NCAA – 2017 Missouri Valley Conference Preview

Chris’ Missouri Valley Projections

1. Missouri State
2. Illinois State
3. Loyola (Ill.)
4. Northern Iowa
5. Drake
6. Evansville

7. Valparaiso
8. Indiana State

Many will fear that the rot has begun to set in at Missouri State, who suffered the ignominy of finishing dead last in the MVC in 2016 and being the only club to miss out on the postseason as a result. A meaty non-conference slate meant that MSU was left to wait until early September for their first win, with the Bears not winning in the league until the fourth attempt. Realistically needing another win for their postseason hopes, MSU instead only got a point out of their final two regular season matches, leaving them one point short of sixth place and the final postseason berth.

After such a season, many programs would be seriously downbeat, but the Bears look oddly strong on paper going into the new campaign. Getting eight starters back on paper certainly helps, but MSU looks to have a pretty strong side in terms of talent as well. Midfielder Mary Disidore is one of the league’s elite players despite not filling up a score sheet, while fellow senior Brooke Zimmerman has also shown well in the middle of the park. The big worry for the Bears is who scores the goals, as leading scorer Ashley Coonfield, now a sophomore, scored just four goals for the season. Those worries aside, MSU has a lot more talent than your usual last place finisher. It sounds strange, but my projections believe the Bears actually have a reasonable chance of going from worst-to-first in the MVC table this year.

Success is expensive at this level, and the cost for Illinois State the last half decade has been two talented head coaches. First, they lost Drew Roff to Purdue after a long run of success, and this offseason, Eric Golz departed for Dayton after two years in Normal as head coach. ISU had struggled in 2015 but were largely back to their MVC clobbering selves with a non-conference record that was deceptive and packed with one-goal losses to power conference teams. They smoked the field in their league season and the conference tournament and shocked Michigan on penalties in the first round of the NCAA Tournament before bowing out to Duke.

It was hardly a surprise Golz was poached away and maybe even less a surprise that assistant Brad Silvey was immediately elevated to the top job. Silvey faces a thankless task in 2017, not just in trying to match last year but also replacing some of the league’s best. League Player of the Year Lauren Koehl scored seventeen goals and assisted on eight more, having a hand in more than half the club’s scoring. Also gone on offense is dependable midfielder Brooke Ksiazek. Senior Kelli Zickert and sophomore Mikayla Unger, the reigning league Freshman of the Year, will try to pick up some of the scoring slack, but it could be difficult.

On defense, it’s perhaps even more difficult, as league Defensive Player of the Year Paige Jarsombeck is gone, along with another stalwart, Sara Stankoskey. Canadian rookie Sarah Ochitwa is an exciting prospect having received youth national team camp invites, but sophomore keeper Haley Smith might find herself a busier netminder this year. The Redbirds have the pedigree to be recognized as title challengers, but they lost a lot in the offseason, making them far from a sure thing.

Loyola (Ill.) nearly bottled it at the end of last season, though their fate was largely out of their own hands in the end. After winning their first two league games, the Ramblers promptly lost their last four and just barely edged out Missouri State for the last spot in the postseason. They’d make good on their reprieve though, beating Northern Iowa in the quarterfinals before dragging Evansville to penalties before bowing out. It was the least the club could do to save some face after going winless in their first eight on the season. But that also underlines the futility at this program for a while now, with just one winning season since 2009.

The Ramblers were a little young last season though, and with them returning eight starters, they could make the postseason in the MVC with a bit more ease. The big loss is on defense, with Shelby Koch departing after a very nice career here. Offense could carry the day for Loyola, with 2015’s league Freshman of the Year Jenna Szczesny back, as well as impressive sophomore midfielder Sienna Cruz. The Ramblers also bring in Scottish youth international Freya Glen, one of the most notable additions here in a while. I’d wager Loyola only has an outside shot at honors, but mid-table should be more than achievable this year.

After a fairly successful season in 2016, Northern Iowa was rocked in the offseason by the loss of head coach Chris Logan to the University of North Dakota, a rather humbling statement of UNI’s place in the WoSo world. The Panthers may have finished third in the MVC last season, but they’re still searching for their first winning season since 2003. UNI did well to recover from a poor non-conference campaign, but a solid league season only led to postseason heartbreak when the club was beaten by a Loyola (Ill.) team that they had crushed just a few weeks earlier.

The new man in charge is former longtime Creighton boss Bruce Erickson, who should certainly know the territory from his years with the Big East side. Here, he’s stepping into what might be close to an ideal situation for a new boss, with a team that’s both experienced and not short of talent. Nine starters return, but the two losses are big ones, with top defender Mary Brandt and starting keeper Maddie Lesjak both gone. Backup Whitney Blunt also departs, which could create some serious worries in goal. If senior Sarah Brandt maintains form, and the likes of Sydney Hayden and Jenny Wick keep developing though, UNI might be potent in front of goal. As is, the MVC looks pretty close this year, meaning a finish in the upper-half of the table should be attainable.

Drake may have made a shocking run to a league title in 2015, but most were interested in seeing if the Bulldogs had staying power given their lack of consistent success over the years. While Drake did post some surprising non-conference results, including wins against Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Iowa State and a draw at Wisconsin, their league form left much to be desired. Drake needed a rally to lift themselves into mid-table, but it came to naught in the end, as they fell on penalties to Indiana State in the MVC Tournament quarterfinals.

Despite losing just three starters, Drake could be in tough given how important those players were to their program. The Bulldog offense was one of the league’s best and has to replace leading scorer Kayla Armstrong, who netted ten goals last year. Junior Alyssa Brand had six goals and is a solid building block, but nobody else had more than three, meaning youngsters like Cassandra Rohan and Annie Schmitz or senior Brooke Salisbury may need to have a breakthrough.

The story’s not much better defensively, where the club loses defensive anchor Sarah Grace Nicholson and starting goalkeeper Brooke Dennis. The latter is the easier problem to solve, with senior Haley Morris having started a good many games in net last year. Replacing Nicholson on the backline is a more devilish task, though senior Ali Smith is solid. The Bulldogs simply lose too much for a title push, but in a very close MVC, they could still finish in the league’s top half.

It was a season of differing fortunes for Evansville in 2016. On the one hand, their four wins represented the lowest total here since 2011, and their finish in the RPI was their worst in at least a decade. On the other, the Purple Aces managed to pull themselves together after a calamitous non-conference season to excel in league play. OK, three wins from six league matches may push the definition of “excellence” to its limits, but Evansville still finished second in the MVC and then advanced to the conference tournament final, where they were finally stopped by Illinois State.

The hope for 2017 has to be for a little bit more consistency throughout the entire campaign instead of just a late surge. Krista McKendree might be the league’s top long serving coach, but she also faces quite a challenge going into the new season with five starters departing. It’s not just the quantity but the quality of those departing that hurts, as the Purple Aces lose the league’s GK of the Year (Whitney Biggs), along with one of the league’s best defenders (Emily Richardson) and midfielders (Bronwyn Boswell). Boswell’s loss in particular hurts, as she netted eight goals, or as much as the rest of the team combined! With no real star returning, Evansville’s due a slide back down the table and may need to fight for a postseason slot.

In 2014, Valparaiso completed one of the biggest shocks in the history of the Horizon League, winning a league/conference tournament double out of nowhere. But they’ve found an encore difficult in the two years that have followed, with last season’s mid-table finish disappointing, especially with an early conference tournament exit while seeing their RPI slip markedly. The Crusaders opened up league play strong, winning three of their first four but faded down the stretch to slip down the league. It was a rather ignominious end to their time in the Horizon, as the program accepted a switch to the Missouri Valley Conference effective this season.

Adjusting expectations with conference changes is always an unpredictable task, but if you believe the MVC and Horizon League are similar in strength, Valpo will probably again be fighting for their postseason lives in 2017. The biggest question hanging over the Crusaders is who replaces April Cronin, one of the best players in the history of the program and who netted twenty-four goals the past three seasons here. Junior Cory Griffith is probably the offensive spearhead here now with seven goals last season, while sophomores Ava Porlier and Ali Quillen also impressed as rookies. But more than likely, the Crusaders are probably at least a year away from a serious challenge for honors in their new conference.

2016 was a mostly forgettable year for Indiana State. Eleven losses here was the most for the program since 2011 and marked the tenth losing season for the Sycamores in the past eleven years. ISU endured a middling non-conference slate, catching some beatdowns from big conference foes and won just one of its first five in the league as well. But four points in their last two MVC matches ensure postseason soccer, and ISU would top Drake in a shootout in the opening round of the tournament before falling in the semis to Illinois State.

While second-year coach Julie Hanley will hope for better after a full offseason having taken this job in July of 2016, the early signs aren’t encouraging. ISU loses a league high six starters from last year’s squad, including standout Maddie Orf, the midfielder having been one of the best players in recent years here. There is some talent returning, most notably on offense, where Katie Wells notched five goals and nine assists last year, with sophomore Pam Silies also logging four goals. But the loss of all that starting experience and a lack of strength in depth could bump ISU out of the postseason in 2017.

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