NCAA Soccer – (Quick) 2013 Atlantic Sun Preview

Atlantic Sun fans hoping for an upset in the predictable order at the top of the league with Florida Gulf Coast’s rise are probably going to be disappointed once again this season, with the Eagles likely to begin as comfortable favorites to retain their crown.  FGCU’s made the league their plaything of late, and with rivals Mercer and East Tennessee State suffering some notable losses, little appears to be different this year.  The real scramble could be behind them with Kennesaw State and Jacksonville looking to pounce, while the bottom half of the division looks to fight their way into the playoff places come season’s end.

FAVORITES

Florida Gulf Coast have made Division I look very, very easy so far since their move to the Atlantic Sun.  Three straight league titles, two straight A-Sun Tournament titles, and the title of one of the fastest rising mid-major programs in the Southeast have all been the doing of head coach Jim Blankenship, who turned FGCU into a program of repute, long before Fort Myers became “Dunk City”.  The Eagles had a fairly successful non-conference season last year with wins over the likes of FIU and Tulsa and mostly cruised through league play despite losing their first A-Sun match since 2009 when they fell to North Florida.  There’d be no mistake from then on though, as the club romped to their second straight double before finding Florida (again) in the NCAA Tournament too much to deal with.  FGCU will be favored to bring home more trophies this year, not nearly getting hit with as much attrition as last offseason.  Whether it was through swarming defense or confident offense, FGCU dominated league opponents last year, though attrition probably makes the club more offense-centric this year.  Sophomore midfielder Ally Kasun was a revelation in the middle of the park last year, winning A-Sun Tournament MVP honors as a rookie.  Seven goals and seven assists was a fine haul, and Kasun will be hoping to avoid a sophomore slump this year.  The team’s top option up top will likely be junior Shannen Wacker, who, after displaying a tantalizing example of her talent in 2011, was ever-present last year, leading the club with eleven goals.  Also back is sophomore Shea Rhoney, another standout from a brilliant recruiting class who was the team’s third leading scorer last year, delivering six goals and five assists for the cause.  Given Blankenship’s golden touch with last year’s recruiting class, the addition of talented rookies Lauren Knight and Ashley Parks to the offense could give opposing coaches some sleepless nights as they try and figure out a way to contain FGCU’s electric offense.  The Eagles will probably be more vulnerable on the other side of the ball, where there are some big losses to overcome.  The defense may actually be affected greatly by the loss of anchoring midfielder Danielle Faller, a former A-Sun Freshman of the Year who finished her career as FGCU’s all-time leader in minutes as a constant presence in the middle of the park shielding the defense.  The big loss on the backline is of fifth-year senior Ashley Ciesielczyk, who went from key reserve as a rookie to the A-Sun Defensive Player of the Year as a senior last season.  Ciesielczyk was a lot more than a stoic defender though, as she also finished as the club’s all-time assist leader, adding ten to that total last year.  The club also loses Jennifer Crittenberger, an underrated member of the backline who was a starter for the three and a half seasons she was healthy with the club.  That’s obviously a lot to lose, but the club has a pretty good building block in Emma Blackwell, who was overshadowed a bit last season by some of her more experienced teammates but who was still very impressive in breaking right into the starting lineup as a rookie.  Blankenship will again likely be banking on some newcomers to come in and make an immediate impact.  Region III ODP player Yazmin Velez was a fine addition, but the real eye-catching addition may be New Zealand youth international Tessa Berger, a player who could be a dominant force at this level.  Sophomore Brittany Brown began the season as second choice for the Eagles but quickly won the starting job a few games into the season.  She was highly impressive as a rookie and stands a good chance of continuing FGCU’s tradition of fine goalkeepers.  FGCU’s young, talented offensive core will likely have it installed as comfortable favorites to retain their title this season.  There are some defensive vulnerabilities though through attrition, though whether the Eagles’ A-Sun rivals have enough firepower to exploit those holes is debatable.  The big question is whether FGCU may have plateaued for the moment.  Blankenship’s side have become a very big fish in a small pond, but it’s looking increasingly like they may have hit their ceiling at this level.  A move to a bigger conference is inevitable given the A-Sun’s transient nature, but until that comes, FGCU may have to be content with bullying around their conference brethren before a near impossible NCAA Tournament task most years.

DARK HORSES

Former giants in Division II, Kennesaw State have struggled to avoid the fate of being also-rans at the highest level of college soccer.  KSU won a national title in Division II in their second year of existence and made DI look pretty easy as well early on, winning three league titles in five seasons and making two NCAA Tournaments, but it’s been considerably harder sledding since.  Last year was a solid bounce back season from a poor 2011, with KSU beating Arkansas in non-conference play before finishing in third in the league.  An opening round A-Sun Tournament loss was a sour ending to an otherwise creditable season.  With eight starters and a nice core of talent returning, KSU might well fancy their chances at some silverware this season.   The Owls were a middle of the road side defensively, so they’re probably going to be relying on one of the league’s best attacks last year to fuel their title hopes this year.  The deadly duo of Katrina Frost and Danielle Gray clicked up top and pounded opposing defenses to the tune of eighteen combined goals in 2012.  Frost was a highly touted prospect who endured a stop-start beginning to her college career at South Carolina but has come good at KSU, with twenty-one goals in two years to become one of the league’s best forwards.  She looks to have a solid sidekick in Gray, who may have padded her stats in the club’s dominating win over Alabama A&M but who also still did a solid job in the dog days of league play in September and October.  Every offense needs a talented conductor in midfield though, and KSU has one in junior Jewelia Strickland.  Like a handful of her teammates, Strickland’s an SEC-expat, not seeing action at Alabama before shining with the Owls, leading the club with nine assists last season as a playmaker.  None of the trio are seniors either, meaning this group still has plenty of upside to work with.  Most of the club’s losses are in defense, which could put a crimp in the necessary tightening the unit needs for the Owls to contend for a major trophy.  The club is likely thankful that senior Kelsey Barr, once a key reserve at South Carolina, returns for her final season.  It took a while for Barr to settle at center-back here, but she improved by leaps and bounds last season, while also making a good contribution on offense with four goals.  Head coach Rob King will try to hit the transfer lottery once again this year with the addition of a couple more SEC castoffs in the form of sophomore Elizabeth Johnson (Georgia) and redshirt freshman Brittney Reed (Florida).  King has very rarely got it wrong when bringing in transfers to bolster the squad in the past, so the potential for big improvement defensively is there.  The biggest worries though are in goal, where the club loses both of last year’s starting netminders, Lauren Roberts and Melissa Hutto, who split time as seniors.  KSU has one goalkeeper on the roster, true freshman Olivia Sturdivant.  With no cover and an untested rookie as the only option, it appears the Owls may have a serious Achilles’ heel.  Lord only knows how bad KSU will be in trouble if something happens to Sturdivant, but regardless, there’s likely to be some growing pains that could scuttle hopes this year. The Owls almost assuredly have enough offense to finish amongst the upper echelon in the A-Sun.  With questions on the backline and in goal though, KSU might not have enough to get back to the summit this year.

Jacksonville will be looking to put paid the scourge of being mid-table mainstays over much of the past decade this year in an effort to cash in on some of the club’s massive potential that they showed at the turn of the century.  A rather odious hangover lingered over the club last season after 2011′s roller coaster ride that had seen them win a share of the league title but also fluff their lines in the postseason against Mercer.  While the Dolphins would qualify comfortably for the postseason, there were also few worries about a title challenge, as the club sank to fifth in the league.  They’d upset East Tennessee State in the opening round of the A-Sun Tournament, but local rivals Florida Gulf Coast would put them through their paces in the semi-finals, ending a rather nondescript season.  The Dolphins will probably be optimistic about their odds of moving up the A-Sun ladder given losses their rivals suffer, but JU doesn’t come through the offseason unscathed, losing four starters and some heavy hitters at that.  Comparatively speaking, the Dolphins prospered from their strength in defense last year, and that could continue again this year, with much of the core of last year’s unit returning.  The cornerstone is senior Alexandra Lee, a three-year starter going into this year who enjoyed a breakout season in 2012 to become one of the league’s very best defenders.  Lee has less cover around her on the backline though, as the club loses the services of veteran Arianne Heaton, a four-year starter for the Dolphins whose experience will be dearly missed.  The club will likely be hoping that Hannah Hartman, a highly touted rookie with Region III ODP experience, can come right in and fill the void, as some of the Dolphins’ star defenders have done in the past.  JU should be good to go in goal as well, returning sophomore Jill D’Amico.  D’Amico claimed almost all the minutes in goal as a rookie and should be an asset on defense as the backline finds its feet.  JU was able to grind out just enough offense to finish in the middle of the pack last year, but improvement is needed if the Dolphins are to move up in the A-Sun.  The good news is that the club should return it’s top two scorers in junior Kaitlyn Bassett and Marie Weckhurst.  Bassett in particular could be set for a big year after netting six in just eleven games in an injury hit season.  She’s a candidate for double digits and could be key to the team’s success this year.  Weckhurst made a big splash as a rookie with five goals, mostly as a super sub.  Older sister Raquel Weckhurst’s three goals and five assists must be replaced though.  The team looks to have some problems in midfield, after the loss of senior lynchpin Emily Culbreth, the team’s shots leader last year and a player who netted three goals and four assists.  Add in the departure of Becca Massip, who had four assists herself, and you wonder if the forwards will get enough service this year.  It’s a question of importance, as the Dolphins know the defense might take some time to bed in this year, even with Lee back in tow.  I don’t think there’s enough here to suggest a title challenge, but JU’s probably got enough for a run into upper mid-table and potentially a shot at causing an upset or two in the postseason if there luck holds up.

OUTSIDERS

Year three is arguably the most important for new head coaches trying to stamp their authority on a program, meaning East Tennessee State boss Adam Sayers faces a crucial season in charge of the Lady Bucs program.  Sayers has brought a mix of continental flair and domestic recruiting nous to the fore in two years in charge, with the club lifting its first major trophy, an A-Sun league title, in 2011.  Last year was more of a struggle in the end, with ETSU not really recording a win of note, while also managing to be beat 7-1 by Middle Tennessee State.  League form was disappointing after the thrills of 2011, and the Lady Bucs’ fourth place finish and first round exit from the postseason may have tempered expectations going forward into 2013.  Sayers and ETSU have a big problem going into the new season though, namely replacing the goals of Ramey Kerns, who is forgoing her last season of eligibility.  Kerns certainly went out with a bang, scoring twenty-one goals Kerns scored in thirteen of eighteen games, including four against North Florida late in the season.  Considering ETSU scored thirty-eight goals total, and Kerns had a hand in twenty-five of them (counting four assists), it’s safe to say her departure could be one the Lady Bucs have a hard time coping with.  With Kerns gone, much of the focus of the offense may come upon last year’s A-Sun Freshman of the Year, Sarah Zadrazil.  A full Austrian international, Zadrazil proved to be another astute attacking signing by Sayers, leading the club with ten assists while also tying for the second most goals on the club with four.  She may not be able to replace all of Kerns’ scoring, but her vision might be key going forward in creating chances.  If ETSU’s going to be flexing its muscles on offense this year, the rest of it past Zadrazil’s probably going to come down to international newcomers.  Italian U20 international Cecilia Re adds more continental class to the midfield, while Austrian youth international Jenny Poltl is a more unknown commodity, but Sayers will be hoping she can provide just as much of an impact as the club’s other Austrian, Zadrazil.  It all means ETSU should be strong in midfield, but the club still needs someone to pull the trigger up top.  Sayers will likely be hoping that someone can be yet another Austrian youth international, Simona Koren, who signed with the club before the 2012 season but say out all of last year.  With upside and potential ruling the day in attack, the Lady Bucs may need the defense to step up consistently this year.  The presence of returning sophomore Hannah Short may help out in that regard.  An English U19 international, Short proved a quick study at this level, starting all fifteen games she played and looking like one of the league’s most promising talents.  What surrounds her will be a bit more up in the air, though you have to figure Sayers will use every opportunity to exploit the set piece acumen of senior Samantha Kron, who in addition to her defensive duties, scored four times and assisted on five goals, proving to be especially dangerous on corners.  Worryingly, the club needs a new starting keeper after the departure of last year’s starter Kara Krajenta.  Returning sophomore Sierra Campbell started six games but may play second fiddle to newcomer Jasmine Elliott.  Initially signed before 2012, Elliott just now appeared on ETSU’s roster, but given her pedigree as an England youth international, you have to figure she’ll be favored for the role.  ETSU’s a side full of tantalizing upside, especially on the offensive side of the ball, but teams don’t come away unscathed after losing twenty-goal scorers, especially at this level.  Add in needing to replace a starting goalkeeper, and the Lady Bucs might just have to settle for mid-table and a puncher’s chance in the A-Sun Tournament.

From the outsider’s point of view, finishing second fiddle in the league to Florida Gulf Coast probably wouldn’t look ideal for Mercer, but considering the club went through a coaching change at the end of 2011, it will probably suffice for now.  Long-time club boss Grant Serafy had stepped down after that 2011 season to be replaced by Tony Economopoulos, whose record at lower divisions wasn’t exactly encouraging.  But the new boss hardly looked out of his depth given the bigger challenge last season, driving the club to second in the table and to the final of the A-Sun Tournament, where the Bears would be toppled in close fashion by the aforementioned Eagles.  The job now is to build on last season and get back in the race for silverware after a season to settle.  Mercer would certainly seem to have a puncher’s chance considering they have eighty starters returning on paper and a solid core of talent to rely on.  The Bears swallowed teams whole defensively last year, conceding a league best three goals in nine conference matches.  Graduation and injuries have taken a toll though, meaning Mercer’s rearguard looks a lot less impenetrable than last season’s. The big loss to overcome from last year’s group is Patricia-Anne Upson, a workhorse in the rearguard who was also good for the odd assist here and there while also being able to play in midfield.  The Bears were rocked by an offseason knee injury to the club’s center-back star Devon Fry, who had resurrected her career last year after wasting away on Georgia’s bench for two seasons.  Fry will miss the entire season, and her loss is a big one for the Bears.  All the emphasis in defense now will likely fall upon junior Rachel Buffalo, who got thrown into the deep end as a rookie in 2011 and has very much risen to the occasion, saving her best for the A-Sun Tournament last year.  She’ll probably have to rise into a leadership role with the club’s other losses on defense.  Sophomore Maggie Cropp wrested away the starting goalkeeping job last season from veteran Nikki Atkinson, but she’s not likely to retain the role without a big challenge this season.  The Bears signed Cristina Mursuli from the powerful Eclipse Select club in the offseason, and despite being ridiculously undersized for the position at this level (5’2″), Mursuli comes in highly touted and could fight for early minutes.  It’d be more comforting if Mercer was an offensive machine, but the Bears were more workmanlike than anything else going forward last year, with nobody netting more than six goals.  Towering junior Tess Patton is likely the club’s bread and butter in attack, being used out wide despite her size last year.  It worked a treat, with her netting six goals, and she’ll try to keep the goals coming, along with Lauren Gassie, a junior who netted six goals and seven assists from a playmaker spot in midfield.  The six goals of Danielle Hesse must be replaced, but it might be a case of goalscorer by committee this year unless someone really catches fire.  The Bears looked like being a solid top tier A-Sun team until Fry’s injury really took the starch out of a defense that already looked like being a little less secure without Upson.  There’s enough there to probably avoid being sucked down into a fight to just make the postseason, but given the rather functional nature of the attack, these Bears are probably destined for mid-table anonymity this year.

Entertainment came in bunches with North Florida last season.  The Ospreys finished the season with the league’s best attack, netting twenty-one goals in nine games.  They also gave up nineteen goals in those games, second worst in the league and a pretty big reason why the club finished sixth in the final table.  UNF adapted well to DI life early after moving up in divisions but has been more a club known for their pleasing style for neutrals rather than as a title contender since.  They’d start out league play with five games unbeaten but faded down the stretch and down the table.  A win over Kennesaw State in the A-Sun Tournament was nice, but come the end of the year, UNF was still under .500 for the sixth straight season.  Are the Ospreys going to move up the pecking order this season?  It doesn’t look great on paper.  Four starters depart, include a couple of big pieces, but with three of the four players who netted five or more goals returning, the offense should keep firing.  The thing is, UNF didn’t have anyone with more than six goals, so it was more of a death by a thousand cuts approach, but it was very effective in the league.  Argentinian senior Carolina Lencina is the straw that stirs the proverbial drink for UNF, and she’ll be aiming for her fourth All-A-Sun First Team award this year.  She’s never really been an explosive scorer and netted just five goals last year, but there’s no doubting her impact on the offense.  Classmate Thea Linkfield was a breakout performer on the left wing last year, finishing as the team leader in goals and assists with six and five respectively.  UNF will be hoping for even more this season as they hope to keep the offense flowing.  Another senior, Lauren Hopfensperger, hasn’t lived up to her freshman hype, when she netted ten times, but five goals last season was still a solid return.  The club does find itself without spot starter Michele Larrinaga, who netted six goals in just nine starts, and Kathryne Husted, a three-year starter who impressed in the A-Sun Tournament.  While the offense may be experienced and multi-pronged, UNF still has to figure out how to tighten the defense.  Center-back Martha Tracey was the club’s best defender, for what that’s worth, and departs, while right-back Sadie McLean also graduates.  Some experienced campaigners such as senior Taylor Gillespie, junior Jennifer Marzi, and sophomore Lanie Keating return, but will that be enough considering how bad the defense was last year?  Most of the club’s recruits seem to be centered on the other side of the ball, which might not be beneficial for the club in the short run.  Oh, and the club also has to break in a new starting goalkeeper after losing last year’s top two options, Rachel Beninati and Brittany Hahn.  UNF might be able to solve this problem more easily than some of their other ills though, as towering and qualified junior Megan Dorsey is back after redshirting last year following twenty starts in 2011.  North Florida’s been waiting for the big breakthrough for a while now, and they have to be well aware that their window likely closes in the short-term after this year with the graduation of Lencina and Linkfield among others after this year.  There’s just too many questions on defense to think they’ll be anything other than the league’s great entertainers again this year though.

STRUGGLERS

Life’s never been easy at Lipscomb, effectively Nashville’s third school behind SEC giants Vanderbilt at mid-major rivals Belmont.  The reigns of coaches Jenger Parrish and Jon Ireland passed with little fanfare and almost as few significant wins, leaving first-year head coach Kevin O’Brien with the task of trying to build something appreciable out of the comatose Lady Bisons program from the beginning of last season.  The last game of the season really said it all, as Lipscomb was humbled in the regular season finale against Northern Kentucky, a program in its first season of DI ball, 5-2.  It left the club in familiar dire straits, dead last in the A-Sun and a ridiculous fourteen points out of the playoff places.  He likely knew it was going to be a tough job, but 2012 should have left O’Brien with no illusions about the depth of the task ahead of him in Nashville.  You certainly can’t argue with the lengths and depths O’Brien has been going to on the recruiting trail though, as the former Davidson men’s associate head coach has been searching far and wide for players to boost the Lady Bison, including bringing in some very tantalizing international prospects in his 2013 recruiting class.  The new recruits will likely add to a group returning nine of eleven starters on paper going into the new season.  Though there’s room for improvement on both sides of the ball, the onus will likely be on defense, as that’s where the biggest losses appear to be heading into 2013.  In particular, the club has to deal with the loss of four-year starter Erin Zerio, who played every minute in goal last season as a senior and had the dubious distinction of having faced an increasing number of shots in each of her four seasons with Lipscomb.  Senior Sarah McFarlin and junior Keri Sachtleben have no experience at this level, while the club also drafts in rookies Anna James Buhigas and Ellen Lundy, meaning there shouldn’t be a shortage of potential options in goal this year.  The other starter to depart is defender Kameron Stilwell, who started on the backline for four years when healthy.  Seniors Stephanie Romero and Kelsey Reiman return to the fold after starting much of last season, as does sophomore Emily Shuler, meaning there should be at least some continuity here.  The Lady Bison also make an exciting addition in the form of Norwegian U20 captain Carlotta Fennefoss, a stunning addition for a club with Lipscomb’s stature.  The center-back has been praised extensively for her pace and ability going forward and could well be a massive coup down the line for O’Brien and co.  Going the other way, Lipscomb should bring back a lot of familiar faces, but nobody on this team scored more than four goals last year.  Junior Baylee Linnell looks like the club’s best option going forward after leading the team in scoring last year.  She netted four goals, including two in the league, but was held scoreless in the club’s final seven games.  This group, like the defense, could be boosted by international acquisitions, with New Zealand U19 winger Jolene Muir joining up for the new season.  A 1v1 maestro capable of playing on either flank, Muir figures to be heavily involved in the offense from the start in Nashville.  The youth internationals brought in by O’Brien may be gambles, but at least it provides a little intrigue to a program that’s been buried on the field for so long.  There’s still a long way to go, but there’s really nowhere to go but up for Lipscomb this year after last year’s struggles.  If the recruits pan out, and O’Brien makes the most of his returning talent, lower mid-table isn’t out of the question, though the Lady Bison may still not taste the postseason.

Persistent mediocrity has usually been the name of the game at Stetson through the years, and it was probably a key determinant in the departure of long-time boss Julie Orlowski after the season.  2011 had been one of the most disappointing seasons in program history, with the club not making the postseason for the first time since 2002, only heaping the pressure on a program that had most become known for being the A-Sun’s great entertainers, scoring and conceding lots of goals but to little effect on the title picture in the league.  A tepid non-conference season set the stage for a league campaign with a brutal finishing kick that saw them sink to eighth in the league.  It equaled a second straight year out of the postseason, and Orlowski and the club parting ways despite the coach having signed a contact extension in early 2011.  The club’s new boss also found himself looking for a new club after the 2012 season, as Manoj Khettry had left Saint Bonaventure after a long tenure with the A10 side.  He had done a creditable job with limited resources and may find much of the same here for a club that’s been able to rise to compete with the league’s top guns on a consistent basis in the past.  One thing Khettry should be able to count on is having a lot of last year’s starters back for 2013, with the club set to return nine of eleven of last year’s starters.  While the Hatters were in lower mid-table as far as defense was concerned in the A-Sun, their offense was downright awful in the league, netting just five goals in nine games while also scoring just twelve total against DI opponents.  Nobody netted more than three goals, while just two players managed more than one on the season.  One of those players was rookie Mara Keomanivane, whose emergence was one of the few bright spots of 2012.  Her improvement figures to be key to the club’s fortunes going forward.  Senior Alyssa Welch was the other player with three goals, though that was very deceptive, as two came against non-DI Embry-Riddle.  Seniors Alexis Trybinski and Amber Grose both took their fair share of shots last year in their first campaign with Stetson, but neither really impacted the club’s offense.  The club will have to depend on widespread defensive improvement if the offense can’t turn it around this year.  The club certainly shouldn’t be lacking on experience, with seniors Virginia Davis and Kristen Mueller both returning after each moved into the starting lineup full-time last year.  Senior Victoria Troccoli took over the starting job in goal last year after transferring from Drexel and figures to take up the mantle again with fellow senior Laura Seletos likely to deputize after seeing limited action the last two seasons.  Khettry’s not a bad coach, especially at this level, and he certainly doesn’t inherit a horror show in his first year at Stetson.  There’s plenty of experience, which should make for an easier transition, but curing the club of its culture of mediocrity could be a challenge.  There’s not enough on either offense or defense to think Stetson will be challenging for honors, but if Khettry can coax enough improvement out of both, there’s no reason the club can’t challenge for the postseason.

It seems a little weird to say that a program that finished dead last in league goals scored and conceded last year made improvements, but that was the case for long suffering USC Upstate in 2012.  After a ridiculously chaotic offseason that included an exodus of players from the program and a bizarre coaching change, the Spartans were probably just happy to hit the pitch for a new season.  Slight progress in non-conference play led into a rough A-Sun season, though Upstate did manage their first league in win over two years that helped see them off the bottom of the league.  They may not have finished last, but the club was still a whopping thirteen points out of the playoff places, showing there’s still a lot of work to be done if the Spartans are to turn into a contender.  While the roster exodus after 2011 may have proven to be a severe challenge in the short-term, some longer-term dividends may be reaped this season.  Last year’s squad contained no seniors, meaning, on paper, everyone should be returning for the new campaign, though a few starters left the program early over the offseason.  Obviously, with a team that struggled so much against most opponents that has limited value, but it’s still something to keep in mind, with team chemistry meaning so much at the lower levels of DI ball.  As is often the case at this level for strugglers, tightening up the defense is going to be a key to any turnaround.  The club does return the All-Atlantic Sun First Team goalkeeper in senior Sarah Plantz, but one really wonders if that award was more of a tip of the hat to a hundred and twenty-two saves rather than any larger indicator of skill between the pipes.  Given the fact that everyone should return, there’s really no excuse for this defense to be as bad as it was last year, even if it’s probably not going to be a dominant unit in the near future.  Improvement will have to be major if this team is to rise in the standings though, as Upstate doesn’t seem to have much of an offense.  The club seemed to have a very promising attacker in the way of junior Michelle Calmeyn, after a five goal, three assist season as a rookie in 2011, but she went ice cold last year, scoring just once in thirty-seven shots.  Calmeyn left the club for UT-Martin after the season, meaning Upstate will be looking for someone to lead the offense this season.  Who that’ll be is anyone’s guess.  The next three players in the shots taken chart after Calmeyn didn’t score, with the club’s leading goalscorer being Canadian senior Rebecca Sanzsole, who netted just two goals, though she also missed a chunk of time at the start of the season.  The club needs to fix those woes sooner rather than later, and some shrewd recruiting may help.  The Spartans do add Jamaican U20 international Lindsay Wong to the mix, and head coach Abby Minihan will surely be hoping some of the other newcomers can step right in to major minutes as well.  Minihan certainly didn’t walk into an easy situation in Spartanburg, but there were still a few positive signs last year amidst more losing misery.  They still probably aren’t going to come close to the postseason, but these Spartans could threaten for five wins with a modest non-conference schedule if growth continues.

Supporters of Northern Kentucky probably figured that their beloved Norse were going to be in for a rather steep learning curve as they stepped up into Division I in 2012, but it still couldn’t be easy to watch their club take their lumps through a challenging campaign.  Despite the modest league campaign, there were still signs of promise.  Five of the six A-Sun defeats NKU suffered were by just a single goal, with the only true blowout coming at the hands of league titans Florida Gulf Coast.  In fact, a defeat to FGCU and a non-conference loss to NCAA Tournament qualifiers Oakland were the only two that were by more than a goal in the club’s DI debut season.  It’s perhaps an indicator the the Norse aren’t that far off from being a solid mid-major at this level.  Whether ‘solid’ will be enough for this fanbase will be debatable though after years of success in Division II.  Head coach Greg Sheehan’s seen his club rake in GLVC trophies by the bushel in Division II, with three Final Four appearances at the turn of the century as well.  Aims at this level are obviously going to be a little more modest, but there’s no reason NKU can’t thrive in a conference that’s often been filled by transients throughout its history.  The Norse weren’t eligible for the postseason last year and were seven points off the playoff spots but were still the best of the rest, finishing in seventh in 2012.  NKU’s offense last season could described as competent, though the Norse really didn’t have enough in the tank to challenge the league’s best in attack.  When all was said and done, big senior Megan Frye, not exactly the leading contender to be the club’s scoring leader, actually led the club in goals at season’s end with six after having scored just three a season before.  The big question is where else the goals are going to come from this year.  Senior Allison Ponzer made short shrift of DII defenses in 2011, netting ten goals and eight assists despite being listed as a defender.  She’d go scoreless, however, Ponzer also led the club with six assists, showing her worth even if she’s not scoring.  The player she tied for the shots lead with, junior Kelsey Zwergel, scored two goals while adding three assists.  The club’s second leading scorer was actually sophomore Maria Silbersack, who was a spot starter that ended up making the most of her chances, netting braces against Murray State and Lipscomb to finish with four goals.  Given the club’s somewhat erratic and unpredictable offense, it might be worth it to hope for a big defensive improvement from the Norse in 2013.  The club gave up nearly two goals a game in the league, a mark that has to get much better if NKU is to contend for honors in the present and future.  Who exactly’s going to be doing the bulk of the defending’s a bit hard to interpret, as Ponzer and Zwergel are both listed as defenders but, as stated above, ended up taking most of the club’s shots!  Sophomores Ariel Fischer, Hanna Pateryn, and Ashley Long all saw major minutes last season as well and will likely figure into the club’s defensive mix this season.  There could be big problems in goal for NKU though, as the club graduates its top two goalkeepers from last year, Cassie Lingenhoel and Stephanie Glass.  Lingenhoel started as first choice before Glass took over around mid-season, with the two splitting minutes for much of the league campaign.  There’s no experience in their wake, with rookies Brooke Schocker and Hannah Walker having not played last season.  The club adds true freshman Kelly Neumann, meaning it’s likely a wide open race in goal for the Norse this season.  You get the sense that NKU is still figuring things out at this level, but they’ve got a great boss in Sheehan and showed they had enough talent to at least compete with almost everyone they ran up against last year.  With a fair amount of talent returning on both sides of the ball and more knowledge of life at this level, the Norse should have a good chance of outperforming my rather pessimistic projection below.  It might be a few years before they can challenge for silverware in the A-Sun though.

Projected Order of Finish

*1. Florida Gulf Coast
2. Kennesaw State
3. Jacksonville
4. East Tennessee State
5. Mercer
6. North Florida
-
7. Lipscomb
8. Stetson
9. USC Upstate
^10. Northern Kentucky

* = Projected Auto-Bid Winner
^ = Northern Kentucky are ineligible for the postseason as a transitioning school.

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