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 | Stephen F. Austin | 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
Cal’s 2011 season was a roller coaster of emotions, as the club climbed great heights and experienced the lowest of lows in Berkeley in a wild season. It fit the general pattern for a club that, while usually respectable, has never been a fan of doing things the easy way. Full credit has to go to head coach Neil McGuire for galvanizing his squad mid-season and keeping the ship afloat despite losing their leading scorer at the end of September. McGuire had previously been a part of a season of unrest in 2009 in another typically mercurial season for the Bears but has since kept the club comfortably in mid-table in the competitive Pac-12.
Cal’s been a program that has seen its fair share of coaches over the past few decades. The Golden Bears were frequent visitors to the latter stages of the NCAA Tournament in the eighties, with two Elite Eight appearances coupled with three trips to the College Cup under reigns by Bill Merrell, Peter Reynaud, and Jean-Paul Verhees. It’s been a significantly more difficult go of things for Cal though since the nineties as the world of college soccer has evolved. Andy Bonchonsky’s six year tenure was one marked mostly by mediocrity, with only one lonely NCAA Tournament appearance to his name.
Kevin Boyd reignited the Cal program and brought home the team’s only major trophy to date in his second season in charge, winning the 1998 Pac-10 title. Boyd would take the Bears to eight NCAA Tournaments in his decade in charge and reach a peak with a Sweet Sixteen appearance in 2005. All of which made his decision to resign from his post after the 2006 season all the more shocking (it would get worse when Boyd promptly took charge of Pac-10 rivals Arizona State two weeks later).
Reaction to his replacement, McGuire, had to be a little lukewarm in Berkeley. McGuire hadn’t exactly set the world on fire in two previous stops at Mississippi State and Texas Tech. Then again, he had delivered two winning seasons in Starkville and brought some sense of pride back to Lubbock in two seasons with the Red Raiders, essentially doing the best he could in two places which are notoriously hard to recruit to. McGuire’s first few seasons were just fine, although some warning signs began to crop up in 2008 when the Bears just squeezed into the Big Dance after some tense moments on the bubble.
Then came 2009, when the Bears got out to a fine start that included a win against Texas A&M, indicating that things were looking up for Cal. But successive shock defeats to Cal Poly and Sacramento State essentially turned Berkeley into a circus with McGuire walking out on the team after the latter defeat and prompting a firestorm of criticism in the media, with some players sounding notably less than thrilled with their embattled coach. Cal were somehow able to keep it together despite the distractions and made it back to the second round of the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three seasons under McGuire.
As 2010 began, all eyes were on Berkeley to see if the harmonious environment being talked up before the season would stand the test of time if hard times hit for the Golden Bears. Of course there was also the little matter of it being the senior season for the U.S.’ new Golden Girl, Alex Morgan, who was being tipped for big things by the women’s soccer media. Cal would come out roaring, going undefeated in their first eight and lighting up the scoreboard with a barrage of goals. But the Bears’ erratic form began to catch up with them as the season drew to a close, and a defeat to Arizona put Cal in real bubble trouble heading into the last few weeks of the season. Even with Morgan in their cache, Cal couldn’t come through in the clutch in the postseason and fell to Duke in the opening round.
Questions were rife in Berkeley as the club tried to qualify for its eighth straight NCAA Tournament in 2011. Morgan had left massive shoes to fill despite the club’s lack of trophies during her tenure at the club, and Cal had also lost some other key components, making 2011 a season of intrigue and no small degree of uncertainty. Yet after an opening day loss to Pepperdine, the Golden Bears looked like they hadn’t skipped a beat and had perhaps even gotten better than 2010’s unit. They reeled off eight straight wins, including victories over San Diego State, Denver, and Long Beach State while the offense was lighting up opposing defenses like a pinball machine, scoring thirty goals during that eight match win streak.
But the course of Cal’s season changed emphatically in the team’s last non-conference game at Santa Clara. Leading scorer Katie Benz would suffer a brutal broken leg, ruling her out for the rest of the season and casting Cal’s postseason hopes into real doubt. The club would lose to the Broncos, 3-0, and would go winless in four straight, though they did battle to a great 0-0 draw against UCLA. It was the catalyst for a bit of a comeback in the league, with the club winning four of five and creeping closer to NCAA Tournament bubble safety.
They couldn’t punch their ticket definitively with a win over Oregon State or Stanford, but they had still done enough in the Selection Committee’s eyes to make it in the field of sixty-four. Cal would be drawn into an emotional rematch in the first round, facing off against the Santa Clara team that had changed their season earlier in the year. It was a tooth and nail scrap between two local rivals, with the Bears playing much better than in their earlier encounter with the Broncos.
Tied at 1-1 through extra time, McGuire made one of the gutsiest coaching moves of his career by inserting reserve goalkeeper Kathleen Messinger in the shootout. The gambit paid off for the Golden Bears. Despite facing one of the best penalty stoppers in the nation in Bianca Henninger, Cal would hold their nerve to win the shootout, 4-3.
They had lived by the sword but would perish by it in the next round against Boston College. After a largely dreadful match had ended without a goal, Cal would see their penalty magic dissipate, with the Eagles prevailing, 3-1, on spot kicks. Sixth in the league and the last thirty-two in the NCAA Tournament may not sound like much for a Pac-12 team to some, but considering some of the adversity faced and that this was likely to be a transition year at any rate, Cal supporters can’t be too disappointed at how 2011 turned out.
With nine starters returning for the Golden Bears this season, Cal will fancy their chances at a move up the Pac-12 table in 2012. That starter lost number might be a bit deceiving though, as Cal’s other three lost seniors also racked up a fair number of starts. Keeping with a recent trend in Berkeley, McGuire started a whopping twenty players over the course of the season, though it seemed to work just fine in the end. The boss’ biggest challenge this season may be finding a solution to the club’s eternal puzzling question: Can anyone on this team score consistently for a whole season?
After Morgan’s graduation, Cal struggled to find a true spearhead, though fate obviously intervened cruelly with Benz. Senior Lauren Battung looks like the best option this season as the returning leading scorer with seven goals in 2011. That’s fine until you realize that six of those goals came in the club’s first eight games, with Battung scoring just one goal in league play. The club really struggled to score in the league without Benz, averaging just a goal a game in Pac-12 play, a problem the team has to solve if they aspire to make a run at the league title this year.
Such dreams may be possible given the club’s potentially excellent defense. Though they lose leader Danielle Brunache, Cal adds in transfers Ariana Martinez (UCLA) and Nina Frausing Pedersen (Texas), a duo that should immediately compete for starting spots and that could potentially make the back four the class of the Pac-12. After a bit of an uncertain future heading into last season, the arrow looks pointed up again in Berkeley. Now it’s just a matter of consistency for McGuire’s troops.
McGuire has plenty of depth to rely on, but the clear cut starter is junior Emily Kruger. A netminder of growing reputation, Kruger was recalled to the U.S. U23 team in the offseason and also got a look in at U20 level with a potential view towards a challenge for a spot on the U.S. U20 World Cup squad. A highly touted keeper coming into Berkeley, Kruger got a foothold on the starting job as a rookie, starting thirteen matches before taking over full-time last season. Known for great distribution as well as being a fine shot stopper, Kruger should continue to develop in the Bears’ net and could turn into one of the league’s best in time.
Her primary backup looks to be sophomore Kathleen Messinger, whose nerves of steel certainly came in handy during the shootout against Santa Clara in the NCAA Tournament last year. Aggressive and fearless, Messinger saw eighty minutes of action in four appearances last season but may have trouble breaking Kruger’s iron grip on the starting job. Fighting for scraps will be senior Lauren Hein, who started seven games as a sophomore in 2010 but barely saw the field last year, and sophomore Jenna Brennan, a massive 6’2″ Colorado native who didn’t see action last year. This group figures to be in pretty safe hands with Kruger in between the pipes, making it a strength for the Golden Bears this year.
Cal is hardest hit by losses in defense this year, losing the team’s best defender in Brunache, along with two other players who started seventeen combined matches last season. A fierce tackling, aerially proficient leader for the Golden Bears, Brunache ended up being a bulwark of the defense for four seasons, consistently starting for the club throughout her career. Though not an offensive factor for much of her career, she even provided a lift in that department in 2011 with two goals and assists each on her way to All-Region Second Team honors. Also gone are Kaitlin Paletta, a speedy defender who loved to attack but had a stop-start career due to injuries, and Miranda White, another attack minded defender who was also more than capable in playing up front and who scored three goals in her final season with the club, a career high.
Despite those losses, Cal still has plenty returning in defense this year. Juniors Genessee Daughetee and Emi Lawson are the veteran heads so to speak, with the club lacking a senior starter in defense. Daughetee, who can also double as a winger if she’s not being used as a full-back, started nine games as a rookie but saw her minutes spike up last season as she started all but four matches for the club. Never afraid to get forward, Daughetee also ended up with a pair of assists in her efforts. A tenacious center-back with pace, Lawson showed great potential as a rookie with three goals and nineteen starts for the Bears. The Seattle native wouldn’t tally a point last season but still ended up as a lineup fixture, making seventeen starts. Given her size and speed, Lawson could also be an option up front if the club can’t find consistent scoring.
The new kid on the block last year was left-back Thelma Bjork Einarsdottir. She hardly came into the program as an unexperienced neophyte though, having earned caps with the full Icelandic WNT while starring at club level for Valur. Undaunted by the college game, Einarsdottir immediately stamped out a starting place, making the first XI nineteen times and scoring a pair of goals. The Icelandic full-back has loads of potential and could develop into one of the league’s best defenders.
Cal should have plenty in reserve from returnees as well. Junior Amanda Glass has recovered from an early injury in her collegiate career to become a great option off the bench, even starting a handful of games last season for the club. Other options include senior Samantha Walker, who started twenty-one games her first two seasons but was a bench option last year and could play anywhere on the field, and sophomore Sandra Ley, a highly touted recruited who was one of the club’s top reserves last year.
The biggest reasons for excitement though might be a pair of top-notch additions from transfers. Danish junior Nina Frausing Pedersen has represented her nation at U23 level and had been a standout at Texas in holding down the center of defense for two seasons. Also a decent source of offense with two goals and three assists last season, Pedersen is a prime contender to take Brunache’s vacated spot in central defense and could be one of the transfer pickups of the season.
Also joining up is Mexican international Ariana Martinez, who played for league rivals UCLA for the past two seasons. A versatile defender who made thirteen starts for the Bruins in two years, Martinez should be another valuable asset in defense for the Golden Bears, though she will likely miss the first month of the season on international duty with the Mexican U20 World Cup squad. Though you’d argue this group doesn’t have a true superstar yet, it’s composed of some very solid players, with a couple of great additions in Pedersen and Martinez. Despite the loss of the excellent Brunache, this unit should be one of the league’s best.
If the defense isn’t the strength of this Bears team, then it’s probably the midfield, a group that certainly looks capable going into the new season. The only expected loss is senior Katie Suits, a playmaking central midfielder who was usually in the starting lineup about half the time these past three seasons. Suits didn’t really impact the stat sheet, but any loss in depth hurts a bit on one of the unit’s less deep groups.
They’re great at the top though, with the one-two punch of Kaitlyn Fitzpatrick and Betsy Hassett likely one of the league, and perhaps the nation’s, best. A U20 international, Fitzpatrick seems to be on the cusp of stardom after two very promising seasons. The Pleasanton native was a Pac-10 All-Freshman Team member in 2010 and had a pair of game winners against the Oregon schools, stoking expectations ahead of 2011. She’d pull the strings last year, finishing with a team leading six assists but saved her best for a game against Oregon, scoring a hat trick and assisting on the other goal for one of the performances of the season. The junior should again be one of the league’s top midfielders and will be key in opening up opportunities for the forwards.
Hassett’s not quite the offensive threat Fitzpatrick is but does the little things very, very well, with her workrate and energy seeing her as a constant on the New Zealand WNT, including in the Olympic squad in London. The senior has become a consummate glue player in the middle for Cal and will be a valuable source of experience and leadership this season. Less heralded but just as important last year was sophomore Taylor Comeau, who came into the program with little attention in last year’s rookie class but still turned into an invaluable member of the midfield nonetheless, starting seventeen matches for the Golden Bears. Comeau should continue to gain momentum as she increases in experience and could be quite the find for McGuire and co.
Other returnees battling for starting time include junior Kate Bennett, a highly regarded recruit who hasn’t quite lived up to the hype yet, though she did record four assists as one of the team’s top reserves last year, and towering sophomore Kory Lamet, a big threat in the air who scored three times last year and could also be given a run out up front this season after ten starts as a rookie. Adding more depth is rookie Samantha Witteman, one of this year’s top recruits for the Golden Bears and a player that could be another source of creativity for this year’s Cal squad while also being versatile to boot. Fitzpatrick and Hassett should make this a fun unit to watch and one of the best in the league.
If Cal has a discernible weakness, it’s up front, where the club will be looking for a consistent contributor of goals after going without one for much of the second half of last season. Before the leg break against Santa Clara, Benz was looking like a potential All-American after ten goals in ten matches, scoring those in an absurd stretch where she scored in seven straight games. The injury stricken Benz had certainly deserved a better fate in the end after struggling with maladies for much of her career before shining brightly at the beginning of her senior season.
Her replacements last season weren’t necessarily convincing, and McGuire will be hoping someone can step up to the plate and deliver the scoring punch the club really needs. Senior Lauren Battung seems most likely to lead the offensive charge this season in Berkeley. As stated above, Battung was hot early but couldn’t find the net later in the season, with her inconsistency a big worry. Battung also scored seven goals in 2010, with four of those strikes coming in the league, so the ability is definitely there, she just has to do it as the center of attention up front for the Golden Bears.
Juniors Mekenna DeBack and Rachel Mercik also will be right in the mix for starting spots at cracking the starting lineup intermittently last year. A quick, two-footed attacker, DeBack was another who got off to a quick start last year, with four goals in a three game span early on but fizzled down the stretch, with just one goal in the league, against Utah. Mercik, an attacking winger who can create and finish, scored four goals for the club, with three coming in the league. A U20 international, Mercik came into the club with no shortage of potential, and McGuire will be hoping this is the breakthrough season for the El Dorado Hills native. Sophomore Grace Leer, one of the club’s top reserves last season, will also be looking to make a bigger impact in 2012. Leer is a tenacious defender from the front but hasn’t been that prolific in front of goal, scoring just once last year for the Golden Bears.
Cal might also be looking to get some mileage out of a pair of rookies this season. A whippet quick forward out of Rancho Cucamonga, Ifeoma Onumonu is both fleet of foot and powerful in the air and has stared for the California based Arsenal FC club in ECNL action. Classmate Celeste Boureille, like Mercik, brings a creative streak to the Golden Bears from up front and was a member of the powerhouse Mustang SC club that won the 2010 ECNL title in the U16 age group. Though Battung seems to be a lock to see major time, the other spots are very much up for grabs, and given the depth of the club, Cal might see many faces in attack this year. Finding one that can consistently score is the key though.
Could Cal be entering 2012 with the most optimism they’ve had before a season in a long time? After going into last season wondering how they were going to live without Alex Morgan and Megan Jesolva in the lineup, Cal endured a bit of a roller coaster of a season that ended in slightly promising fashion, as the Golden Bears went down on penalties in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Considering what was lost a season before, the Golden Bears will probably take it and look forward to what looks like a potentially excellent 2012 season.
Even without Brunache in defense, this rearguard looks solid as a rock, with a promising goalkeeper in Kruger as well. The midfield looks to be in great shape as well with the Hassett-Fitzpatrick duo looking like it could cause some real damage. The one worry though is in the attack, as the club doesn’t look to have a top notch threat in front of goal going into the new season. Goalscorer by committee was essentially tried out last season after Benz’s injury, but the Cal attack wheezed through the second half of the season for the most part. While these Golden Bears should have enough for an upper-mid table finish in the league and to win a few games in the NCAA Tournament, it’s that lack of cutting edge that will likely curtail any hopes of trophies in Berkeley this year.