NCAA – 2017 Summit League Preview

Chris’ Summit League Projections

1. South Dakota State
2. Denver
3. North Dakota State
4. Oral Roberts

5. South Dakota
6. Western Illinois
7. Nebraska-Omaha
8. Fort Wayne

2016 marked the end of an era for South Dakota State. The Jackrabbits endured a streaky regular season that saw them win just two of their first seven before rattling off six wins in a row, including their first three in the Summit League. They’d back into the postseason, winning just one of their final three but did the unthinkable and won back-to-back shootouts in the Summit League Tournament to lock up a third straight NCAA Tournament berth. Such success naturally draws attention, and head coach Lang Wedemeyer left for Liberty in the offseason, with SDSU quickly promoting assistant Brock Thompson to the top job. With an edict of keeping the Jackrabbits at the top of the league’s food chain,

Thompson will have a hard job of it right away, needing to replace six starters from last year’s side. While the losses of defender Lindsee Larson and midfielder Madison Yueill hurt, this is a team still with some impressive talent. The Jackrabbits are still probably going to hop by opposing defenses with the one-two punch of seniors Nicole Hatcher and Tori Poole in the attack. Each netted six goals, while Hatcher also had ten assists, effectively having a hand in over half of SDSU’s goals in 2016.

The defense is probably going to be more of a focus for concern with Larson’s departure and no bonafide stars to take over, though Alexa Hepner and Kyli Nelson have shown potential. Also watch the goalkeeping situation, where sophomore Maggie Smither could get a big challenge from rookie Taylor Lock. SDSU should be neck and neck with Denver for a league title this year, but losing so many starters and a head coach could make some wary over continued short-term success.

A league title may have been small solace for a Denver program seemingly in a state of flux. The Pioneers were once a mid-major superpower, more than able to hold their own against almost anyone in the country but have since receded into semi-obscurity in the shadow of the Summit League. 2016 wasn’t as bad as 2015’s disaster, and DU did win a share of a league title, but other than a win at Arizona State, there was little evidence of the program being within touching distance of its past glories. As far as 2017 goes, DU will want to erase postseason heartbreak, as they were felled on penalties in the conference tournament semi-finals last year.

At the very least, the Pioneers should have one of the league’s most talented teams. There is a big loss to overcome, as midfielder Francesca Garzelloni was probably the club’s best player last year, but beyond her, most of the rest of the team returns intact. Defense should be a strong suit for DU in 2017, with the league’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Makenzie Bothner, as well as its GK of the Year, Brittany Wilson, both back. Add in a big recruit in Taylor Parker, and this could be one of the league’s elite units.

Scoring is a worry though, with the club netting just eighteen in nineteen games last year. Hannah Adler won league Freshman of The Year honors with four goals and four assists, but nobody else had more than two goals. The task won’t get easier with Garzelloni gone, but adding highly touted recruit Maya Royston should help. Nobody will confuse this for an elite DU team of the past, but the 2017 Pioneers are still a serious league title threat.

It feels a little strange to say that North Dakota State’s 2016 season was a bit of an anti-climax, but the expectations for NDSU were through the roof with a loaded team. The Bison did win a league title, as expected, but they shared it with Denver and then when were shocked in the conference tournament semi-final by an unfancied Oral Roberts side.

Now comes the hard part for the Bison, as they try to reload a side that loses six starters from a year ago. The attack takes some huge hits, with standard bearers Amy Yang and Lauren Miller gone, along with solid contributors like Lizzie Lukas as well. The cupboard isn’t bare here though, as junior Holly Enderle came into her own in 2016 with a team leading ten goals on very good efficiency numbers, but beyond her there’s not much in proven firepower, with the hope that youngsters like Mariah Haberle can step up.

There are concerns defensively as well, with the club losing the likes of Natalie Fenske and Genna Joyce on the backline. Sophomore goalkeeper Monica Polgar impressed here as a rookie and might be a busy netminder given the changes in front of her. The Bison lose too much to be considered title challengers but should still have enough to be favored for a postseason return.

Though Oral Roberts fell short in the Summit League Tournament final, losing to South Dakota State on penalties, it had still been a remarkable late season turnaround for the club. ORU looked dead and buried in the league after losing its first three, including a 5-1 defeat to that same SDSU team they faced in the conference tournament final. Remarkably though, the Golden Eagles then won their last five in the league to squeak into the postseason as fourth seeds. They’d then upset league champs North Dakota State at their place before bowing out to SDSU a few days later. For the sake of everyone’s blood pressure, ORU’s probably hoping for a bit less streakiness and a bit more consistency in 2017.

The Golden Eagles will probably look towards their attack again this year, after it scored over two goals a game in the league last season. The catalyst for the attack is the league’s reigning Offensive Player of the Year, Lexi Jones, a senior who netted eleven goals on great efficiency numbers last year. With the loss of midfielder Tahlor Lyman, the Golden Eagles will likely look for more from South African sophomore Nelly Mamabolo, who impressed as a rookie. The offense is likely going to have to keep scoring, as the loss of defensive ace Maria Stordahl weakens an already average group. Brooklyn Eardley was solid as a rookie, and ORU will hope for big contributions from some of Mamabolo’s South African compatriots, rookies Drishana Pillay and Chamelle Wiltshire, who join up this year. ORU could be the league’s glass cannon this year: great on offense, iffy on defense, which could mean another battle to get into the postseason.

South Dakota were surely left kicking themselves at the end of 2016. The Coyotes started out last season with a surprising win over a good Idaho team but promptly endured a run of twelve matches without a win, including ten straight losses at one point. But the light finally clicked on for this team late, and they finished up by winning their last four home games in the league and four of six overall. It left them three points short of the postseason though, a heartbreaking conclusion to a nice late season turnaround. While USD couldn’t make the postseason for a second season running, they were still probably a little ahead of schedule considering they started just one senior in 2016.

That’s a big cause for optimism for this season, with ten starters coming back, increased experience and continuity could push the Coyotes back into the top four. Senior center-back Katlin Ptacek could be one of the best defenders in the league, while sophomores Taryn LaBree and Kellee Willer could help charge the offense after promising rookie campaigns. A lack of a true star might keep them from a title challenge, but the Coyotes should still challenge for the postseason.

Not many expected Western Illinois’ likely budget related move to a “director of soccer” model to bear much fruit last season, and, indeed, Eric Johnson didn’t oversee a contender in 2016. WIU won just one of their first eight matches on the season, that coming against similarly cash strapped Chicago State. In league play, the Leathernecks would lose three of their first four, which crushed their postseason hopes, and the club essentially played out the string, finishing well out of the top four and extending their postseason drought to four seasons.

Johnson will have to hope that additional experience pays dividends, as WIU was very young last season and looks like returning ten starters. There’s not much in the way of true star talent though, which probably limits the Leathernecks’ immediate upside. Getting Kayla Kirkwood back from injury after she missed all of 2016 will help, but WIU probably needs big contributions from newcomers to stand a chance of finishing in the top four. More than likely though, WIU looks destined for another finish closer to the bottom of the league.

A seventh place league finish for Nebraska-Omaha was enough for the Mavericks to make a change at the top, sacking longtime manager Don Klosterman at season’s end. UNO would win two of three to open up the season but then were afflicted with a long slump that saw them go winless in nine straight. The club would win two of three to open up league play, but just one win in their final five doomed their postseason hopes. It’s pretty easy to identify where things have gone wrong for UNO recently, as their away form has seen them without a win in twenty straight, having lost won away from home in early October of 2014 (!).

It’s up to one of UNO’s men’s team’s assistants, Tim Walters, to try to solve those problems. The deck is stacked pretty highly against him though. For one, Omaha returns just six starters, second lowest in the league. Additionally, the club loses defender Ava Doetsch, arguably the club’s best player last season and the only real star of note here. Sophomore midfielder Sophia Roux was a bright spot last year, while veteran attackers Lydia Holtmann and Carlie Cook will also need to shine given the lack of scoring depth. Walters may indeed bring UNO better days, but it’s unlikely to happen in 2017.

A once promising program at Fort Wayne has undergone a nightmarish decline in the past three seasons. Just a half decade after a winning season in 2012, the Mastodons enter on the back of three seasons out of the RPI Top 300. Last year was another brutal low for the embattled program, as they’d win just two games against DI opposition all season, finishing the year on a thirteen match winless run against said DI opposition. The manner of defeat was often worse than just losing, as they lost 5-0 to North Dakota State and Denver after a 7-1 reverse to Oral Roberts.

Entering season four in charge, Jason Burr must surely be feeling the heat after the lack of success in his run thus far. Where change will come from is anybody’s guess. While the Mastodons do look like returning seven starters, the level of talent doesn’t compare with their peers, with no superlative newcomers arriving either. With just four qualifiers for the postseason, the road there in the Summit League is harder than ever, and Fort Wayne looks more likely to be fighting to stay off bottom once more than challenging for the conference tournament.

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