NCAA – 2017 WCC Preview

Chris’ WCC Projections

1. BYU
2. Pepperdine
3. Santa Clara
4. Loyola Marymount
5. Saint Mary’s (CA)
6. Pacific
7. San Francisco
8. San Diego
9. Portland
10. Gonzaga

The stage was set for BYU in 2016, with almost all of the previous season’s impressive squad returning for the Cougars. BYU entered the season with College Cup dreams and showed why those were realistic ambitions with wins at Penn State, Utah, and Ohio State and over SMU and Long Beach State at home in non-conference play. While BYU would dominate most of the WCC, they did slip up against title rivals Santa Clara and Pepperdine, which resulted in them sharing the league title with the latter. The Cougars would begin their march to the College Cup with wins over UNLV and Oklahoma but fell in the Sweet Sixteen to South Carolina in a close, contentious affair. With West Virginia finally breaking through to the College Cup, it probably leaves BYU with the unwanted mantle of being the best program to have never reached women’s college soccer’s Final Four despite dominating every league they’ve been in and being a national player for ages.

While BYU’s probably never going to totally need a rebuilding season given their traditional strength in depth, there’s no question that the Cougars might need to retool given some of their personnel losses through graduation. Most of those hits take place in the attack, where BYU loses the high powered duo of Ashley Hatch and Michele Vasconcelos, both high NWSL Draft picks, and the former a newly capped USWNT player. They combined for a whopping thirty-five goals and eighteen assists, and their departure, along with losing Elena Medeiros as well leaves a massive gap on the frontline.

The big hope has to be that Nadia Gomes, the third member of BYU’s tremendous frontline trio last year, takes the next step towards superstardom. A lightning quick forward who shined when Hatch missed much of 2015 through injury, Gomes netted six goals and twelve assists last year and will need a big season for BYU to contend again. Where the goals will come from if Gomes is held quiet is a big question, with top reserve Maddie Lyons a contender to step up.

The midfield could also be a bit of a work in progress with Medeiros and fellow standout Paige Hunt Barker graduating. It puts a lot of pressure on senior Bizzy Bowen, the lone returning starter in the middle of the park, to keep the Cougars humming in that area of the pitch while newcomers get settled. One such newcomer is Mikayla Colohan, cousin of club legend Cloee Colohan and a player tipped to be a big factor early here.

Those losses on offense mean BYU might be in the unfamiliar position of being a defense-first side in 2017. This group essentially returns intact, which is a good thing considering they gave up just eleven goals all season last year. The cornerstone of that backline is senior Taylor Isom, an All-American center-back, reigning WCC Defensive Player of the Year, and one of the nation’s best defenders. Opposite her is Danika Bowman, is sophomore who played well beyond her years as a center-back in 2016. Stephanie New and Alyssa Jefferson patrolled the flanks last year, with Jefferson another impressive member of last season’s rookie crop. Newcomer Josie Guinn, is another solid addition and could work her way into the rotation sooner rather than later.

The Cougars should also be fine in goal, with senior Hannah Clark one of the nation’s best. Clark stepped in when Rachel Boaz broke her hand early in 2016 and was a revelation, retaining the starting spot all season and looking excellent in the process.

Despite the drain of offensive talent, this BYU side is still very dangerous, with one of the nation’s best defenses. I don’t think they’ll match last season’s effort, but they have every chance of winning the WCC again and claiming a few more wins in this year’s NCAA Tournament.

A year after their first losing season since 2007, Pepperdine entered 2016 needing a response. The Waves didn’t quite match their amazing sixteen win season of 2014, but they did manage to win the WCC title and earn a return to the NCAA Tournament. Pepperdine managed to pile up wins early in the season that didn’t end up meaning as much as they likely though they would and went through a stretch of just one win in six, though they did manage a good draw against Kansas. After a scoreless draw with Portland to open up the WCC season though, Pepperdine hit a groove and won six in a row to come closer to a championship. A loss to Loyola Marymount put those hopes in danger, but the Waves earned their share of the crown with a win over Pacific in the regular season finale. Pepperdine would threaten to make an NCAA Tournament run, bouncing Cal out on penalties in the opening round but was promptly shocked by NC State in round two, ending a nice season in Malibu.

The Waves look poised to again challenge for honors in the WCC. Though Pepperdine loses four starters, most of the club’s other rivals lose that many or more, and Tim Ward’s side returns some big hitters. However, Pepperdine does have to find a replacement for goalkeeper Hannah Seabert, one of the nation’s best the past few years and another in a long line of great netminders for the Waves. Senior Brielle Preece has seen mop-up duty earlier in her career, but the job looks likely to fall to Zoe Clevely, a former U.S. U18 international.

The backline loses Meghan Schoen but does return many other starters, including Michelle Maemone, Danielle Thomas, and Jamie Van Horn. A year further removed from an injury that cost her 2015, Meagan Harbison is the wild card of the group, while Pepperdine also adds top prospect Erin Sinai to their ranks.

The offense was solid but still lacks the scoring power the club had when Lynn Williams was terrorizing the WCC. Complicating matters is the loss of Rylee Baisden, last year’s leading scorer, though she only netted six goals on sixty-one shots. Realistically, Pepperdine needs more from the three-headed monster of Bri Visalli, Christina Settles, and Hailey Stenberg, who all played a big roll in the offense last year, with Visalli leading the way with five goals. Junior Hailey Harbison is another big X-Factor, a once burgeoning star whose career has been wrecked by injuries. Harbison might also end up on the backline, though with the experience returning there, she might be better served as a winger. Pepperdine also loaded up with promising attackers in their freshman class, with Laura Ishikawa, Calista Reyes, and Brie Welch all tipped to make an impact early.

Pepperdine’s not a perfect squad, they’ve got concerns in between the pipes and in front of goal, but they’re generally solid. I’m not sure they’ll win another WCC title, but Pepperdine still looks like an NCAA Tournament team.

Santa Clara were a bit of an enigma in 2016. They showed their quality on the opening weekend of the season with wins over USC and Cal but then won just one of their next ten matches, though they included four draws in that span. But the light would come on for the Broncos a bit late, as they ended up winning six of their final seven to finish third in the WCC, three points off co-champions BYU and Pepperdine. While most figured Santa Clara might be good for a win or two in the NCAA Tournament, few likely tipped them for a deep run considering a very hard road they were dealt. However, SCU would go on an impressive run, dominating Long Beach State in the first round before shocking the world by upsetting Stanford in Palo Alto in the second round. A win over NC State in the Sweet Sixteen put Santa Clara on the verge of becoming the rare unseeded team to reach the College Cup. They’d bow out to Georgetown though, albeit not before a fantastic run to the final eight of the NCAA Tournament that raised expectations going forward.

There’s some good and some bad for Santa Clara heading into the 2017 season. The Broncos get hit by graduation and attrition, losing six starters from last year’s Elite Eight team, tied for the most in the conference. Particularly problematic are losses to an offense that struggled for scoring form at times, with just one player who netted more than two goals last year returning. Most prominent among the departures is Jordan Jesolva, who netted ten goals and four assists to double anybody else’s scoring totals for SCU, with many of her goals being clutch ones as she enjoyed a wonderful senior season. Add in the loss of the talented midfielder Julie Vass, and SCU’s attack could be a work in progress in 2017.

The lone returner of real note is sophomore Maddy Gonzalez, who is the club’s leading returning scorer with five goals despite starting just about half of the Broncos’ goals. But there’s reason for hope, because Santa Clara has added an armada of new attacking talent. The big hitter amongst the group is Idaho State transfer Maria Sanchez, who sat out last season due to transfer rules, but who looked spectacular playing for Mexico in the U20 World Cup. Also transferring in is attacking midfielder Kelcie Hedge from Washington, who also redshirted last season while playing for the U.S. at the U20 World Cup, and who was once a superstar recruit. SCU has also added a pair of coveted freshmen to the frontline as well, with Julie Doyle and Kelsey Turnbow both having extensive experience in the U.S. youth international setup.

Things should be a bit more stable on defense, where Santa Clara should be one of the best in the WCC. Iceland’s Gudrun Arnardottir was quite the find for head coach Jerry Smith and the Broncos, and all she did last year was win WCC Newcomer of the Year honors and looks like becoming one of the nation’s very best. Also back is senior Kellie Peay, who has quietly been one of the WCC’s best defenders and is a three-year starter for the Broncos. Also added to the mix is another top notch prospect from this class, Arizona native Taylor Culver, who could work her way into the rotation sooner rather than later. Junior Melissa Lowder didn’t completely claim the starting job in goal as her own until about midseason, but she did well for the most part at a program known for its excellent goalkeeping.

Expect Santa Clara to get a lot of hype after last year’s finish, but the Broncos look a functionally different team on paper with all the turnover in personnel. They’re still going to be a dangerous team, but a College Cup run might still be a year away.

Many eyes were on Loyola Marymount in 2016 after they were one of the surprises of the NCAA Tournament just a year earlier. The Lions racked up some decent non-conference results with wins against Long Beach State and Ball State and a draw against Texas Tech, but the odds were that LMU still needed a pretty good league season to again get NCAA Tournament consideration. Things certainly started out well for the Lions, who won five matches of six, though the bump to their RPI was pretty negligible considering the wins were over the bottom tier of the WCC. The end result was that the Los Angeles club likely needed two wins from their final three to realistically have a good shot at an at-large bid. They’d split matches against Santa Clara (loss) and Pepperdine (win), but a match that looked like a layup on paper was a shocking defeat in reality, as the Lions fell to Saint Mary’s (CA). With SMC finishing out of the RPI Top 200, Loyola’s loss to them was the final nail in the coffin for their NCAA hopes despite a fourth place finish in the WCC.

But LMU was probably a year ahead of schedule last season and are in a very rare position at this level by being able to bring back all eleven starters this season. That alone would be enough to take notice of the Lions this year, but the reality is that the club is also returning some very talented players amongst those starters. Loyola Marymount scored the second most goals in WCC games last season and could be even more prolific in 2017. The focal point is likely to be junior midfielder Sarina Bolden, who received call-ins to the U.S. U23 team in the offseason. Bolden netted six goals to lead the team, and her continued progression could be key to LMU’s hopes this year. She’ll likely be joined in midfield by senior Maddie Medved, who had five goals and five assists last year, as well as rookie Kami Hoban, the pick of this year’s recruiting class.

With leading scorer Bolden netting six last year, LMU probably would like for someone to emerge as a double digit goal threat. Up top, the most likely candidates are senior Sarah Sanger, who netted three goals, as well as Phoebe Riley, who was solid as a rookie for the Lions.

LMU’s defense couldn’t match the top teams in the WCC last year, but it was still a strong unit. There aren’t really any stars on the backline, but junior Gabbie Sanfilippo has been a workhorse here for two years and is the best bet for a breakout star on the defense. The Lions will be in safe hands in goal again with junior Charlee Pruitt poised to again be one of the region’s best goalkeepers. I think the Lions are a little short in terms of star talent of being a title contender in the WCC, but I do think they’re a quality side that should return to the NCAA Tournament this season and have the potential for a win or two once there.

It’s not been easy for Saint Mary’s (CA), or really any of the WCC’s bottom half to try and break through into the league’s elite. The Gaels have just won season with double digit wins since 2006, and that feels like a mini-eternity ago in 2011. Last season was an immediate struggle, with the SMC losing five in a row to open up the year before claiming one of the most shocking results of the season in beating Cal in early September. If the Gaels were hoping that upset would turn their season around, it definitely did not, as they won just one more of their non-conference games before losing their first five in the league. Frustratingly, the offense, a sore point all season, came around late in the year and helped the Gaels win three of their final four, leaving them eighth in the WCC table.

The hope has to be that Travis Clarke’s tenure as coach begins to bear more fruit as it enters its third season in 2017. The Gaels do appear to have a squad that could make some noise on paper. Seven starters look set to return from the squad that finished out last season so strong, with senior Hannah Diaz likely the lynchpin to the Gaels’ hopes of upward mobility in the WCC. Diaz is one of the league’s most important offensive players to her team, having had a hand in ten of the club’s nineteen goals last season, scoring seven and assisting on three more. If Diaz isn’t scoring, it’s a major problem, as nobody else that returns had more than two goals or even fifteen attempts on goal last year.

The defense needs improvement as well, but Clarke has done well to bring in some talented reinforcements on that end of the pitch. Kelsey Hill and Valerie Sue Meyer could be in the frame for immediate minutes on the backline, but the real gem is Finnish youth international goalkeeper Sonja Rajatalo, who might be needed immediately with the graduation of last year’s starter, Julia McDonald. Saint Mary’s is still a ways from a title challenge, but if things break their way, mid-table is a real possibility in 2017.

Pacific has generally been a trainwreck since joining in the WCC in 2013, but the hope was that under new management with Kerri Scroope installed in the offseason, that the Tigers would begin to turn it around. However, it became apparent rather quickly that Scroope has a monumental task on her hand in Stockton. The Tigers began their 2016 season with five losses on the trot, not winning a single game in non-conference play. All of which made the league opening win over Saint Mary’s (CA) that much more shocking. It’d be a false dawn though, as the Tigers lost their final eight in the WCC, scoring just four goals in that period, with three of those coming against Gonzaga. Pacific, already struggling before Scroope’s arrival, took a step back in just about every metric in her first season in charge.

With all of that in mind, it’d be easy to be very pessimistic about Pacific’s hopes in 2017. But oddly enough, the Tigers, on paper, look like a side that might just be able to climb out of the WCC basement, even if they’re miles away from being an NCAA Tournament team. The Tigers return seven starters from last season, with Swedish sophomore Sigrid Aas looking like the most promising of the returnees after a solid rookie season. The return of forward Alex Hussar should also help out after she missed all of last season following two years of being one of Pacific’s only offensive threats.

But the real cause for optimism in Stockton is thanks to some surprisingly solid recruiting by Scroope, who has looked abroad for big additions. Specifically, Scroope has added three Icelandic freshmen, including Bryndís Rún Thórólfsdóttir, who has earned multiple caps with her nation’s youth international setup all the way up to U19 level. It’s the type of signing that Scroope and Pacific need desperately to compete in the cutthroat WCC. My projections for the Tigers are probably a little bullish, but they have a real chance at surprising a few teams in the WCC this year.

Many wondered if San Francisco would be able to recover from 2015, where the Dons were one game away from breaking through after years of futility and winning a WCC title and the NCAA Tournament berth that goes with it. But USF, infamously, lost that game and never really got on track last year. The Dons would win their opening two matches but were then sent on a brutal road trip with just one win in seven and two wins in ten overall. They’d win three games in the league but still finished an unflattering seventh in the final table, well outside of having any hopes of an NCAA Tournament berth. The question now is if USF can rebound and show they weren’t just a one-hit wonder.

The Dons look to have their work cut out for them going into 2017. USF loses four starters, which is par for the course in the conference this year, but there are some big losses amongst those departures. The biggest hits may be in the attack, with midfield lynchpin Jessica Nakae gone, along with Amanda Whittle, the club’s leading scorer last year with six goals. This wasn’t a high scoring offense before, and the only player returning with more than two goals last year is senior Sonja Giraud, who has a lot of pressure on her to supply the goods in front of goal. If Giraud’s not scoring, USF’s going to be in trouble, so the Dons need more sources for goals, with one potentially coming from rookie Sydney Cooper, the pick from this recruiting class.

The Dons take some hits defensively as well, as they lose out on Ali Schaffer, who was one of the league’s best defenders on form, as well as last year’s starting goalkeeper Makayla Presgrave, who transferred to Idaho. The new starting keeper will either be a true freshman in Sunny Kane or Molly Eby or sophomore Olivia Camera, and the youth has to be concerning given the loss of Schaffer and others. It may not be what USF fans want to hear, but 2017 looks like a dreaded transition year given the departures from last year’s squad.

San Diego will be going through a year of change in 2017 after the unexpected dismissal of Ada Greenwood in the offseason. Greenwood had seemingly done a good enough job in 2016 after a painful 2015, getting the club to it’s third winning record in four seasons and even beating the likes of NC State, DePaul, and Long Beach State in non-conference play. The Toreros were a comfortably middle of the road team in the WCC, even beating Santa Clara, but a late season loss at Saint Mary’s (CA) obliterated their RPI and all but erased any hopes of an at-large bid, even as USD finished fifth in the WCC. Greenwood went soon after, and the Toreros settled on UCLA assistant Louise Lieberman as their new boss. After what happened to her predecessor, there’ll surely be no shortage of expectation surrounding the new manager.

Lieberman’s a highly thought of figure, but even she might have some problems getting the Toreros into the NCAA picture given the loss of a league high six starters. The attack here is a particularly big worry, as though they were about average in the WCC, the unit is absolutely gutted by graduation. Three Toreros had more than one goal last season, all of them tying for the team lead with five. Two of them, Jacqueline Altschuld and Julia Sherwood, are gone, meaning there’s going to be a ton of pressure on the shoulders of junior Summer Mason, who also led the team in assists with five to go with her handful of goals. Rookie midfielders Sami Fairweather and Samantha Frost are the jewels of this recruiting class, and given what’s been lost, USD is probably going to need both to contribute right away.

The defense is going to need to pick it up a bit to match the best of the league if they’re going to contend for an at-large berth. Tara Meier is probably the most notable of the returnees, and the senior will likely be flanked by some youngsters at some point as USD adds many a freshman defender in this class. One of those additions is New Zealand youth international Michaela Foster, who could be immediately in the mix with her pedigree. Sophomore Amber Michel should be a safe pair of hands in goal, though the changes in front of her could make her life a busy one. The WCC is not a quick fix league, and it’s hard seeing USD topping last year’s mid-table finish given the graduation losses.

These are harrowing times for Portland soccer, as the Pilots are enduring what might be the worst period in the history of one of women’s college soccer’s most storied programs. The Pilots may have broken a string of losing seasons last year, but they also finished out of the RPI Top 100 for the third straight season, meaning three straight NCAA Tournament absences as well. A win over Washington last season definitely raised hopes, but there were far too many non-conference warning signs such as a draw with Cal Poly and loss to Oregon State that raised concerns. The Pilots’ league form was erratic. Portland was a side that could draw with Pepperdine but also lose to Saint Mary’s (CA), though they posed few problems for most of the WCC’s contenders. The end result was a sixth place finish in the WCC and perhaps a growing sense of agitation at the Pilots’ declining stature in the landscape of women’s college soccer.

It’s hard to be optimistic about Portland’s hopes of rekindling past glories given the talent drain that’s hit this roster over the past half-decade. Once a recruiting powerhouse, Portland is arguably saying farewell to it’s last “big” recruit, graduated midfielder Allison Wetherington. Wetherington never developed into a star, but she was still the club’s best player in the attack, netting four goals and adding five assists last year. Scoring was a massive issue with the club in league play last year, as Portland netted just seven goals in the league. Kimberly Hazlett showed much potential as a rookie but scored just two goals on thirty-one shots, while senior Hannah Griffiths Boston started quick but scored just one of her eight goals in WCC action. Rookie Taryn Ries isn’t a “superstar” recruit, but the local product is still the ace of this class and may need to be a big hitter early considering the potential scoring problems here.

Defensively, Portland was average in WCC, which wasn’t enough to compensate for the lackadaisical attack. This year, the group has to do without full-back Ellie Boon, the club’s best overall player last year and generally a criminally underrated player. Someone will have to step up to lead on the backline, while in goal, Rachel Lusby looks likely as the full-time starter after splitting time with Hanna de Haan last year. The last three years have hurt, but worse could be yet to come. The Pilots look short on talent all over the pitch, meaning a finish closer to the bottom of the league than the top feels likely.

Another season of losing brought offseason change to Gonzaga, who move on from Amy Edwards and a legacy of not having had a winning season since 2007. The Bulldogs got hopes up early in the season when they shocked Pac-12 side Washington State in Spokane but hit a big downturn in form at an inopportune time at the beginning of league season. Four straight defeats to open up the WCC campaign pretty much set the nail in the coffin for the Zags, who finished with just a pair of league wins to finish an unflattering ninth in the final league table. Gonzaga didn’t have to look very far for a replacement, hiring within the WCC and choosing to tab long-time BYU associate head coach Chris Watkins for the head coaching spot in Spokane. While he has a big task ahead of him given Gonzaga’s history, Watkins certainly knows what it takes to win in the brutal WCC.

Watkins has a big task ahead of him though in a league that may be toughest of all to break into contendership in. The attack is a gigantic question mark heading into the new season, with the club’s top two scorers in the form of Karley Baggerly and Aliyah Miller, who combined for ten of the team’s twenty-four goals last year, both having graduated. No returning Bulldog had more than two goals, meaning that some of the team’s younger players are going to have to make big strides this year for things to not get ugly. Sophomore Madeline Gotta impressed as a rookie, but Gonzaga will probably need big contributions from their rookie class to spark the offense.

If the Zags can’t find a source of goals, it could be a long year in Spokane, as the defense was a turnstile last year. Gonzaga gave up almost three goals a game in the WCC, an astonishing figure at this level. Watkins almost always constructed some mean defenses in Provo, so how he adapts and patches together a defense here after last year’s horror show will be interesting indeed. While most feel that Gonzaga did better than anyone could have hoped in prying Watkins away from league rivals BYU, this is not a quick fix type of job, and improvement in the league table could be minimal in 2017.

2 thoughts on “NCAA – 2017 WCC Preview

    1. FDChief

      I think the simplest explanation is “Garrett Smith isn’t Clive Charles”.

      The UP program is increasingly looking like the product of one man’s technical/tactical skills as well as his personal charm and recruiting abilities. I’m unaware of whether UP lost anyone else from Charles’ tenure, but I’m guessing that Smith inherited at least some of his contacts…and yet the recruiting has dried up.

      So the unfortunate conclusion has to be that whatever qualities Smith has (and I know nothing about the man personally) he lacks whatever it was that made Charles so well regarded and, as such, such a magnet for quality players.

      Reply

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