NCAA – 2017 Mountain West Preview

Chris’ Mountain West Projections

1. San Jose State
2. San Diego State
4. Boise State
5. Fresno State
6. Utah State

7. Wyoming
8. New Mexico
9. Colorado College
10. Air Force
11. Nevada
12. Colorado State

Having won the Mountain West Tournament in 2015 and qualified for the NCAA Tournament, the bar was definitely higher for San Jose State going into 2016. Non-conference play revealed little given the lack of big teams on the docket, but the Spartans made a quick impression in the league with two away wins. A stretch of one win in four effectively killed their title hopes though, even with four straight wins later in the season. While SJSU did finish second, they would fall to San Diego State in a rematch of the 2015 Mountain West Tournament final, a tepid end to a solid season.

SJSU should again find itself in contention for the league title despite losing five starters. A big reason for the Spartans’ success has been the attack that led the conference in league goals scored last year, averaging nearly two and a half goals a game. There are some losses to overcome though, as second leading scorer Alexis Venegas graduates, along with the talented Maricruz Chapa. The presence of German youth international Dorthe Hoppius is a huge asset though, and her eight goals and five assists only reflect part of her contributions to SJSU. A big question is who will step in to replace Venegas’ goals. Yaritza Arista was impressive in her first season here, but the wild card is Darriell Franklin, who netted nine goals as a rookie but saw that total cut to three in 2016.

The Spartans weren’t great on defense but have tons of room to grow with sophomore Kristen Amarikwa coming off a campaign that saw her stake a claim as one of the nation’s best first-year defenders. Senior Myra Wilkes also returns after a great junior year, meaning this backline could be one of the league’s best. Though the worry about the offense being a little one-dimensional is real, the Spartans still look like a team with a real shot at winning the Mountain West in 2017.

Though San Diego State has still looked like one of the Mountain West’s best programs over the past half-decade, the sense of invincibility that once cloaked the Aztecs in the league has slipped a bit with the rise of new challengers like San Jose State and UNLV. SDSU struggled out of the gate against a rough non-conference slate last year and then won just two of their first five in the league. They’d rally to win four in a row though but got just one point in their final two games to slip out of the top two in the conference and into a quarterfinal in the conference tournament. That was of little consequence though, as they fought all the way to the final before falling on penalties for the second straight season at the last hurdle before the NCAA Tournament, this time to UNLV.

The Aztecs should again be amongst the title challengers this season, but losing five starters is not going to help their cause. The offense gets hit hard, losing the tricky and dynamic Victoria Barba, as well as Milan Moses. The top two returning options are probably seniors Angela Mitchell (4 G) and Aliyah Utush (3 G, 7 A but on fifty-three shots), but neither look like the type to carry an offense on their back. Much likely rides on Icelandic youth international Esther Arnarsdottir, a potentially potent addition on offense.

The defense did fine in the league but was run ragged at times by better attacks in non-conference play. Senior Stacie Moran is one of the best in the league, but the other pieces around her need to up their games for SDSU to reach their potential this year. My projections have SDSU just a tick behind San Jose State in the Mountain West this year but not far enough behind to rule out another league title if things break their way.

A program that had seemingly been one of the sleeping giants of mid-major soccer in the West, UNLV finally hit the jackpot in 2016. Few probably had much of an idea as to what the Rebels were bringing to the table last year, as they somehow did not play a single team that finished in the RPI Top 100 in the regular season. The Rebels also ended up dropping their league opener, but the pessimism soon faded, as they went on a colossal run in the Mountain West, not losing a game in the regular season after that loss to San Jose State, finishing as champions by a comfortable four points. They’d prove it wasn’t a fluke in the conference tournament, beating Utah State before capturing a double by toppling league giants San Diego State in the final on penalties after a wild 3-3 draw.

After a long string of futility before 2016 though, the Rebels will still likely be hungry for trophies this year. It definitely won’t be easy, as UNLV takes some major hits, losing six starters, tied for most in the conference. Some of the biggest hits come on offense, where fifteen goal scorer and All-American Lily Sender graduates after a storybook end to her college career. Also gone though are Susie Bernal, Dakota Blazak, and Jordan Magnin, who collectively combined for fifteen goals and nineteen assists. In terms of returners, senior midfielder Sophia Cortes had four goals and six assists and may be the new leader of the offense, while Georgia Kingman and Michaela Morris could be in line for expanded roles. Cal Poly transfer Caitlyn Kreutz is an under the radar addition who could be an astute signing after two solid years in the Big West.

Though the defense loses Hayley Wilson, one of the league’s best, it’s still in fine shape. The Rebels return league Defensive Player of the Year Chidera Akubuilo for her senior season, while Paige Almendariz and Isabella Myers could be key as well. Rounding things out, senior keeper Jordan Sallee also returns and should be one of the best in the league once more. UNLV simply loses too much in the attack to believe they’ll go back-to-back with league titles, but the defense returns enough to likely ensure they’ll still be in the postseason in the Mountain West.

While Boise State’s RPI was a disaster in 2016, thanks largely to an eight match winless streak to close out non-conference play, the Broncos managed to save face in the league. BSU went 4-1-1 in their opening six matches to put them in pole position for a spot in the Mountain West Tournament but almost bottled it in the end, winning just one of their final five and losing 6-1 (!) in the regular season finale against Utah State. They’d still edge their way into the postseason but went out rather harmlessly to San Diego State in the quarterfinal.

If things go BSU’s way in 2017, they’ll be in the top six of the league with a little more breathing room, as the Broncos do look like a top-half of the table team. On paper, the Broncos return nine starters, including all of last season’s top personnel. Defensively, were roughly a middle of the road side in 2016, and things would have been much worse without senior keeper Janelle Flores, likely the conference’s best netminder going into 2017. BSU needs more goals though, scoring less than a goal a game last year. Reigning league Newcomer of the Year Raimee Sherle was a revelation with seven to lead the team, but BSU desperately needs to find her some help in the attack. I don’t think Boise will challenge for honors this year, but they still look a likely bet for the postseason again.

Fresno State learned a very painful lesson in 2016, namely, don’t come out of the blocks in your league season at a walking pace. They won just one of their first six Mountain West matches, and despite winning four of their last five, found themselves out of the postseason places by two points. It was the latest blow for a struggling program that has now missed out on postseason play for three consecutive campaigns, though they did manage to get back above .500 for the first time since 2013.

For a program that’s floundered for a long time though, the goal for 2017 has to be to return to the postseason, especially with ten starters back, the most in the Mountain West. Offense will likely be Fresno’s calling card in 2017, and returning senior Myra Delgadillo is a good sign, as the Union City native has gone from not scoring as a rookie to netting nine goals and adding eight assists as one of the league’s most dynamic weapons. Swiss youth international Julia Glaser was herself a hit last year, scoring six goals despite starting just twelve games, and the duo could be one of the Mountain West’s most dangerous offensive duos.

Defensively, Fresno weren’t great and need to do better if the club is to return to the postseason. Head coach Brian Zwaschka juggled keepers incessantly last year, but German Marie Berwinkel-Kottmann saw most of the minutes late in the season and should be in favor to begin the season. With an experienced side coming back and a potent offense, there’s really no excuse for the Bulldogs to miss the postseason again, though mid-table might be their ceiling.

After a few lean seasons, Utah State ticked back upwards in 2016. While the Aggies didn’t provide much to cheer about before league play, once Mountain West action kicked into gear, the Logan side won five of their first six to set themselves up as title challengers. They’d endure a stretch of three losses in four that would eventually drop them to fourth in the league. USU would still win their first postseason match since 2013 by beating Wyoming, but league champs UNLV shot them down a few days later in the Mountain West Tournament semi-final.

Matching last year’s result could be difficult this season though, as the Aggies lose a league high six starters, including some big hitters. Defense was USU’s calling card last year, with the Aggies giving just nine goals in the league last year. Happily, this group should be pretty good again in 2017. Junior Kelsey Andersen is already on pace to become one of the league’s best defenders, while rookie Mealii Enos also had a fine rookie season. Add in Taylor Garza, a big get as a recruit for this program, and USU could again dominate defensively.

The attack is a much bigger question mark, with the graduation of Jessica Brooksby, who had nine goals and eleven assists, a giant loss that the Aggies need to overcome. Also gone are starting midfielder Jayne Robison-Merrill and Lauren Harmon, who had solid seasons for the team last year. The best offensive hope is senior Wesley Hamblin, who did net eight goals last year, but how she does as the likely top scoring option could make or break USU’s season. I’m probably a little higher on the Aggies than my projections, but mid-table is probably the limit for this side given the losses on offense.

It seems like Wyoming has been stuck in a rut as a program on the precipice of breaking into the Mountain West’s very top tier but unable to put the finishing touches on their ascension. The Cowgirls had a decent non-conference season, but they began league play in terrible form, losing their first three in the Mountain West. The Cowgirls would pull it together and rally to a fifth place finish, but they were still upset in the opening round of the conference tournament by Utah State.

Could 2017 be the year that Wyoming breaks away and challenges for honors? Early signs indicate that it won’t be, though the Cowgirls could still be a mid-table side. Despite returning more starters than most of the title challengers, Wyoming just doesn’t seem to have the star power that potential title rivals have. The Cowgirls were solid on both sides of the ball but didn’t really excel on either, though there’s probably more hope on offense. Michaela Stark was a great find as a rookie and led the team with six goals, but the Cowgirls need better from her supporting cast, which loses Shaina Ashouri, who netted nine goals and seven assists in 2015 but was a big disappointment for much of 2016. Adding JUCO All-American Jemma House, one of a growing Australian contingent here, could help.There aren’t really any stars defensively here, though Alisha Bass, also capable in midfield probably comes closest to fitting that bill. Wyoming looks like an average side this year that may have to fight for their postseason berth in the Mountain West.

2016 was about as a disappointing a season as you could imagine for a New Mexico program used to being one of the Mountain West’s top tier sides. For the first time since 2007, UNM’s season ended with their final league game, as they missed the postseason after a tepid eighth place finish in the conference table. The Lobos began the season with a grueling run on the road, not playing at home until mid-September. Three losses in four league games set the tone though, and by the time UNM won their last two conference games, the damage had already been done to their postseason aspirations.

There might be some worries that last year’s downturn might not be a temporary thing either. While New Mexico loses just four starters, hardly a death blow, the amount of star talent at a school that once had league legends Kelli Cornell and Jennifer Williams is negligible. Who supplies the scoring is a big question, with the six goals and four assists of Maddie Irwin having graduated. Senior Claire Lynch scored eight goals last year, including five in the league, but nobody else returning managed more than two. Highly touted rookie Cami Floth and other youngsters may need to step it up to keep Lynch from being swarmed by defenders.

New Mexico may find their calling card on defense this year, as they were about average last season but add in Mexican youth international Victoria Arvizu. History says the Lobos will rebound, but my projections are more bearish and think UNM could be out of the postseason mix for a second straight season.

Theoretically, Colorado College’s move from Conference USA to the Mountain West should have been a no-brainer that would’ve kept the Tigers closer to home and benefitted them in multiple ways. While the accountants may have breathed a sigh of relief, the move has been anything but a boon on the pitch for the Tigers. While CC kept pace with a solid 2014 season, they’ve since dropped off the pace in a concerning way, putting up back-to-back losing seasons at a school where that hadn’t happened since 1998-1999. Last year was another unhappy milestone, as the Tigers couldn’t make a decent non-conference showing stick, losing five of their last six, finishing ninth, and missing the postseason.

Those hoping for an instant fightback are probably going to be left disappointed, as Colorado College has some serious questions hanging over them going into 2017. The Tigers weren’t exactly replete with star talent last year, which means seeing defender Aleesa Muir leave the program after an impressive rookie season was a hammer blow. That loss is more pronounced this year considering the Tigers may need defense to win considering the state of their offense, which scored just eight goals in eleven league games. Leading scorer Clara Richter netted five goals, but needed a ghastly fifty-one shots to do so. Freshman midfielder Jenna Wilt is highly regarded, but CC may need much more to turn their attack around. That’s a tough ask though, and a third straight losing season here is a distinct possibility.

Air Force is one of the hardest places in DI to win at, and the fact that nobody’s really managed to do it with anything approaching consistency underlines the point. 2016 wasn’t a great season for the Falcons, but it wasn’t a disaster either. The Falcons didn’t do half-badly in non-conference play, going 4-2-1, which bred some optimism for league action. After a middling start, the Falcons began to wobble though and finished up with just one win in their final seven, leaving them out of the postseason but still wit their best RPI finish since 2010.

Can AFA break out of a cycle of being in the bottom half of the Mountain West though? At first glance, it doesn’t look too likely for 2017. The Falcons lose five starters, which is among the highest totals in the league and lack for star power. Sophomore defender Kasey Stavig looks like a solid enough prospect on a backline that needs them, but AFA’s been here before and has seen promising youngsters fail to really develop into stars. The Falcons really need to find a solid source of goals though, as nobody had more than four last year, with the club often going scorer by committee for much of the year. Freshman midfielder Brittany Mahowald is one to watch, but AFA needs more than just one youngster to step up and propel the offense. The Falcons might be able to avoid the league basement, but they still don’t look any closer to the postseason for 2017.

On paper, Erin Otagaki would have seemed to have not done enough in 2016 to warrant being promoted from interim co-head coach to the full-time position at Nevada. The Wolfpack weren’t awful in non-conference play, even beating a UC Irvine team that won thirteen games and also ended up winning their league opener against Fresno State. But the bottom promptly fell out for the Wolfpack, who would win just one of their final ten in the league, finishing next to last. It sealed a third straight season out of the postseason, but Otagaki still got the nod to continue on, with beleaguered Wolfpack supporters surely hoping she can bring some life to an often struggling program that hasn’t had a winning season since 2006.

However, it’s far more likely that Otagaki’s side is going to be in full rebuild mode this year. Some clubs are worse off in the Mountain West in terms of experience, as Nevada loses four starters, but not many of their conference rivals have as little star power as the Wolfpack. The big worry is obviously in attack, where Nevada scored just twelve goals last year and had nobody net more than two. I doubt they’ll be that bad again in front of goal, but Nevada still looks like a threat to finish bottom in the league.

Now entering their fifth year of play as a varsity DI program, Colorado State must surely be hoping for a much needed breakthrough on the pitch. The Rams have struggled to gain traction though their first four years and again found league play a rough go. There was surely a little more optimism at the beginning of the season when the club went 2-2-0 in their first four, but they’d win just one more game the rest of the way, culminating in a last place finish in the Mountain West table. Bill Hempen probably figured he had a big task ahead of him in getting this program up and running from scratch, but in a talent rich area, even he surely hoped for a little bit better by this point of the program’s lifespan.

At first glance, 2017 doesn’t look to be the year of the breakthrough in Fort Collins. The Rams aren’t gutted by graduation, getting seven starters back, but the lack of star power here at the moment is particularly glaring. A couple of interesting transfers, Caeley Lordemann, who netted four goals for Creighton last year, and Hunter Peifer, once a very highly regarded goalkeeping prospect, could bridge a little of that talent gap. But the Rams still look like a big work in progress, meaning the postseason is unlikely again.

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