AWK’s 2012 NCAA Soccer Preview – St. Mary’s (CA) – Steady Progress in Moraga

Christina Tognetti

Christina Tognetti Hopes To Supply the Offense for The Gaels This Season

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 | Stephen F. Austin | Toledo | UMass | Utah State | Western Michigan
Pac-12 – Arizona | Arizona State | Cal | 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

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to look over to Moraga and think that current Stanford head coach Paul Ratcliffe didn’t leave St. Mary’s (CA) a poisoned chalice as the Gaels have searched in vain for a worthy replacement for the man who last guided them to an NCAA Tournament. Or relevance in the WCC for that matter. St. Mary’s lived through three very average years with Paul Sapsford followed by three quite poor years of Kelly Lindsey at the helm before current head coach Kai Edwards took charge before the 2009 campaign. Since an admirable third place in the WCC in 2003, it’s been a consistent life at the bottom of the league for the Gaels.

In fact, entering last season, St. Mary’s had only finished above seventh in the league once in the past seven seasons, a fifth place in 2005. Edwards’ first season in charge had been a bit of a mixed bag in Moraga. On one hand, they did net wins over teams like Texas and San Diego. On the other, they also were on the wrong end of a 8-1 bloodbath against Colorado and finished rooted to the bottom of the league once again. Edwards’ side started out on fire in 2010, but the Gaels would begin to stutter in the middle of the season. A late rally in WCC play saw St. Mary’s (CA) rise to seventh in the league, which could be seen as decent progress in Moraga.

As was the case in 2010, the Gaels began the 2011 season in fine form. They went on the road to New Mexico and picked up a 1-1 draw in a very tough environment before winning seven of their next eight, including solid wins over Big Ten side Northwestern and Pac-12 newcomers Utah. The biggest result though was a shock win at UC Irvine, with Edwards’ side picking up a signature 2-1 win against the Anteaters. Consistency has often eluded the Gaels in recent years though, and it was telling that the club promptly went out two days later and lost to Long Beach State by six goals. In the short term, that heavy defeat didn’t cost the Gaels too much, as they came back to win their next two matches.

But that loss to the 49ers also revealed a defensive frailty that would doom any postseason hopes Edwards and co. may have entered WCC play with. The Gaels would only keep one clean sheet in their eight league matches and would be hammered by Portland for seven and BYU for four in the regular season finale. The Gaels for their part weren’t bad offensively, never being shut out by a league opponent, but they just couldn’t keep up with such a bad defense dragging them down. In the end, St. Mary’s (CA) would walk away with just four points and one win in the league, finishing in eighth.

Yet despite the lack of progress in the league table, St. Mary’s still walked away with their second straight winning season, while also winning double digit matches for the first time since 2001. There were definite flashes of quality on the pitch for the Gaels in 2011. Now, it’s just a matter of evening things out so that St. Mary’s (CA) impresses consistently instead of in fits and bursts.

Consistent excellence may be harder to find this season though, because the Gaels were rocked in the offseason by the transfer of Jordan Marada to USC. Marada may have played only two season’s with St. Mary’s, but she was nothing less than a revelation for the club in her stint in Moraga. Seven goals and five assists as a rookie in 2010 was a great debut, but it was just an opening act to last season’s nine goals and twelve assists. Though she only scored twice in the league, she also added seven assists in eight league matches, a fantastic return. As just one of two players to score more than three times last season, Marada’s loss is a painful one for the Gaels to try and overcome.

The good news is that second leading scorer, Christina Tognetti returns after eight goals a year ago. She’ll obviously be hoping someone else steps up lest she become a marked woman in front of goal. Though most of the worries at first blush will be about the offense, there’s not question that the Gaels need to improve defensively to contend in the WCC. The club’s twenty conceded in the league was tied for the worst mark in the WCC, and the club conceded two or more goals in all eight of their losses. With the offense not certain of firing at last year’s pace without Marada, solid defensive improvement might be the difference between a spot in mid-table and a fight to avoid the basement.

Goalkeepers

Edwards has plenty of depth at his disposal with this group running four strong, but realistically the Gaels will likely be dominated between the sticks by junior Kate Brenot. Brenot had served as the club’s backup in her true freshman season of 2009, seeing mop-up duty most of the time but having one traumatic start in an 8-1 loss to Colorado. After redshirting in 2010, Brenot came back with a vengeance last season, keeping five clean sheets while starting every match for the Gaels in 2011. Forced into five or more saves ten times last year, Brenot will be hoping her defense holds up a little better to make her life between the pipes a little less eventful.

Sophomore Stephanie Busch saw sparse action in three matches last season and is the likely frontrunner for the understudy role. She’ll likely battle true freshman Kahyla Jones and sophomore Nicole Schultz for the backup role.

Defenders

Improvement could be in the cards for the Gaels’ backline, which should return many of last season’s major contributors to the fold. It all starts with senior center-back Caroline Kreuz for St. Mary’s. Originally recruited as a midfielder, Kreuz instead found a niche in the center of defense and has been a starter for three seasons since. Showing fine growth throughout her career, Kreuz has the potential to be one of the league’s top defenders this year. Likely to join her on the backline is junior Melinda Madden. Madden, who started about half the club’s games as a rookie, joined the starting XI full-time last year and ended up with one of the biggest goals in recent SMC history, providing the winner against UC Irvine.

One loss the club must overcome is versatile senior Alyssa Stearns, who played just one game a season after a transfer from UC Riverside but then grew into an important figure for the club, starting sixteen matches last year. Also gone is another versatile option in the form of Ashley Soro, who split time between the midfield and at center-back throughout her SMC career and started ten matches last season. Junior Alli Beard is a prime contender to inherit some of those lost minutes after starting twenty-two matches in two seasons, including eight last year for the Gaels. There’s plenty of depth in reserve as well.

Junior Brooke Mayo started seven games as a full-back in 2010, though her minutes last season were much more limited. Other reserves who could see a boost in minutes include junior Michelle Weir and sophomores Elise Dreiling and Samantha Myers. Added to the mix is sophomore Jessica Castillo, a transfer from league rivals Santa Clara who has been tipped for an immediate impact by Edwards. Kreuz is a strong center-back, and though the club loses a few vets, this group could still improve a bit with the returning experience and depth.

Midfielders

Edwards and the Gaels have problems for sure here with the loss of Marada and others. A player with true star potential and the ability to turn around a program, Marada had been a huge factor in the club’s success the past two seasons and will take some replacing for SMC. Further complicating the situation is the subsequent loss of Daelyn Paul, another All-WCC Honorable Mention selection the past three seasons and a rock solid center midfielder for the club. Her five goal, six assist debut in 2009 was not to be repeated, but Paul still kept the offense ticking with five assists last year and is another loss that cuts deeply.

Making matters even worse is the early losses of reserves Emma Kroloff, who started seven matches last season, and big Utah native Tessa Nicolaides, who saw time in ten games off the bench last year. The giant wave of attrition has left the Gaels’ midfield a bare bones operation.

One of the remaining building blocks is a pretty good one though, in the form of sophomore Vicki Shimkus. The crown jewel of last year’s recruiting class, Shimkus more than lived up to her billing last year, making the WCC All-Freshman Team, along with All-WCC Honorable Mention plaudits. She wasn’t terribly prolific in front of goal though, with just two strikes, though she may get more looks in front of goal this season with Marada and Paul gone.

After her? It’s more up in the air. Fellow sophomore Brooke Herrick saw plenty of action off the bench as a rookie and might be fast tracked into the starting lineup this year given the paucity of options. With few other options listed on the roster, Edwards is going to have to do his fair share of tinkering to build a cohesive unit, but overcoming the losses of Marada and Paul does not figure to be easy.

Forwards

With Marada gone, much of the scoring onus for the Gaels will likely fall on the shoulders of senior Christina Tognetti. Tognetti ended up being a great scoring option for SMC last season, though few likely would’ve expected so at the beginning of the year following a fitful 2010 that featured just a single goal. The Santa Rosa native would break through in a big way though, with eight goals, including four in the league. Impressively, Tognetti needed just twenty-six shots for those goals, and if she keeps that strike rate up this year with more chances inevitably falling her way, she could easily top ten goals.

Sophomore Kaytlyn Steele is a prime contender to partner her up top after starting nineteen games as a rookie and scoring twice, including a goal against Big West power UC Irvine in the club’s upset over the Anteaters. Junior Briana Campos looked another promising prospect as a rookie, scoring four goals despite just five starts for the club. Campos got more starts last season (10) but was more muted overall with just two goals and three assists and will be looking to bounce back this year. Also starting ten times last season was sophomore Lauren McQuiston, who didn’t score but did manage three assists on the year.

Adding further depth is junior Sara Ives, a super sub the past two seasons who made an impact last year with three goals and two assists from off the bench. Edwards also makes a great addition in the form of Canadian freshman Caroline Beaulne. A long-time member of the Canadian U17 team, Beaulne isn’t just a goalscoring threat, she’s an excellent playmaker from out wide, which has to be music to the ears of Tognetti and the other prospective St. Mary’s forwards. If Tognetti can deal with being defended as the club’s top option, and some of the others step up their production, this could be a surprisingly potent group in the WCC.

Outlook

The Gaels were looking like a mighty fine sleeper pick to make some noise in the WCC and potentially crash the NCAA Tournament party. And then Marada left for Los Angeles. While it isn’t a fatal blow, and the Gaels still have some fine talent to work with, it’s a massive loss nonetheless and one that might seriously limit the club’s ceiling in the short-term. The defense will likely be a little more stable despite a few losses in the ranks, but the bigger worries are going forward for the Gaels.

Tognetti can put them in, but she’s going to be getting a lot more attention now with Marada gone. There’s no telling how she’ll respond to that increased attention, but the club does have a cache of promising secondary options, which should take some of the heat off. All in all, the Gaels should have a shot at a few more wins in the WCC and a spot in mid-table, but the club still looks another year or so off from an NCAA Tournament berth challenge.

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