NCAA – 2017 America East Preview

Chris’ America East Projections

1. New Hampshire
2. Albany
3. Hartford
4. Vermont
5. Stony Brook
6. Maine

7. UMass-Lowell
8. Binghamton
9. UMBC

Steve Welham made a perfect debut at New Hampshire in 2014 in getting the club to the NCAA Tournament and has been doing his best to meet the raised expectations at the club ever since. Last year, UNH didn’t make many waves in non-conference play but made a roaring start to league play with a 3-0-1 mark in their first four America East matches. But the Wildcats hit a big wall in mid-October and lost four in a row to slide back to fourth in the league. They’d top Maine in the opening round of the conference tournament before losing to Albany in the semi-final, salvaging a little bit of pride in a rough collapse at the end of the season.

With eight starters back from last year’s side, UNH might be able to go the distance in the America East this season. It all starts up top for the Wildcats, with the reigning 2x league Striker of the Year Brooke Murphy. Already a club legend, Murphy will try to improve upon last year’s eleven goal haul and will need to be big, since nobody else on the club had more than two goals in 2016.

The biggest questions for UNH will likely be in goal, with solid stopper Mimi Borkan gone. Rookie Cameron Droste has been tipped for big things and could be immediately thrust into the spotlight. She or whoever wins the starting job will be happy for the return of senior defender Kendra Prince, one of the league’s best defenders a season ago. My projections have UNH as the America East’s #1 team and a threat for trophies on multiple fronts.

Albany had to have figured that they’d lose coach Caitlin Cucchiella sooner or later given her remarkable job in her post, but they probably didn’t count on losing her this soon and this abruptly, as she stepped down and retired following the 2016 season. As far as closing statements go though, Cucchiella couldn’t have asked for much more, winning a league title and then winning the conference tournament to clinch back-to-back NCAA Tournament bids. Understandably, Albany promoted assistant Nick Bochette to the top seat, but he has some major shoes to fill this year.

But Bochette has some headaches to overcome, as he loses five starters, including three departing with eligibility remaining. The Great Danes’ bread and butter last season was the league’s best defense, and there’s work to do to keep it that good. Junior Caroline Kopp should again be one of the league’s best defenders, but the promising Meagan O’Neil departs. With Chloe Borasky gone in goal as well, Albany will be picking between two true freshmen, Sophia Chen and Andrea Leitner, for the starting spot.

There are many departures going the other way as well, with midfield duo Caitlyn Paltsios and Alexa Schneider gone, as well as top scorer Kiana Rugar, who transferred to Florida Gulf Coast. Sophomore Meghan Cavanaugh returns to the midfield as reigning co-Rookie of the Year in the America East, while the joint leading scorers returning are senior Vivian Vega and junior Mariah Williams, with both having scored five times in 2016. An intact Albany would have been comfortable America East favorites in 2017, but they’re far from intact, meaning that they may slide from the top of the league, even if they’re still one of the league’s better teams on paper.

Hartford has had the unfortunate fate of becoming a postseason punchline over the past decade. The Hawks have been the America East’s most consistent side since the departure of Boston University, winning three straight league titles, but have also been unable to seal the deal in the America East Tournament, often being bounced in spectacular fashion. In fact, in the past nine America East Tournaments, the Hawks have been eliminated by lower seeded teams seven times! That technically was not the case last year, when Hartford were #2 seeds after sharing the league title with Albany, but it was still a crushing setback considering the Hawks took a lead in the conference tournament final before falling 2-1.

As has been custom here, Hartford loses a lot of talent but should still have enough to compete at the very least. The defense is hit especially hard, with Hartford losing league GK of the Year Jessica Jurg as well as Defender of the Year Caitlin Smallfield. Also gone is a All-League Second Team defender in Katie Connolly, leaving a lot to replace. Madison Stabile, who impressed as a rookie, could be big in the backline, but neither Stefanie Szot nor Maia Perez, the two keepers on the roster, have played a minute in college.

Which means the attack better be good this year. That’s a worry, with Midfielder of The Year Tori Tripp gone, though a lot of other attack talent returns. Six goal Julia Carr should lead the line, but the midfield could be the unit to watch, as it boasts reigning co-Rookie of the Year Sierra Stone as well as the talented Hayley Nolan. The Hawks should still make the postseason comfortably, but they may slip from their title winning perch this year.

Vermont may have gotten to the postseason last year, but they got there through the back door, only qualifying because UMass-Lowell was ineligible as a transitioning side to DI. But the Catamounts did their best to prove they belonged, upsetting Stony Brook in the quarterfinals on penalties before narrowly bowing out to Hartford. It was a decent recovery from an underwhelming league campaign, in which they won just one of their last six after a solid non-conference season.

The bar is set higher for the Catamounts going into 2017 though. Seven starters from last year’s side return, including most of the club’s top players from last year. The standout is likely going to be senior midfielder Sarah Martin, who logged three goals and two assists for the Catamounts. With just seventeen goals overall last year though, Vermont really does need an injection of offense to contend in the America East in 2017. Fortunately, the Catamounts made a big addition in that regard, signing Holy Cross transfer Aly Spencer, a former Patriot League Rookie of the Year in 2014 after an eleven goal season. Spencer sat out last season, but if she can knock the rust off, she could be a big addition for a Vermont side starving for star power. The Catamounts probably won’t measure up to the league’s upper crust, but anything less than mid-table in 2017 would be a massive disappointment.

I suspect the last place Stony Brook expected to be in head coach Brendan Faherty’s first season in charge was in the middle of a league title race, but that’s exactly where they found themselves last Fall. The Seawolves had won just one of their first eight matches and lost their league opener 4-0 to Albany, but they tapped into a rich vein of form late in the regular season, winning six in a row to set up an unlikely chance to win an America East title against Hartford in the finale. They’d fall 1-0 and finish third in the league before bowing out to Vermont on penalties in the America East Tournament, but after the malaise of the past few seasons, it was still a job well done.

The key now is for SBU to avoid the dreaded Second Season Syndrome under Faherty and push on in the America East. This doesn’t look like an easy task at first glance, as the Seawolves lose five starters from last year’s overachievers, including many of their best performers from a season ago. The offense in particularly gets crushed, with the loss of the team’s top two scorers, Raven Edwards and Amy Thompson, who combined for half of the club’s twenty-four goals. Midfield general Priscilla Wiggins also graduates, while impressive rookie Jada Stewart also is not back. Youngsters like sophomore Lea Kalmbach or rookie Chase Rome will likely need to be huge for SBU to keep flowing offensively.

The Seawolves are a little better defensively thanks to the return of junior Kaitlin Loughren, but they still might not be great enough to compensate for all the losses elsewhere. SBU faces an uphill climb in Faherty’s second season and will likely be in a fight for one of the last postseason spots in the America East.

How much does one player matter to a club? Maine, unfortunately, are going to find that out first hand in 2017. The Black Bears looked like being an America East dark horse this season with all eleven starters set to return, but the club was rocked by the offseason transfer of its best player, German Vivien Beil, to AAC powerhouse UConn. Granted, Beil even putting in two years at Maine was a bit of a shock considering she was a former German youth international with a bright future seemingly ahead of herself. With Beil last season, Maine spun their wheels a bit though, as the Black Bears started out well enough and even won their first two in the league but then slumped to just one win in their final six league games to back into the postseason, where they were duly dispatched by New Hampshire.

The problem was pretty clear: Maine couldn’t score. They netted just fourteen all season and didn’t manage more than one against any league foe. Losing Beil, their leading scorer, doesn’t exactly portend well in that regard. The Black Bears aren’t hopeless though. Senior Kendra Ridley is one of the league’s best returning defenders, while sophomore Kaitlyn Ball impressed in attack as a super sub last year. But Maine probably doesn’t have enough top line players to challenge for honors, meaning mid-table is the most likely destination for these Black Bears in 2017.

UMass-Lowell ended up being foiled only by their status as a transitioning side to DI last season, as had they been postseason eligible, they would’ve qualified for the America East Tournament. This was rather surprising to many, as the River Hawks hadn’t resembled a postseason contender for much of their DI tenure up to last season. If the club is to take the next step towards the postseason, they’re going to do so with new management, as Joel Bancroft resigned early this year, with UML men’s assistant Francesco D’Agostino stepping up. D’Agostino has been the head coach of the Boston Breakers Reserve Team, meaning he has coached women before, and likely at a fairly high level.

The River Hawks have got a solid shot of keeping the progress going, as they were pretty young last season and look set to return eight starters to the fore for 2017, obviously one of the top marks in the conference. The problem is that UML doesn’t really have the top line talent that some of the other established contenders in the league have. The promising Katelyn Vieira, leading scorer here last season, and Shannon Groffie have proved more than able at this level, but can they make the next step up to get Lowell beyond mid-table? Particularly concerning is an attack which scored just twelve times last year. Regardless, my projections give Lowell an outside, but realistic shot at the postseason this year.

There may have been a new face in charge at Binghamton in 2016, but the results were mostly the same for the Bearcats. They actually began the 2016 season in decent fashion, winning four of their first eight matches, setting them up as a potential surprise team in the America East. But a 5-0 loss in the league opener sapped their confidence, part of a six match stretch without a goal. The Bearcats would eventually won a few games, but the season still ended with them on bottom of the league and out of the postseason for a second straight year.

Neel Bhattacharjee will hope for better in his second season in charge, but the odds do not appear to be in his favor going into 2017. While the Bearcats do look like returning eight starters, five other clubs in the conference actually return more. What’s worse, the Bearcats don’t have much in the way of star talent on their side, making the club even more dependent on new and emerging talent. Hometown product Genna Michitti could be such a player and should be tipped to make an immediate impact on a slumbering offense. But the Bearcats need much more to compete for honors, and just cracking the top six in 2017 would be a big achievement.

If UMBC’s 2013 run to the NCAA Tournament was a Cinderella story, they’ve turned back into a pumpkin these past two seasons. The Retrievers under Leslie Wray were a great story in 2013-14 but have since reverted back to type and sunk back into the pack in the America East. The club’s home-away splits in 2016 pretty much told the story. 6-2-0 at home, 0-8-1 on the road. It’s almost impossible to have a good season if you can’t win on the road, and so it was for the Baltimore club, who saw those away day woes consign it to an eighth place finish and being outside of the postseason for the first time since 2012.

UMBC’s relative youth last season means it’ll have a leg up in terms of experience, as eight starters return, a tie for league high, look set to return for the Retrievers in 2017. Unfortunately, the one starter that does depart was the club’s best player, Alexa Quaranta, who was the club’s joint leading scorer with five goals last season. It likely means much more pressure on senior Gabby Boehmer, the other player with five goals for the club last year. With the golden generation of 2013-14 almost all having moved on, UMBC is again looking for some stars to step up, and that might mean another tough scrap for a postseason place this year.

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