AWK’s 2012 NCAA Soccer Preview – San Diego – Heavy Losses Make WCC Title Repeat An Uphill Climb

Mariah Butera

Sophomore Mariah Butera is One of The Few Sure Things for San Diego 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 | Georgetown | Pittsburgh | Providence | Rutgers | Seton Hall | South Florida | St. John’s (NY) | Syracuse | UConn | Villanova
Big Ten – Indiana | Iowa | Michigan | Michigan State | Minnesota | Nebraska | Northwestern | Purdue | Wisconsin
Mid-Majors – Central Michigan | Denver | Florida Gulf Coast | Harvard | Illinois State | La Salle | New Mexico | Rice | Richmond | Samford | Stephen F. Austin | Toledo | UMass | Utah State | Western Michigan | William & Mary
Pac-12 – Arizona | Arizona State | Cal | Colorado | Oregon | Oregon State | USC | Utah | Washington | Washington State
SEC – Alabama | Arkansas | LSU | Mississippi State | Missouri | Ole Miss | South Carolina | Vanderbilt
WCC – BYU | Gonzaga | Loyola Marymount | Portland | San Francisco | St. Mary’s (CA)

San Diego are playing second fiddle to nobody in the WCC any more after a 2011 season that saw the club win a share of their first league title, the first major trophy in club history, while also advancing to the Sweet Sixteen. The Toreros have never had it easy in the WCC, often being stuck in the lengthy shadow of both Portland and Santa Clara as the giants of the conference try to dominate the headlines. The Toreros haven’t even gotten top billing in their own city at times, with deeply despised city rivals San Diego State rising swiftly into the national consciousness in 2009. But though they may be afterthoughts in the minds of some, wise heads know that the Toreros have quietly turned into a side capable of making life tough for any team in the country.

As of now, San Diego has made themselves into a side who can now reasonably expect to contend for an NCAA Tournament spot every year. Current Wake Forest head coach Tony da Luz set things into motion in his five seasons in charge, culminating in the team’s first NCAA Tournament appearance and a big win over Texas A&M in the first round in 1996. da Luz’s successor, John Cossaboon kept the success going with four NCAA Tournament appearances in six seasons before handing off to current head coach Ada Greenwood. It’s been Greenwood who’s taken the program forward in recent years, with six NCAA Tournament appearances in eight seasons entering into 2011. Though they’ve been consistent competitors in the Big Dance, the Toreros entered the new season having found it hard to reach the next level.

Entering into to 2011, San Diego had qualified for four straight NCAA Tournaments but had also failed to break Portland’s stranglehold on the league, finishing as runners up three times and third once. San Diego also entered the new season having only advanced past the first round of the NCAA Tournament once in four trips and had also failed to get past the first weekend of play. San Diego entered the new season on the back of a campaign that had started strong, petered out somewhat in the middle, and finished reasonably well. But it had been another case of the blues in the NCAA Tournament, with the team’s third straight first round elimination, this one coming at the hands of Wake Forest and former boss da Luz.

Hoping to finally get over that hump and reach the next level, San Diego started out well in 2011, winning their first three and then splitting a challenging run of four matches, topping Alabama and Texas while falling to close defeats to Kansas and UCF. But despite that strong start, the club would fall into a tailspin, losing five in a row and seeing their NCAA Tournament lives flash before their very eyes. Forget aiming for a league title, San Diego were just aiming to finish at .500!

But the great teams persevere through bad times, and the Toreros would slowly dig themselves out of their hole. The offense cranked into life, fueled by the unbelievable form of senior forward Stephanie Ochs. Two wins in a row became three, and then four, and then…suddenly the club had won six in a row and had a chance to win at least a share of the league title with a win against Santa Clara. League royalty fell and fell hard in San Diego that night, as the Toreros marched to a dominant 3-0 win over the Broncos and were able to raise a piece of the league title high.

Now it was just a matter of breaking the team’s NCAA Tournament hex. And wouldn’t you know it, San Diego was able to do that too. Big West champs UC Irvine was shot down in penalties despite the Toreros blowing a lead late. Then came a match against a fancied UCLA team in the second round. The Toreros would take the lead in the second minute, defending resolutely for most of the match before the Bruins equalized with ten minutes to play in regulation. Penalties again had hearts in mouths, but USD keeper Courtney Parsons would write herself into Torero lore, saving four UCLA penalties as her side shocked the college soccer world in Los Angeles.

The Toreros would get a chance to avenge a regular season defeat in the Sweet Sixteen, squaring off against state rivals Long Beach State. But in horrific rainy conditions, USD would fall just short, going down to the 49ers, 1-0. It was a forgettable way to end an unforgettable season. Greenwood and his Toreros had broken barriers and enjoyed the best season in the program’s history. Now it’s a matter of building on that success and trying to climb even further on the national stage.

Instead of building this season though, it might be a season of rebuilding, as the club takes some heavy losses ahead of the 2012 campaign. Five of the club’s eleven players who started twelve matches are gone, and in this case it’s just as much a case of losing quality as it is quantity. Ochs is obviously the biggest loss for the club. Before she was playing a role on the WPSL Elite winning WNY Flash club, Ochs was terrorizing WCC defenses as one of the nation’s hottest young stars both at college and U23 level. Ochs started last year out as a big time scorer but then went on a crazy assist spree, with helpers in five straight games and in six of eight league games overall before adding three more assists in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.

Also gone are leading defender Natalie Garcia, a Mexican international, and Parsons, the starting goalkeeper who wrote herself into club legend last year. Most worrying though may be San Diego’s overall lack of depth. With just eighteen players currently listed on the roster for 2012, San Diego has no margin for error with injuries this season. It also means that Greenwood will have to squeeze every last bit out of his players this year if the Toreros are to challenge for honors.

Goalkeepers

Losing Parsons may well be the club’s toughest blow when you take into account the absence of experienced depth to replace her. The Santa Rosa native got her feet wet with three starts as a rookie before rounding into the club’s full-time goalkeeper as a sophomore. Parsons helped the Toreros on to three straight NCAA Tournaments as their starting goalkeeper but saved her very best for last, winning All-Region Second Team honors after a brilliant 2011 season. That season culminated with two amazing performances in shootouts in the Big Dance as the Toreros reached the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament. Making matters worse is the subsequent early departure of the club’s backup last season, Annie Heaton. Heaton played only a half last season, against Cal State Fullerton, but was expected by many to contend for the starting job this year after Parsons’ graduation.

It means that San Diego’s goalkeeper this season will be one of two newcomers. Coincidentally, both Michelle Craft and McKenna Tollack come from the powerhouse and hometown San Diego Surf club. It’s hard to pick out an early favorite from the duo. Craft was on the Surf side that won the ECNL National Title in the U17 age group last year, while Tollack has played well in showcase events in ECNL action for the club. Then again, both may be thrown into the fire in hopes of one emerging as top choice. One thing’s for sure: In the cutthroat WCC, either or both will have to come up big early if USD is to contend for honors.

Defenders

The Toreros’ defense was one of the league’s very best last season, giving up just four goals in eight league games and exactly one a game overall. Repeating that feat could be a bit difficult this season though, as besides replacing Parsons in goal, USD also has to replace a pair of starters from the backline. The biggest loss is Mexican international center-back Natalie Garcia, one of the best players in club history. Garcia had a memorable Summer on the Mexican Women’s World Cup squad and translated it into a fantastic senior season, winning WCC Defensive Player of the Year and All-Region First Team honors. A four-year starter for USD, Garcia also proved to be amazingly effective on offense as a senior, tying for second on the team with five goals, including a pair of game winners.

Fifth-year senior Erika Wesley also departs after making twelve starts for the Toreros in 2011. Wesley had started twenty-six games in three seasons for USD but had missed all of 2010 through injury. She came back strong though, setting career highs for games played and started in her final year with the club. Also gone is utility player Lisa Benito, who saw ten games off the bench last season as a sophomore. The losses have left the squad thin on depth for sure.

The leadership of fifth-year senior Dani Russell will be vital for the club’s hopes in 2012. Russell came back strong from an injury that cost her all of 2010, starting every match for the club last season. Russell also showed she was a threat going forward as well, notching a career high three goals. Given the upheaval around her, her veteran presence will be big for the club this year. The same can be said of another fifth-year senior, Lexi Deol. After redshirting her first year with the club, Deol has gradually turned into a mainstay on the backline. Despite being recruited as a midfielder, the big Ladera Ranch native has been a starter in defense for the past two seasons and started every match for the club last year.

Another senior, Caitlin Williams, is also a strong contender for a starting spot, though she’s nowhere near the sure thing the above two should be. Williams has bounced in and out of the starting lineup for three seasons while accumulating twenty-six starts, but experience still counts for a lot given the relative dearth of it behind her. What those options actually are are up in the air. Sophomores Meghan O’Rourke and Olivia Schultz can play in defense and might be converted from duties further up the pitch, while some of the club’s rookies might also get a look. On the whole, there’s enough senior experience to make sure USD isn’t shown up by opponents, but the lack of depth has to be worrying, especially while the club tries to break in a new goalkeeper.

Midfielders

San Diego’s midfield takes a big hit as well with the loss of the club’s top performer within the unit, Elise Magracia. A four-year starter for the club, Magracia was steady as the mail for the Toreros throughout her career and enjoyed a brilliant season as a senior en route to All-Region Third Team honors. Her three game winning goals led the team, while seven assists were second only to Ochs come season’s end, with four of those assists coming in the club’s first seven games. Also gone is Brooke Hickerson, who only played a bit part early in her USD career before turning into a faithful reserve later in her tenure, making thirteen appearances off the bench and a pair of starts last season for the Toreros.

Sophomore Meghan O’Rourke is the likely leader of this group in 2012, despite just entering her second year with the program. Capable of playing just about anywhere on the pitch, O’Rourke made a big impact as a rookie, starting every match for the club in midfield and up front at stretches. Three goals and three assists was a fine haul for the first-year player, and with all of those goals coming in league play, it was rather easy to see why she was named to the WCC All-Freshman Team.

Senior Sierra Ferreira and junior Lauren Dotson also look like good bets for starting spots this season. Ferreira’s never been able to hold down a starting spot for an entire season thus far in her USD career, but the La Jolla product has still been a handy weapon to have for Greenwood, having made at least five starts in every season of her tenure with the program and a total of twenty-six starts. Ferreira hasn’t been too prolific in front of goal, but the senior still has scored twice in each of the past two seasons. Dotson is a versatile option who started ten games as a rookie in both defense and midfield but was mainly used in the middle of the park last year, making eight starts. Given her versatility, Dotson is likely to land somewhere in the lineup, but considering the needs of the club, just where she ends up isn’t quite known yet.

There could also be room in the starting lineup for senior Mariah Hobbs, one of the club’s top reserves over the past three seasons. A WCC All-Freshman Team selection as a rookie in 2009, Hobbs hasn’t quite been able to parlay that into a stepping off point to jump into the starting lineup consistently. With the club’s losses in midfield though, she might just be able to stick in the first XI as a senior this year.

Also looking for an increased role this season will be utility player Olivia Schultz. A heavily touted U17 international from Minnesota coming into the program last season, Schultz was instead a major disappointment, seeing time in just nine games off the bench as a rookie. Much better will be expected this season, and the sophomore figures to get every opportunity to win a starting spot somewhere given her pedigree. Magracia’s loss is a big one, and with the club short on players experienced as full-time starters and depth as a whole, this unit could struggle.

Forwards

The loss of Ochs looms large over the Toreros, as the departed senior leaves as one of the best the program has ever produced. The WCC Player of the Year and a Second Team All-American last season, Ochs leaves USD having never scored more than eight goals in a season, but that really only tells part of the story. Her presence on the Toreros was massive, naturally drawing tons of defensive pressure towards her. When teams were foolish enough to not harass her constantly, she made them pay, such as in the hat trick game against USC early on or when she scored both goals against Texas in September. She’d be a tremendous distributor down the stretch though, recording fourteen assists come the end of the season after a blistering pace in WCC play. That included three in the win against Santa Clara that clinched a league title for USD, to be followed by assists on every goal the club scored in the NCAA Tournament.

There are multiple options to try and replace her on the roster, though matching her production from last season would be an achievement. Recruited as a bit of a utility player, Mariah Butera instead turned into one of the club’s top options down the stretch. After scoring two goals heading into November, Butera scored against Santa Clara in the WCC finale before netting in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. If she can build on that late season form, USD might have another offensive star, though you figure she’ll have to deal with much more defensive attention this season.

Another option is junior Kelley McCloskey, who split time between defense and attack last year. In all, she started nineteen games but was of limited impact offensively, with just two goals. The potential is there though, as evidenced by five assists as a rookie in 2010. Given her versatility and the club’s defensive issues, she might be needed to shore up the backline though.

Greenwood will also be hoping for a star turn for junior Taylor Housley, who has shown glimpses of real potential in two seasons thus far. Expectations were certainly high going into 2011 after Housley had had a smashing debut with five goals to her name in 2010. Matching that pace was tough though, as Housley wasn’t an automatic first choice, starting twelve matches for USD. She would see her goals total dip to three last year, though all were huge, the first two against Loyola Marymount in a 2-1 win and the last coming against UC Irvine in the NCAA Tournament.

Reserves Erica Peeples and Devany Savage will also be vying for increased time this year. Peeples had made a big splash as a rookie in 2009 with four goals in a super sub role but missed all of 2010 through injury and only made eight appearances off the bench last season while not scoring a point. Savage also had a promising rookie season, with three goals and two assists in 2010 but saw her role decrease last year. She also failed to make a start, coming off the bench in ten games while also not scoring a point.

Replacing everything Ochs brought to the program figures to be nigh-impossible in the short-term for San Diego. Butera has the potential to turn into a fine WCC striker, but she’s still very young and will have to adjust to the pressures of being a top option. The likes of McCloskey and Housley have also shown flashes but will also need to step up if the Toreros’ offense is to not sputter. Without Ochs though, this group will likely suffer a drop off of some extent.

Outlook

After the rise comes the fall in all likelihood for the Toreros, who will need a gargantuan step forward by their returnees to retain their WCC title. Losing one of the league’s best from every unit on the pitch usually isn’t a good omen, and such a fate awaits San Diego this season. It’d be one thing if Greenwood’s side had a lot of depth and a big class of recruits waiting to try and fill the gaps, but it appears that he has neither this season.

The roster posted as of press time has just eighteen players to show, and all it might take is an untimely injury or two to send the club spiraling downwards this year. There are some bright spots like Butera, Russell, and O’Rourke, but overall, the Toreros look like a club that might struggle to rise above mid-table in the WCC this season. A return to the NCAA Tournament isn’t out of the question, but San Diego will have to work very hard for it.

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