NCAA – 2017 Big Ten Preview

Chris’ Big Ten Projections

1. Penn St
2. Michigan
3. Northwestern
4. Rutgers
5. Ohio St
6. Wisconsin
7. Minnesota
8. Nebraska

9. Indiana
10. Maryland
11. Michigan State
12. Iowa
13. Illinois
14. Purdue

Penn State probably knew they were going to take some lumps last season as they tried to defend their national title after a dream 2015. The Nittany Lions not only graduated Raquel Rodriguez but found themselves without a handful of players from that team due to redshirting for the U20 World Cup. Growing pains were evident as PSU still showed their quality when drawing with West Virginia in the season opener but also showed what they had lost with losses to BYU and UCLA. Penn State managed to begin league play with nine straight unbeaten and looked like claiming another league title for themselves but were then shocked in the penultimate fixture of the regular season by Michigan State, though they’d beat Ohio State to claim a share of the title. There wasn’t much joy to be had in the postseason. Rutgers would upset PSU in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal before the Nittany Lions would get clobbered by Virginia in the NCAA Tournament second round, as Erica Dambach’s side made it’s earliest exit since 2013.

The odds of such a similar exit in 2017 are exceedingly small. That’s because Penn State should be on the shortlist of NCAA title contenders given the depth of talent from returners from last year’s squad, returners from the U20 World Cup squad, and a handful of newcomers. The one loss in the attack is a rather big one though, as midfielder Nickolette Driesse graduates following a six assist season pulling the strings of the PSU attack.

However, these Nittany Lions have an absurd amount of firepower at their disposal this season. On the frontline, the cheetah-like Frannie Crouse will be looking to make it four straight seasons with at least ten goals. Last season, Crouse hit for twelve and on much better efficiency numbers than her sophomore season and is one of the top attackers in the nation. She’ll be joined by the enigmatic Megan Schafer, the senior a player who looked like breaking out as a sophomore with thirteen goals but who scored just six last year and was held without a shot on goal twelve times. There’s also the addition of Emma Thomson to the frontline, one of PSU’s fabulous class of rookie additions.

The middle of the park is just as loaded for the Nittany Lions in 2017 despite the loss of Driesse. Most eyes will be on Emily Ogle, a potential top five pick in the NWSL Draft in a few years and a player whose presence was desperately missed last season when she was with the U.S. U20 team. If Ogle’s a complete midfielder, Charlotte Williams is more of a gunner, as she led the team in shots last season but needs to do a more efficient job in front of goal with just six goals on sixty-two shots. German youth international Laura Freigang missed a chunk of time at the U.S. U20 World Cup but still showed a lot of potential in her time here. Veterans Marissa Sheva, Haleigh Echard, and Salina Williford will also return, but they could find starting minutes under threat from rookie phenoms Shea Moyer and Frankie Tagliaferri. Tagliaferri could be this rookie class’ #1 player when all is said and done and could be a major factor this season for PSU despite her youth.

As you might expect, Penn State has an absurdity of riches on defense as well, even with the transfer of rookie Grace Fisk to South Carolina. Opposite of the now open spot at center-back is likely to be Elizabeth Ball, who is a three-year starter and a great bulwark of consistency on the backline given the changes around her. There’s likely not going to be a problem filling that vacancy at center-back though as Kaleigh Riehl returns from international duty at the U20 World Cup and is another potential NWSL Draft first round pick down the line given her quality.

Fifth-year senior Brittany Basinger has perhaps not developed into a superstar as expected but is still a more than solid left-back for Penn State and is the favorite on that flank. Right-back is going to be a very interesting dilemma, as Dambach has Maddie Elliston and Ellie Jean, who both redshirted last season for the U20 World Cup, available with the pair splitting time there in 2015. Last year’s starter, Alina Ortega Jurado surely will fit somewhere, though it may be in a more attacking role, while another of this year’s great recruiting class, Kerry Abello would presumably find some role on the pitch given her talent and versatility as a utility player. Dambach’s biggest problem might be finding a way to keep everyone happy considering she has enough defenders to field two lineups of All-Big Ten contenders.

Goalkeeping might be the biggest question on the club, with Rose Chandler back from international duty but having played in just a handful of matches in three years despite coming into PSU with a ton of hype. There’s no guarantee she’ll be able to force her way into the starting job with last year’s starter Amanda Dennis back after a fine freshman campaign.

Penn State is a juggernaut, and likely an angry one after being unranked in the preseason coaches’ poll. If Dambach can juggle a squad of superstars and keep everyone happy, there’s no reason PSU can’t be the last team standing come December.

Michigan got a little bit of vindication for some NCAA Tournament snubs with a return engagement to the Big Dance in 2016. There were certainly a few questions early when the Wolverines drew in their opener to ACC doormat Pittsburgh, but Michigan promptly reeled off nine wins in their next ten to solidify their status. But Wolverines fans were still probably fearing the worst after a horrific late season swoon where Michigan won just one of six at the end of the regular season, needed penalties to advance beyond Wisconsin in the Big Ten Tournament, and then were taken out by Minnesota in the semi-finals. Thankfully for the sanity of all those involved with the program in Ann Arbor, Michigan drew an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament and seemingly an agreeable matchup with Illinois State in the first round. However, Michigan were the ones left on the mat after the match, as the Wolverines went behind twice to ISU and then fell in a shootout to send them out as upset victims.

The bar has been set a little higher for 2017 though, as the Wolverines bring in one of the most promising recruiting classes in the history of the program under Greg Ryan. In addition to some big time freshmen coming to Ann Arbor, the club also returns veteran Taylor Timko (injury) and Sura Yekka (international duty), meaning this could be a Wolverines team infused with a good bit more talent coming into the new year. The attack will be looking to hum again but does get faced with a pretty big loss in the graduation of Nicky Waldeck, who signed off with eight goals to lead the club last year. It likely means a bigger role for Reilly Martin, who had a huge breakout season for the Wolverines with seven goals and eight assists, building greatly on decent rookie season totals. More will also likely be expected from Ani Sarkisian as a senior, with the New Jersey native attempting to add to the seventeen goals and twenty assists she’s racked up in three years here. Timko missed all of last season but was a big prospect in her first two seasons here, netting seven goals in 2015 and could be a big X-Factor for this attack, though she could slot in at full-back.

The Wolverines also have added some serious weapons through their freshman class. The highlight of which might be Canadian Sarah Stratigakis, who has been front and center with Canada’s youth national teams for years and who is being tipped to make the step up to the full WNT in the not too distant future. Also joining up is Martin’s sister, Alia Martin, a much coveted midfield prospect in her own right, and Nicki Hernandez, who should be a prized super sub at the very least. There’s no shortage of talent here, with Ryan spoilt for choice, especially in comparison to some Big Ten rivals.

Given the hype over the offense both through returning players and newcomers, it gets a little easy to forget that Michigan under Ryan has mostly been known for defense. However, last year, Michigan’s defense buckled more than usual, shipping a little more than a goal a game and was easily the worst defense of any team that finished in the top half of the league. It might be a bit of a rebuilding year on the backline, as the club sees standout center-back Anna Soccorsi and full-backs Madison Lewis and Rosalind Porritt, among others. There is some nice talent coming back though, as Jada Dayne will get the chance to show she’s ready to be the anchor of the backline after starting beside Soccorsi for her rookie season. Returning out wide is senior Rubina Veerakone at left-back, and she’ll probably be joined by Yekka, who returns to the mix after redshirting last year while competing in the U20 World Cup for Canada.

The biggest question might be in goal, as Ryan has become an infamous figure in women’s college soccer circles as a “Captain Hook” figure with his netminders. Such was the case last season when senior Megan Hinz, a two-year starter, was quickly displaced by Sarah Jackson, who ended up starting almost the entire season. They may find their positions under threat from newcomer Hillary Beall though. Beall is a much hyped goalkeeping prospect who could potentially be the U.S.’ starter at the U20 World Cup in 2018 and figures to be the #1 here sooner rather than later.

The Wolverines could be one of the nation’s most interesting teams in 2017 thanks to their star-studded recruiting class. They probably won’t be able to take down Penn State at the top of the league, but they could get much closer than some might think if the rookies hit the ground running.

It hasn’t been quick or easy for Northwestern, but last season saw the Wildcats reach the top of the Big Ten mountain and claim a long desired share of a league title. This was a program that won two games in 2011 and three in 2013 but which has grown by leaps and bounds under Michael Moynihan. The Wildcats became a factor at a national level as they won their first nine matches, though the only RPI Top 50 team they played in that stretch was Marquette. They’d cool off a bit in league play, but the Wildcats’ defense frustrated opponents and allowed them to finish 4-0-2 in their final six, though those last two draws kept them from claiming the league title by themselves. Northwestern would top Nebraska on penalties in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal, but would bow out against their defensive doppelgänger, Rutgers, in the semi-final. Northwestern would smash Kent State in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament before getting past Cinderella story SIU Edwardsville in the second round. Their run would stop in the Sweet Sixteen against Duke, but few could argue that Northwestern isn’t a program with a bright future after last year’s success.

The bar is going to be set pretty high for Northwestern this season. While few probably consider them in the top tier of national title contenders, a lot of factors point towards the Wildcats being a side with the DNA like Rutgers’ College Cup team from a few years ago that dominated with defense. Northwestern gave up just seven goals last season, a ridiculously low number considering they played twenty-three matches. At the heart of Northwestern’s defense is perhaps the nation’s best pairing of center-backs, juniors Hannah Davison and Kayla Sharples. That Davison and Sharples played as two of the nation’s best central defenders despite being just sophomores was incredible, and that they have two more years in Evanston doesn’t seem fair for opposing attacks. Left-back Kassidy Gorman doesn’t quite get the same level of attention as the center-backs but is a stalwart in her own right and provides some nice senior leadership and scoring ability after being joint leading scorer here with six goals.. The club does have to replace right-back Kaitlin Moore, but you trust this program to get it right considering how well the defense has come together in the past few years.

Northwestern is also strong in goal, with All-American senior Lauren Clem back for a final season. Clem plays behind a fantastic backline but is a great keeper on her own merits and is surely on the shortlist of senior NWSL goalkeeping prospects for January’s draft. Northwestern’s defense is likely to be a fortress this season and could be one of the best in the nation.

The attack…is a work in progress. You don’t need many goals when you’re this good on defense, but Northwestern averaged just over a goal a game in the league last year. Nobody here had more than six goals last year, and nobody even netted more than thirty-four shots on the season. While many of the Wildcats’ offensive personnel return, the club does lose a valuable piece in central midfield in Nandi Mehta. Mehta’s graduation means Northwestern is likely to rely heavily on the talented junior Marisa Viggiano. Viggiano led the club with five assists and is easily one of the Big Ten’s best midfielders, but she also may have tried to do too much herself, leading the team in shots but scoring just once on thirty-four attempts.

The hope has to be that Brenna Lovera is the forward the club has been aching for, as she scored six goals to tie for the team lead despite missing twelve games. If Lovera can stay healthy for the whole season, she definitely has potential as a double digit scorer. As you might expect, Northwestern has gone pretty heavy on new blood in the attack. Up top, Mikayla Hampton could see major minutes early, while Kylie Fisher, Made Kennel, and Regan Steigleder have all been tipped for success in the midfield. Again, Northwestern won’t need many goals given their defense, but they still need some, especially in the crunch time of postseason.

The Wildcats figure to be one of the nation’s best defensively, but questions on offense might keep them out of the College Cup discussion. Still, it’d hardly be a shock if they end up in Orlando given the right draw, and they should still be one of the best in the Big Ten.

Rutgers was always going to have trouble following up on 2015’s trip to the College Cup, but they still put up a solid season. A win at UConn was the highlight of a solid non-conference season, while a win over Northwestern helped league play start out in fine fashion. But the Scarlet Knights’ form began to go a little haywire in the second half of the season, with a draw against Illinois seemingly the catalyst for some odd results that culminated with a five match winless streak to close out the regular season and push Rutgers all the way down in to seventh place in the Big Ten table. RU would make a run to the Big Ten Tournament final with wins over Penn State and Northwestern before being downed by Minnesota in the title game. Rutgers wouldn’t really last long in the NCAA Tournament though, trouncing Harvard in the first round but losing to Georgetown for the second time in 2016 to send them out in the second round after a twelve win campaign.

While Rutgers have probably done enough to warrant a permanent space in the upper tier of the Big Ten at this point, they have a challenge ahead of themselves after losing six starters from last year’s squad. For all that the Scarlet Knights lost though, they get one huge addition back to the roster with the return of junior goalkeeper Casey Murphy. Murphy missed all of last season while with the U.S. U20s at the U20 World Cup, and her return this season should give the Scarlet Knights a big advantage in goal as compared to their Big Ten competition. Rutgers have carved out space as a defensive powerhouse during Mike O’Neill’s tenure with the club as head coach, and Murphy should have another solid backline in front of her.

The backline does take a loss though, as full-back Erin Smith, a draft pick of the Houston Dash of the NWSL, departs after another brilliant season marauding up and down the line for the club. The rest of the first choice backline should return intact. Junior Kenie Wright is the relative veteran of the group at left-back and has a couple of years of starting experience here. Considering Rutgers used a rookie center-back pairing of Chantelle Swaby and Amanda Visco last season, they fared well enough, and the pair should only get better with more experience and Murphy organizing behind them. They need to find a right-back replacement for Smith, but this should still be one of the league’s best defenses.

With two of the club’s three leading scorers from last year graduating, the offense is probably more of a concern going into 2017. Madison Tiernan was a shameless gunner with a license to foul anything that moved, but she also saved her best for her senior season, with an eleven goal outburst to easily lead the team. With third leading scorer and super sub Erica Murphy also graduating, it means that the only player that returns with more than three goals scored last year is senior Colby Ciarrocca. Ciarrocca can be a bit of an enigma at times, and her scoring total dropped from nine goals to six, as she netted just one in the club’s final ten matches. With little else back in terms of proven scoring, Ciarrocca really needs a breakout season as a senior for Rutgers. Rookie Amirah Ali is a U.S. U19 international from the powerhouse PDA club and could get every chance to make her mark early here.

The midfield takes some hits as well, with Jennifer Andresen and Tori Prager both graduating. The one returning starter is a big one though, as sophomore Nicole Whitley looks like a star in the making after winning league Freshman of the Year honors last season. Who joins her in midfield is a massive question, with rookie Alexa Ferreira tipped as perhaps the next big star in Piscataway.

This might be a bit of transition year with Rutgers having lost so much in the offseason. But the Scarlet Knights still have a handful of the league’s best and a steady hand in O’Neill leading the club, meaning they could defy expectations again in the Big Ten.

After back-to-back finishes in the RPI Top 30, it might be time for a rebuilding season for an Ohio State side that loses a massive class of seniors to graduation. The Buckeyes opened up 2016 with five straight wins and six wins of seven, but they hit a poor patch of form at a bad time, beginning league play with just one win in five. OSU would recover somewhat to win three of their last six, but it still wasn’t enough for the Buckeyes to crack the top eight and qualify for the Big Ten Tournament, with the club finishing in a tie with Indiana but losing on a head-to-head tiebreaker for the final spot in the conference tourney. There wasn’t really a penalty for not making said tournament though, as OSU not only made the NCAA Tournament but even got to host Dayton in the opening round, a match which they won, 3-2, in a thrilling affair. Reality would intercede in the second round against West Virginia, but Ohio State made it a dramatic match, with WVU needing extra time to put the Buckeyes away.

It’s going to be a tough task to repeat 2016’s performance, with the Buckeyes losing six starters. It’s not just OSU losing any six starters either, as they lose some of the conference’s top talents, including NWSL Draft picks Nichelle Prince and Lindsay Agnew. Prince departs after a five goal and four assist season, which is a bit disappointing at first glance, but the Canadian provided much more to the offense than just box score stats with her workrate. Agnew had a breakout season in front of goal as a senior, with ten goals and eight assists to her name, which meant the Canadian youth international had a hand in over half of OSU’s goals in 2016.

With that in mind, the Buckeyes will be wondering where the goals are going to come from in 2017. The top option could be senior Nikki Walts, OSU’s returning leading shot taker last season, though she still netted just four goals and isn’t an out and out forward. A player who is a forward and is going to need to continue to develop is Sammy Edwards, who is the club’s returning scorer with six goals despite starting just about half of the club’s games last year. A score of newcomers also make their way to Columbus with midfielder Riley Bowers and forward Courtney Walker perhaps most likely to make an immediate impact in the attack.

Naturally, the defense has some major losses to compensate for as well. The rearguard was roughly average last season but does return a key figure in sixth-year senior Morgan Wolcott. Wolcott stayed healthy last season, and her presence was invaluable at the heart of the defense for OSU, though she could also see time on the frontline if the Buckeye attack needs it and the defense can do without her. The Buckeyes definitely take some hits out wide, with Bridget Skinner and Nicole Miyashiro both graduating. Junior Kylie Knight, a utility defender capable of playing wide or central, and sophomore center-back Haley Walker-Robinson look likely to reprise starting roles on the backline this season. The player to watch though might be newcomer Izzy Rodriguez, an elite recruit for this class and a U.S. U20 international who could go a long way in replacing some of the star power lost, albeit on the defense instead of the attack.

In goal, it’s make or break time for junior Devon Kerr, a player with a lot of tools but who hasn’t been able to claim the #1 job for herself in two seasons despite being given every opportunity to do so. With just two true freshmen behind Kerr this season though, OSU almost have to lean on Kerr to put it together.

My projections are pretty high on Ohio State this year despite all that they lost, mostly down to a strong recruiting class. There could be some growing pains, but mid-table and another NCAA Tournament trip looks doable.

How do you replace the irreplaceable? It’s a question Wisconsin’s going to have to confront in 2017 after the graduation of club legend and overall #1 pick in the NWSL Draft, Rose Lavelle. Unfortunately, there really wasn’t a story book ending to Lavelle’s college career, with the Badgers slumping to just nine wins last season, the lowest mark here since 2008. After 2015’s high profile snub, Wisconsin had a point to prove but staggered out of the gates with just one win in six and draws against Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Drake to blot their copy. League play didn’t start out swimmingly either, with the Badgers winning just one of their first four and losing to league strugglers Indiana. The Badgers would go on a bizarre stretch of alternating wins and draws over their final seven, with wins over Minnesota and Rutgers helping the club into fifth in the table. A shootout loss to Michigan in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament likely produced a few nervy moments on Selection Monday, but the Badgers still made the cut. Beating state rivals Marquette in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament was nice, and UW so nearly pulled off an upset against Florida in the next round before bowing out in extra time.

The Badgers lose not just Lavelle but three other starters as well, though UW still has an impressive level of talent. Wisconsin weren’t great in either offense or defense as compared to their Big Ten peers, but they were still roughly above average in that respect in goals scored and conceded in league matches. Lavelle was iconic here, but UW was entirely too dependent on her in the attack, even in a deeper midfield role last season. She took a whopping seventy-three shots but netted just six goals, though that also still made her the club’s top scorer. Also gone is winger Micaela Powers, the club’s assist leader last year with six and third leading scorer with four goals.

The club’s leading returning scorer is junior Emily Borgmann, who netted five goals last year, including three in the league. Senior Sydney McGinnis also could be someone to look at given her finishing second on the team in shots last season, though she only netted a pair of goals. UW is likely going to be looking to youth for offense this season though, with sophomore forward Dani Rhodes and midfielder Allie Winterfield returning after promising but not necessarily prolific rookie seasons. The biggest and best news might be the return of Canadian Victoria Pickett to the lineup after she redshirted last season while on U20 World Cup international duty. Pickett was Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2015 and could be in line for a big season for Wisconsin. The Badgers also add some nice rookies, with U.S. U18 international Lauren Rice joining the frontline, while midfielder Gabby Lawlor could be the playmaker heiress apparent to Lavelle if she lives up to expectations.

With the offense still likely finding its feet without Lavelle, it’s going to be important for Wisconsin to be stout defensively, as they’ve been so so many times in the past under Paula Wilkins. For the Badgers, it all begins in goal with senior Caitlyn Clem, who’s surely on the shortlist of best senior goalkeepers in Division I. Clem had big shoes to fill when Genevieve Richard graduated, but she’s done very well to develop into a top calibre keeper in Madison.

The backline alongside her is looking for someone to step up and turn into a star this year. Wisconsin will be on the lookout for a left-back and a center-back after the graduation of the trio of Holly Heckendorf, Morgan Taylor, and Kylie Schwarz. The Badgers do return sophomore Camryn Biegalski at right-back and Jamie Donohue in the middle, but Wilkins and UW are still going to need some new faces to step up. Michigan native Sammy Kleedtke, a freshman, could be one of those new faces, likely in the middle given her size.

The Badgers were much more than Lavelle, of course, over the past four seasons, and they’ll probably get a chance to show that this season. They probably aren’t going to bother the upper crust of the Big Ten, but anyone expecting them to drop from sight and out of NCAA Tournament contention will probably be disappointed.

Most were tipping Minnesota to have a good 2016 season, but I suspect few believed the Golden Gophers were going to be quite as good as they turned out to be. All Minnesota did was win a share of the Big Ten title and then prove they were the league’s best team by winning the Big Ten Tournament. Wins over Utah and Santa Clara were early statements in non-conference play, and Minnesota would at one point win six of seven in the Big Ten to state their title credentials. A couple of scoreless draws at Michigan and Northwestern prevented the club from claiming the league title all by theirselves, but Stefanie Golan’s club with sweep Indiana, Michigan, and Rutgers aside in the Big Ten Tournament to do the double. Minnesota were surely on the shortlist of sides that were potential College Cup sleepers going into the NCAA Tournament, but a first round matchup against ACC side NC State was harsh and ominous. In the end, Minnesota would be frustrated by the Wolfpack, and fell in a shootout on home turf after a scoreless draw. It was a bitter end to a brilliant season.

That defeat was especially frustrating, as Minnesota had everything seemingly aligned for a run and now has to replace many talented seniors. While the Gophers lose four starters overall, the offense takes the biggest blows. The biggest task ahead of Minnesota may be finding a replacement for forward Simone Kolander, who led the team in scoring with eleven goals and picked up the Big Ten Forward of the Year award for her efforts. The frontline still has some firepower, with senior Sydney Squires the likely focal point. Squires won Big Ten Tournament Offensive Player of the Tournament honors last season as a super sub and could slot into Kolander’s vacated starting spot after scoring eight goals last season. April Bockin is another one to watch on the frontline after netting seven goals despite missing a handful of games, while Julianna Gernes and Kellie McGahn also saw starting minutes at times last season on the frontline.

Another big talent departs from the middle of the park with Josie Stiever’s graduation. Stiever was a two-way stud last year, scoring eight goals and also leading the team with ten assists. Molly Fielder is likely the new leader of the offense after finishing with seven assists and starting every match, while Emily Heslin also started every match in the middle of the park for Minnesota. The Gophers don’t quite have the star power on offense as last season, but they still look dangerous.

The offense has to be dangerous, because the defense takes some major hits as well. The backline will have to do now without Rashida Beal, and All-American, the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year, and one of the fastest center-backs in the nation as a senior. The rest of the starting backline should return intact for Minnesota this season though. Beal’s center-back partner from last year, Tori Burnett returns and may need to lead the group as a senior anchor. Out wide, Maddie Gaffney, another senior, should start again, while left-back Nikki Albrecht might have the most star potential of the group after impressing last season as a rookie, chipping in with three goals and two assists.

Perhaps the biggest question for Minnesota this year is who starts in goal after the graduation of long-time stalwart Tarah Hobbs. Last year’s backup, Mara Dougherty, was also a senior, meaning it’s largely a dive into the unknown for Golan’s Gophers. Maddie Nielsen is a true freshman, while junior Kailee Sharp hasn’t played in her two seasons here thus far. Minnesota probably doesn’t need a keeper to stand on her head all the time to bail out the defense, but they still need a viable option in between the pipes.

This Minnesota side will probably head back into mid-table after losing their top stars from last year. But Golan’s sides almost always overachieve, meaning a run in the Big Ten Tournament or the NCAA Tournament shouldn’t be ruled out.

Nebraska desperately needed a season like 2016 after a couple of disappointing campaigns. The Huskers had pulled one of the most shocking seasons for a major conference team this decade in 2013 when they won a Big Ten double, but a couple of eight win seasons had took some of the air out of the balloon in Lincoln. It didn’t take long for the public to see that Nebraska was a serious force to be reckoned with last year when they beat Marquette at home and then traveled to Provo and shocked BYU on their home turf. A further win over Kansas added to the Huskers’ resume, but their league form was spotty. Nebraska failed to string together back-to-back wins at any point in Big Ten play, though they still racked up enough points to bring home a sixth place finish. Nebraska would die by the penalty in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal against Northwestern but used spot kicks to save face against South Dakota State in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. UCLA overpowered them in the second round, but the Huskers could still take solace in a fine season.

Nebraska loses just four starters this season, but among the departures are some of the best players in the league. The biggest blow comes on offense, where All-American Jaycie Johnson departs after an eleven goal senior season. Johnson wasn’t consistent in front of goal for all of last season, but when she was in a groove, as she was against Ohio State, she was nearly unstoppable. The Huskers also lose midfielder Caroline Flynn, who was never a big presence on the stat sheet but was a versatile player who still stood out as one of the Big Ten’s best midfielders. Scoring is a serious concern for Nebraska, not just with the loss of Johnson in the attack, but also because there just weren’t a lot of sources of goals for Nebraska last season. Senior midfielder Haley Hanson is the only player returning that had more than two goals last year, netting seven last season. Hanson’s not an out-and-out forward though, meaning the Huskers really need to find a true center-forward to rely on. While Nebraska doesn’t really add a top notch forward in this freshman class, they do add junior transfer Faith Carter, who scored seven goals with TCU last season. Her signing could be a masterstroke if she adapts quickly, and Nebraska needs her or someone else to step up and provide some goals.

The Huskers take a big hit on defense as well, with the excellent Sydney Miramontez, now of the NWSL’s FC Kansas City, graduating after another fine season as the rock at the heart of the defense for Nebraska. She often played alongside sister Sinclaire Miramontez at center-back, and the younger Miramontez should now move into the role of defensive leader vacated by her departed sister. The younger Miramontez may have been overshadowed, but she still was quite impressive as a rookie and could develop into one of the league’s elite defenders. Out wide, Nebraska should be solid shape with junior Caroline Buelt and senior Alli Peterson among the favorites to start at full-back after featuring there for much of last season.

Nebraska’s backline has often played in a hyper-aggressive fashion in terms of keeping a high line, which means goalkeepers in Lincoln always need to be on their toes to come out and sweep away. Sophomore Aubrei Corder has ideal size for the position and is a former U.S. U19 international and did well to win the job full-time as a rookie but will be under as much pressure as ever with Sydney Miramontez’s departure from the backline.

Losing the star core of last year’s side is probably going to send the Huskers back down the Big Ten table, though how far is up in the air. My projections see them as a mid-table side who might be able to grasp onto the NCAA Tournament bubble if some of their players have breakout years.

Indiana has been a frustrating program for much of its history, but 2016 was perhaps the zenith of frustration for the Hoosiers’ fanbase. It wasn’t because IU was plainly awful, which, ironically, may have been easier to take. Instead, the Hoosiers mixed spurts of staggering competence such as in wins over Wisconsin and Ohio State or draws against Penn State and Rutgers, with bouts of baffling ineptitude, as in losses to LSU and Western Michigan or a draw with Purdue. As is, the Hoosiers were able to squeeze into the Big Ten Tournament based on the aforementioned win against Ohio State but caused little trouble for Minnesota in the quarterfinal. Getting back to the postseason was great for IU, but the reality is, it was still a third straight losing season for the Hoosiers after Amy Berbary’s fantastic debut in 2013.

Relatively speaking, the Hoosier offense was probably better than their defense based on league performance, so IU will probably try to build on a decent attack this year. However, IU was largely scorer by committee with one big exception, as beyond their leading scorer, nobody else netted more than two goals, though a whopping six players netted a pair. Said leading scorer is junior Mykayla Brown, who went from scoring just once as a freshman to eight goals last year. Brown netted the winner in extra time against Illinois and both goals in the draw with Purdue, meaning you could argue she was the difference between the Big Ten Tournament and missing out. The problem for Indiana is that there’s pretty much nothing else assured on the attack after Brown. Maya Piper and Cassidy Blacha were the most willing shooters among the non-Brown sources of offense, but neither were particularly prolific in front of goal. Sophomore Macy Miller might also be one to watch after a solid rookie season. There’s not much in the way of big time freshmen coming on offense either, so if Brown suffers a downturn in form, the attack could be in trouble.

The Hoosiers gave up more than a goal and a half a game in league play, so IU leaning on their defense to make the postseason looks like a bad idea on paper. The club could also face a leadership void in central defense with the graduation of the club’s best defender, Marissa Borschke, who was a solid anchor for the Hoosiers. Sophomore full-back Meghan Scott may be the one to watch this year, as she led the club in assists last year with seven and may be needed to help the attack again this year. An interesting addition to watch on the backline might be Hungarian youth international Hanna Nemeth, who brings size and experience in international competition to the Hoosiers this season. In goal, sophomore Sarah L’Hommedieu started almost every match last year but showed her youth in establishing a presence and dominating the box. That could put her position under threat from the gem of this recruiting class, Michigan native Bethany Kopel.

The Hoosiers have a couple of solid pieces, but they look far from a complete unit, with a one-dimensional offense and a middling defense. It probably equals a season like 2016, with IU having scrap to make the postseason.

I mentioned in previewing Maryland in 2016 that the club was probably as close to rock bottom as any in the history of a Power Five conference. A protracted coaching search and mass defections from the program meant that former Harvard boss Ray Leone was inheriting a bare bones squad that was adding transfers deep into the offseason just to fill out the numbers. And sadly, there wasn’t a miraculous ending to what looked on paper to be a potentially horrifying season. There was the indignities of results like drawing with Gardner-Webb and losing to Appalachian State. And there was the crushing succession of league defeats, including losing the season finale to Minnesota, 6-0. The Terps didn’t go winless in Big Ten play, beating Illinois early on, but that was realistically the only solace in a lost season in College Park.

Supporters expecting some kind of “worst-to-first” miracle for the Terps in 2017 are likely to be disappointed. Maryland does get to return nine starters, tied for second most in the league, but that may have a marginal impact on the club’s fortunes considering how far behind the pack they were last year. There may be a couple of goals in the Terps in 2017 though. Junior Jarena Harmon was tipped as one to watch after transferring from Pittsburgh and was as good as advertised against smaller opposition, netting eight goals, including a brace against Illinois but also faltered down the stretch. Senior Chelsea Jackson netted nine, including four in the league, so you would figure she has the chance to contribute against any foe. However, the Terps will more than likely be counting on some of their newcomers, with Florida forward Maddison Krstec highly rated, and midfielder Alyssa Poarch the Delaware Gatorade State POTY and a former U17 international for the U.S.

But Maryland was an absolute horror show defensively, and few of the additions to the squad seem to be dedicated to that side of the ball. Cal transfer Zoe Clark is a low-risk gamble for a season, but isn’t likely to revolutionize a defense that gave up almost three goals a game in league play. Leone may have to settle on a starting goalkeeper having played musical chairs last year. Fifth-year senior Rachel Egyed seemed to be in favor over Katelyn Jensen at season’s end though and might have a leg up entering the new season, though it’d hardly be a surprise to see both again this year.

Maryland brings in a ton of new faces, but there’s not a blue-chip prospect that’s going to bring back the glory days overnight from this class. The Terps have a little punch going forward, but an overall lack of strength in depth and major defensive worries mean it’s probably going to be another year before challenge for a postseason spot.

A everlong slumber has seemingly descended upon the Michigan State women’s soccer program, as the Spartans have now missed the postseason in five straight seasons and not graced the NCAA Tournament with their presence since 2009. Last year, the Spartans played an atypically difficult non-conference schedule and actually racked up some big wins, topping Baylor and then going on the road to beat Colorado. League play started out in middling fashion, but the Spartans buckled in early October, losing five straight to all but kill their postseason hopes. The Spartans would stun Penn State and beat Purdue, but it still left them in tenth in the league, three points off the playoff places. The disappointing campaign also marked the Spartans’ first losing season since 2012.

The question now is if longtime head coach Tom Saxton can repay the faith shown in him by a very patient administration and get the Spartans back to Big Ten glory. While it doesn’t exactly look like the Spartans are going to be contending for honors in the league this year, at least getting to the postseason isn’t out of the question. MSU wasn’t great really in any area last season, but the offense is probably further along than the defense going into 2017. Netting a little over a goal a game in the league isn’t great though, and the Spartans’ attack needs to find an extra gear if they’re to return to the postseason. Senior Jamie Cheslik is likely the best hope for goals, scoring five last season as the club’s scorer and having netted eight as a rookie in 2014. Hannah Jones had a hat trick against Maryland last year and could see more chances, while Lexy Warner also might see an increased role in attack. Saxton has also added a pair of impressive rookie midfielders in Gabriala Jodzis and Danielle Stephan, and odds are, both may need to hit the ground running to get this offense firing.

Even if Michigan State does make strides on offense, their defense has to get better in turn. MSU gave up a goal and a half a game in conference play, something that when mixed with a middling attack made postseason qualification almost impossible. The Spartans used a time share in goal last season, splitting minutes between the graduated Kaitlyn Collin and returning senior Savanna Wojtanowski. The latter took over as starter for the second half of the season when Collin suffered a season ending injury and should again be the #1 this year. The backline has some work to do, with full-back Marisa Oleksiak, who netted four goals last year, and center-back Jessica Kjellstrom both graduating. Two other starters, Michaela Kovacs and Madison Duncan, return, while MSU also adds in rookie center-back Devin Jaqua to the likely core of the defense. I don’t think the Spartans will make a miracle run up the table, but if some of the freshmen pay off immediately, they have an outside shot at a Big Ten Tournament berth and perhaps an NCAA at-large bid.

Though Iowa head coach Dave Dilanni came to the club with a glittering reputation from his work a Division II Grand Valley State, his endeavors with the Hawkeyes have borne limited fruit in three seasons. After a very promising fourteen win year in 2014, the Hawkeyes have slid back to mediocrity the past two seasons. A 5-3 loss on opening night last season to Creighton was ominous, even if the club rebounded right away by winning at Missouri. A run of wins against weak non-conference opposition was not an indicator of the struggles to follow, as Iowa lost its first four in the league, getting shut out in each defeat. The Hawkeyes would finish with two wins in their final seven matches, leaving them in an unflattering thirteenth place in the Big Ten at season’s end. Iowa’s not an easy place to win at, but Hawkeye supporters must surely be hoping for an upward trend going into Dilanni’s fourth season.

Unfortunately, a rapid climb up the table does not appear to be in the cards for Iowa this year. It’s difficult to see where a big jump is going to come from, as the Hawkeyes are bringing in neither a great recruiting class or an ace recruit that could turn the tide in an instant. The biggest concern has to be on offense, where despite scoring at a solid clip against non-conference foes, Iowa found themselves shooting blanks in Big Ten matches, with just four goals in eleven league games. There’s not exactly great news going into the new season, as Iowa loses leading scorer Bri Toelle, who netted six goals on fifty-one shots. Where are the goals going to come from this season? There aren’t any clear answers, though second leading scorer Karly Stuenkel probably will get a crack at leading the charge, though she’s more of an attacking midfielder. Rose Ripslinger and Devin Burns also figure to get chances up top. The Hawkeyes appear to have a gem in U.S. U20 international Natalie Winters in central midfield, but she’s not a prolific scorer and figures to get swarmed if Iowa can’t find other players to step up in the attack.

Iowa wasn’t appalling on defense, but they weren’t nearly good enough last season to mask the club’s absent offense. There is the potential to improve this season though. First-choice center-back pairing Morgan Kemerling and Rachele Armand return this season after opening most of last season anchoring the backline. The club will have to make a change at left-back to replace departed senior Amanda Lulek, with Leah Moss and Hannah Drkulec among the contenders. The latter could also feature at right-back for the Hawkeyes. Sophomore Claire Graves got tossed into the fire straight away last season in her rookie campaign in between the pipes. There’s little reason to think she’ll lose her grip on the starting job this year.

It’s tough envisioning a side with so many offensive questions climbing into postseason contention. My projections give them an outside shot at the top eight, but Iowa looks destined for another season of Big Ten struggle.

Now entering the third year of Drew Roff’s tenure at Purdue, it’s clear that progress needs to be made after two tepid years of stewardship thus far. The gloom was palpable right away last year as the Boilermakers lost to Montana on the opening weekend of the season before getting pasted by Baylor a week later. Purdue would win their league opener against fellow strugglers Illinois but then weren’t on a season killing six match losing streak that made the final four matches academic, even if they did improve a bit in a 1-2-1 stretch. The end result was a twelfth place finish in the league table with the club a whopping eight points out of the postseason places. Roff came into West Lafayette with a big reputation after dominating at Illinois State but has found going much harder so far in the Big Ten.

Unfortunately, it’d take a very brave person to pick the Boilermakers to make a sudden move up the Big Ten table this year. The Boilermakers have to deal with some major losses in personnel, in numbers if nothing else. Purdue loses six starters, tied for second most in the league, which means some serious upheaval in the starting lineup. Chief amongst the worries here is who is going to be scoring the goals. Purdue netted just nine goals in eleven league games last year, with nobody scoring more than four on the season. That player, Andrea Petrina, does return, but the next two leading shot takers on the Boilermakers, Erika Arkans and Hannah Leinert are both gone. The wild card for Purdue’s attack is fifth-year senior Maddy Williams, who missed all of last season after being hurt in the Spring. Williams netted twenty-four goals in three years before getting hurt and probably had her best season in 2015, but it’s a lot to ask a player to come in after a year out and carry an offense, meaning Purdue really needs to find more than one source of goals.

Purdue wasn’t exactly a brick wall on defense either, giving up just a shade under two goals a game in the league and keeping just a pair of clean sheets in the Big Ten. Roff juggled defenders constantly, meaning it’s not exactly going to be predictable to pick out how Purdue will line up in the back going into 2017, but center-back Vanessa Korolas and junior full-back Hannah Mussallem are likely in the mix, though the team does have to replace graduated center-back Megan Kaser. Freshman Sarah Clark, the pick from this recruiting class will likely also feature early. Goalkeeping is also a question mark, with last year’s top netminder Jordan Ginther graduating. Erika Yohn has starting experience but figures to be challenged by junior Maddy Olsen and rookie Katie Luce. There are questions everywhere for Purdue, and the answers probably aren’t going to conducive to a comeback season in 2017.

It’s hard to classify Illinois’ 2016 season as anything but a total disaster. It wasn’t just that Illinois suffered their first losing season since 2009. It wasn’t just the eleventh place finish in the Big Ten, leaving the club four points out of the postseason. It was more the fact that after missing the NCAA Tournament for two straight seasons coming into last year and with a veteran squad, the Illini were finally supposed to put it all together. Injuries to talented starters like Kara Marbury and Sarah Warren, sure starters if healthy didn’t help, but Illinois still started seven seniors, a league high. The Illini didn’t beat anybody with a pulse in non-conference play, and their paper tiger status showed in the league, as they failed to win in any of their first five, a string which included home losses to Purdue and Indiana and a galling 3-1 loss at Maryland. A late run of form including a win over Michigan and draw with Wisconsin helped, but it only blunted the overall disappointment of the season just a bit.

Losing seven starters is bad, but losing seven starters from a side that already was short on top line talent for this level could be catastrophic. The problems are many for Illinois, but they desperately need to solve their woes on offense. Illinois once had All-American forward Jannelle Flaws to do their scoring, and they’ve never really recovered from her loss, scoring under a goal a game in the league and overall in 2016. Marbury’s return could be big, as she netted seven in 2015, but Flaws was still around then, so there’s no telling how well the senior will respond to being a top option. But frighteningly, Marbury still tied for the team lead in goals with three despite missing half the season. Perhaps even more disconcerting, only two other returnees scored last season, and they combined for just four goals. Fortunately, a little help might be on the way from this recruiting class. Midfielders Hope Breslin and Madi Wolfbauer both come in with a fair degree of expectation, and Illinois is probably going to need some immediate contributions considering the utter lack of proven scoring returning.

The defense wasn’t brutally bad last year, but it also wasn’t good enough to compensate for the aforementioned attacking woes. Warren’s return from injury should help, while Morgan Maroney and Alicia Barker also will be back after starting most of last season. Whether that’s enough is up for debate, and there’s not a rookie savior likely to emerge, unlike further up the field. And that could be a big issue, as both of last year’s starting keepers, Claire Wheatley and Michelle Denley, are gone. Sophomore Jaelyn Cunningham will likely battle rookies Sami Sample and Elizabeth Cablk for the gloves, but with the lack of experience here, the worries are very real.

It’s easy to be pessimistic about Illinois for 2017. They lose a ton of starters, lack talent as compared to league rivals, and don’t bring in a lights out recruiting class. They could scrape their way into the postseason if the injury returnees and youngsters catch fire, but it seems more likely Illinois will flirt with the Big Ten basement in 2017.

2 thoughts on “NCAA – 2017 Big Ten Preview

  1. KC

    Very Thourough and pretty spot on. Really enjoy reading all of your work. If you are still working on Pac12 and are scratching your head with departures and replacements at USC I would be happy to give you an inside look

    Reply

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