NCAA – 2017 ACC Preview

Chris’ ACC Projections

1. Florida St
2. North Carolina
3. Duke
4. Virginia
5. Notre Dame
6. Louisville
7. NC State
8. Clemson

9. Syracuse
10. Boston College
11. Wake Forest
12. Virginia Tech
13. Miami (FL)
14. Pittsburgh

For the first time since 2010, Florida State’s season didn’t end in the College Cup. In fact, the Notes’ second round exit in the NCAA Tournament was their earliest exit since 2004. It was an altogether weird year for FSU, as they beat the likes of Texas A&M and UConn in non-conference play but also lost in stunning fashion to South Alabama, one of the very few losses to a mid-major in program history. Then in league play, FSU endured a stretch of just one win in four matches that included a shock draw at Syracuse. A three match win streak that included victories over NC State and Duke put FSU in with a chance of winning the ACC title on the final day of the season, However, the Noles would fall to North Carolina, dropping them into a tie for fourth in the standings. FSU would conjure up some of their postseason magic in the ACC Tournament, beating Duke on penalties, topping Clemson, and then edging past UNC on spot kicks to lift another tournament title. Hopes of repeating that run in the NCAAs were broken by a second round loss to Utah that was hardly a fluke, as the Utes proved more than a match for an off-song FSU side.

Anyone hoping for Florida State to continue to stay out of the College Cup conversation is going to be disappointed. The Seminoles were still incredibly young last season, and they return ten starters from last year’s squad, tied for the most in the ACC. The offense was hit and miss at times last season, with nobody finishing last season with more than seven goals scored. However, that could change in a major way this year, with a ton of attacking potential for these Noles. On the frontline, FSU boasts one of the world’s most promising prospects in the form of Deyna Castellanos. The Venezuelan missed almost half of the season through international commitments, but she likely would have finished with double digit goals had she been with the club all season and remains a talent capable of spectacular things. There are also high hopes for Irish international Megan Connolly, who couldn’t quite match her unreal rookie season, but still scored seven goals as an attacking midfielder and is one of the game’s top midfield prospects.

The underrated Kaycie Tillman, dangerous as a winger, also returns following a three goal, five assist return, and could be set for a breakout season in the FSU attack. Big forward Kristen McFarland also muscled her way into starting minutes and scored a handful of goals in the first half of the season last year and could be a big factor with a little more consistency.

If all of that offensive muscle wasn’t enough, FSU adds a ton of new talent to their attacking corps. Adrienne Richardson is a U.S. U17 international and one of the best forwards in this rookie class. Angeline Daly and Claire Griffiths are two more highly touted prospects who should fortify the midfield. On the international front, FSU adds their customary big names, with few more hyped than Gloriana Villalobos, a Costa Rican international who could follow in Raquel Rodriguez’s footsteps and turn into a DI player of some renown in the midfield. Of equal reputation might be Canadian international Gabby Carle, another midfielder who has seen a burgeoning reputation as another of her nation’s young and promising prospects. It’s less a question of if Florida State has the quality in midfield and attack and more of an issue of the Noles can find the right mix, though they certainly do not lack for options.

While FSU is naturally getting a lot of attention from a wide set of newcomers in the attack, the defense is mostly the same group that took the pitch last season. The one exception is the graduation of Kirsten Crowley, the club’s All-American center-back who continued a long line of fantastic central defenders to have come through Tallahassee over the past decade. Florida State likely won’t be cowed though, as they return another All-American at the other center-back spot in Natalia Kuikka. The only junior to win All-America honors last year, Kuikka is a converted attacker who turned into a brilliant central defender and will again be looked at as a key defender here.

Out wide, Florida State could have two of the best full-backs in the nation. Senior Emma Koivisto is already one of Finland’s brightest prospects and has continued the FSU tradition of having fearless full-backs capable of zipping up and down the line to aid in the attack. Malia Berkely was also an absolute star here as a rookie, one of the best freshmen in America and may be tabbed to answer the pressing question of who starts alongside Kuikka at center-back given her size and skill. The center-back vacancy could also fall to another newcomer, English youth international Anna Patten, part of a golden generation of youngsters reigniting her nation’s fortunes.

FSU will be rock solid in goal as well, returning the nation’s best keeper in senior Cassie Miller and also add great depth with East Carolina’s starter last year Caroline Jeffers and rookie Brooke Bollinger, who reclassified after being one of the top keepers in the 2018 recruiting class.

Florida State looks absolutely loaded with talent going into the 2017 season. They’re deserved favorites to win the ACC and should be on the shortlist of national title contenders if the offense can gel together many talented parts.

A year after a shocking NCAA Tournament exit, North Carolina returned to the promised land, even with a squad that faced injuries and absences during the season and the loss of dependable seniors to graduation before it. The Heels certainly started out well, with a six match unbeaten run that included a win at UCLA. But UNC also faced a challenging period of just one win in five including a stunning 3-0 loss at eventual champions USC. Carolina would turn it around later in ACC play to finish tied for fourth in the league and topped Virginia and Notre Dame in the ACC Tournament before losing a heartbreak on penalties to Florida State in the ACC Tournament final. The defense would clamp down in the NCAA Tournament as they grinded out wins against Liberty, Kansas, and Clemson to put them on the verge of unit another College Cup. The Heels would overcome South Carolina on enemy territory to make it to the final weekend of the season, where West Virginia awaited. UNC fell just a bit short, but had still gone a long way in erasing the postseason nightmare of just one year earlier.

The bar is much higher this season for the Tar Heels. There are injury returns, redshirt returns, and another super recruiting class to raise expectations to the point that UNC should be on the shortlist of national title contenders this year. Not that there aren’t losses to overcome, as the defense and midfield in particular take some hits. In the middle of the park, the club loses key deep midfielder Darcy McFarlane, as well as winger Cameron Castleberry.

Among the returners from last year’s squad, senior Megan Buckingham is among the most intriguing. A winger, Buckingham has teased hints of stardom for three years but showed signs of breaking through last year with four goals and six assists. There will also likely be major minutes for attacking midfielders Annie Kingman, team leader in assists with eight last year, and Dorian Bailey, another year removed from a 2015 ACL tear. There’s big hopes for Joanna Boyles in midfield, coming back from two ACL tears. When Boyles is healthy, she’s been an electrifying presence in the middle of the park with deadly skill on set pieces.

Added to the mix is Emily Fox, a U.S. U20 international expected to make a massive early impact here. Up top, Carolina went without a ten goal scorer last year but probably won’t for a second straight season. Bridgette Andrzejewski was a hit as a rookie here, scoring nine goals and looking like a potential top scoring option the club has been thirsting for. There could be big roles as well for Zoe Redei, who endured an injury interrupted rookie season but looked quality when healthy, and super sub Madison Schultz, who was lethal off the bench. There are plenty of incoming options for UNC as well. Rookies Alea Hyatt, Taylor Otto, and England’s Alessia Russo are all big talents who could get major minutes early.

The return of Jessie Scarpa might be the biggest addition of all though, as she was a revelation as a sophomore with eight goals and eight assists in 2015 before missing last season with the U20 World Cup. Anson Dorrance has almost unlimited options for his front seven (or six), but finding the right mix could be a challenge with so many new and returning pieces.

The defense could be a bigger worry going into the new season. Gone on the backline is the graduated Hanna Gardner, while the Heels suffered another huge blow when Maggie Bill was ruled out for the season. Down two starters, UNC will be hoping for more from junior Julia Ashley, one of the nation’s most underrated defenders and the next in a line of great professional defensive prospects to be churned out in Chapel Hill. Who joins her on the backline is a major question. Otto, as well Maya Worth, who saw action on the frontline last year, could be options on the backline for Dorrance. The arrival of Lotte Wubben-Moy, one of England’s best youth prospects, could be a huge boon if she shows the form of her appearances at international level at U17 and U19 levels. Promising domestic rookie Brooke Bingham could also be pushed into major minutes given the needs on the backline for UNC.

It’s a year of transition in between the pipes as well, as Lindsey Harris graduates following a brilliant senior season in which she stood on her head on more than one occasion to keep the Heels in matches. A program with many a talented keeper over the years, UNC has one this season. As in just one keeper: Samantha Leshnak. The Heels don’t have an established backup, meaning it’s going to be all Leshnak, all the time, for better or for worse given her relative inexperience.

Carolina has plenty of weapons, the envy of most of the nation, and should be able to put together one of the elite attacks in DI with a little luck. But the defense has more questions than answers right now, and though UNC is in the top tier of teams in 2017, it could leave them just short of the big prize.

Injuries are often the first and easiest excuse coaches reach for when a season starts to go haywire. But Duke and their head coach Robbie Church had a legitimate grievance with the injury bug, which ravaged their side in 2016. Rebecca Quinn never got healthy after returning from the Olympics with Canada. Kayla McCoy went down before the halfway point of the season. Taylor Racioppi was lost just a few games after that. It was nigh-incredible that the Blue Devils did as well as they did, beating the likes of Big Ten double winners Minnesota in the non-conference schedule, before going to within a point of an unlikely ACC title. They’d suffer a heartbreaking loss to Clemson to see them fall just short of a share of the title. There’d be no joy in the ACC Tournament either, as Duke bowed out in the quarterfinals to Florida State after penalties. Though some might have believed that the Blue Devils had ran out of gas, they went on to prove that their reputation as serial overachievers in the NCAA Tournament was well deserved. Charlotte and Illinois State fell first, but Northwestern was the first real big test, which was passed with flying colors. Duke would fall just short against West Virginia in the Elite Eight, but considering the challenges faced by the club on the injury front, it had been another stellar season in Durham.

Time heals all wounds, and it’s brought the above injury victims back to full health and put the Blue Devils back amongst the favorites to make it to Orlando and the College Cup. Which isn’t to say that Duke doesn’t have some losses to compensate for, as they do lose three starters from last year’s squad. The biggest losses come in the attack, with the loss of midfielder (and defender) Christina Gibbons looming largest. Gibbons did a little bit of everything in her Duke career, but she was more of an attacking force last year, scoring four goals (mostly from the penalty spot) and leading the team with eight assists en route to All-America honors and ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors. Also departing is Toni Payne, a counter attacking marvel who hit opponents for nine goals and six assists as a senior.

The returning firepower is plentiful. Many eyes will be focused on senior Imani Dorsey, who has upped her scoring total in each of her three seasons with the club and had seven assists to go with her seven goals last year. Last year’s breakout star was rookie Ella Stevens, who came into Durham as one of the nation’s most coveted recruits. She more than lived up to the hype with ten goals to lead the team while also adding six assists. If there’s not a sophomore slump, Stevens is a potential All-American. It’s the returners who could ultimately make or break Duke’s season. Racioppi was being tipped as a potential Hermann Trophy candidate last year after a blazing rookie season. The New Jersey native chose to forego a chance to return to the U20 team for the U20 World Cup and had three goals and five assists through roughly half the season before being lost for the year. If healthy, Racioppi is one of the nation’s best attacking midfielders. Duke also will be counting on McCoy’s return this year to give the club a top level threat on the frontline. McCoy had been brilliant as a rookie and was solid last year before injuring her Achilles’ which is not an easy injury to come back from, meaning a return to peak form isn’t guaranteed.

All of which makes the incoming Blue Devil rookie class that much more important. Church has helped turn Duke into a recruiting juggernaut, and this year is no different. Tess Boade and Gabi Brummett look to continue the program’s long string of having rookies come up big early in their careers, but the player to watch might be Tennessee native Karlie Paschall, long regarded as one of this class’ best overall prospects.

Duke looks solid on defense despite the loss of veteran Lizzy Raben. Raben’s graduation might be offset by the return of Quinn to the lineup. The Canadian international is an elite prospect but has serious red flags on her due to durability concerns exacerbated by the fact that Quinn hasn’t made it through a single college season healthy yet. If she does stay healthy, she can be one of the best defenders in the country, though she could also be used as a defensive midfielder.

There are plenty of other contenders to fill the other backline slots. Schuyler DeBree recovered from an ACL injury in 2015 to start every match last season and could be set for her best year yet a further year removed from that injury. Out wide, Morgan Reid and Chelsea Burns look most likely to start and return with the pair combining for six assists last season. The sleeper might be sophomore Mia Gyau, a heavily tipped player coming into Durham last season who saw time in both midfield and defense and who is an intriguing attacking option at full-back. Added to the mix are rookies Caitlin Cosme and Taylor Mitchell, two more promising prospects who should give Church even more options for his backline.

The goalkeeping situation could bear some watching as well. EJ Proctor would appear to be a safe #1 option going into the season given her showings in goal over the past few years. But the Blue Devils also have Brooke Heinsohn on the roster now, a mountainous 6’1” keeper who is a U.S. U20 international and likely didn’t sign with Duke to play second fiddle to anyone. How Church manages the situation is another tasty subplot going into the new year.

The Blue Devils are again loaded with veteran talent, returning talent, and new talent. They’re easily a top ten team and could be potentially much more if all the pieces fall into place.

The ACC table must have made for odd reading for Virginia in 2016. The Cavs finishing in a tie for fourth place wasn’t exactly par for the course considering UVA’s track record over the past decade. At the same time, Virginia was just three points off the top of the league at season’s end, which is a pretty nice accomplishment for a side that has lost some amazing talent over the past few years. The Cavs made short work of most of their non-conference slate, only dropping their finale to Georgetown in a 3-2 thriller. But ACC play was a different beast entirely, as the club managed just one win in their first four, even if two of those games were against Florida State and North Carolina. They’d rebound to win five of six though, which sent them marching up the table, but the ACC Tournament brought another reality check in the form of a shocking 3-0 loss, made more surprising by UVA’s recent fortunes against the Tar Heels. UVA seemed to have figured things out with wins over Monmouth and Penn State in the opening two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, but Georgetown showed they had the Cavs’ number, knocking them out in the Sweet Sixteen.

Anyone expecting UVA to bounce back into national title contention could be disappointed, as the Cavs lose five starters from last year’s squad. The biggest worry might be replacing defending league Offensive Player of the Year Alexis Shaffer, also a first team All-American. With UVA’s frontline a bit inconsistent at times, Shaffer took it upon herself to carry the pressure of scoring on her shoulders, and finished with thirteen goals and six assists, though four of those strikes came from the penalty spot.

The scoring this season is probably going to come down to the frontline duo of Veronica Latsko and Taylor Ziemer. Latsko netted eight goals last year for a career high but was much better early than late, scoring just once in the club’s last eleven matches. All things considered, Ziemer had a nice rookie season, though her ACC goals came in spurts against Pittsburgh and NC State. More might be expected of Alissa Gorzak, who impressed as a rookie but had just a single goal to go with four assists.

In midfield, UVA will return a lot of potential as well. Betsy Brandon came into Charlottesville touted as a future star and has been solid but seems to have another gear to get to, while Zoe Morse also made a big impression as a rookie. Courtney Petersen is the wild card after missing last season due to youth international commitments with the U.S. U20 team but could also feature on the backline. Most of the club’s highly touted rookie class is on the attacking side of the ball. Taryn Torres and Sydney Zandi are both longtime U.S. youth internationals and could fortify the midfield, while the latter might also get a run out on defense. Sofia Weiner probably isn’t in that duo’s class but could add another valuable option on the frontline for head coach Steve Swanson.

The offense is probably going to have to shine, because the defense gets hammered by graduation. The biggest name to depart is Kristen McNabb, a star again at center-back, but the loss of full-backs Tina Iordanou and Meghan Cox might be almost as damaging for the Cavs’ defense. The lone remaining starter from last year’s squad on the backline is Megan Reid, who provides great experience as a senior and who also had five assists last year. Reid can play centrally or wide, and that versatility could be priceless as Swanson tries to find the right pieces. Other options at center-back include Brianna Westrup and Phoebe McClernon, two of the club’s most reliable reserves from last year but with limited starting experience. There’s really no telling who else will crop up on the backline, though, as stated above, Petersen and Zandi are certainly viable options for the Cavs.

Virginia also loses starting keeper Morgan Stearns, a former U.S. U23 international, and they return zero minutes of experience in between the pipes this year. It’s what makes the decision of Laurel Ivory to reclassify and enroll this year so crucial for UVA. Considered one of the best young keepers in the U.S., Ivory will likely need to be on top of her game behind a new look backline.

The Cavs look to be in a bit of a limbo, where they look clearly better than most of their ACC brethren but also don’t look likely to challenge the league’s big three this year. Their best hope for silverware might be the ACC Tournament, while they’ll also likely hope for a favorable draw in the NCAAs that could send them on a dark horse run toward Orlando.

It all went so well for Notre Dame, save for one little hitch at the end. Hopes going into 2016 probably were a bit muted considering all the losses the club faced due to graduation and redshirting for the U20 World Cup. While the Irish did well enough early on in non-conference play, it wasn’t until they went to California and drew at Stanford that they began to gain traction as a top team. The Irish would stumble in their league opener though, drawing at Syracuse before getting back their mojo and winning five of their next six. Seven points in their final three wrapped up a share of the league title for Notre Dame, among the most unlikely of their many triumphs. They’d make it to the ACC Tournament semi-final before being edged out by North Carolina. The NCAA Tournament looked to be set up nicely for Notre Dame…but a nightmare descended on South Bend, as the Irish couldn’t breach tiny SIU Edwardsville’s defense, resulting in a shocking shootout defeat to the OVC Tournament champions.

The mission now for head coach Theresa Romagnolo is to overcome that traumatic and shocking terminus to the Irish’s 2016 season. The good news is that the Irish benefit from the return of nine starters, as well as Natalie Jacobs and Sabrina Flores from redshirt seasons. The Irish made their bones through defense last season, giving up just three goals in ACC play and nine overall all of last season. The backline looks set to return intact for the Irish again this season. It’s largely a workmanlike group, but they were tremendously effective, as the above evidence indicates. Centrally, Notre Dame will likely rely on junior Rachel Heard, who had barely played as a rookie before turning into a rock last year, and Ginny McGowan, who also is capable in the middle of the park.

Out wide, Mexican youth international Monica Flores has started at left-back for two seasons and finished second on the squad with four assists last season. Out right, Natalie Ward was another defensive revelation after not playing as a rookie, stepping in as a starter on the top unit. Jacobs and Sabrina Flores are versatile options as well, able to play at center-back and full-back respectively, though it remains to be seen if Romagnolo wants to rock the boat with a back four that did so well last year.

With Kaela Little’s graduation, Notre Dame needs a new starting goalkeeper. Senior Lexi Nicholas started a handful of games as a sophomore but has been used seldomly otherwise. She’ll battle sophomore Brooke Littman for the gloves, with the winner likely playing behind one of the nation’s best backlines.

Attacking-wise, Notre Dame scored just a little over a goal a game and likely needs to improve to keep moving towards greater honors. The offense has a rather sizable loss to overcome, as All-ACC First Team member Kaleigh Olmsted departs following a four goal season for the Irish. Much of the scoring focus now will fall upon sophomore Jennifer Westendorf. Westendorf was a highly hyped rookie and racked up a team leading seventy-five shots but also netted just six goals, so efficiency definitely needs a bit of work for the forward. Wide forwards Karin Muya and Meghan Doyle both return after starting last season, but neither were prolific, scoring just two goals each. U.S. U18 international Eva Hurm could force her way into major minutes up top, but getting Jacobs back could be key. Jacobs was quite good here in 2015, but she also wasn’t a big scorer, netting just four goals.

Notre Dame got a huge boost in the offseason when Sandra Yu, whose first few seasons were ruined through injury, got another year of eligibility. Finally healthy, Yu has been a stabilizing presence in the center of the park for the past two seasons. Also back are Taylor Klawunder, Shannon Hendricks, and Alexis Martel-Lamothe, who each saw starting minutes last season. Sabrina Flores’ return should add even more quality to the unit, although as noted above, she could be used on defense as well. Also added to the mix are Sammi Fisher and Camryn Dyke, who have the potential to win minutes early as rookies.

The Irish certainly did more with less last season, but my projections note their odds of a repeating as ACC champions are slim. They should still be a strong side, but a lack of proven offensive star power could hold them back, though the defense might just be good enough to lead them in crunch time come November.

Louisville started out 2016 in relatively solid fashion but wilted with the leaves as temperatures cooled down in the Fall. In truth, the Cardinals probably benefitted from some real stinkers on the non-conference schedule, and a loss to Ball State was pretty concerning as league play approached. Things actually started out well enough for the Cardinals in the league, as they went 2-0-1 in their first three, including a draw at Duke and win against Boston College in a pulsating encounter. The Cardinals hit a sizable wall after that win though, going an unflattering 0-5-2 in their final seven, even though they also managed impressive draws against NC State and Virginia Tech. The end result was a tenth place finish in the ACC and another year out of the postseason picture, even with the expanded field for the conference tournament.

As has been the case since the Cardinals joined the ACC, there is a desperate need for goals. The Cardinals scored just eight of them in league matches in 2016, tied for the second lowest figure in the conference. The leading returning scorer for Louisville is the towering Brooklynn Rivers, who had two sensational games against Harvard and Belmont in non-conference play and showed potential in others but who still has a way to go to become a top attacking option in this league. Seniors Alison Price and Kaela Dickerman were also heavily involved in the attack but netted just three goals apiece.

Barring a massive step forward from Rivers, it’s probably going to be up to some of the newcomers to provide the fireworks, and Louisville added two big pieces to the puzzle this offseason. Emina Ekic is not just a hometown product, she’s one of the best youth players the state of Kentucky has produced in a good while. Already a U.S. youth international up to U19 level, Ekic could be a generational player for a program like Louisville. On top of that, Louisville also drafted in Mollie Rouse, an English youth international at U17 and U19 levels that is another product of a blossoming youth system and who could also be a big factor right away for the Cards. Fellow rookies TJ Anderson and Taylor Kerwin may fly under the radar a bit given the above, but they’ve also been tipped to impress after solid youth careers.

The Cardinals have largely been competent defensively, not through the presence of a star but largely through an unflagging workrate. Happily, Louisville looks to have a nice anchor at center-back in junior Gabrielle Vincent, who is rounding into one of the league’s best central defenders. In even more good news, Louisville’s defense was pretty young last year, and Vincent’s center-back partner, Inger Katrine Bjerke is also back, while fellow starters Shelby Cohen and Niamh Nelson return as well, meaning there could be a lot of continuity on the backline. Rookie Morgan Dewey also comes in highly regarded and at the very least should compete for a decent amount of minutes this season.

The position that could make or break Louisville this season is in goal, with the club graduating starter Taylor Bucklin, who stood on her head at times during her Cardinals career. There’s little DI experience on the roster, but the player to watch may be U.S. youth international Gabrielle Kouzelos, who redshirted behind Bucklin last season.

Louisville were young last season, and the future looks bright considering some of the talent brought in this offseason. They have every shot at reaching the ACC Tournament this year, which could mean an NCAA Tournament return as well.

Cinderella stories like NC State’s aren’t supposed to happen at high level DI WoSo conferences like the ACC. This is a Wolfpack side that hadn’t won a conference game since the end of 2013 as they entered 2016. NCST didn’t really provide any evidence that they were a side to watch in the non-conference slate either, with no wins over anyone that would finish in the RPI Top 100. But the Wolfpack roared with their first game in the ACC, a shock 1-0 win at North Carolina. They’d go on to win three of their first four in the league to show they were not a one-hit wonder. But a young side began to wear down late, and NC State managed just one win in their final six league games, a crucial one over Pittsburgh that prevented their RPI from imploding. After losing again to Notre Dame in the ACC Tournament quarterfinal, some might have considering the Wolfpack as fortunate to get an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. But they quickly found a second wind, shocking Big Ten double winners Minnesota on penalties before bouncing WCC champs Pepperdine in the second round. Santa Clara would put NC State out in the last sixteen, but 2016 had been a season of revival in Raleigh.

The challenge now for the Wolfpack is to keep the momentum going now that teams aren’t overlooking them as an easy win in the ACC. NC State’s performance last season was made even more impressive by the fact that the club started just one senior and saw just sixteen players get major minutes in 2016. The Wolfpack’s young cadre of attacking talent helped pull it from the ACC basement, but there’s still room for so much more considering how youthful the group was last year.

The centerpiece is sophomore Tziarra King, who emerged as a big weapon for the Wolfpack, scoring eight goals to lead the team, including three in three games at the tail end of the league season. There are more than a few other attacking weapons for the Raleigh club to utilize as well, with sophomore Kia Rankin surely ranking near the top of the list. Rankin was impressive as a rookie as well, netting five goals and three assists despite missing four matches. There could also be more goals and opportunities for Ricci Walkling and super sub Michaella van Maanen, the club’s super sub, who combined for seven goals and eight assists as a part of the Wolfpack’s tremendous rookie class. The Pack also add another promising rookie in Mikhail Johnson, who could slot in either in midfield or defense for NC State this season. The one question about the offense might be with one of the club’s few seniors, as the talented Jackie Stengel, who scored five goals in eight games last year and has been plagued by injuries, was injured in the preseason, with her status uncertain for the season.

The Wolfpack were average-ish in the ACC last season, giving up just over a goal a game in conference matches. Again, just like the offense, this was a pretty young group and has a ton of upside going into the next year or two. Most eyes are going to be on right-back Krissi Schuster, who came to Raleigh as a highly tipped import from Germany and who was one of the nation’s most impressive rookies last year, being solid defensively and contributing five assists on the offensive side of the ball as well. The club’s other left-back, club captain Hannah Keogh, was also a stalwart last season, starting every match and finishing with six assists. Going to the well once more for a young German, NC State has signed U17 international Lulu Guttenberger, another product from FC Bayern’s youth academy. A center-back by trade, Guttenberger stands at just 5’4”, so it’ll be interesting to see where she slots in on the backline here. Junior Sydney Wootten took over full-time in goal last season and should again be the top option in Raleigh in 2017.

It’s easy to see why NC State would be a popular pick for a national sleeper this year given last year’s revelatory campaign. But this is still a very young side, so talented as they might be, betting on consolidation instead of further upward movement might be safer this season.

Continuity paid dividends for Clemson in 2016. The Tigers returned an almost unchanged squad last year when many of their rivals was compensating for graduated stars or those who were redshirting for the U20 World Cup. And Clemson took full advantage of the situation, winning at Auburn on opening day and grinding their way through the ACC despite a stretch of zero wins in three early in the league season. The Tigers roared down the stretch, winning their last five matches in the regular season, all by a single goal, to claim a share of the ACC title, completing the rebirth of a program once at rock bottom. The postseason was a bit disappointing though. Clemson fell in the ACC Tournament semi-finals to Florida State and then fell at the Sweet Sixteen to North Carolina in another tight match. For just about any other program, such a postseason would be cause for celebration, but Clemson likely felt that this was their best shot at getting to the College Cup.

Now comes the hard part for Clemson, who is hit as hard as anyone in the nation by graduation. Clemson loses a whopping eight starters to graduation, with the next most hard hit team in the league having lost just five starters. Both units obviously get hit hard, but Clemson’s defense in particular gets decimated. The biggest loss is the club’s last line of defense, Kailen Sheridan, a potential NWSL Rookie of the Year candidate and Canadian international. Mercifully for Clemson, they seem to have a ready made replacement in English youth international Sandy MacIver, who saw time in a handful of matches last year, mostly when Sheridan herself was on international duty.

The backline playing in front of her is going to be a work in progress, to say the least. The biggest loss is of hard nosed center-back Claire Wagner, who was key to the defensive revolution here and who also netted four goals for her efforts as a senior. The Tigers also lose twin full-backs Emily and Gabby Byorth, who had also become standards on the backline here over the past four years. The lone returner on the starting backline is Sam Staab, who could round into one of the nation’s better center-backs in her last two years here. She’s better known at the moment though for her penchant for assists, tallying eighteen in two seasons, to go along with a pair of goals last year. How Clemson will line up defensively is anybody’s guess, but a newcomer to keep an eye on is Colorado native Alex Nillen, who has been tipped to make a big impact.

Clemson’s offense figures to be almost in as much flux, as the Tigers lose three of their top four scorers from last year. The biggest hitter gone is explosive attacking midfielder Catrina Atanda, who was one of the nation’s most thrilling, dynamic players to watch. She scored twelve goals to claim the team lead by a fair margin and is a huge loss to overcome for Clemson. Also gone (among others), are second leading scorer Jenna Weston, who netted six goals, and solid role players Abby Jones and Katie Spouse.

U.S. U20 international Shannon Horgan is probably the surest thing returning in the attack after netting four goals and seven assists last season and may need to have a big season for the Tigers to flourish this year. Other attackers who could find themselves with greater scoring responsibilities this season include sophomore Julie Mackin, a big time prospect coming into the Tigers’ program, and Miranda Weslake, who took her fair share of shots last season but netted just a pair of goals on those thirty-seven shots. In terms of newcomers, forward Courtney Jones and midfielder Haley Schueppert are both former U.S. U18 internationals and will likely get every chance of winning starting spots or, at the very least, serious minutes.

Clemson probably aren’t going to be returning to the “bad old days” any time soon, but this is probably going to be a roller coaster of a year. My projections think they’ll be in a fight for ACC Tournament qualification, which means they could be on the NCAA bubble as well.

In most respects, 2016 was another lost season for Syracuse, who has probably become used to the feeling by now. The writing was probably on the wall early for the Orange with a draw against Colgate and loss to Bucknell. But a league opening draw against Notre Dame perhaps raised hopes just a bit for Syracuse. In the end, it was the falsest of dawns, as the Orange proceeded to lose their next four before bafflingly drawing with Florida State in another rare display of quality. A late season rally wasn’t coming, and Syracuse finished thirteenth in the ACC, a whopping eight points off the postseason places, even with the conference expanding the field for the ACC Tournament back to eight teams. The Orange haven’t come close to challenging for an NCAA Tournament berth in well over a decade, and on the bulk of recent evidence, don’t look close to be any time soon.

Will this finally be the year it comes together for Phil Wheddon and the Orange? Crazily enough, it might just be. To a certain extent. The Orange aren’t going to be contending for a league title, but this might be their most promising side in a long time. Syracuse were reasonably young last season and get nine starters back from last year’s side. The Orange were pretty deficient on both sides of the ball, but the defense has a chance to show some growth this season. Maddie Iozzi graduates, but Alana O’Neill, Taylor Bennett, and Jessica Vigna all return. Much of the excitement surrounding the Orange on defense this season though likely concerns the signing of Canadian youth international goalkeeper Lysianne Proulx. Proulx is yet another promising young keeper to be cranked out of the Canadian youth program, though she’s definitely rougher around the edges than contemporaries like Kailen Sheridan and Sabrina D’Angelo were. Syracuse has a three-year starter in Courtney Brosnan returning, but it’d be a serious shock if Proulx didn’t see major minutes at some point this year.

Even if the defense is buoyed by the returnees and additions, they’ll need to score some goals after a rather uninspiring showing last season. This could be rather difficult considering the club loses its top scoring weapon, New Zealand’s Stephanie Skilton, who led the club with six goals last season. Of the returnees, O’Neil and Eva Gordon are the joint leading scorers coming back to the club this year, with the latter having netted the goal against Notre Dame in that famous draw. Others like Sydney Brackett and Alex Lamontagne were quick on the trigger, combining for sixty-seven shots but putting up just a goal each. While the above is discouraging, Syracuse does add some firepower with solid freshmen Kailee Coonan and Mackenzie Vlachos prepared to join up this year. The big add though is sophomore East Tennessee State transfer Georgia Allen, a continuing member of the England U20 team, and a player who impressed at ETSU as a rookie.

My projections conclude that Syracuse, wildly enough, may have a decent shot at getting in the top eight and the ACC Tournament. But they also have some real deficiencies on both sides of the ball and could see another painful season if things don’t break their way.

Things have gone gloomy at Boston College after a quite trying 2016 season for the Eagles. It certainly didn’t start out that way, with BC going 8-0-1 in non-conference play, though absent from that schedule were too many big names, which ended up dragging the club’s RPI down all season. Things got much more difficult for the Eagles once ACC play started, as they won just one of their first four matches, that coming against lowly Pittsburgh. The bulk of the league campaign was consumed by an awful stretch of just one win in seven matches, though, confoundingly, that victory was against powerhouse Florida State. A regular season ending win against Syracuse wasn’t good enough to get BC in either the ACC Tournament or NCAA Tournament, marking the second time in three seasons that Alison Foley’s side has missed out on the Big Dance.

The hits kept coming in the offseason, as the Eagles suffered a massive blow with the transfer of center-back Samantha Hiatt to Stanford. The loss of one of the players BC was likely depending on to be a cornerstone for the present and future only compounds problems this upcoming season with the loss of offensive talismans Hayley Dowd and McKenzie Meehan. Meehan will go down as one of the club’s greatest players ever, netting twelve goals as a senior to lead the Eagles before being drafted by Sky Blue FC of the NWSL.

Nobody returning netted more than five goals last season, meaning BC is in a rare position (for this program) of being a little unsettled in the attack. Not that there’s not a fair amount of scoring potential here. Fifth-year senior and captain Lauren Berman should be a lynchpin again in midfield after leading the club with eight assists and adding four goals last year. Jenna Bike came in with a massive reputation that she’ll want to start meeting after being an ancillary option last year and netting three goals and five assists. Also worth watching are sophomore Kayla Jennings, who netted four goals last year, and sophomore Olivia Vaughn, a super sub who netted five goals despite not starting a single match last year. As is their custom, BC has again added some prime attacking talent. The big hitter is Sam Coffey, a U.S. U19 international who could be used in attack or midfield here. There could also be major opportunities for Jennings’ sister, Jillian, a U.S. U17 international, as well as Ya Ya Van Ness, the pair both highly rated additions.

As is custom here, the offense needs to perform, because few are going to trust a traditionally leaky defense that also happens to lose its anchor in Hiatt. The lynchpin to the defense this season is probably going to be veteran co-captain Allyson Swaby, who’s been a three-year starter here and a workhorse on the backline for the Eagles. Also likely to return in starting roles are senior Madison Kenny and junior Gaby Carreiro, who tied for the team lead in assists with eight and is also capable in midfield. As you might expect, BC brings in some interesting additions to hopefully boost a backline that couldn’t buy an ACC clean sheet to save its life. On the domestic front, Gianna Mitchell is one of this class’ highest regarded defenders, and the Springfield native should get an early chance to win a starting job. An interesting gamble is Mijke Roelfsema, a Dutch youth international with extensive experience at the U17 and U19 age groups.

In goal, two-year starter and junior Alexis Bryant is the incumbent and has shown a capability for excellent play at times but could get a challenge this year from Princeton transfer Hannah Winner, who started during her club’s excellent 2015 season but did not play last year.

The Eagles take some big hits through attrition, but another great recruiting class could yet salvage the season for them. They’re a borderline ACC Tournament team in my projections, meaning they could yet by NCAA bound again.

After a few seasons in a bleak spot in the ACC, Wake Forest began to show some initial signs of recovery last year. Well, for half of the year, at least. The Demon Deacons’ revival may have been more smoke and mirrors through non-conference scheduling, as they may have run the table, but they also played just one team, San Diego, that finished in the RPI Top 130 at season’s end. Reality hit, and it hit hard once league play started though, as Wake lost their first six. Defeats to the likes of Florida State and Duke were expected. Losses to Miami (FL) and NC State? Less expected or welcomed. The Demon Deacons saved a little face by winning a few games late, but despite finishing with an overall winning record, they were still well down the ACC pecking order and didn’t beat a team that finished in the RPI Top 60.

Head coach Tony da Luz will likely always be fondly remembered in Winston-Salem for getting a school of Wake Forest’s size to the College Cup, but even the most patient supporter has to be desperate for a return to the days of when Wake was at the very least a mid-table ACC side. 2017 could be a double-edged sword for the club, as just leaning on the returnees probably isn’t going to inspire a lot of confidence in this cutthroat conference, but da Luz also brings in no shortage of promising newcomers to try and get his side over the hump. A big challenge for Wake is going to be getting the offense going again, as the Demon Deacons have seldom looked like a high scoring side since Katie Stengel’s graduation years ago.

Wake scored just nine goals in ten league games last year, indicating a big need for improvement for 2017. The best hope from a returnee is probably going to be Peyton Perea, as the junior netted six goals to lead the team last year, including four in league play. It’s shaky beyond her though, as Bayley Feist did most of her scoring in non-conference play, while Maddie Huster collected three of her five against Florida International, though she should still be one of the club’s most important players in midfield. It’ll likely be up to some of the newcomers to chip in immediately here. Ryanne Brown comes into Winston-Salem as a U.S. youth international and is one of the best recruits to step foot here in recent memory. Forward Abby McNamara and midfielder Sofia Rossi are also highly regarded and should see major minutes early. The Demon Deacons might be banking on some international flair as well, with Icelandic youth international Hulda Arnarsdottir and redshirt freshman French youth international Estelle Laurier in the mix. da Luz certainly won’t be short of offensive options this year, but finding the right mix could be trickier.

Defensively, Wake Forest weren’t any great shakes either, keeping just one ACC clean sheet and giving up multiple goals in six of ten matches. Complicating matters for the Demon Deacons is the loss of the club’s best player, defensive midfielder Sarah Teegarden, one of the nation’s best in that specialized, tricky role. Wake should be stable in goal at least, with senior Lindsay Preston having started for much of her career thus far, including almost every match last season.

How busy she’ll be is up to the backline in front of her, which could be in flux. Gone are starters Kendall Fischlein and Maddie Brock, and there’s not really a sure thing amongst the returnees. Huster played at center-back at times last year but might be needed full-time to fill Teegarden’s role this year. Senior Ally Haran figures to get the nod at one of the center-back slots, while sophomore Madison Hammond might again slot in at left-back. Madison Baumgardner and Monreau DeVos also saw extensive time last year and could be major players again this year. da Luz hasn’t made quite the additions he did on offense, but adding German youth international Vicky Krug is still a big get, with the expectation that she’ll get major minutes early.

The bar has seemingly been set very high for Wake in preseason by da Luz, which might be an issue with the side so dependent on rookies making a big impact. I don’t think they’re one of the best eight sides in the ACC, but if someone’s going to pull an NC State style surprise this year, it might be the high upside Demon Deacons.

Virginia Tech discovered the value of a draw on an NCAA Tournament resume last season, and unfortunately for the Hokies, it wasn’t much. The Hokies finished the season with draws against Clemson and Notre Dame, who shared the ACC title, but found themselves out of the Big Dance nonetheless at season’s end. VT had entered league play without a win over anyone in the RPI Top 90, meaning they had to scramble to put together some results in ACC action. While Chugger Adair’s side was able to nab those aforementioned draws, they just could not buy a win against a top team to save their life, with their best league victory likely coming against Boston College. Ninth in the league and a resume lacking a big win did not equal at-large bid for the Hokies, as a program that had been on the ascent under Adair hit a first major roadblock.

If 2016 was a roadblock, 2017 might be turbulent for Virginia Tech. The Hokies lose five starters and much of the top talent that had been the foundation of so much success the past four years in Blacksburg. VT’s attack averaged just a goal a game, a mark that could be hard to replicate with the graduation of Murielle Tiernan. Tiernan was simply spectacular over the course of four seasons and was blessedly consistent, scoring 11, 14, 14, and 10 goals in her career here. Replacing Tiernan’s scoring is going to be a massive task for the Hokies, as nobody returning netted more than six goals. Those goals came from senior Alani Johnson, the only player returning with more than two goals. There’s a big qualifier attached to Johnson though, as despite scoring twenty goals for VT in her career, she’s started just seven matches. Johnson might have to come into a starting role though, because it’s difficult to see where else the goals are going to come from. Madi Conyers and Kristina Diana had quick triggers last year but each netted just two goals in the bargain. It might be up to some of the newcomers to step in, with forward Allyson Brown and midfielder Kara Henderson the likeliest candidates to do just that.

The questions on offense mean that the defense is going to be more important than ever if Virginia Tech wants to get back to the postseason in 2017. There are losses on this unit as well though, and even though the departed Candace Cephers was technically a midfielder for the Hokies, she was largely a defensive midfielder and a very good one at that. Also gone from the backline for Virginia Tech are graduated seniors Sydney Curtis at center-back and Marie Johnston at left-back. Versatile Jaylyn Thompson and center-back Kelsey Irwin, both sophomores, return, but even though they got a year’s worth of starting experience in 2016, this still looks like a potentially very young backline. It likely puts some serious pressure on Mandy McGlynn, the club’s #1 in goal. McGlynn, a sophomore, has seen extensive time in the U.S. youth national team setup, and she could be kept busy an under construction backline this season.

Chugger Adair has done great things in Blacksburg during his tenure as head coach, but he has his work cut out for him in 2017. Where the goals are going to come from is a mystery, and the backline looks perilously young, meaning the Hokies could struggle to make the postseason once again.

If you ever needed proof that every game matters at this level, all you have to do is look at the example of Miami (FL) in 2016. The Hurricanes made short work of a pretty lightweight non-conference slate but incurred defeats at the end of it to Florida Gulf Coast and Florida International that appeared to be little more than footnotes to their season at the time as few gave the Coral Gables side much of a chance to make a run at the postseason in the cutthroat ACC. The Hurricanes would change the narrative in their second league game, shocking fancied Virginia and breathing life into their postseason hopes. That and wins over mid-tier sides like Virginia Tech and Louisville helped the Canes squeak into the ACC Tournament, but a shock defeat at woeful Pittsburgh still loomed large. In the ACC Tournament, Miami were able to take Clemson to penalty kicks, with the result counting as a draw despite the shootout loss, but those losses to FIU and Pittsburgh proved fatal to NCAA hopes, dragging their RPI down enough to keep the Canes off the bubble.

It’s now an issue of building on last year’s close calls and proving that the program can compete with and defeat the ACC’s elite on a consistent basis. The Hurricanes were about middle of the road in both offense and defense in league play last year, but the attack does face some big challenges in maintaining last season’s level of production. The biggest loss is that of Gracie Lachowecki, who blossomed into one of the ACC’s best attacking weapons over the course of her final two seasons in Coral Gables, netting eleven goals in 2016 to followup twelve goals as a junior.

The Canes aren’t threadbare in the attack, but their options do appear a bit limited after Lachowecki’s departure. In terms of outstanding attacking quality on the Canes, the torch is probably getting passed to sophomore Kristina Fisher, who has gotten looks in the U.S. U23 team and deservedly so after her rookie year. Fisher was electrifying early, with six goals and five assists in the club’s first six games but had just one goal and one assist after, so the club will need much more in ACC play from their new talisman. The only other returnee that made a discernible impact in front of goal last year is senior Ronnie Johnson, who also had seven goals last year, including a huge hat trick against Louisville. The above trio combined for twenty-five of the team’s thirty-three goals, so the Canes will be desperate for some spark from newcomers. There’s not really a can’t miss prospect amongst the bunch, but there may be high hopes that New Jersey’s Rachel Sorkenn can come right in and contribute.

There wasn’t nearly as much star power on defense last season for the Hurricanes. Few likely gave Phallon Tullis-Joyce much of a chance of maintaining the starting job in goal against Colombian international Catalina Perez in the long-term here. Tullis-Joyce has made the job her own though, taking in almost all of the minutes last season and is now the undisputed #1 here after Perez’s transfer to Mississippi State. She’ll have to be a rock considering some of the losses on the backline in front of her. Gone are full-back Emily Auld, utility defender Shannon McCarthy, and Gianna Dal Pozzo, who also saw time in the middle of the park. Sophomore Madison Louk is the likely starter at right-back after starting about half the games here last season. English junior Maisie Baker was a rock here last year at center-back and is probably going to have to fill a leadership role this year for a backline in flux. Miami took a flyer on France’s Dalanda Ouendeno via transfer from West Virginia, but there’s still more than one question about the rearguard.

The Hurricanes had a fine 2016 season, but my projections aren’t optimistic on a repeat, with some major personnel losses combined with a tepid recruiting class to blame. I think they may outperform my projections a slight bit, but I still consider them a long shot for the top eight.

If 2015 had been a big step forward for Pittsburgh, 2016 was a quantum leap in reverse for the beleaguered ACC program. The Panthers looked like a side on the rise just a few years ago, not just roasting most non-conference opponents but also winning four league games. However, Pitt was an unmitigated disaster last season. A season opening draw at Michigan was about as good as it got for the Panthers, who promptly won just one of their next twelve matches. The end result was a brutal fifteen loss season, the second most in program history. It wasn’t just that Pitt was losing in the league, it was that so many of the losses were totally lopsided, as six of their nine losses in the league were by multiple goals.

The pressing question now for Pittsburgh is how in the world they fix the litany of problems that plagued the program last season. Both the offense and the defense are deeply worrying based on last season’s performance, but the former looks especially alarming considering the club netted just eight goals in eighteen matches. Making matters worse, the only player that scored more than one goal last season, Alex Wright, departed the team in the offseason. The Panthers have to hope that a couple of returns help the situation out this year. Canadian Ashley Moreira redshirted last season for the U20 World Cup but had started almost every game here in the previous two seasons. Additionally, Pittsburgh should get compatriot Taylor Pryce, who netted ten goals and seven assists in two seasons, back from injury as well after she missed almost all of last season. But they’re still probably stopgaps to stem the tide here, not change it. The best hope may be some rookies, with Alexis Bengel and Kendall Higgs likely to get immediate minutes in midfield, with Higgs in particular tipped to be a big factor here.

Even if the offense improves a great deal, Pittsburgh still has to worry about their brutally bad defense. This unit was the worst in the ACC last year, shipping almost two and a half goals a game in league play. In all likelihood, head coach Greg Miller will be hoping that more of the newcomers can come in and displace some of the starters who struggled mightily last year. Bengel is one player who could fill in at full-back, while Kylie Olexa has been another freshman tipped to get an early look for major minutes. Pittsburgh will also be looking for a new starting netminder with the graduation of starter Taylor Francis. In this regard, they might be lucky, as the club will hopefully be able to get Spanish youth international Amaia Pena, touted as a potential star with Spain’s formidable youth system, into the mix.

Pittsburgh should get a much needed boost from some returning talent and a smattering of solid recruits, but there’s very little here to indicate that the Panthers are going to be anything more than a mild annoyance to most ACC sides. They’ll likely be battling to avoid the ACC’s wooden spoon, all of which could put Miller’s long-term future at the club into doubt.

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