into a bona fide star for the Ladyjacks with another explosive season in front of goal.
Senior Becky Johnson looks like a solid bet to partner her up top after starting almost all of last season but isn’t anywhere near the offensive threat some of her teammates are, with just five goals in the past two years combined, though she does bring some invaluable experience to the frontline. There are a fair number of options for Amato as far as depth is concerned. Junior Brenda Salazar started six games last season and was a top reserve otherwise, nabbing three goals in the process, including the winner against Oral Roberts in August. Classmate Megan Wasiak was also lively in a reserve role last season with three goals and two assists and could also see a bump up in minutes for the Ladyjacks.
Sophomores Christie Hinojosa and Zuri Prince combined for thirteen starts, five goals, and five assists last year in solid rookie campaigns and add yet more depth to what looks like a very deep group. Raymond looks like a deadly spearhead at this level and could shatter many a record at SFA before her career is over. There’s plenty of depth behind her as well, and when you consider the scoring exploits of the midfield behind them, it’s hard to envision this Ladyjacks attack not setting a blistering pace this season.
Stephen F. Austin might fight the archetype of a team on a mission this season after last year’s traumatic near miss. With the vast majority of last season’s title winning team returning, the Ladyjacks will be among the biggest favorites in a conference in the country considering this bunch steamrolled just about everyone in their sight in the Southland last year. Conference realignment worked in one way with Texas State and UTSA, two of the league’s better programs, leaving, but in another way, that might hurt the Ladyjacks, whose RPI will most likely suffer given some of the bottom feeders in the league.
That means SFA will probably have to do some work in the non-conference schedule if they want to have a prayer of an at-large bid should they not win the auto bid. They certainly can’t complain about of a lack of upset opportunities, with games against Texas Tech, LSU, Rice, and Baylor on the docket. You wouldn’t rule out this team pulling off an upset or two either. Louw could probably start at many a school in DI, while the likes of Sadler and Raymond are no slouches either. The crushing defense returns mostly intact as well and should dominate in the Southland again.
The only thing that could potentially trip the club up is injuries, as depth on the whole isn’t great. But if they stay healthy, SFA looks as dangerous as any under the radar mid-major and could be the classic “team you don’t want to face” come the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.