NCAA – 2017 AAC Preview

Note: These projections have been updated to reflect late news that UCF’s Stefanie Sanders is likely to miss the 2017 season through injury.

Chris’ AAC Projections

1. Tulsa
2. SMU
3. UCF
4. Cincinnati
5. Memphis
6. South Florida

7. UConn
8. Houston
9. Temple
10. East Carolina

Patience may be wearing thin at Tulsa, where hungry Golden Hurricane supporters are still waiting for the club’s first postseason win in the AAC as they prepare to enter their fourth year in the conference since moving from Conference USA. Tulsa had few non-conference results that inspired much confidence going into league play last year, but wins in three of their first four league matches renewed some faith in the club. However, just one win in four left the Golden Hurricane needing a result in their last regular season match against South Florida at home to make the AAC Tournament. The result was a 3-2 loss and some serious questions in the offseason with a club that ended last year with its first losing campaign since 2010.

Head coach Kyle Cussen’s window for Tulsa becoming a major player in the AAC likely closes after this season. That’s because Tulsa’s two best players, and, indeed, two of the league’s best players, Rachel Thun-Blankenship and Tana Dake are both seniors and likely starving for some success to seal their legacy at the club. There are few as important as Thun to their clubs’ offense, as she had twelve goals and nine assists last year, equalling having a hand in sixty-two percent of Tulsa’s goals last year. Nobody else here had more than four, which only underlines how important Thun is to the Golden Hurricane’s efforts in front of goal.

Dake has never been a big scorer despite being a high volume shooter but found a way to be very productive last year with seven assists to go along with a pair of goals for Tulsa’s potent attack. Tulsa needs a second source of goals to emerge though, and if it’s not Dake, it might be Anna Williams, who was intriguing as a rookie and netted four goals but who also needs to make the next step.

If the Golden Hurricane don’t keep scoring, they could be sunk in a big way this year, as their defense was positively putrid in 2016, shipping more than two goals a game in the league. There aren’t really any massive additions on defense either, meaning Tulsa might be banking on a big improvement from the returners.

My projections have Tulsa much higher than most I suspect, mostly down to Thun’s brilliance. But the Golden Hurricane also have a real Achilles’ heel on defense and could easily be mired in mid-table as the title chase if things go sour.

Any questions on whether the game had passed SMU’s Chris Petrucelli by were answered definitively last season, as the former Notre Dame and Texas head coach brought the Mustangs their greatest success in ages. It was quite the statement considering Petrucelli had probably been feeling a little heat going into 2016 after little success in his tenure thus far. While the Mustangs won their first two games by a combined 17-0, few took them seriously until perhaps they began league season with two wins on the road against traditional AAC powers South Florida and UCF. A further draw with UConn established SMU as title contenders, though losses to Cincinnati and Memphis eventually relegated the Mustangs to third in the table, which meant no quarterfinal bye in the AAC Tournament. It mattered little, as they overcame UCF on penalties and beat Memphis before running out of gas against UConn in the final. They’d fall to Oklahoma in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, but considering few had expected SMU to get this far, it was still a fantastic year.

Now comes the big test, as expectations ratchet up for the Mustangs. SMU were perilously young last season, making their accomplishments that much more impressive, and they return a league high nine starters this season. SMU weren’t particularly great on either offense or defense but were better than most in the AAC in both categories last year. It could be offense that rules the day for the Mustangs in 2017, as they return most of their top attacking personnel. SMU’s attack was led by a three-headed monster of Claire Oates, Vanessa Valadez, and Allie Thornton, who combined for twenty-nine goals last year. Oates is probably the star of the show, and she scored crucial goals in the club’s final two regular season matches and first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.

Thornton and Valadez both feasted on non-conference competition but need to be a little more consistent and productive against league opponents. Additional depth never hurts, so SMU’s signing of Hannah Allred, one of the state of Texas’ best prospects in this class, should further fortify a promising frontline.

The defense could be going through a small transition, as the club’s best defender, Taylor Barg, graduates after a fine 2016 season. Much of the rest of the defense returns though, including sophomore Jessica Cooley who chipped in with an impressive eight assists in 2016. Junior Catie Brown took over in goal last season and did a creditable job and should again be first choice in between the pipes for SMU.

The Mustangs probably arrived a year early with a young squad last season and look like the real deal in the AAC this year. My projections have them being a bit off of the title, but not to the point that they couldn’t win it anyway and win a few games in the NCAA Tournament while they’re there.

2016 was a season to forget for UCF, as the Knights failed to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006. The club played a fairly murderous non-conference slate, but their best results were wins against Oklahoma State and Florida Gulf Coast, meaning that the Orlando side was likely going to need a big league campaign to ensure their NCAA streak wouldn’t be broken. But winning just one of their first four AAC matches ramped up the pressure, and losses to Cincinnati and Memphis late in conference season left UCF barely making the AAC Tournament and needing a big run to keep their season going. But they’d be tripped up quickly, going out in the quarterfinals after a shootout loss to SMU, leaving them short on their resume and feeling the sting of their first NCAA miss in a decade.

Tiffany Roberts Sahaydak had made a flying start to her UCF career before 2016, so she’ll definitely be aiming to prove that last year was a fluke. The Knights would appear to have a solid, potentially AAC title winning squad going into the new year. For that to happen though, the Knights are going to have to replace a giant piece of the puzzle on offense in departed Brazilian scoring machine Carol Rodrigues, who netted twelve goals last season, easily the most here. Also departing is Cortney O’Connell, who netted four goals and was the second leading shot taker for UCF.

Senior Morgan Ferrara is the best hope for the returnees after netting seven goals, including three match winners for the Knights. Sophomore Zandy Soree also could see an increased role after an excellent rookie season. The goals seem more likely to come through a huge newcomer from Germany in Dina Orschmann a youth international. Another German, Stefanie Sanders, could be a brilliant addition down the line given her competitive youth international scoring record of twenty goals in twenty-one appearances in recent competitions but is likely to miss 2017 through injury.

The defense should return mostly intact, though the loss of center-back Julia Ekholm is a big blow. The crown jewel for the defense is left-back Saga Fredriksson, now the reigning AAC Co-Defensive Player of the Year and one of the best full-backs in the country. Other starters returning to the backline include Bridget Callahan, Caroline Bado, and Jennifer Vera, with UCF likely having one of the more experienced backlines in the AAC. There’s an international flavor in goal as well, with Finnish junior Vera Varis taking command of the pipes for a third straight season.

The AAC looks very close at the top this year, and while UCF looked a mid-table side early in the offseason, the addition of Orschmann could give them a leg up on their fellow title contenders if she is an immediate hit.

Cincinnati had been one of the teams of conference tournament week in 2015, netting a surprising AAC Tournament title to make a long awaited return to the NCAA Tournament. The Bearcats would start out the 2016 campaign reasonably well, though they ended up playing just two non-conference foes that would finish in the RPI Top 100, beating Lipscomb but losing to Boston College. Cincy would stumble out of the gate in the AAC though, winning just one of their first four and slipping to a home draw against an underwhelming Houston side.UC deserved credit for baring down and finishing strong in the regular season though, closing out with a 3-1-1 record that ensured AAC Tournament play once again for Neil Stafford’s side. However, hopes of more postseason magic deserted Cincinnati early, as they’d fall to South Florida, who got spot kick revenge after losing the AAC Tournament final on penalties to the Bearcats a season earlier. UC finished with eleven wins, but the aforementioned non-conference SOS kept them from the bubble.

It’s taken a bit to build up the talent reserves at Cincinnati, but this could be the year the Bearcats make a big breakthrough in the quest for an AAC league title. With the league looking wide open this year, it might just be the perfect year for the Bearcats to make their move. If Stafford’s side are to contend for honors though, they’re going to need a significantly better showing on offense, after netting just a little more than a goal a game in AAC matches. Much likely rests on the shoulders of senior Julie Gavorski, who, quite incredibly, led the team in scoring with eight goals despite starting just eight of twenty matches.

There are more questions than answers when you look beyond Gavorski for goals though, especially considering second leading scorer Vanessa Gilles is a defender. The trio of Katy Couperus, Jaycie Brown, and Jordan Cotleur all were more than willing to let fly at goal but combined for just seven goals on one hundred seven shots. Brown might be the one to watch, as she should be at full strength this year after missing a big chunk of the first half of last season through injury. If the returnees don’t do it, Cincy also brings in many promising prospects, including highly tipped Sophie Gorman and Riley Gruenbaum, who could feature early. The wild card is junior transfer Jill Vetere, who will be looking to jumpstart a once promising career after a middling two years at Louisville.

Cincinnati could be much better on defense given some of their returnees, which made last year’s rather average AAC showing a little disappointing. In addition to being a clutch scorer, Gilles is one of the nation’s best senior defenders and someone who would likely be getting All-American mentions at a club in a more prestigious league. Gilles and sophomore Bri Costigan give Stafford a great foundation on the backline, which might be needed with the club losing starting goalkeeper Natalie Smith. The new #1 in goal is likely Claudia Eustaquio, who saw time in a handful of games last year before being forced to take a medical redshirt.

My projections have Cincinnati as one of many teams with a shot at an AAC title, and their depth could be a big weapon, as the Bearcats have not shied away from using their copious numbers to wear teams down. At the very least, Cincy should be aiming for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Memphis didn’t quite get to the level of some of their past glories, but after treading water for the better part of four years or so, 2016 was a nice step back in a winning direction. Wins over Ole Miss and Rice and a draw with Oklahoma State were nice on paper, but it still left the Tigers a lot of work to do in league play if they were to break their NCAA Tournament duck. A 4-1 loss at UConn was an ominous sign, but the Tigers pushed the Huskies all the way by winning their remaining seven games and finishing just a point behind in the league title race. The postseason would bring disappointment for Memphis though, as they would fall to SMU in the AAC Tournament before bowing out at the first hurdle of the NCAA Tournament against a very tough Arkansas side. Sour ending aside, 2016 was still a season that the Tigers could be proud of.

Expectations have been set much higher for the Tigers going into 2017, with some expecting Memphis to win a title in the AAC this season. While Memphis does return eight starters from last year, they do lose two vital pieces to the puzzle in scoring sensation Valerie Sanderson and starting goalkeeper Maryse Bard-Martel. There’s more capable replacements for Sanderson, but losing the Canadian who netted sixteen goals and seven assists on great efficiency marks is going to be a tough ask.

It’s largely going to be a matter of who steps up, but a good bet is sophomore midfielder Jessica Lisi, whose profile skyrocketed after a phenomenal rookie season with six goals and nine assists, though she’s not a natural forward. The other “big” name is Marie Levasseur, who has earned a handful of caps with the Canadian WNT but is still perhaps waiting for her big breakout season that her potential alludes to. Serena Dolan and Elizabeth Woerner also had a handful of goals each last year and could get more opportunities in front of goal in 2017 with Sanderson gone.

The offense got the attention last year, but the defense was pretty good last year as well, giving up under a goal a game overall. The dearth of experience in goal is probably the club’s biggest concern, as the returning Rachel Ashworth Shepard only has about forty-five minutes of mop-up duty to her college CV. She’s likely to be pushed by rookies Elizabeth Moberg and Morgan Berg, but both are unknown commodities at this level. The backline ahead of whoever wins the goalkeeping battle should be a strong one. The group should be headed up by junior Olivia Gauthier, who appears to be on a course to rounding into one of the nation’s best defenders after just two years at this level.

My projections are reasonably pessimistic on Memphis, likely down to the loss of two influential players at the top of the marquee. Their recruiting class is generally a mystery, with a score of Canadians, but not ones that have a glittering youth international record as has been the case here in the past. But even with those concerns, Memphis has the look of a side that could do big things if it clicks this year, which it certainly might given the talent assembled.

South Florida learned a painful lesson about non-conference RPI in 2016. The Bulls raced out to an 8-0-0 start with a perfect record before AAC play but also hadn’t faced a team that would finish in the RPI Top 80 by the time league matches started. USF got a rude awakening in the AAC, winning just two of their first five to put the club’s NCAA Tournament hopes in severe danger. The Bulls did themselves few favors in the final weeks of the regular season, beating only East Carolina and Tulsa while drawing with potential bubble rival Cincinnati and losing at Memphis to finish in mid-table. Odds were, USF needed a heck of a run in the AAC Tournament to keep their NCAA dreams alive. A shootout win with Cincinnati in the quarterfinals may have felt cathartic after 2015, but it did little for those hopes that were fully extinguished in defeat to UConn in the semi-finals.

It was all a big comedown after two big seasons in 2014 & 2015, and the Bulls will hope to get back to the Big Dance in 2017 with a, thankfully, more robust non-conference slate. That’s far from guaranteed though, as the Bulls are absent five starters from last year’s squad. Both units take some hits, though the offense might be in a better position to cope. That’s because USF returns sophomore Evelyne Viens, one of the nation’s most dangerous forwards, fresh off of a sixteen goal campaign as a rookie. While Viens did her best work crushing some of USF’s overmatched non-conference foes, she still had enough in the tank to score seven goals in league play. Barring a sophomore slump, the previously unknown Canadian could be the league’s preeminent attacking threat and a great piece to rebuild around.

Where the other goals are going to come from is the pressing issue, as the two players with the most shots after Viens, Trudy Carter and Leticia Skeete both graduate, though they combined for just six goals last year. Icelandic midfielder Andrea Hauksdottir raised some eyebrows with five goals in a great rookie season, but she’s the only other player besides Viens who return with more than two goals, raising fears about the multidimensionality of the attack. Rookie midfielder Anne Boeckmann is a highly rated addition, but USF may need for a few unfamiliar faces to up their game in 2017.

The Bulls were fairly average on defense last year, making the loss of leading defender Jordyn Listro and backline partner Carlotta Fennefoss tough ones to overcome. Starters Kelli Burney and Yasmine Hall both return, but the unit as a whole lacks star power. The addition of rookie Chyanne Dennis could change that, as the Sunrise native has multiple call-ups to U.S. U17 camp, and her pedigree is a rarity at this program for American recruits. There’s more stability in goal, where senior Kat Elliott has been one of the first names on the team sheet for the better part of three years.

My projections are a bit skeptical on USF, given some of the players lost, though Viens should give them a chance in most matches. Mid-table still looks like the destination for the Bulls in 2017 though.

UConn ruled the roost in the AAC in 2016, as most expected with the Huskies having a loaded squad last season. The Huskies really needed to do work in the league though, as they lost their two toughest non-conference tests against Rutgers and Florida State, which perhaps put a ceiling on their potential last year. But UConn was nearly untouchable in the AAC, dropping just two points, in a draw with SMU in the regular season, though Memphis pushed them all the way to the last day to ensure they’d be league champions. With the league’s regular season champion now having the advantage of hosting the AAC Tournament, UConn was always going to be favored to do the double, and they toppled South Florida and SMU to bring home more silverware. The Huskies looked set for a potential deep NCAA Tournament run, but they fizzled out embarrassingly in the second round to Auburn, losing 4-1, and bringing an end to what had been a strong season.

Not taking advantage of the opportunity for a deep NCAA run could come back to haunt UConn though, as they lose a ton of top talent to graduation, with five starters overall leaving. Both offense and defense take some huge hits, but the Husky attack gets hit hardest, losing, among others, a pair of All-Americans in Rachel Hill and Stephanie Ribeiro. It’s tough to downplay how important the duo were to the Huskies’ attack last year, but the one stat that says most is that they combined for thirty-seven goals, with UConn scoring forty-six overall in 2016. To add insult to injury, the Huskies also lose third leading scorer Maddie Damm, even though she only netted three goals.

Nobody that returns had more than seventeen shots last year, creating some serious worries as to where the goals are coming from this season. It’s likely going to be up to a couple of additions to supply the goals. Kess Elmore is an English youth international from Liverpool’s academy system and should certainly get chances to shine early here. The other big offensive addition is German Vivien Beil, a transfer from Maine, who was a dominant player in the America East but who also didn’t really put up huge numbers on the stat sheet. Alexa Casimiro and Sabrina Toole are among the returners in midfield, and they’ll be joined by Sophia Danyko-Kulchycky, one of this UConn freshman class’ top new recruits.

Things aren’t much better defensively, where the Huskies have to replace AAC co-Defensive Player of the Year Toriana Patterson, a late bloomer who turned into an excellent center-back. Kristen Vinciguerra won plaudits for her play last season as a rookie but may be needed in the attack this year, while Liane Keegans could reprise her role in central defense this year. Out wide, Heidi Druehl should continue on, while Alana Moore could also be used on the backline or in midfield if needed. There’s change in the goal as well, with the talented Emily Armstrong graduating. The Huskies signed senior transfer Courtney Hofer from TCU, but there’s not much of a safety net behind her, with the depth coming from redshirt freshmen Mollie Kerrigan and Randi Palacios.

It looks like a dreaded rebuilding year for the Huskies, who are going to really be depending on some newcomers to hit the ground running and for some career years for returners. They seem too well coached to totally fall off a cliff, but it might be a battle to just reach the AAC Tournament.

The reign of Chris Pfau at Houston will not be remembered fondly. The now departed boss of the Cougars oversaw one of the worst eras of soccer for a major conference program in DI history, as the Cougars won all of one conference game in the AAC in the past four years. Granted, that one win was last season, so you could point towards some minimal improvement, but the Cougars’ growth in the overall W-L-T department was largely down to loading up non-conference play with some of the worst teams in the region and profiting. Newly installed to clean up this rather large mess is Diego Bocanegra, one of the nation’s top assistants, most recently helping Notre Dame to success. He steps into a situation with potential, with the Cougars in talent rich Texas but also one where the program has known nothing but losing for a very long time.

The big question going into 2017 is if Bocanegra can make the Cougars a competitive outfit at the first time of asking. The non-conference slate is a little more difficult than last year but still quite reasonable, which could help the Cougars build some momentum before AAC play. A major question is if and how Houston is going to score goals against the better teams on their schedule, as they netted just twenty-one all season last year, including seven in nine league contests, which is obviously not going to cut it. The club loses junior Desiree Bowen after leading the team in scoring with seven tallies last year, but three of those came against a poor New Mexico State side, and she netted just two goals in the league last year. Senior Vanessa Almaguer could be the wild card after netting three of the club’s goals in AAC action.

UH also stunk defensively last year, giving up nearly two goals a game in the AAC. Continuity in goal could help, with junior Rachel Estopare now the likely #1 after the departure of rival Nicole Young. How busy she is largely depends on if Bocanegra can coax better performances out of a porous defense. With eight starters back on paper, the Cougars will at least have experience heading into 2017. But years of mismanagement have also taken a heavy toll on the program, meaning this year might be more about growth and avoiding the league basement than postseason dreams.

Temple wasn’t just bad in 2016, they were catastrophically, historically awful by any and every measure. The Owls lost every AAC match they had and scored just four goals in those nine league games. The season actually started out decently with two wins in four, but the Owls would win just once more the rest of the season, an empty win over an awful NJIT side. League defeats were bad enough, but multiple goal losses to the likes of Binghamton and Mount Saint Mary’s were utterly embarrassing. Oddly, as bad as Temple was, they were seldom embarrassed in the league, losing seven of their nine matches by just one goal. When all was said and done though, Temple had fallen over two hundred places in the RPI, surely one of the biggest year-to-year drops in DI history.

Seamus O’Connor’s job now is to prove 2016 was a fluke after having delivered double digit wins in the previous two campaigns. It won’t be easy. The defense, while more leaky than non-existent was still bad enough to put the anemic offense in an impossible position on most days last year. Goalkeeper Jordan Nash has won plaudits for her play in the past, but she was also overworked by last year’s ineffectual backline.

The main question that will likely determine Temple’s fate in 2017 is if the club can greatly improve on their fourteen goal showing on offense last year. Nobody netted more than four, with just Gabriella McKeown getting more than two. On the whole, Temple’s attacking corps were a high volume, low output group that must improve. Kayla Cunningham, a senior, has shown flashes in the past, but struggled to just two goals in 2016. I suspect with eight starters returning, more than most league rivals, Temple won’t go winless in the AAC this season. But I’d be surprised if they can climb back into the top six and a postseason place.

2014 might feel like an eternity ago for East Carolina supporters. That season, ECU’s first in the AAC, the Pirates advanced to the conference tournament semi-finals and finished in the RPI Top 100. In fact, heading into last season, ECU had finished in the RPI Top 100 in nine of ten seasons. But the Pirates hit a wall during last year’s disastrous campaign. They’d rack up wins in non-conference play against mostly overmatched opposition, but it was fairly obvious that ECU was well out of their depth once AAC play began in late September. Losses mounted, the club could only draw against an abject Houston side, and their lone league win came against an even worse Temple side. The end result was a ninth place league finish and the fewest overall wins for the program since their first year in DI, 1995.

If that all sounds horribly depressing, the bad news is that things aren’t likely going to get any better for ECU in the short-term. The Pirates’ underachievement last season is brought into starker contrast with the fact that they’re also losing a league high six starters from last year’s squad, and the remaining talent could generously be called marginal for this level. ECU could be a trainwreck defensively, even with Jayda Hylton-Pelaia, arguably the club’s best returning player, back, as the group gave up over two goals a game in league play and loses starting keeper Caroline Jeffers, who played almost every minute last season before transferring to Florida State in the offseason. The club did manage to sign a decent short-term replacement in West Virginia transfer Michelle Newhouse though.

The attack may be in similarly dire straits this year, as they averaged under a goal a game in the league in 2016 and says farewell to leading scorer Lana Spitler, who had a hand in twelve of the club’s twenty-two goals last year. Junior Courtney Cash is the leading returning scorer with five goals, but just one of those came in AAC play. With holes on both offense and defense and a stark absence of AAC contending talent, ECU looks ticketed for the league cellar in 2017.

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