NCAA – 2017 Big Sky Preview

Chris’ Big Sky Projections

1. Eastern Washington
2. Northern Colorado
3. Idaho
4. Portland State
5. Montana
6. Southern Utah

7. Weber State
8. Northern Arizona
9. Sacramento State
10. North Dakota
11. Idaho State

In short order, Chad Bodnar has turned Eastern Washington into a lean, mean Big Sky Conference contending machine. No longer one of the worst programs in DI, EWU is now a promising side on the rise. However, few probably gave the Eagles much of a chance of rising high going into last year’s Big Sky Tournament after a fifth place league finish. But EWU laughed last, beating Montana and Idaho before toppling Northern Arizona on penalties in the final to earn an NCAA Tournament bid. The key now is using last year’s dream finish as an impetus to further glory.

The Eagles look to be in great shape going into the new season, especially on offense. They return senior forward Chloe Williams, fresh off a fifteen goal season, league Offensive Player of the Year award, and a call-up to U.S. U23 camp. She should run riot against Big Sky defenses, and a twenty goal season isn’t out of the question. Also back is five goal midfielder Jenny Chaves, and solid contributors Aimie Inthoulay and Delaney Romero. Former Montana Gatorade State Player of the Year Brittany Delridge also joins up, meaning EWU should have no shortage of weapons this year.

EWU could tighten things up in the back though. They were about average in the league on the defensive end of things, but returning senior M’kenna Hayes is one of the league’s best defenders, while recruit Nia McFerrin could see major minutes early given her potential. The biggest question is in goal, with senior Mallory Taylor graduating and returnees Hadley Bezon and Emily Busselman of limited experience. Despite that concern, EWU still looks the best side in the Big Sky by some distance and will be favored to win at least one trophy this year.

2015 was always going to be a tough act to follow for Northern Colorado, after their dream run to the NCAA Tournament, but the Bears suffered a hangover from that superb season, needing a win on the last day of the season against North Dakota to just make the postseason. They didn’t last long, bowing out in the Big Sky Tournament quarterfinal to Northern Arizona. A year on, UNC will be hoping to ascend back to the top of the mountain in the Big Sky and should have one of the league’s better squads entering into the new campaign.

Having just seven starters back is one of the league’s lower figures, but they do return some tantalizing quality. The headline grabber in the bunch is junior midfielder Mariel Gutierrez, one of the best players you’ve probably never heard of. Gutierrez was the straw that stirred the drink for the offense last year, netting ten goals to lead UNC and having a hand in nearly half of all of the team’s goals. Senior Brooke Braden is a fine second option, but it’s clear that UNC’s fortunes will rise and fall with their offensive talisman’s.

There’s probably more of a worry on defense, where the Bears have to make do without one of the league’s best defenders, as Madeline Chase graduates. Senior netminder Madeline Burdick is a solid one, and she’ll have to be to keep UNC’s defense humming along. I’m not sure if the Bears will challenge for a title this year, but there’s still enough quality here for a very good finish in the league.

If nothing else, 2017 will be a unique season for the Idaho Vandals. Perhaps as a marketing ploy and perhaps as a way to avoid bad Northwestern weather, Idaho’s taking their home games inside to the Kibbie Dome, purportedly a first at DI level. An indoor location also makes it easier for Idaho to hang a championship banner after the club won the Big Sky title last year, though they also came up short in the Big Sky Tournament, getting shocked by Eastern Washington in the semi-finals.

Last year also effectively marked the end of an era for Idaho, as they lose a league high seven starters from last year’s title winners. While the Vandals do lose a ton of talent, there are still some solid players left, mostly on defense. The backline has Josilyn Daggs and Kelly Dopke back this season and could be one of the better units in the league and definitely the highlight of this year’s squad. Goalkeeping’s a big question with Torell Stewart gone, with hotshot rookie Brooke Townsend likely challenging San Francisco transfer Makayla Presgrave for the starting role.

The defense has to be great, because the offense is a huge question mark. The club’s top four leading scorers depart, with Kayla Watanabe the returning leading scorer with just three goals. Idaho hopes this year are probably going to be pinned on Olivia Baggerly performing more like 2015’s seven goal, nine assist season and less like last year’s dismal two goal return on forty-six shots. Adding solid recruits like Kaysie Bruce and Hadley Sbrega should help, but Idaho is asking a lot from players not used to carrying the weight offensively. My projections model says Idaho should be safely in the postseason mix, but I’m a little wary with all the talent lost and questions on offense.

2017 promises to be a roller coaster for Portland State, as it’s already been a bumpy ride even before the new season begins. The Vikings were rocked by the news that longtime boss Laura Schott was stepping down and only appointed Sacramento State assistant Katie Burton to the post in late June. Schott’s tenure definitely had some mountainous highs but also some real lows, such as last year’s miss of the postseason, with PSU finishing seventh in the conference. PSU struggled mightily in non-conference play and won just one of their first six in the league. They rallied to win three of their last four, but it still left them out of the postseason for a second straight year.

Burton inherits a squad that looks like cutting that streak off though, as they return ten starters for 2016, tied for most in the league. There are some big hitters in those returnees as well. Fifth-year senior Kristin Moyer is one of the early favorites for league Defensive Player of the Year and should anchor a solid defense. Teammate Katie Forsee led last year’s side with five goals and also should be a league standout. If they can squeeze out a little more offense, PSU could be near the top of the Big Sky, but as is, they look like a side with a good shot at the postseason in Burton’s first year.

Seemingly a perennial contender in the Big Sky now, Montana will be looking to extend a string of three straight seasons of qualification for the postseason in 2017. Last year was another solid one for the Grizzlies that even featured a win at Big Ten side Purdue on the opening weekend of the season. Montana would begin league play ice cold though, winning just one of their first four before rallying to go 4-0-2 in their final six, boosting them to fourth in the final league table. There’d be no postseason run though, as the Grizzlies fell in the quarterfinals of the Big Sky Tournament to Eastern Washington.

Any hopes of a title run this season could be stymied by some big losses to the club’s defense, even if it is set to return eight starters overall. The backline is hit by the graduation of Tess Brenneman, the club’s top player last year and one of the league’s best defenders, as well as reigning league GK of the Year Kailey Norman. The latter’s gloves are likely to be filled by fifth-year senior Maddie Vincent, who started a few games last year, while full-back Channelle Pederson could fill some of the void left by Brenneman as a defensive leader after impressing last year.

Defensive issues could be problematic, as there’s not a go-to scorer here, though the Grizzlies did fine with scoring by committee last year. While joint leading scorers Hallie Widner and McKenzie Warren, who had four goals each in 2016, both return, the club could really do with a big time scorer. Midfielder Raye Burton probably isn’t that player, but the rookie comes in highly touted and could keep the offense ticking over. My projections think Montana may take a step back this year and might be in a big scrap for a postseason spot.

A brutal three win season was enough for Southern Utah to sack Becky Hogan and bring in replacement Fred Thompson to try and right the ship at a floundering program. The Thunderbirds haven’t made the postseason since joining the Big Sky in 2012 and put up a 2-7-1 record in the league last year, finishing well out of the postseason picture. SUU wouldn’t beat a DI opponent until the end of September when they topped Portland State in a league game, but their Big Sky Tournament hopes were on ice by the time they win their second against Idaho State.

The past has been painful, but the present might not be so bad though. While the club does lose four starters, some solid pieces do return. Ally Thimsen is arguably the club’s best player and easily their best scoring threat, being the only Thunderbird who netted more than two goals last year, netting seven. Junior defender Summer Soriano was also solid last year but also has to drag up a defense which was one of the worst in the league in 2016. The Big Sky is known for throwing up surprises, and while a title run would be a shock, SUU has a puncher’s chance at the postseason this year.

Projecting Weber State’s year-to-year form is a task that could drive many to madness. The Wildcats have oscillated from double digit wins to losses every season since 2012, with last year being another down year for the club. A 2-1-1 start to the new season raised hopes, but winless streaks of four and six matches would doom WSU to a postseason-less 2016. The Wildcats actually won three of their first four matches in the Big Sky, but the defense kept leaking goals, with the end result being a ninth place finish in the conference.

On paper, WSU probably has a fair shot at moving up a bit in the league this season. Most of its best talent was pretty young last season, and eight starters overall should return for the Wildcats. As noted above, the defense wasn’t particularly great, though junior full-back Olivia Glassford was a bright spot last year. But WSU is probably going to be winning through its attack this season. Junior Madison Garlock is probably the club’s best player in midfield, and she and league co-Newcomer of the Year Paige Stevens, who scored four goals, are going to need to find an extra gear for WSU to contend. The middle of the pack looks unpredictable in the Big Sky this year, and WSU probably has as good a shot as anyone to finish in the top six.

Northern Arizona ultimately paid the penalty in 2016, losing on spot kicks in the Big Sky Tournament final to Eastern Washington. Despite that glum ending to the year, it had still been another fine season for NAU, tallying their fourth straight winning season and putting up a nice response after missing the postseason a year prior. NAU did very well to overcome an indifferent non-conference season to finish third in the league and make a run to the conference tournament final but will be hoping for a little better this season.

That might be easier in theory than practice though, as NAU loses five starters from last year’s side including influential attacker Lindsay Doyle. NAU should still have a little in reserve in the attack though, returning one of the league’s best forwards in Adrian Nixt. Nixt looked like a candidate for a breakout season heading into last year and definitely delivered, tallying nine goals for NAU and is a solid bet for double digits this year. Defensively, NAU was pretty middling last season. Sophomores Amanda Bennett and Carly Gamble showed promise last year but may still another year or so of development to be a dominant group. My projections don’t think NAU will match last year’s league finish, but they should still be in the mix for a postseason spot.

Sacramento State got so close last season. The Hornets didn’t look the part of a title challenger early, winning just two of their first twelve games, including a four match winless streak in Big Sky play. But after a humiliating 5-1 loss to Idaho at home, Sacramento State scrambled to win their last five, rising to second place in the table. But they’d lose in the conference tournament semi-finals to Northern Arizona, sealing an “almost” season on two fronts for the club.

They could rue not taking full advantage of those opportunities, as the Hornets get clobbered by garduation, losing six starters from last season, including a big chunk of the club’s best players. Top amongst the departures, is league Defensive MVP Rachel Leonard, while Alexa Heinzer, another standout defender also departs. The offense is dinged by the losses of Jennifer Lum and Adaurie Dayak as well. Nobody returning netted more than three goals, meaning promising youngsters like Caitlin Prothe and Mikayla Reed need to take the reins right away in 2017 to keep SSU rolling. More than likely though, the Hornets are in real danger of slipping back out of the postseason this year.

North Dakota will be hoping for a fresh start in more ways than one over the next few seasons. On the soccer pitch, the Fighting Hawks will be looking to dig their way out of another disastrous hire, with Matt Kellogg sacked and replaced with Chris Logan, most recently head coach and Northern Iowa. Logan will be entrusted to guiding UND to respectability as they prepare to exit the Big Sky for the Summit League next season. In the meantime, Logan will be trying to get a historically abysmal program up to snuff after another last place finish in the Big Sky. Last year, the club managed to beat rivals South Dakota in the opening weekend of the season but won just one more game all season.

Logan’s side does return eight starters going into this season, including junior keeper Olivia Swenson, one of the league’s better netminders who has also been amongst its busiest in two seasons here. The situation could be worse, but on the whole, the Fighting Hawks are a long-term rebuilding project who likely don’t have enough to challenge for a postseason place this year.

A dark cloud has been hanging over Idaho State the past few years. 2015 was marked by the Bengals failing to win a single game against a DI opponent, a streak which they mercifully ended at the second opportunity last season. But ISU did it without arguably the best player in the program’s history, Maria Sanchez, who sat out 2016 before transferring to Santa Clara after the Bengals had blocked an immediate transfer. Most of Sanchez’s former club’s problems were on the defensive end though, as they kept just two clean sheets all season, meaning that despite a stretch of four wins in five, ISU still finished eighth in the conference and out of the postseason for a second straight season.

The short-term prognosis for a bounce back up the table isn’t great. ISU does benefit from getting eight starters back from last season’s side, but that experience will count for little if the club doesn’t get better performances out of the returnees. Leading scorer Michaela Didericksen returns after seven goals last year and is probably the pick of the bunch. But overall, ISU just doesn’t match up well with most of the league’s top sides, making another disappointing season a real possibility.

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