NCAA – 2017 Big West Preview

Chris’ Big West Projections

1. Long Beach State
2. UC Irvine
3. UC Santa Barbara
4. Cal State Fullerton

5. Cal State Northridge
6. UC Davis
7. Cal Poly
8. Hawaii
9. UC Riverside

Long Beach State looked dead and buried in the Big West at one point in 2016, but they proceeded to show why they should never be counted out just a little bit later in the season. The 49ers have racked up seven winning seasons in a row and are largely considered the class of the pack in the Big West. LBSU showed their quality early last year, beating eventual national champs USC but entered league play on a stretch of five losses in six matches, albeit against brutal competition. The Beach went on a nice run early in league play but found their postseason hopes endangered with a one win in four run on the road in the middle of league play. In a must win circumstance though, LBSU won their final regular season match and both matches in the Big West Tournament to bring home another trophy and NCAA Tournament bid, though their journey would end against Santa Clara in the first round.

The Big West is always close and rarely predictable, but Long Beach has a great shot at more silverware in 2017. The Beach’s defense was a rock last year, shipping just four goals in the league and is probably going to be in a position to be strong again this year. The backline is anchored by returning sophomore duo Chloe Froment and Kaitlin Fregulia, who played beyond their years for LBSU last season. Froment in particular looks like a future All-American and will be eager to build on last year’s success. The 49ers do have to replace Ashton McKeown, one of the nation’s best senior goalkeepers, but appear to have some solid contenders, choosing between Imani McDonald, who saw a fair amount of action when McKeown was hurt, as well as Mia Hummel, a transfer from Texas A&M.

Offense could be a bit more spotty based on last year’s scoring record, as the goals largely dried up in league play. At least the club does still have a go-to scorer in senior Ashley Gonzales, the reigning league Offensive Player of the Year after netting eleven goals last year. Nobody who returns netted more than three goals though, and the club has to replace Mimi Rangel, one of the league’s best players in midfield. The Beach will need some additional offense to truly flourish, either from returnees like midfielder Dana Fujikuni or newcomers like highly rated rookie Kayla Cannon or Santa Clara transfer Katie Pingel, once a big time recruit. LBSU looks solid everywhere, even with a few big departures and has two of the league’s best in Froment and Gonzales. They look like title contenders and could ruin someone’s day in the NCAA Tournament with the right matchup.

After two straight losing seasons, UC Irvine got close to recapturing some of their earlier glory under Scott Juniper but didn’t quite get there. Non-conference play brought wins over the ACC’s Pittsburgh and Pac-12’s Oregon, but UCI went a bit cold as league play approached. After a draw with Long Beach State though, Irvine won five of their next six. With a chance to clinch a share of the league title on the final day of the season, the Anteaters capitulated to Cal State Fullerton but got some revenge in the Big West Tournament semi-final, knocking the Titans out after penalties. Irvine would be the ones to suffer in the final though, as mortal rivals Long Beach State delivered a 3-0 beating to UCI.

The Anteaters can rejoice in knowing that they were probably a little ahead of schedule last year with a young squad and are legit title contenders in the Big West this season. Attack-wise, UCI should be very dangerous, with the return of midfielder Kiana Palacios, who missed six games last season but still led the team with nine goals, a big plus for Juniper’s side. The Anteaters have plenty of talented forwards to choose from, with Noel Baham (6 G, 8 A) and Lili Andino (5 G, 2 A) the pick of the returnees. Adding in U.S. U17 international Sydney Carr should only give Juniper more weapons, and UCI’s attack could be the league’s best this year.

The only starter gone is a big one on defense though, with Kelsey Texeira, one of the league’s best defenders gone. UCI doesn’t have anybody in that class returning, though senior Andrea Mensen and sophomore goalkeeper Maddie Newsom, are likely to play a key role for Irvine’s defense this year. In a league with some fierce defenses, UCI’s options in attack could make up for any defensive fallout after losing Texeira, and the Anteaters are on the shortlist of Big West title challengers this year.

UC Santa Barbara reverted to type last season. A year after winning a share of the league title, UCSB instead found itself in a tie for sixth place, miles away from the postseason. The Gauchos had started the year out with great promise, winning their first eight, albeit against lesser competition. But after winning their league opener, Santa Barbara hit a monstrous slump, winning just one of their last seven games and losing their last four to be saddled near the bottom of the conference. This has been UCSB’s story more often than not under Paul Stumpf’s management, promising much and delivering little.

However, it might be a good year to at least give the Gauchos a little bit of the benefit of the doubt when prognosticating. UCSB has eight starters returning, and some nice talent on both sides of the ball. It’s the attack which should feature this year though, with senior Amanda Ball set to be one of the league’s best attacking threats. Ball scored ten goals last year but just two in the league but remains the Gauchos’ top attacking threat by a mile. Nobody else here scored more than four goals, though the hope has to be that Mallory Hromatko, who endured a sophomore slump, can get back to her freshman form, where she netted nine and added six assists.

There are bigger questions on defense, as UCSB tied for most goals conceded in Big West games last season. With the team losing top defenders Sydney Fuertes and Savannah Francis, the Gauchos desperately need a breakthrough somewhere. Rookies Grace Carter & Maya Nielan have been tipped for success and could be thrown right into the fire for UCSB. My projections engine says the Gauchos are a legitimate Big West title threat, but given this program’s track record, I’m more inclined to think they’ll be in the postseason but not good enough on defense to challenge for honors.

What goes up in the Big West generally tends to come down, a lesson that Cal State Fullerton learned first hand last year. It’s true that a third place finish in a deceptively difficult league would be fine for many programs, but the Titans were fresh off a sixteen win season and an RPI Top 25 finish. But Fullerton also knew going into 2016 that they were probably in for a bit of a rebuild after major losses to graduation. They were fine once league season rolled around, but Demian Brown’s side learned some hard lessons in a trying non-conference schedule. They’d bow out to UC Irvine on penalties in the Big West Tournament semi-finals, but as far as rebuilding years go, it wasn’t a bad one.

The Titans could get their retribution on the rest of the Big West this season, as they look set to return a league high ten players from last year’s squad. The one loss, of starting goalkeeper Jennifer Stuart, is a bit of a worry, but likely starter Morgan Bertsch has picked up a solid amount of experience in three years here, so Fullerton probably won’t be too bad off. Tala Haddad was the best of the backline last year, which was a little above average but should improve with another year to gel. Despite struggling in non-conference play, the Titans had the Big West’s best attack in conference matches, and it wasn’t even close. Sarah Fajnor led the pack with seven goals, but nobody else had more than four, with things largely going by committee. The Big West looks wide open between four teams this year, and given the large number of returning starters and solid talent, Fullerton might take a quantum leap towards more silverware.

In 2016, Cal State Northridge was the latest Big West team to grab a hold of the poisoned chalice that often is the league’s regular season title. They managed a draw at Oregon State and against Pepperdine in the non-conference season and also beat MAC heavyweight Ball State. The Matadors certainly didn’t look like a league winner early in Big West play, needing a third match to get a win, but they promptly won all six of their final conference games to claim a surprising title. However, Northridge’s semi-final opponent in the Big West Tournament was the one team that beat them in the regular season, and it was on their home turf, with Long Beach State again breaking Matador hearts in a 1-0 loss.

Northridge isn’t about to need a true rebuild, but they do have some work to do to retain their league crown after losing five starters. Defense has always been CSUN’s calling card, and they gave up just two goals in league play and nine overall last year. However, the Matadors have to replace league Defensive Player of the Year Nicole Thompson, a stalwart on the backline. Northridge still has ace goalkeeper Jovani McCaskill and a couple of key defenders in Lindsay Kutscher, the team’s leading returning scorer, and Amanda Martin returning, meaning the group will still likely be one of the league’s best.

There are big worries on offense, where the Matadors fired blanks too often and actually averaged less than a goal a game in the league last year. Gone are leading midfielder Taylor Hobson, along with two other midfield stalwarts in Kourtney Kutscher and Camille Watson. The top returning option for goals is senior Cynthia Sanchez, but she saw her total drop from eleven to three last season, which is concerning for a side with little proven offense. That lack of scoring could prove fatal to postseason hopes, though my projections think the defense might just be good enough to see Northridge in with a fighting chance.

2016 was a bit of a double-edged sword for UC Davis. Davis did finish fifth in the league, solidly stepping away from the bottom tier of the conference. But the Aggies also still found themselves four points off of fourth place and the postseason places, a zone they haven’t been in since 2011. UCD were ice cold to begin last year, winning just one of their first five and won just three matches overall heading into league play. They’d be cold early in the Big West with one win in four but went 2-1-1 to win “best of the rest” honors, for what it was worth.

Can UCD push themselves beyond mid-table in a brutally cutthroat conference this year? It looks difficult, to say the least. Davis loses four starters, including a clutch of last year’s top performers. The offense is particularly hard hit, losing Rachel Ahr up top, along with midfielders Andi Damian and Celina Minissian. They combined for just eight goals, but when you score just twenty-one as a team, losing any production is a problem. Davis will hope to have their solution to any scoring woes with the signing of rookie Lauren Bouvia, the all-time national leader in high school goals. There’s a little more continuity on defense. Utility player Roisin Allaeddini returns after impressing as a rookie, while junior keeper Alexis Smith could grow into one of the best netminders in the league. UCD doesn’t look like a “bad” team, per se, but they also still appear to be short of the quality to bust into the league’s top four.

After being a mainstay of the Big West Tournament for a short stretch, the past two years have been a real challenge for Cal Poly. The Mustangs actually looked like having a decent season last year when they beat three WCC teams and drew with Portland in non-conference play, while also beating Seattle in their non-conference finale. They even won the league opener against Hawaii, but it’d be their last win of the season, as the Mustangs closed 2016 with a seven match winless streak, consigning them to last in the Big West.

Their task in the brutally tough conference isn’t about to get any easier in 2017. Gone are three starters, which sounds manageable until you realize two of those departed are star midfielder Kendra Bonsall and attacker Caitlyn Kruetz, last year’s leading scorer and a player who had two years of eligibility left. Poly are still likely to be a defense first team this year with junior workhorse Chelsea Barry leading the way, but the Mustangs are really in desperate need of goals with Kreutz gone. Nobody returning netted more than two, which should send alarm bells ringing. I think Poly has a decent shot of escaping the league basement, but they still don’t look like making a return to the postseason in 2017.

Evaluating Hawaii’s season likely depends on a “glass half full or glass half empty” approach. In one respect, Hawaii had a great non-conference season, drawing with Oregon and only losing to Colorado while doing well against smaller opposition. On the other hand, road woes in the Big West proved fatal for the Rainbow Wahine, as losing all four league games away from home lead to a finish eight points out of the postseason places.

The concern going into 2017 for Hawaii is that last season may have been their best shot at crashing the postseason in a while, as they lose some major talent amongst the five starters graduating. The biggest individual loss comes in the attack, where Addie Steiner, who played just one year here but who also led the team in scoring with eight goals. With Steiner gone, much of the scoring responsibilities now will likely fall upon junior Raisa Strom-Okimoto, who had six goals and eight assists for the club in 2016. Nobody else scored more than two goals last year though, so unless someone like promising sophomore Tia Furuta steps up, Strom-Okimoto could be a marked woman this year.

Hawaii’s defense gets rocked with losses as well. Gone are the club’s top two defenders, Storm Kenui and TJ Reyno. The Rainbow Wahine will also be looking for a new starting keeper with Monk Berger, who played every minute last season, graduating. A backward slide down the table looks inevitable for Hawaii this year given the major personnel losses in the offseason.

If 2015 was a bright ray of sunshine for UC Riverside, 2016 was a storm cloud that reminded the Highlanders they still have a long way to go to become a true contender consistently at this level. UCR had cracked the RPI Top 100 for the first time since 2006 in 2015 and had reached the Big West Tournament for the second time in three seasons. But the club stumbled out of the gates last year, winning just one of its first six and then faltering badly as Big West play began, losing its first five matches. When your conference takes just four teams to the postseason, such a streak is usually fatal, and though UCR went 2-0-1 in their last three, they still ended up eight points short of fourth place.

2017 looks like a challenging season on paper as well for Riverside. Five starters depart, including solid midfielder Bianca Barrio. The cupboard’s not totally bare, as senior midfielder Hailey Maxwell is a solid veteran presence, while sophomore defender Amanda Roy also showed potential last year as a rookie. But there are serious questions as to where goals are going to come from, as nobody returning had more than two, with UCR netting just five in league games in 2017. If the Highlanders can’t find some goals, it’s probably going to be another long season.

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