NCAA – 2017 Ohio Valley Conference Preview

Chris’ OVC Projections

1. Murray State
2. Tennessee Tech
3. SIU Edwardsville
4. Eastern Kentucky
5. Morehead State
6. Southeast Missouri State

7. Tennessee-Martin
8. Belmont
9. Austin Peay
10. Jacksonville State
11. Eastern Illinois

Murray State left itself a very hard act to follow in 2016 given their glorious and unexpected success just a season earlier, when they did the OVC double. The Racers would take some knocks from a tough non-conference schedule but went unbeaten in the league, though three draws meant sharing a league title with Eastern Kentucky. MSU’s season would meet a sudden stop in the OVC Tournament semi-finals, as the Racers were shocked by eventual tournament champs SIU Edwardsville. It was a sour ending to another very nice season.

Last season’s disappointment aside, Murray State will still fancy their chances of collecting another league title this season. The Racers look set to return eight starters from last year’s league champs, including a good deal of their top players. In the attack, MSU should feature one of the OVC’s most potent weapons in the form of Australian senior Harriet Withers, the reigning league Offensive Player of the Year. Withers netted eight goals last year, but the worry is who else can step in with offense, as second leading scorer Taylor Richardson departs, along with another standout in Ali Critcher. Getting someone like veteran Aaron Lankster or rookie Allyson McAtamney to step up with goals could be crucial to Racer title hopes.

MSU still has a little margin of error thanks to an excellent backline that returns some of the league’s best defenders in the form of senior Nyomi Devine and sophomore Karsyn Hasch. The Racers look like a well rounded team that should again be one of the favorites in the OVC.

As far as program transformations go, it’s pretty hard to top what’s been going down at Tennessee Tech. At one point, TTU was one of the worst programs in America, finishing outside of the RPI Top 300 as recently as 2014. But the Golden Eagles ascended to eleven wins last year, recovering from an uneven start to OVC play to win four of their last five and finish third in the conference. They’d fall in the OVC Tournament semi-final, but Steve Springthorpe has still done an incredible job here in a short amount of time.

Better could be yet to come in 2017, as the Golden Eagles look like a side that could challenge for a league title. TTU’s built their recent success around a mean defense, and with the key players returning this year, that defense could be better than ever. Netminder Kari Naerdemann has been a star through two season, winning league Defensive Player of the Year honors last season to add to the same honor she won in 2015. Add in backline stalwarts Lauren Brewer and Karigan Owens (who also had eight assists last year), and you have the ingredients for another dominant defense.

Reason to worry? Tennessee Tech weren’t exactly a high scoring outfit last season, and they lose leading scorer Abi Gearing, who netted six times in 2016. Leading returning scorer Nora Vicsek had four goals as a rookie, and she, or someone else, will need to step up and supply some scoring. TTU are legitimate title contenders this year in the OVC, largely contingent on squeezing some goals out to complement a great defense.

In 2014, SIU Edwardsville came close to pulling an NCAA Tournament first round shock when they fell on penalties to Kentucky. Two years later, they finished the job, shocking Notre Dame on spot kicks in one of the most unlikely upsets in the competition’s history. The fact that the Cougars weren’t even OVC league champs and had lost by four goals to the likes of Iowa earlier in the year made their triumph all the more incredible. SIUE had finished fourth in the conference after a tepid finish but had then made the run to the OVC Tournament title a season after missing the postseason entirely. While they’d bow out to Northwestern in the NCAA Tournament second round, it was still a season to remember.

SIUE will be wary of repeating 2015’s postseason miss after the aforementioned near miss. With eight starters back though, a postseason miss probably won’t be in the cards, though how high the Cougars can rise is still a question. Defense might be a bit of a concern since the club does lose top defender Kassidy Rawdon to graduation. Getting postseason heroine Juli Rossi back after last season’s dramatic displays is a big positive for SIUE though.

The Cougars largely rolled with attacker by committee last season, and it actually worked, with three players finishing with at least five goals, including OVC Tournament MVP Caroline Hoefert. Joint assist leader Emily Grahl and promising sophomore Peyton Roehnelt are also back, meaning SIU has a lot of very good offensive weapons, if not any great ones. SIUE looks like a pretty good team on paper, though perhaps short of being a title favorite, though their pedigree indicates they’ll be dangerous again in the postseason.

All Nick Flohre did in his first season in charge of Eastern Kentucky was win the most games in program history and a share of an OVC title. With low expectations given the recent history of the program, EKU opened up league play with three straight shutout wins before enduring a slight drop in form. They’d close out the regular season with five straight wins to earn silverware though and made a run to the OVC Tournament final, where SIU Edwardsville would clip their wings and end their season one game short of the NCAA Tournament.

Flohre will be hoping to punch EKU’s NCAA Tournament ticket while also avoiding the dreaded Second Season Syndrome in 2017. The Colonels are in decent shape in that regard, with nine starters from last year’s co-champs back. Flohre’s side overwhelmed opposing OVC defenses with their attack, but that unit only returns half-intact in terms of big time scorers after the graduation of seven goal Cassie Smith. Senior Jordan Foster is back though after leading the team in goals (8) and assists (5) last year. Nobody else returning had more than three goals though, so someone like Emma Carroll, Tara Claus, or Marian Wolski will need to step up to fill that scoring void.

The Colonels were very good defensively last year as well and get their best personnel back. Center-back Kacy Eckley should anchor a strong backline, while senior Anna Hall looks like one of the OVC’s best goalkeepers again going into 2017. Projection-wise, EKU may come back towards the field a little in 2017, but upper mid-table seems most likely.

It’s been more high than low at Morehead State over the past half-decade, but the Eagles definitely were in a down pattern in 2016, missing the postseason for the first time since 2012. MSU was actually in decent shape early in non-conference play, winning three of their first six but hit a massive slump in mid-September that saw them lose six in a row and go winless in eight. That dragged into the halfway point of the OVC season, and though the Eagles did win three of their last five, they were still a whopping six points out of the postseason places when all was said and done.

MSU probably stands a good chance at bouncing back into the postseason in 2017 though. They were actually fairly young last year, and that’s reflected in the fact that they should have ten starters back for the new season, tied for most in the league. The one departure is probably going to keep MSU from a title challenge though, as Angela Black was one of the best defenders in the league. However, the other side of the ball looks in good shape with league Freshman of the Year Ashley Ritchie back after scoring right goals as a rookie. Nobody else scored more than three though, so if Ritchie hits a sophomore slump, MSU could struggle. However, it’s more likely the Eagles swoop safely into mid-table and back into the postseason in the OVC.

2016 was considerably rougher on Southeast Missouri State than 2015, when the Redhawks had made a run all the way to the OVC Tournament final. SEMO actually looked to be in a good position early in the season when they pitched five straight shutouts, including an opening night stunner when they topped SEC side Tennessee, 1-0. But a severe downturn in form struck in mid-September, as SEMO won just one of ten matches. They’d win their final two games of league play to finish seventh, but they were also four points short of the postseason.

The Redhawks look like they’ll again be in the mid-table mix for one of the last spots in the conference tournament again this season. SEMO has a very big problem going into the new year, namely that the club’s bread and butter on offense, Natasha Minor, is gone. SEMO scored twenty-six goals last year, and Minor had a hand in fourteen of them, scoring twelve herself and assisting on a pair more, making her one of the league’s most important offensive conduits. If sophomore Esmie Gonzales can’t build on a great rookie season that featured six goals and five assists, the Redhawks are in big trouble, as nobody else had more than two goals here last year.

The defense was middle of the road in the OVC, so it’s probably not going to be able to bail out the attack if they aren’t firing. My projections think SEMO will be one of many teams vying for the last spots in the OVC Tournament this year.

The other shoe dropped on Tennessee-Martin in 2016. While the SkyHawks had overcome constant roster churn in recent years to hold their own in the OVC, the bottom fell out last season as the club endured its worst RPI finish in a decade while ending up last in the league. A 7-1 loss at home to Western Kentucky on opening night was an ominous sign, and UTM won just one game in the league all season, with their defense getting absolutely shredded by OVC opponents. Depth was a major issue all season, with the club playing just fifteen players all season, a recipe for pain at this level.

While an instant return to glory is unlikely UTM will probably bounce back in some part this year. They should have eight starters returning, including junior Northern Irish international Amy McGivern, one of the best midfielders in the league. Greek junior Danae Kaldaridou also returns after netting four goals in her first year here and could ensure some real strength for UTM in the middle of the pitch. Depth will dictate UTM’s fortunes in all likelihood though, but if Phil McNamara can replenish his drained stocks with the SkyHawks, they might find themselves back in mid-table.

Caught in a seemingly inexorable pattern of mediocrity for the past decade, Belmont didn’t buck the trend in 2016. The Bruins showed little in non-conference play outside of a 1-1 draw at city rivals Lipscomb. Indeed, supporters were likely expecting the worst when Belmont dropped their first two league games, but the club rallied for a 4-0-1 mark in their next five which helped secure them a postseason berth in the end as the OVC’s #6 seeds. But the Bruins didn’t accomplish much of anything in the OVC Tournament, getting pasted by Tennessee Tech in the quarterfinals and making it seven straight years without a winning season here.

The odds of not extending that streak to eight straight years don’t appear great at first glance. Belmont does return eight starters, which puts them in the company of just about everyone else in the league, but there’s not that much star power on display for the Bruins. The defense is especially worrisome, with Stephanie Bukovec, the club’s solid goalkeeper, and defender Brittany Coca, both among the club’s best players, having graduated. The Bruins have to hope that Belicia Mendiola, who took a ton of shots last season with little scoring success, has a truer aim for the goal shy club. My projections have Belmont in with an outside shot at the postseason again but little more than that.

After two straight postseason misses, Austin Peay came into 2016 desperately needing a good run. While APU weren’t exactly in title winning form, they were still good enough to land in mid-table. The Governors went unbeaten in their first five in the OVC before a slight cold patch in the middle of league season before finishing nicely. They’d pay the penalty to spot kick specialists SIU Edwardsville in the OVC Tournament quarterfinal, but it had still been a solid bounce back season from the two prior.

While the Governors probably hope to continue to bounce up the ladder, the reality is that consolidation in mid-table might be a better goal. APU’s calling card last season was a lockdown defense that gave up just six goals in ten league games. It could be hard to maintain that pace this year, as the Governors see Mary Ruth Locastro, one of the league’s top defenders graduate. The Governors dropped a late bombshell in the recruiting process by announcing the signing of French youth international Jade Dauriat to bolster their backline, which could be huge for them.

APU might be in trouble if they have to rely on offense, as they managed only a goal a game in league play. Few are as important as senior Kirstin Robertson to their teams, as the APU forward had eleven goals and five assists while her side scored twenty-six goals but also netted just one goal in the team’s final nine games last year. With nobody else returning that scored more than three goals last year, APU will likely to youngsters to fill the void, be it sophomore Colombian Pamela Penaloza or vaunted rookie Morgan Drawdy. Though APU has a few intriguing pieces, the worries on offense really hurt their postseason odds in my projections.

Two years after an eleven win season that was one of the best in program history, Jacksonville State crashed back to Earth in 2016. The Gamecocks slumped to five wins, their lowest total since 2013. JSU would win just one of their first six, and a tepid start to league play ended with a brutal five match losing streak that saw the Gamecocks lose by one goal in each of those five defeats. The swoon left them in ninth in the table and out of the postseason for the first time since 2013.

The path back to prosperity for JSU doesn’t look particularly smooth this year. The Gamecocks look set to lose a league high five starters, which immediately puts the program behind the 8-ball. With little top line talent from the upperclassmen, Neil Macdonald probably needs big contributions from some of his younger players like sophomore Cheyenne Carden, who was joint leading scorer last year. That she only scored three goals is a bigger worry, and JSU were pretty impotent in front of goal in 2016. Macdonald has dipped heavily into Canada for this year’s recruiting class, and he’ll likely need a hidden gem or two if JSU is to climb back into the postseason picture in 2017.

To the surprise of roughly nobody, Eastern Illinois’ money saving scheme of appointing men’s head coach Kiki Lara to oversee both the men’s and women’s soccer programs at EIU was almost a complete bust in 2016. EIU won just two matches in a very modest non-conference slate before attacking league play. But while wins over Tennessee-Martin and Austin Peay ensured the Panthers wouldn’t finish bottom in the OVC, they still finished out of the RPI Top 300 for the third straight season.

Lara returns to the same role this year and will be hard pressed to drive his side even into mid-table. EIU benefits from getting a big number of starters back, with nine set to return for 2017, but they’re unlucky in the fact that the league overall was young last year, with many clubs also getting a lot of experience back as well. Spanish sophomore Henar Urteaga is probably the most promising of the returnees, but EIU needs much more than the utility player to truly compete in this league. Barring a good many diamonds in the rough from the newcomers, EIU again could be near the bottom of the OVC.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *