NCAA – 2017 Patriot League Preview

Chris’ Patriot League Projections

1. Bucknell
2. Boston University
3. Navy
4. Colgate
5. Lehigh
6. Army West Point

7. Holy Cross
8. American
9. Loyola (MD)
10. Lafayette

With twenty-seven wins in two seasons, Bucknell’s Kelly Cook has established herself as one of the nation’s best young coaches, especially after a tremendous 2016 season for the Bison. Bucknell enjoyed a dream season last year, going unbeaten in their first fourteen matches before taking their only loss of the regular season against Lehigh. It was enough to see them bumped into a share of the league title with Boston University, but the Bison left no doubt about who the rulers of the league were in 2016 by winning the Patriot League Tournament by topping BU in the final. Penn State proved to be well out of Bucknell’s league in the NCAA Tournament, but there was still no shame in a sixteen win season.

With eight starters set to return, the Bison should again be right in the mix for Patriot League honors. Bucknell’s attack was absolutely electrifying in the Patriot League last year, netting almost three goals a game in the league. The Bison’s attack doesn’t come through completely intact, with Alexis Gannon departing after four goals and seven assists last year, while Patriot League Tournament MVP Cora Climo also graduates. However, Bucknell does return a deadly duo in Kendall Ham and Maddie Mulford, who combined for a whopping twenty-five goals and thirteen assists and should again terrorize opposing defenses this season. Senior midfielder Meghan Holtz isn’t a big offensive threat but is also a standout for the Bison heading into 2017.

Bucknell was also quite stout defensively in 2016 but has to replace starting goalkeeper Jessica Ratner, who was one of the best senior netminders in the nation last year. Sophomore Dani Kaufman saw a little bit of mop-up duty and will battle classmate Theresa Adu-Attobrah for the gloves. The backline should be fine though, with the return of senior stud Karli Cirovski the highlight. Also back are Jackie Ham, sister of Kendall, and promising sophomore Ali Russo. It looks like another big battle between Bucknell and Boston University, and the Bison certainly look like a club that could win another title in 2017.

Those familiar with women’s college soccer likely know of Boston University as a program almost always at or near the top of whatever league they’re playing in, be it the America East or the Patriot League. But last year, BU’s league success was coupled with something unfamiliar to the club: a losing record overall. It’s not hyperbole to say the Terriers experienced no non-conference success in 2016, as they lost all nine of their games before Patriot League play, albeit to six teams that would finish in the RPI Top 70. Normal service was resumed in the league with BU sharing a league title with Bucknell, but the Bison were the club’s Achilles’ heel last year, beating them both in the league and in the conference tournament final.

Unsurprisingly, BU looks in a position to again challenge for honors in 2017. The Terriers packed a mean bite on defense last year, shipping the fewest goals in league play and will likely be great again this year. Fifth-year senior Rachel Bloznalis returns after winning league Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2016, though BU has to replace excellent defender Rachel Blauner. Hannah Ciolek looks likely to take over in goal after splitting time with the graduated Bridget Conway last season.

The concern might be on offense, where nobody netted more than four goals on the season, though BU still scored their fair share in league play. Midfielder Julianna Chen doesn’t usually do the scoring but is still the standout of this group, with McKenna Doyle and Jesse Shreck also heavily involved in the attack. Rookie Kiana Ghamarifard could also be worth watching given her reputation coming into BU. The Terriers are well coached, well rounded, and well placed for another run at honors in the Patriot League in 2017.

A former mid-major power, Navy has receded a bit into a role of being a respectable side that does well considering some of their recruiting limitations. However, 2016 also represented the program’s first losing season since 1994. While losses to the likes of Stanford were expected, Navy also suffered puzzling defeats to DI minnows like Bowling Green as well. The Midshipmen were, well, middling in the Patriot League, finishing fifth after dropping their final two matches but upset Colgate in the conference tournament before falling to Boston University in the semi-finals.

At first glance, Navy could move up a bit in the conference this year and may actually have a claim at being the second best side next to league favorites Bucknell. While the Midshipmen probably don’t have true superstar talent as in previous years, they do have a collection of pretty good ones. The name to know is probably senior midfielder Natalie Dzhandzhapanyan, who doesn’t post big numbers on the stat sheet but still has a big impact on Navy’s game. Goals are likely to flow from high volume shooter Clare MacAdam, and potentially from sophomore super-sub Cadie Higginson or rookie Gabriella Gordon, though replacing leading scorer Rachel Feldman could be difficult.

The defense is a bit of a worry, as it was pretty average last year, but it isn’t a massive liability on paper. Navy looks like a side that could be more than the sum of their parts, which could be good news heading into early November.

A few seasons after winning fourteen games and potentially getting snubbed from the NCAA Tournament, Colgate is still searching for some of that magic, having won just fourteen games combined in the two seasons since. Last year saw a very promising beginning of the season with a draw against Syracuse followed by a shock win at LSU. The Raiders started league play hot as well, winning their first two matches before four straight losses to end title hopes. They’d recover to win their final three regular season matches but were upset by Navy in the conference tournament quarterfinal on home turf.

Now, it’s a matter of moving back towards the elite in the Patriot League, though Colgate looks to be treading water in mid-table based on the early 2017 outlook. Known for their attack, Colgate could again be strong in that department despite losing key forward Sarah Coy, who scored seven times last year. The Raiders should be in good hands though, as they return the league’s reigning Midfielder of the Year in Eliza Doll, as well as nine-goal Abby Sotomayor, last year’s Patriot League Rookie of the Year. Add in highly touted rookie midfielder Sage DiGulio, and Colgate should have few problems going forward. Defense is a much bigger concern given last year’s wobbly unit, which loses veteran Emily Pullen this year. If the Raiders can tighten up in the back though, their offense could help them up the table a bit, though a title challenge looks less likely.

2016 was a big step forward for Lehigh with a bit of a stumble late. The Mountain Hawks began the season on fire, getting a very creditable draw at Monmouth before winning seven in a row and extending a clean sheet streak to eight matches. Their form would waver a bit in the league, but three straight wins to close out the regular season still placed them third in the table. Lehigh would be upset in the opening round of the conference tournament at Lafayette’s hands, but considering it was still the program’s first winning season since 2010 and first postseason appearance since 2012, any quibbles would have to be minor.

For a program that’s been more down than up lately though, Lehigh will want to show they’re more than a flash in the pan. The Mountain Hawks couldn’t quite match their defensive pace early in the season when it came to league play last year, but it was still pretty stout. Senior Alyssa Riporti is one of the league’s best defenders and should marshal a group that could be one of the conference’s best and a unit that has promising sophomore keeper Sam Miller minding the nets behind them.

Lehigh has many more worries on the other side of the ball, as an average attack loses leading scorer Tori Pantaleo, who scored seven goals despite starting just eight matches. Nobody returning had more than four goals, and though senior midfielder Adrian Vitello is one of the league’s best, she’s not a big scorer, so the attack needs to find someone to step in and fire some in. The Mountain Hawks are probably a little one-dimensional to be a title contender, and my projections do think they might regress to the mean this year, even if they should return to the postseason.

Army West Point may have been expecting a little more out of the tenure of head coach Marcia McDermott at this point. Through four seasons, the Black Knights have zero postseason wins and no NCAA Tournament appearances, while also having missed the postseason the past two years running. Last season started out in brutal fashion, with the club losing its first six matches, scoring just one goal in the process. Three wins in four seemed to have shown that the Black Knights had just been too ambitious with non-conference scheduling, but after winning their league opener, they’d win just one of their remaining league matches, finishing ninth in the league when all was said and done.

AWP has a good shot at at least being in the postseason picture this year though, as they return eight starters, including one of the league’s elite in senior Clare Shea. She netted four goals and five assists on the season and probably would’ve tallied more had the club surrounded her with more weapons. Getting rookie Erynn Johns, a member of a vaunted Texas Rush side, could solve some of those problems with a little luck. Defense could be more of a concern anyway, with the loss of stellar keeper Jordan Cassalia. They won’t challenge for a title, but having Shea and some experience should put the Black Knights in the mix for the top six.

If Casey Brown had any illusions about the depth of the task facing her in her first season as head coach of Holy Cross, they were shattered in short order in 2016. The Crusaders gave their new head coach a win over Iona in her debut, but they then reeled off eight straight losses, going winless in the month of September. Form improved slightly later in the season, but the club still finished in a tie for eighth place and a few points out of the playoff places.

Can the Crusaders climb into the postseason picture in 2017? It will be difficult, but Brown’s side might not be as far off from mid-table as some might think. A big reason for optimism is the return of junior forward Ang Seslija. The Bosnian made a big leap forward last year, leading the team with six goals and could be one of the Patriot League’s best players if she keeps developing. If she’s not scoring though, Holy Cross could be in trouble, as nobody else on the team had more than two goals last season. With eight starters returning, the Crusaders should have a little continuity on their side and a solid chance at the top six and the postseason.

Six has not been a lucky number for Loyola (MD), who have now won six games in each of Naomi Meiburger’s three seasons in charge. Greyhounds supporters likely had high hopes for the former Georgetown assistant, but with two finishes out of the RPI Top 200 and further stagnation in 2016, worries may be beginning to mount. After winning three in a row to open last season and then shocking Saint John’s (NY) with a draw, the Greyhounds looked like a Patriot League side to watch. The reality however was much different, as the club went winless in six league games at one point and missed out on the postseason by a single point.

It’s hard to see how the Greyhounds make great progress in the short-term either. While it may not sound like much, the club’s four lost starters is actually second most in the league, and one of the departures, defender Nicole Wahlig, was probably the side’s best player last year. The offense scored just eighteen times last season, with nobody netting more than four goals. Meiburger’s going to need a big contribution from her rookies, with midfielder Molly O’Brien seemingly the one to watch. However, the overall lack of strength in depth could mean another season out of the postseason picture here.

2016 was an unmitigated disaster for American, who put up a ghastly 1-16-2 record, which included an 0-7-2 mark in the Patriot League, with the club managing just draws against Loyola (MD) and Army en route to a finish on the bottom of the conference. Anabel Hering’s four years in charge of the Washington D.C. side haven’t been a complete failure, with two Patriot League Tournament appearances, but the Eagles also haven’t managed more than six wins in any of her seasons in charge.

Reaching that figure could again be difficult in 2017. Getting eight starters back from last year’s squad might be enough to keep them off bottom in the league for a second straight year, but there’s little returning talent to inspire confidence, especially considering how goal shy the club was in league play last year. That might be why signing LSU transfer Gabriela Maldonado, a Colombian youth international, might be so important. If Maldonado and other newcomers shine, the Eagles might approach mid-table, but it still looks like a long shot on paper.

In a sense, Lafayette made a big breakthrough last season, reaching the postseason for the first time since 2011. On the other hand, “just” making the postseason as a bar to get over is probably more than a bit disappointing for a Leopards program that has been chronic underachievers in the Patriot League for the past decade and hasn’t won double digit games in a season since 2001. Lafayette started quickly last year with a five match unbeaten streak but had to survive a mid-season slump before just backing into the Patriot League Tournament after losing two of their final three. They’d make the most of their postseason appearance though, upsetting Lehigh in the opening round before falling at Bucknell.

While the hope has to be that Lafayette will use last year as a building block, on paper, it instead looks like last year might have been an unfortunate peak for the Leopards. The club loses six starters, two more than anyone else in the Patriot League, including some of the team’s best players from last year like defender Julia Westcott. The biggest worry though might be the loss of Melissa Lynskey, who scored nine of the club’s twenty goals last year, as well as Kaelin King, who had seven assists. Nobody returning had more than three goals or two assists, meaning the offense is a huge question mark. And that might be enough to push the Leopards back towards the bottom of the league.

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