AWK’s 2012 NCAA Soccer Preview – Tennessee – Lady Vols Hope To Make Big Noise in Pensky’s First Season on Rocky Top

Caroline Brown

Caroline Brown Will Be Aiming For Another Big Season in Front of Goal

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 Diego | San Francisco | St. Mary’s (CA)

The reign of Angela Kelly at the head of the Tennessee Lady Vols soccer program reached its terminus shortly after the 2011 season. Just not in the manner many might have expected, with Kelly trading up and landing in Austin to try and revitalize Texas’ fortunes. The long-time boss of the program had endured an up and down season in her final season in charge in Knoxville but one that was likely a lot more rewarding than some of the recent campaigns for the Big Orange.

The team entered 2011 coming off a season where they had vaulted their way up to third in the standings a year after having to fight just to make the SEC Tournament. But the common thread tying 2010 and 2009 together in Knoxville had been the club’s absence from the NCAA Tournament. 2009 had been a case of poor league form, while 2010 had been almost the opposite, with a dismal non-conference campaign doing the damage. The mini-drought from the NCAA Tournament marked a swift fall from grace for what was once once one of the South’s premier programs.

After ex-Tar Heel Kelly took charge before the 2000 season, the Lady Vols spent much of the year pillaging the SEC, taking home three straight league titles and three SEC Tournament titles from 2002-2005. Tennessee’s yearly battle for dominance in the league with Florida (and occasionally Auburn) was fascinating stuff, and the Vols proved they could hang with most teams on the national level as well, making five Sweet Sixteens in six years from 2002-2007. They weren’t quite on the level of the elite programs, but Tennessee was still a quality Top 20 team year in and year out.

But something happened to Tennessee at the end of the 2007 season that cut a deep wound into the psyche of the program. With a chance to win the SEC title with a win in Athens against Georgia, the Lady Vols were humiliated in a 3-0 defeat that could have been worse than the scoreline indicated. UT was then dumped out in swift fashion in the SEC Tournament. The Lady Vols did recover to make the Sweet Sixteen that season, but it’s never really been the same in the three years since the team’s title capitulation. 2008 was a veritable horror show, and Tennessee was fortunate to make a miracle run through the SEC Tournament to win the league’s auto bid, keeping their NCAA Tournament streak alive.

There would be no such miracles in 2009 as Tennessee struggled to eighth in the league, achieved their lowest ever win total under Kelly, and finished under .500 for the second straight season. While it was hard to argue with the trophy haul Kelly had brought into Knoxville since taking over as coach, there still had to be some uneasiness going into 2010 at the general direction the program was headed. Non-conference play was uninspiring, with the club’s defense looking like a sieve most of the time. The club did recover to bag third in the league but were upset in the opening round of the SEC Tournament by LSU and weren’t close to an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

The team’s recent postseason failures were no doubt beginning to ring hollow in Knoxville as the 2011 season started. It became quickly apparent that the club’s non-conference form wouldn’t be a problem. Two wins in Big XII country against Kansas and Oklahoma were followed by a battling defeat to a powerful UCLA squad. Tennessee would rebound by winning their final five games before SEC play, including a 1-0 win over Texas A&M that surely marked the club’s biggest win in a long while.

With some talking of a potential title run, hopes were dampened early by two losses in their first three, though a 4-2 win over Florida in Knoxville was the team’s saving grace early. While the club’s form would oscillate a bit down the stretch, they still managed to win six of eight in the SEC to close out the regular season, bagging third place in the league for the second straight year. The difference in 2011 was that the pressure to perform in the SEC Tournament to boost the team into the NCAA Tournament wasn’t overwhelming, with the Lady Vols all but locked into the field going into Orange Beach.

UT would avenge one of their regular season defeats in the opening round by beating Kentucky and advancing out of the first round for the first time since 2008. That’d be it for them though, as they were upset by Auburn in the semi-finals, cutting short the club’s bid for their first major trophy since 2008’s SEC Tournament crown. Come Selection Monday, the Lady Vols seemed to be sitting pretty after earning an unexpected national seed and the right to host an Ohio State team that some felt didn’t deserve to be in the field.

But UT did nothing to silence the critics who had argued that the national seed was generous, laying an egg in Knoxville against the Buckeyes. How bad of a performance was it? The 3-0 loss was the worse by a seeded team in the first round of the tournament in nearly two and a half decades. It was a bitter end to the season and to an era, as Kelly departed for Austin late in the year. While the Lady Vols’ success in recent seasons hasn’t quite matched the high standards set by a hungry fanbase, the reason those high standards existed in the first place was on account of the hard work Kelly accomplished in turning UT into a contender and bringing home no small amount of silverware to Knoxville.

Replacing such a figure was never going to be easy, and Tennessee’s insistence on making a splash made an announcement slow in coming. But the Lady Vols did indeed turn heads with the appointment of their new head coach. Brian Pensky comes in after resurrecting a Maryland program that had fallen on hard times before he had taken over. The Terps have been one of the ACC’s most consistently dangerous programs in recent seasons, and Pensky’s move to Knoxville could end up being a major coup for the Lady Vols. If anything, the new boss will likely be relieved that he isn’t inheriting a situation as bad as the one in College Park when he took over the Maryland program.

It’s not a bad situation by any means. While some of the program’s top recruits for this 2012 class followed Kelly to Austin, Pensky made an immediate show of the program’s intent under his stewardship by luring over New Zealand international forward Hannah Wilkinson, one of this year’s top international recruits and one that had previously been slated to play under Pensky at Maryland. The thought of Tennessee gaining another top notch weapon can’t be one that’s very comforting to the club’s SEC rivals considering the club also returns junior Caroline Brown.

Though she’s the only returnee with more than four goals, Brown enjoyed a breakout season as a sophomore, including a blistering first half of the year, where she looked like one of the nation’s best forwards. Lady Vol fans have to be salivating over what a Brown-Wilkinson combination could do in attack this season. Not that UT had a bad defense last season. Far from it in fact. The Lady Vols actually had the second best goals conceded record in the SEC and overall gave up less than a goal a game. With the scheduled return of eight starters and perhaps some fresh impetus at the top, the future again likes quite bright in Knoxville.

Goalkeepers

Tennessee entered the 2011 season with no shortage of uncertainty in between the pipes having graduated a senior starter but exited it with their goalkeeper of the future in Julie Eckel. An intriguing prospect coming into the new season, Eckel quickly proved her worth as a rookie by all but monopolizing the minutes in goal and earning SEC All-Freshman Team honors come season’s end. Eckel could well challenge for many of the program’s goalkeeping records by the time her tenure on Rocky Top is up, and the Cordova native will be looking to build on last season’s success this year.

With Eckel so entrenched in goal, minutes for the other keepers on the roster will likely be sparse and hard to come by. Senior RB Wyatt would probably get the nod out of seniority’s sake if nothing else, though the South Carolina product has made just two appearances in relief during her stay in Knoxville. Junior Jessica Rolfs is equally inexperienced, making her first and only appearance in goal last season in mop-up duty in the blowout win over Charlotte. Redshirt freshman Hannah Steadman came from the same class as Eckel but was hurt in the preseason and now finds herself buried on the depth chart. Though there’s basically no experienced depth to speak of, Pensky inherits a great goalkeeping situation with the steady Eckel likely giving the new boss little to worry about for the next three seasons.

Defenders

Considering they had to replace quite a bit of starting experience going into last season, Tennessee did very well for themselves in defense last year. The situation is much better going into 2012, with the Lady Vols set to return all of last year’s starters on the backline. The club does take a hit with depth somewhat with the loss of a pair of reserves though. Hannah Hut had made nineteen starts in two seasons but saw her role decrease as an upperclassman, seeing just four appearances off the bench as a junior. Hut did start the club’s first four matches in defense but was then lost for the rest of the season after suffering a high ankle sprain against Texas A&M. Also gone is Chelsea Kephart, who began her career at Georgia Southern before coming to Tennessee and starting eleven games as a junior. She’d see more time in a reserve role last season but is still a loss that must be accounted for nonetheless.

Naturally, expectations are very high for this group this season with all the starters set to return. The group’s senior leader is Ali Hall, who had stamped out a starting spot as a sophomore until being felled by a foot injury in SEC play. Hall would return with a vengeance last season though despite missing the club’s first four games. The Illinois native ended up starting seventeen games after her return and should again be a key part of the defense this year.

Junior Tori Bailey may be one of DI’s shortest players at just 5’0″, but the Fenton product made a smooth transition to defense last year after seeing time in midfield and attack as a rookie. Bailey would start every match last season and played all but thirty-eight possible minutes for the strong UT defense. The 2011 SEC All-Tournament Team selection would only score once last season but made it a timely goal, a late winner against state rivals Vanderbilt. Classmate Caroline Capocaccia only played thirteen minutes as a rookie but blossomed nicely into a starter for the club last season, making seventeen starts as a sophomore. With a full season of starting duty under her belt, she could grow further into a key role in defense for the club.

The last likely starter for the club is Ohio native Allie Sirna, one of the club’s top recruits last season who proved more than ready for DI level during a fine rookie season. Sirna started every game on defense for the club and was an absolute workhorse for the Lady Vols last season, missing just fourteen minutes all season. Sirna still has a lot of potential and could grow into one of the league’s steadiest defenders.

There’s some decent options off the bench as well. Big Canadian Alison Clarke came into Knoxville as a U17 international and started four games early but only saw mop-up duty in SEC play as the backline solidified for the Lady Vols. She still has a ton of potential though and may yet make a big impact at this level. Pensky also made a shrewd addition to the ranks by bringing in transfer Ashlee Burt. Burt had been a three-year starter at Miami (FL) nabbing a few game winners in her time with the Hurricanes. That experience should serve a still young UT defense well, and Burt could also see time in midfield.

Considering this group operated without a senior starter last season, they did remarkably well in a very offensive league. With another year to gel and the starting back four set to return along with a couple of nice depth players, this unit could well challenge for the title of the SEC’s best defense come year’s end.

Midfielders

Tennessee’s midfield also returns a pair of starters, though the club still must make up for the departure of Emily Shore. Once a defender for the Lady Vols, Shore emerged as a starter in midfield over the course of her career and also doubled as the club’s set piece specialist. Those duties helped her rack up five assists in 2010, which would be three more than the rest of her career combined. Shore would record just one assist last season but still ended up starting eighteen games, only missing a handful in the league thanks to a sprained ankle. Also departing are Finnish attacker Sanna Saarinen, who combined for two goals and five assists in two seasons as a key attacking reserve for the club, and Lara Langworthy, another Lady Vol capable in either defense or midfield who finished her career as a reserve after starting for much of the 2009 season in midfield.

The twin presence of seniors Kylie Bono and Amy Harrison should ensure this group doesn’t slip too much though. Bono’s been a revelation for UT in each of the past few seasons in the midfield. After an impressive five goal season as a sophomore, Bono turned into a quality provider, racking up seven assists on the season. She was red hot in non-conference play, with three goals and three assists before dishing out three in the SEC and one against Kentucky in the SEC Tournament. As the likely top option on offense in midfield this year, Pensky will hope the goals and assists keep coming from the senior.

Harrison, a Canadian, has been one of the team’s constants the past three seasons, racking up fifty-seven starts for the Knoxville side. The Winnipeg native hasn’t been able to match her great rookie year of two goals and four assists, but she still managed to knock home three goals last year, including the winner against Auburn in the regular season. Who joins that duo on the starting unit remains to be seen. Lexi Krause was one of the club’s top reserves as a freshman last season but didn’t log a start and provided very little offensively.

Other returning options are sparse though. If some of the rookies can’t make an impact, it might come down to Florida State transfer CC Cobb. A top reserve for the Seminoles as a rookie, Cobb ended up seeing her minutes dip markedly last year, making only seven appearances. Depth isn’t exactly great though, so Cobb could be right in the mix for a starting job given her DI experience. Bono and Harrison should be one of the league’s most quietly effective midfield duos, but if Pensky can’t find some others to step up, it could make for some anxious moments, especially with the thin depth in this unit.

Forwards

The Tennessee frontline takes the deepest losses from attrition this year but may actually be best equipped to deal with those losses thanks to what returns and some additions to the ranks. Pensky must find a suitable replacement for the departed Emily Dowd who saw her goal total rise for the club every season in her collegiate career. After two modest seasons in Knoxville, Dowd broke out in a big way in 2010 with seven goals to her name in seventeen starts.

The best was to come in her senior season though, as she earned All-Region Second Team honors after a blistering twelve goal, seven assist campaign. Dowd would net six goals and four assists in the league, including a stretch of five goals in five games. Included in her great seasons were braces over Middle Tennessee State, Coastal Carolina, and Arkansas as she paced UT up front.

Also gone is Chelsea Hatcher, who started sixty-five matches over the course of her four-year career with the club. A high volume shooter (sometimes to her detriment), Hatcher was perhaps best known for possessing one of the college game’s most powerful shots, best exemplified by a stunning blast against Auburn in the league season. She’d be a main provider early, with four assists in the first weeks of the season before scoring four goals against league opponents despite missing the game against Kentucky in the regular season.

All is not lost offensively though given the return of Brown for her junior season. A midfield reserve as a rookie, Brown had shown tantalizing glimpses of talents, including scoring a pair of goals in the league in 2010, but for the most part, seemed like a player with more potential than production going into 2011. One breakout season later, and Brown suddenly looks like being one of the league’s top attacking threats. She’d start her sophomore season out on fire, scoring seven goals in eight non-conference games to catch the attention of many. The beginning of SEC play was fruitful as well, with three goals and four assists in the club’s first five league games.

She’d hit a wall later on though, with just a goal and an assist in the team’s final nine games as fatigue took its toll. More used to the travails of being a full-time starter, Pensky will be hoping she can finish as strongly as she started last year, with UT’s hopes largely riding on her shoulders this year.

Finding her partners up top figures to be the challenging part for the new head coach this season. Alexis Owens delivered one of the greatest single-game performances in program history against Florida last season, scoring a hat trick to shock the Gators in Knoxville. It was the club’s first hat trick in over nine seasons and one that had Owens winning many plaudits. The senior though remained a super sub for the most part, having played fifty-five games in her career thus far but having only started eight matches. Goals haven’t come easily either, despite the Florida game, as those three goals were one more than she had the rest of her career combined! At the very least though, Owens provides good depth throughout every unit of the pitch with her versatility.

Sophomore Iyana Moore was a highly touted recruit coming into Knoxville last season but was a bit of a disappointment overall. She only made ten appearances overall, all from off the bench, and finished without a goal though she had two assists. With the ranks having been thinned out a bit, Moore will likely still be in the frame for more minutes this year.

Most eyes though will be on newcomer Wilkinson, one of New Zealand’s bright young hopes for the future. Already a full international with double digit caps for the Ferns, Wilkinson was a starter at the Olympics for her country and is a major recruiting coup for the Lady Vols. The big forward should be a handful for opposing defenses with her size and skill and makes for a potentially lethal combination with Brown. The problem for Pensky and UT though is that Wilkinson is still age eligible for New Zealand’s U20 team and is a no-brainer for the Ferns’ squad for the finals in Japan. After quite a full Summer of soccer, it remains to be seen how Wilkinson holds up in the rough and tumble SEC, but if she even reaches a fraction of her potential this season, opponents could be in for some trouble.

Pensky makes another addition via the transfer market by bringing in junior Katie Lenz from West Virginia. Lenz has found herself buried on the depth chart in Morgantown, unable to crack the lineup as anything more than a reserve in two seasons with the Mountaineers. She had four assists last season but has just one goal to her name, with Pensky hoping that a change of scenery will be all that’s needed to get her firing again.

Brown’s got the potential to be one of the league’s very best, and the same could be said for a Brown-Wilkinson partnership. With Wilkinson not likely to be with the club until a month into the season though, that duo might need some time to gel up front. With the general lack of depth the club has in attack, that could be problematic.

Outlook

The name at the top for Tennessee may have changed, but that shouldn’t keep this side from being a pretty dangerous one in 2012. The defense should be solid as a rock with Eckel returning in goal and the impressive back four coming back intact. The midfield looks in decent shape with Bono and Harrison adding experience and drive, though depth could be a problem, which could really be said of most units on this Lady Vols team. Brown should be a dangerous threat again up top, but UT’s offense may really depend on how fast her partnership with Wilkinson can get going when the latter comes back from the U20 World Cup.

The core on the whole is young but very talented, and last season’s performance should be a fine stepping off point for this program over the next few years. Depth does look like the club’s biggest issue, with Pensky likely hoping that he hits a home run with a few of his transfers coming in. If not, a couple of injuries or bad seasons could easily scuttle this club’s ceiling in 2012. If everything goes their way though, UT might just end up being a deep sleeper for a longshot run at an SEC title. At the very least though, they should have a great chance of winning the club’s first NCAA Tournament match in ages come November.

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