NCAA – 2017 Conference USA Preview

Chris’ Conference USA Projections

1. Charlotte
2. Rice
3. Western Kentucky
4. Old Dominion
5. Florida Atlantic
6. UTEP
7. Louisiana Tech
8. Marshall

9. Middle Tennessee State
10. North Texas
11. Southern Miss
12. Florida International
13. UAB
14. UTSA

2016 looked like another season of Charlotte being Charlotte, i.e. the poster child of a program somehow doing less with more. Despite having some of C-USA’s best players and being flush in an area with great youth talent, the 49ers under John Cullen had seldom threatened for trophies. The 49ers finished an uninspiring sixth in the league in 2016 after dropping their last three league games and looked to be staring down another less than fulfilling season. And then a weird thing happened. Charlotte knocked out Western Kentucky on penalties in the C-USA Tournament. And beat UTEP. And then crushed Florida Atlantic in the final to lift silverware and clinch an NCAA bid. Suddenly, Charlotte’s narrative had changed dramatically.

The next goal is to show that last year’s postseason wasn’t a fluke and that the 49ers are here to stay as a force in Conference USA. At first glance, the 49ers should at least be able to compete for a much coveted league title. Charlotte will likely be riding their offense to any success this season, with arguably the league’s best player, Martha Thomas, returning for her senior season. Thomas was one of the nation’s few players to achieve the “double-double” last year, scoring ten goals and assisting on ten as well. The key is, Thomas won’t be along, as the club also returns reigning league Freshman of the Year Megan Greene, who netted ten goals and six assists as a rookie. Replacing midfielder Katie O’Neill could be tough, but Charlotte should still have enough offense to trample most opposing defenses.

There are more questions defensively, where C-USA Tournament Defensive MVP Shelby Hicks graduates, while last year’s starting keeper Anna Shelden also departs. Set piece threat Riley Orr returns at full-back after eleven assists a season ago and is joined by promising rookies Meredith Hamby and Brianna Morris. In goal, last year’s backup, Abby Coffey, will likely battle prized recruit Alivia McKelvy for the starting job with Shelden gone. There are some questions on defense, but the 49ers still look to have enough on the other side of the ball to be installed as preseason title favorites in C-USA.

2016 brought another strong RPI finish and third straight winning season for a Rice program that’s done quite well under Nicky Adams. Last year, the Owls had a bit of a middling non-conference season, though they did net a nice 3-3 draw against SoCon powerhouse Samford as the highlight before league play kicked in. Losing two of their first three in the league scuttled their title hopes, but Rice were fabulous after, winning their final seven in the league to finish as runners-up. With the Owls in-form, they looked like a nice pick for the C-USA Tournament, but they were shocked by UTEP in the quarterfinals, 1-0.

The Owls look set to return eight starters from last year’s runners-up, which means they should again be a title challenger. The attack could be the focus for Rice this year with the club returning the reigning C-USA Midfielder of the Year, senior Samantha Chaiken, though she didn’t show a great cutting edge in front of goal last year. Considering the Owls didn’t have anyone net more than five total last year, you could argue the entire squad needs to show a sharper edge in front of goal. Senior Mia Stallings could be looked at as the go-to scorer after leading the club with five goals, while Erin Mikeska could be in line for a bigger role after an impressive rookie year. The Owls will also be looking for big things from rookie Remy Mathews, a midfielder who is the club’s top newcomer on paper.

Rice gave up just six goals in the league last year, but they have some huge holes to fill thanks to graduation and attrition. The backline gets hit with a double blow, losing Defensive Player of the Year Jenny Fichera, who tied for the team lead with seven assists, and the stellar Jasmine Isokpunwu. Also gone is promising goalkeeper Samantha Colley, who departs after one season. It means the Owls will decide between sophomore Maya Hoyer, who started a few games last year, and true freshman Amanda McMaster. There are some major defensive questions, but Rice returns enough talent and have solid coaching to believe they’ll be in the mix near the top of C-USA this year.

Western Kentucky have found life in Conference USA agreeable. At least in the regular season. WKU did quite well in that department last year, putting together enough wins for a third place finish in the C-USA table. However, for the third straight season, the Hilltoppers were bounced in the first round of the C-USA Tournament, this time losing on spot kicks to eventual tournament winners Charlotte. WKU enjoyed success last season through a crushing defense, giving up just four goals in league play in 2016.

Repeating that feat this season probably won’t be easy, as the Hilltoppers lose five starters overall but also lose their best player, Olivia Fitzgerald, who was one of C-USA’s best defenders last year. One of the team’s best players may be midfield hammer Nicole Roseland, who had no goals or assists but was still one of the league’s best players last year. WKU’s signing of strong defensive prospect Avery Jacobsen should help replenish some of the stocks, but the Hilltoppers are probably going to be leaning a lot on goalkeeper Allison Leone. Leone has been a three-year starter here and could be one of the nation’s best senior keepers if she continues developing.

The defense has to shine, because the offense was pedestrian last year. The dependable Iris Dunn departs after five goals, but the club could have a future star in sophomore Chandler Backes. Backes’ ten goals last year led the team, but she also slowed down noticeably over the second half of the season. Nobody else netted more than four goals last year, meaning freshmen like Paige Goodman could make a big impact early here. The Hilltoppers probably lose a bit too much to contend for a title, but they should have a chance of matching last year’s finish and might finally win a postseason match in C-USA.

Head coach Angie Hinds has brought respectability back to Old Dominion soccer, but she’s now searching for a breakthrough to get them into contention for trophies in C-USA. The Monarchs took their lumps in non-conference play but did just enough when league play rolled around, including winning their last two regular season games on the road, to sneak into the C-USA Tournament. ODU went out to league champs North Texas, but the feeling of slow progress is evident, though the Monarchs still are looking for their first winning season since 2008.

ODU fans could see that long losing streak end this year, as they look like one of the league’s better sides. While ODU’s defense wasn’t one of the best in the conference, they still gave up the same number of goals as league champs North Texas, which is an encouraging sign. Towering fifth-year senior Jackie Stroud could be one of the league’s best defenders and is a strong anchor to this backline.

Offense is a thornier issue, with the Monarchs not scoring a goal a game in the league last year. Table setter Kathryn Hill has graduated, and the pressure is really going to be on Dutch junior Iris Achterhof, who impressed as a rookie but saw her goal total cut in half to just four last year with increased defensive attention. Hinds has again gone to the international well in hopes of unearthing a gem and brought in Belgian youth international midfielder Demi Maris, who could be another solid offensive cog for the club. The Monarchs probably aren’t going to win a title, but a top five finish in the league is more than achievable.

Back-to-back twelve win seasons have Florida Atlantic operating with a renewed sense of optimism after some time in the wilderness. After a tepid non-conference season in 2016, the Owls got out to a good league start, winning three of four and also finishing in solid fashion to lock up fourth place in the league. The Owls would save their best for the postseason though, topping Louisiana Tech and league champs North Texas to get themselves just one step away from the NCAA Tournament. But their dream would turn into a nightmare, as FAU got pummeled by Charlotte, 4-0, to fall just one win short of the Big Dance.

The pressure will be on in 2017, as the Owls will have home advantage in the C-USA Tournament and perhaps their best opportunity at the league’s automatic NCAA bid. It won’t be an easy ride though, as FAU loses four starters and some big talent. Hardest hit is a defense that gave up just five goals in league play last year. league Goalkeeper of the Year Sydney Drinkwater departs, as well as the club’s best defender, Erica Burt, and the underrated Sophie Sanchez. Junior Jennifer Ocampo is the only returning keeper and is of limited experience, meaning the Owls better hope for some career years on their backline.

The defensive losses are doubly worrying considering FAU scored under a goal a game in the league last year. Leading scorer Sammy Rowland departs after netting eight goals, with nobody returning having netted more than four in 2016. The likes of senior Asta Arnadottir and sophomores Elisha Holmes and Mary O’Hara had their moments last year but seem unlikely to carry a team on their back this year. My projections seem certain FAU isn’t a top tier team in C-USA, but the volatility in the league this year might mean they still get to mid-table and, in any event, the Owls are dangerous in the postseason because they host the conference tournament.

Double-digit wins have become as common as the Texas sun at UTEP, and the Miners again reached that threshold last year, with their thirteen wins the most here since 2009. However, those wins need to be viewed with a little skepticism, as UTEP played a laughable non-conference slate, not facing anyone in the RPI Top 125. That that slate may not have prepped UTEP for league play became apparent as they lost their league opener to an awful UAB side and dropped three of five before a final day win got them back to seventh in the final league table. An upset over Rice in the opening round of the C-USA Tournament was a nice flourish, even if the Miners would fall to Charlotte a few days later.

The Miners’ win over Rice was their first postseason win since 2011, but keeping that momentum going could be tough given some of the personnel losses UTEP faces. The Miners had one of the league’s best offenses last season but loses top scorers Bri Thomas and Aleah Davis, who combined for fourteen goals and twelve assists. Nobody returning had more than three goals last season, meaning returnees like Lauren Crenshaw and Jeanna Mullen, who impressed at times in 2016, will need to step up. If not, the Miners might be dependent on newcomers like highly rated midfielder Anna Jimmerson to push them forward in attack.

The offense has to perform, because the defense was nothing to shout about, with junior goalkeeper Alyssa Palacios forced into one hundred thirty-two saves last season. UTEP’s non-conference slate again looks laughable, which probably means double digit wins again, but given the losses on offense, mid-table appears to be their ceiling in C-USA this season.

More bark than bite for much of their history, Louisiana Tech has gradually evolved into one of Conference USA’s more reputable sides. The Bulldogs have now reached the postseason in three straight seasons but are still waiting for the big breakthrough of winning a major trophy in C-USA. To be frank, LT’s non-conference slate was a bit of a joke, and perhaps did not have them prepared for the early part of league play, where they lost three of their first five. Four straight wins down the stretch solidified fifth place in the table, but the Bulldogs promptly got trounced by Florida Atlantic in the C-USA Tournament quarterfinal.

LT will hope that they haven’t peaked and can continue upward, but it might be hard this year with five starters departing. The biggest question is on offense, as the club loses the nine goals and six assists of Kathryn Sloan. The Bulldogs will have to hope that Mylene Roy-Ouellet can translate some of her non-conference goals to league play, while midfielder Jaelyn Peeples could also make an impression after a solid rookie season here.

Tech’s defense wasn’t particularly great last year but could take a big step forward with the return of standout senior defender Nomvula Kgoale and addition of ace recruit Katherine Alexander. The only concern may be losing starting keeper Kylee Seto, with Italian Carlotta Cartelli likely to battle Mississippi State transfer Courtney Tompkins for the gloves. The Bulldogs have the looks of a mid-table team this year and might have to fight hard for a postseason berth if they can’t find a steady source of scoring.

After a near dream season in 2015, Marshall snapped back to reality in a big way last season. Non-conference play was relatively disappointing, and was a mere setup for the Thundering Herd needing four games to get their first league win. They’d go a solid 4-2-1 down the stretch in C-USA, but the slow start proved fatal, as even with a win against Charlotte on the final day of the regular season, Marshall finished a point shy of the conference tournament and finished with their first losing record since 2012.

The Herd’s attack was a bit tepid last season, and those problems might get worse this season with the loss of midfielder Sydney Arnold, one of the best players in recent club history and a player who had a hand in eleven of the club’s twenty-one goals last year. Returnees Jordan Sackaris and Shontelle Smith did combine for eleven goals, but it remains to be seen how they cope with the increased defensive attention after Arnold’s departure.

Marshall wasn’t bad defensively, even if they weren’t great, giving up just a little more than a goal a game in the league. They may need to be a bit better this year considering the offensive questions after Arnold’s graduation. With eight starters back, Marshall probably isn’t going to fall off a cliff, but losing someone like Arnold from your ranks isn’t going to make for an easy transition. Nevertheless, there might be enough here for Marshall to edge their way back into the postseason.

2015 ended with Middle Tennessee State finishing in the Top 70 in the RPI and with a run to the C-USA Tournament semi-final. 2016 was not so kind to the Blue Raiders. Just two wins in seven games in non-conference play should have been a bit concerning, but after winning their league opener, MTSU would go on to promptly lose eight of their nine other C-USA matches. It left them almost on bottom of the league and searching for answers as they try to find some consistency after being a solid Sun Belt team for so many years. It’s hard to imagine a worse season than 2016 though, and MTSU ended up finishing out of the RPI Top 200 for the first time in this past decade.

The Blue Raiders are a good candidate to bounce back up the table in 2017 though to a certain extent. Having seven starters back gives them a solid edge on some other clubs in the league, but MTSU loses one of the league’s best young players in the form of forward Salera Jordan, who transferred to Tennessee after she easily led the club in scoring last year with seven goals. MTSU was gashed on defense in 2016, giving up twelve in their final four alone. Junior Sydney Navarro is a solid defensive option, but she really needs help to get the Blue Raiders’ rearguard into shape. C-USA looks relatively wide open after the league’s top four, and MTSU probably has a decent shot at the postseason but little more this year.

Winning is a habit at North Texas, and the Mean Green won big in 2016. UNT struggled against credible competition in non-conference play other than a draw at Oregon State, but they were just fine when league play started up. The only blot on the Mean Green’s copy was a shocking 3-0 loss at UTSA, but the club ran the table otherwise and brought home another league title. The C-USA Tournament appeared to be another march to the NCAA Tournament, but UNT was shocked in the semi-finals by Florida Atlantic, the loss leaving them out of the Big Dance with their desolate non-conference resume.

There should be no shortage of motivation in Denton given the ending of last season, but the club could be in tough in 2017 with four starters gone, including most of last year’s top players. UNT has been known for its offense for years, but that unit gets crushed by graduation this season, the biggest loss being of club legend Rachel Holden. Holden led the team in goals with ten despite missing two games while also adding four assists. Compounding matters is the loss of second leading scorer Marchelle Davis (9 G, 8 A). And joint third leading scorers Hailey Sutton and Anna Flobeck (each with five goals). Nobody returns with more than three goals scored last season, an ominous fact for the offense heavy Mean Green program. Freshman Ariel Diaz, a Mexican youth international, is highly rated coming in and should have every chance of winning major minutes early up top, likely with some of the club’s other numerous offensive newcomers.

UNT’s defense was better than most in C-USA but may need to excel while the offense finds its feet. Junior center-back Carissa Sanders will likely be the player to watch on the backline once again, while sophomore Miranda Schoening and Brooke Bradley battle it out for the starting job in goal after each starting roughly half the season in 2016. My projections are very down on North Texas, believing the Mean Green might struggle to even make the C-USA Tournament. But UNT and head coach John Hedlund always seem to figure it out, meaning writing them off should only be done at your own peril.

On it’s face, 2016 shouldn’t have been memorable for Southern Miss. The C-USA strugglers finished out of the postseason again, but they also ended up with an uncommon achievement in these parts: a finish above .500. It marked the first time since 2003 that the Golden Eagles were above the threshold, and even though some liberal non-conference scheduling helped, it was still an important sign of slight growth here under Mohammed El-Zare. Now, there has to be movement towards the club’s first postseason appearance since 2007.

And the good news for the Eagles is that this group actually has a fighting chance despite so many years of struggles. While USM looks like losing four of last year’s starters, they also should return the best players from last year’s group. Fifth-year senior Katie Richmond has made the most of her second chance after beginning her career with Florida and should lead a decent C-USA attack along with fellow senior Becky McMullan, a nice find out of Northern Ireland. Add in a nice freshman midfield prospect in Georgia native Keely Hoppmeyer, and you could see USM troubling some defenses this season, though they were still one of the league’s lowest scoring units in conference play.

Defensive improvement will be needed though. USM wasn’t one of the league’s truly awful defenses, but they still were in the bottom half in terms of goals allowed. My projections don’t show USM as a top eight side in C-USA this year, but it also shows they have a fighting chance of breaking into the postseason if they get some breaks to go their way.

Florida International’s struggles in Conference USA continued in 2016, as the Golden Panthers endured a miserable three win season. They managed to avoid the basement of C-USA, but still were a whopping seven points out of the postseason places when all was said and done. FIU was forced to wait until mid-September for their first win on their seventh attempt, a shocking triumph at ACC side Miami (FL). But it was pretty much all down hill after that point, with FIU netting just a pair of wins in the league as they missed the C-USA Tournament for a third straight season. It wasn’t a shock that the Panthers parted ways with Thomas Chestnutt at season’s end. It was a surprise to see Sharolta Nonen, former Canadian international, installed considering her most recent position was assistant at an awful East Carolina program.

It probably isn’t going to be easy for Nonen to spark an immediate turnaround. FIU does return eight starters, but the lack of star talent at C-USA is glaring. FIU scored just twelve goals last season, and the woman responsible for half of those, Alyssa Robinson, graduates. The defense here wasn’t any great shakes either last year and now has to replace starting keeper Sophia Trujillo, with Serbian Nevena Stojakovic hoped to get back to the form she showed earlier in her career. Mid-table is crowded in C-USA this year, so the postseason is a possibility, but I wouldn’t count FIU as a favorite to break into the top eight.

Change happened at UAB in the offseason. It just didn’t happen as soon as some might have thought. The Blazers endured another dreary season in 2016, finishing last in the league once again. They had actually been in middling form in non-conference play, albeit netting wins against far overmatched opponents. They even won their league home opener against UTEP, a shocker considering the Miners won thirteen games on the year. But that was the Blazers’ last win, as they finished the season on an eight match winless skid. The hapless Harold Warren didn’t end up going until the Spring though, meaning Iowa assistant Erica Demers was only appointed in late May.

She has a task ahead of her, to put it kindly, as UAB has been a doormat in C-USA for the better part of half a decade. The Blazers do have an advantage that some league rivals lack though for 2017: continuity. UAB returns ten starters for 2017, most in the league. The problem is those same starters didn’t exactly inspire much faith last year. Vets like defender Amy Brewer are going to have to come up big while the rookies find their feet, but perhaps the energy of new leadership will spur UAB on. This was once a dangerous mid-major program, so Demers will fancy her chances of crafting a winner in time, though you figure they only have an outside shot at the postseason in 2017.

UTSA’s 2016 season, a 7-12-0 campaign, probably didn’t look like much on paper at first glance, but it was still a modest step forward for a program that had been close to rock bottom. The Roadrunners had won just a single game the season before, with the seven wins here the most since 2011. Yes, a lot of those non-conference wins were against the minnows of the region, but UTSA also managed three league wins, including one of the shocks of the season, a 3-0 demolition of league heavyweights North Texas. UTSA was still six points short of the postseason places in C-USA, but for the first time in a while, it feels like the needle may be pointed back upwards here.

However, my projection engine is a little skeptical of the Roadrunners right now. While they do get nine starters back, tied for second most in the conference, the hollowing out of the talent reserves here is more than a little noticeable. Sophomore Jordyn Lacy is probably the club’s best player at the moment, netting five goals and five assists as a rookie, though roughly half of that production came against weaker clubs in non-conference play. She and leading scorer Kaja Skare are going to have to keep firing true, as the defense stunk it up last season, shipping more than two goals a game. I’m probably a little more optimistic about UTSA than my projections indicate, but unless they strike gold with some youngsters (especially on defense), I think they’ll still be a bit short of the postseason places.

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