AWK’s 2012 NCAA Soccer Preview – Georgia – Stuck In The Middle

Alexa Newfield

Georgia Junior Alexa Newfield Will Look To Provide The Fireworks 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 | Notre Dame | 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 | Tennessee | Vanderbilt
WCC – BYU | Gonzaga | Loyola Marymount | Portland | San Diego | San Francisco | St. Mary’s (CA)

After a first season of new management that had been more false start than fresh start, normal service was resumed in Athens, as Georgia qualified for their fourth NCAA Tournament in five seasons and even won a match in the competition to boot. Head coach Steve Holeman had much to make up for after a season that had seen the club slip off the bubble on Selection Monday and miss out on the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006. Though UGA did get back on song last year, the Bulldogs are still looking for their first major trophy, desperately trying to buck the tag of being one of the nation’s biggest programs without a piece of silverware to their name.

While results have improved markedly over the past half-decade, Georgia still largely plays second fiddle to the fierce rivals Florida, along with upstarts South Carolina and LSU. Georgia started out as a respectable side in the mid-nineties that managed to make it to the Sweet Sixteen in 1998 but never really threatened for league titles or other silverware in the five year reign of Bill Barker. After some success at Minnesota, Sue Patberg journeyed down to UGA to try and get the Bulldogs over the hump. But consistency for UGA in the Patberg era was never a strong suit and the Bulldogs bounced up and down the SEC table with regularity.
Patberg led Georgia to two appearance in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, but she also saw the team to two losing seasons, including a year where the program bottomed out at 4-9-5 in 2004, leading to yet another change at the top of ticket for the Bulldogs.

The next five years were marked by a rise towards the upper reaches of the SEC but also by some crushing failures just as the program seemed to be set to take the next step towards the elite of the league. 2007 saw UGA come tantalizingly close to a shock league title, as the program beat Florida for the first time in program history and finished just behind the Gators in the final league table. Georgia would get to the SEC Tournament final as well but were spanked by a Florida team desperate for revenge. The Bulldogs would find little solace in the NCAA Tournament either, being upset by opportunistic Duke in the second round.

2008 saw Georgia sink back to .500 after playing a suicidal non-conference schedule and needing a rally through the SEC Tournament to make it back to the Big Dance. UGA ended up playing well towards the end of the season and made it to the SEC Tournament final for the second year running but were dealt a stunning defeat at the hands of a Tennessee team they had beaten easily a little more than a week earlier. The Bulldogs would be humbled further in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, dropping a match to CAA side James Madison.

At this point, the program seemed to sink into decline. 2009 may have seen UGA make it back to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, but they were also crushed by LSU in Baton Rouge, 6-0, and also dealt damaging losses by sides like Ole Miss and Auburn. With a veteran side, mid-table and elimination at the quarterfinal stage in the SEC Tournament was very much against expectations going into the season.

That the head coaching job came open in the spring may have been a bit of a shock at the time, but many thought some new blood in the hot seat could do the program some good. That that new face was Ole Miss boss Holeman was certainly not expected, as most believed a promotion from within was in the cards. Holeman certainly knew the territory having been a long-time coach in the SEC with Auburn and Ole Miss and had overachieved with the Rebels at times. But considering the lack of trophies he had brought to Oxford, it was a bit of an eyebrow raising appointment, especially for a program aspiring for a rise into the nation’s elite.

With a strong recruiting class being inherited for his first season in charge, some tipped Holeman’s side to be a real wild card in the SEC despite having to account for some serious losses from the previous season’s side. Despite having their moments at times in non-conference play, the club struggled to put together significant wins and were frighteningly inefficient in front of goal despite not losing any of their first seven in the league. A long line of draws left Georgia precariously placed heading into the stretch run, and losing three of their final four in the regular season left much work needing to be done in the SEC Tournament. In the end, one win in the competition didn’t cut it, and Georgia found itself on the outside looking in, with too many opportunities to add to their profile having been spurned.

The lingering effects of that disappointment seemed to hang around the program heading into 2011, and the first homestand of the season was marked by back-to-back defeats to Texas and Villanova, results that would loom large later on as fortunes for both soured. But Georgia used a hard fought 2-1 win on the road at Minnesota to kick their season into gear, and the Bulldogs won their next five to build some momentum heading into the league. 2-2-0 in the first two weekends of the SEC season made for a tepid start, but the club still had managed to beat eventual league champs South Carolina, proving to be the Gamecocks’ bogey club once again.

The Bulldogs would do what they couldn’t a season earlier, mopping up against the league’s bottom tier clubs, winning their next four but making heavy work of it at some points, including needing to come back from three behind at home to Mississippi State. A win at Kentucky had been a major boost though, and the club looked to be in a position to solidify their place in the NCAA Tournament field with a strong finish to the regular season. That finish never came though. Still in with an outside shot at a shock league title, the club folded in the final two weeks of the regular season.

A scoreless draw at Auburn was followed by two points dropped at home against Alabama. Now seeing themselves begin to slide into bubble trouble, Georgia badly needed a win against Tennessee in the regular season finale. But in a game that was delayed a day due to floodlight failure, Georgia put up one of their worst performances of the year in a limp 2-0 defeat. Fifth in the league doesn’t usually buy one a first round matchup against Florida in the SEC Tournament, but this wasn’t a typical SEC season, and Georgia found itself potentially needing a win over their heated rivals to avoid another Selection Monday calamity. It’d be their fourth match in a row without a win though, as the Bulldogs were eliminated with a 2-0 loss.

Happily for UGA supporters, coaches, and players, the club’s wins over South Carolina and Kentucky had probably saved its bacon, and Georgia headed back for the NCAA Tournament. A first round match against Kansas promised fireworks, but Georgia’s defense were the heroines of the day, shutting down the powerful Jayhawk attack in a 2-0 win.

Duke outclassed the Bulldogs in Durham though, easing past Georgia in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in a 3-1 win. Georgia supporters may still be waiting for the team’s big breakthrough towards joining the league’s elite, but at least the club was making forward strides again in 2011 with the NCAA Tournament win probably going some way in washing away some of the memories of the team’s late season struggles.

The eternal question as always with this program is whether this will be the year the club becomes more than mid-table makeweights. It’s been a question asked all too frequently with the Bulldogs having been in the middle of the pack for much of the past half-decade stretching back to 2007’s SEC title near miss. On paper, the Athens side loses just three starters from last year’s side, but with one of those starters being the club’s best defender, All-Region Third Team member Bailey Powell, and another being the club’s steadiest player in midfield, All-Region Second Team member Jamie Pollock, things for UGA become a little bit more unsettled. The other starter lost is senior forward Ashley Miller, who happened to be the club’s second leading scorer.

It means that the Bulldogs return just one player who scored more than three goals last season. Of course, that player is junior Alexa Newfield, meaning Georgia should be in with a chance of winning most of their matches this season. Newfield had already impressed with eight goals and four assists as a rookie but made a quantum leap forward last season by doubling both those numbers and finishing with sixteen goals and eight assists, including nine goals in the league. The All-American candidate is a prime contender for SEC Offensive Player of the Year honors this year and will be crucial to the club’s hopes for success.

So to will be senior goalkeeper Ashley Baker, an England U23 international. Having made steady improvement in her collegiate career, Baker should be one of the league’s best keepers again and will be needed in all likelihood to make some big saves against some of the relentless firepower of opposing SEC offenses.

Goalkeepers

After two seasons spent as understudy to current New York Fury goalkeeper Michelle Betos, Baker has come into her own as one of the league’s top netminders. After some wobbles early on as a starter in 2010, Baker put together an altogether more consistent effort last year en route to All-Region Third Team honors. A great shot stopper with a big leg and a fine command of her area, Baker will hope to work her way into the mix for the full England WNT in the future. She’ll likely settle for being a prime contender for being the SEC’s top keeper in 2012 as a senior though.

There’s precious little in reserve behind her though. Sophomore Caitlin Woody would appear to be the top backup but came in relatively unheralded and has played just a little more than half an hour in two seasons. Other options that Holeman hopes he won’t have to use this season include sophomores Callie Corbin Langford and Kathleen Eastman. Baker should again be one of the best in the league, making this an area of strength for Georgia.

Defenders

Georgia finished in the upper-half of the league in SEC goals allowed and return three-fourths of last year’s starting defense, but the one starting loss is a big one. Departed center-back Bailey Powell was a four-year starter for the club who shook off some injury woes from the middle of her career to start all but one match as a senior last season. A towering presence in defense, Powell maybe wasn’t as strong a target on set pieces as one might expect of someone her size but still managed to knock in an odd goal or two from corners while also delivering long free kicks into the box with her powerful leg. Also gone is reserve Riliegh McHugh, a one-time top recruit for the club who ended up being a major bust, seeing sparse minutes last year after not playing as a rookie and transferring to Pittsburgh in the offseason.

The club’s best defender might also be one that’s not there for the first month of the season, as full-back Nikki Hill awaits her fate as to Canada’s U20 World Cup roster. One of the club’s top reserves as a rookie, Hill gracefully slid into the team’s starting left-back role and was an assured presence both in defense and bombing up the line to support the attack. Also capable on the right in a pinch, Hill is one of the club’s brightest prospects, and missing her for the first month of the season would be a huge blow to take for this defense.

Senior Rebekah Perry figures to occupy the opposite flank and comes into the new season as a three-year starter. Initially a right midfielder in the old regime’s 4-4-2, Perry made the transition to full-back as a sophomore in 2010 and has turned into a reliable SEC defender over the past two seasons. Though not a huge threat offensively, Perry can still get up and down the line and should be a source of valuable senior leadership this year.

If Hill is gone on international duty or either of the club’s first choice full-backs need a breather, the responsibilities could fall to junior Torri Allen. Allen came into the club as one of the program’s most highly touted recruits in a long while, having been a U18 international with vast youth international experience. The Virginian’s progress has stalled a bit though, not helped in any manner by the club’s insistence on moving her around on the pitch in many different positions. A center-back for much of 2010, Allen instead found herself playing just about everywhere on the backline last season while also even seeing time up front as a wide forward. At first blush, Allen doesn’t appear to have the finishing ability to be a full-time option up front, meaning her future may lay back in defense. With experience at center-back, she might be the solution to the void left by Powell’s departure.

At any rate, one of the center-back slots will likely be filled by fifth-year senior Jenna Buckley. Though a high school ACL injury robbed her of her blinding pace, Buckley has now entrenched herself into a starting role with a penchant for crunching tackles. Starting twenty games last year, Buckley also pitched in with three assists for the club, including one in the win against Kansas in the NCAA Tournament. Her experience will be an asset, but it remains to be seen how she responds to a new partner at center-back.

Holeman may be hoping to get some early mileage out of some of the club’s freshman recruits as well. A long-time captain of the state ODP team, Elizabeth Johnson comes in with ODP national camp experience and has been touted as a player with excellent leadership qualities and good size and strength by Holeman. Fellow freshman Tori Patterson comes in as a Jamaican youth international who competed for her nation in 2010 U17 World Cup qualifying. The New York native is a strong presence in the middle with nice composure and decision making and should also contend for time immediately.

There’s not a star amongst this group, though Hill comes closest, but there’s experience, which certainly counts for something in the hectic SEC. There’s a sizable hole to fill in the middle and potentially out wide for the first month of the season, but if Holeman finds a solution, Georgia should again be in the top half of the league defensively.

Midfielders

There’s work to do in midfield for Holeman and co. with the loss of Pollock, the team’s anchor in the middle of the park for the past few seasons. Pollock leaves as a four-year starter in the midfield, albeit in slightly different roles along the way. Often playing in the hole in the 4-4-2 diamond the club utilized before the 2010 season, Pollock instead was one of the club’s defensive midfielders in the 4-3-3 from her junior season on. A threat with her long-range shooting ability, Pollock’s more defensive role never allowed her to match her six goal haul from 2009, but the Powder Springs native’s energy and drive from midfield was invaluable last season, making her a hard component to replace for Georgia this season.

Also gone is part-time starter Ashley Miller, who juggled appearances as the club’s attacking midfielder with time spent up front in her more natural forward position. Usually good for a handful of goals a season, Miller overcome a fitful junior season to rebound with five goals to be the club’s second leading scorer. The goals did run a bit dry in the league though, with Miller only scoring once, which left the club reliant on Newfield for scoring.

The omens certainly haven’t started out well for the Bulldogs heading into 2012. Junior Laura Eddy, who missed all of last season with an ACL injury suffered in preseason, will miss another year after suffering another torn ACL over the offseason. Once the SEC Freshman of the Year in 2009 with her silky dribbling from center-back tantalizing UGA supporters and terrorizing opponents, Eddy moved higher up onto the pitch as a midfielder and occasional forward as a sophomore. But with two serious knee injuries, her career very much hangs in the balance, with her continued absence another big blow for this midfield.

Galvanizing the midfield in a defensive role will be junior Nicole Locandro, who won a starting job as a rookie and scored five goals while adding five assists. Playing in more of a withdrawn role last year, Locandro started every game for the club while scoring three times. More gangly than hulking at 5’10”, it remains to be seen if the junior can be an effective physical stopper in the middle of the park without Pollock’s energy beside her.

The club will also be hoping for a strong senior season from Tennessee native Susannah Dennis. A maddeningly inconsistent player for three seasons, the former youth international has shown a penchant for wildly fluctuating form, at times looking like the best player on the pitch while at others not making an impression at all. Capable either as an attacking midfielder or even in a center forward role in a pinch, Dennis has the goalscoring ability to be the club’s much desired second scoring option. Now, it’s just a matter of the coaching staff getting that form out of her on a consistent basis.

The lack of other proven options has to be a bit worrying though. Sophomore Tori Cooper worked her way into the rotation as the year went on, but a penchant for hard and sometimes reckless fouls means she may still be best used off the bench as an energy player. There are high hopes for redshirt freshman Bella Hartley, who was one of the club’s top recruits going into last year but who missed the entire season through injury. Hartley can also play up front, though her attacking nature might also unbalance an already offensive looking midfield further.

Another contender for big minutes early could by true freshman Liliana Rios, a newcomer purported to be comfortable in possession while also possessing fine vision to help out with distribution. There’s potential from the returnees in this unit, but a lack of consistency means this group could struggle at times and is the clear weak point for Georgia this year.

Forwards

This group basically returns intact, which is good for depth purposes, but the real boon of course is getting Newfield back for her junior season. The Atlanta native set the single season record for points at the program with forty and is on pace to destroy the school’s offensive record books by the time she graduates after the 2013 season. Seemingly most comfortable operating on the left wing in attack, Newfield loves to cut inside and rip shots at goal, buoyed by her deadly long-range shooting ability.

That’s not to say Newfield isn’t a great penalty area predator, as the third-year player has a penchant of showing up unmarked in the area and is not bad in the air either. The junior ended up ripping up SEC defenses for nine goals in eleven league games and finished with seven game winning goals. Newfield ended up going five-for-five from the penalty spot to supplant her goal total, while few defenses were able to keep her totally silent. Tellingly though, Florida held her pointless in both of their meetings, while Newfield also failed to score against top league contenders LSU, Auburn, and Tennessee.

The livewire forward did score both goals in the win over South Carolina though, and some of those scoring outages has to come down to opponents swarming over her with other scoring options not presenting themselves. Newfield was only beginning to work her way back into match shape at the beginning of the Summer though after surgery to repair a meniscus, only heightening the need for the club to develop other scoring options.

One of the top contenders to emerge as a secondary scoring option is sophomore Jenna Owens, another member of the club’s pipeline from Colorado and an impressive rookie last year. After recovering from an early shoulder injury, Owens stamped out a spot in the lineup and emerged as a dangerous threat down the right with her energy and drive. Despite being a real nuisance to defenses and finishing with five assists, there was little endproduct in Owens’ forays towards goal, as she finished with just two goals. While there’s great potential for the SEC All-Freshman pick, a quantum leap forward in goal production is not a given.

A contender to spearhead the formation is junior Carli Shultis. Showing no small degree of potential as a rookie in 2010 with a handful of assists to her name, Shultis won the center forward job for much of the SEC season. Her return in front of goal was poor though, with no goals in her sophomore season.

Another junior, Meghan Gibbons, had a fine freshman season with eight goals, though that number was inflated with many a goal against dubious competition early in the season. Last year saw Gibbons unable to crack the starting lineup for most of the year while staying mired in a horrendous slump for much of the first few months of the season with just one goal in the club’s first thirteen games while going seven games without a shot on goal at one point. Back-to-back games with goals against Ole Miss and Vanderbilt gave hope to a revival, but it never came, with the Texan finishing with just three goals. It remains to be seen if the third-year player can develop into more than a solid bench option.

Another of the club’s top reserves these past few seasons, junior Madeline Barker, scored a pair of game winning goals off the bench last season and could be an option down the flanks if she isn’t utilized as a reserve again for her energy and pace. Nigerian junior Chika Ibiam walked onto the squad last season and made strides in the Spring and provides extra depth, along with sophomore Madison Meyers.

If it seems like there’s a logjam around Newfield in attack, keep in mind the club also adds some talented rookies who could steal time early. Andie Fontanetta is arguably this class’ top player for the Bulldogs and comes from the powerhouse PDA club team in New Jersey with whom Fontanetta starred in ECNL action. An aggressive and determined forward, Fontanetta might be a solution at the top of the formation for Georgia. Also joining up is Cara Smith, a speedy attacker who loves to run at defenders and who could be of use down the flanks. Smith was still making her way back last year from an ACL injury suffered as a junior, meaning she might hit her stride coming into the college ranks and should be an intriguing threat off the bench at least.

There’s no doubting who the star of the show in Athens is though. Newfield’s going to shoot and shoot a lot for Georgia, which considering her talent, isn’t a bad thing. But against the very top clubs, the Bulldogs are going to need more than one capable weapon in their arsenal if Newfield is to avoid being swarmed out of the match. There are no end of options available to Holeman, but it’s uncertain if any contain enough of a cutting edge to be a bona fide and reliable #2 option in front of goal.

Outlook

One of the great mysteries of DI college soccer is how a club with three of the last six SEC Freshman of the Year award winners and twelve All-SEC Freshman Team members in the past six seasons could still be without a major trophy. In truth, Georgia hasn’t come close to ending that drought over the past three seasons, with the club’s last close shave coming in the 2008 SEC Tournament final defeat. The end result has been being tagged with a reputation as a program that’s a whole lot better at recruiting talent than developing it, with the stagnation in form of some of those young stars serving as prime evidence to those charges.

Newfield has been the exception to the rule in large part, and Georgia’s best chance at a major trophy might be this season, while the club still has her and Baker in tandem on the roster. The Bulldogs’ defense looks solid, but the midfield looks like a liability, while the one-dimensionality of the offense probably precludes them from a run at the league title. Granted, that one dimension, Newfield, is pretty good, and Georgia’s best hope may be that she gets hot in Orange Beach for a potential SEC Tournament run. Progress beyond mid-table in the league and the second round of the NCAA Tournament, AKA the usual in Athens, looks to be hard to come by this season though.

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