NCAA – 2017 Pac-12 Preview

Chris’ Pac-12 Projections

1. Stanford
3. Cal
4. USC
5. Washington
6. Arizona
7. Utah
8. Colorado
9. Oregon
10. Arizona State
11. Washington State
12. Oregon State

Stanford faced almost unspeakable cruelty in the second round of the NCAA Tournament last season. In a typically tight match with rivals Santa Clara, Stanford stood on the edge in extra time and saw their fate changed when Andi Sullivan suffered an awful knee injury that would later be revealed to be a torn ACL. The Card would be shell-shocked and then eliminated when SCU scored not soon after. It was a heartbreaking end to a season in which Stanford had been the best team for so long. They began the year with six straight wins and were unbeaten in eleven before losing their only match of the regular season to USC. Downed in the process were sides like Florida, Marquette, Minnesota, that aforementioned Santa Clara side, and everyone in the Pac-12 but the Trojans. They had shown a little vulnerability throughout, but many felt that the Card were the best, most consistent team in the NCAA Tournament and had a great shot at glory, only to be dealt one of their most painful losses in program history.

The best news is that Sullivan is healthy enough to begin the season on the field for the Card, though she is undoubtedly going to have her minutes managed having torn that ACL in November. Stanford aren’t going to be cowed by their leader not playing ninety minutes though, as they’re absolutely loaded. Again. Sullivan, even if she’s not 100%, is one of the best to have suited up for the Card, which is high praise. A complete midfielder, Sullivan is the likely #1 pick in January’s NWSL Draft and has a bright future with the full USWNT. The other two in Stanford’s first-choice midfield essentially combined to form the college game’s top unit. Tierna Davidson is seen by many as the next big thing at Stanford and was simply phenomenal as a rookie here. Junior Jordan DiBiasi has a penchant for big goals and had seven overall last season to finish tied for second on the team and is only scratching the surface of her vast potential.

While the frontline does have to bid farewell to Megan Turner, there are plenty of returning weapons. Kyra Carusa isn’t a huge scorer in front of goal but still managed five and added ten assists as a well-rounded option up top. Michelle Xiao is a slashing type winger to add a different dimension to the frontline and also had seven goals for Stanford last season. Mariah Lee returns after missing all of last season and is a nice X-Factor based on previous potential. But the Card are, of course, welcoming another ridiculously talented rookie class to the Farm. Up top, Belle Briede, Madison Haley, Civana Kuhlmann, Sophia Serafin, and Catarina Macario are all in the frame to see major minutes as rookies. Opposing defenses will likely be most wary of Kuhlman and Macario given their vast reputations, but this group as a whole could be lethal with time. Paul Ratcliffe needs to find the right combo up top, but if he does, opposing defenses could get eviscerated.

There’s work to be done on defense given some graduation losses. The biggest loss is in goal, where the Card must find a way to replace superstar Jane Campbell, one of the most decorated netminders in program history. There’s no ready made superstar replacement, but Ratcliffe does have two capable options on paper. Junior Alison Jahansouz looks first choice given her filling in for Campbell when she was on international duty and serving a ban for a red card last year. However, sophomore Lauren Rood could be hot on her heels and could push her for minutes.

On the backline, All-American Maddie Bauer graduates, leaving a pretty big hole in central defense. Stanford look likely to fill it with only the second transfer in program history, with big time recruit Sam Hiatt coming from Boston College after one season. The other center-back is Alana Cook, who looks to be another in a long line of sensational center-backs to be churned out by this program based on two years’ evidence.

Out wide, left-back looks securely in the hands of Tegan McGrady, who can absolutely fly down the flank and has star potential over the next two seasons. Right-back is a much sorer subject, with the likes of Beattie Goad and Ceci Gee getting run outs there last year. The hope is probably that Kiki Pickett, an undersized rookie, but an absolute stud based on her youth club and international showings, can fill that spot. Serafin and Jojo Harber could also get looks on the backline if need be. Ratcliffe has another undoubtedly talented team that should not be lacking on motivation after how 2016 ended. They look like Pac-12 favorites and have another great shot at picking up their second national title if Sullivan returns to full health and enough rookies make an impact.

The offseason’s longest and strangest soap opera came to an end with UCLA seeing Mallory Pugh decide to go pro instead of sticking it out in Westwood. After one of the worst seasons in program history in 2015, the Bruins were under pressure to rebuild in a hurry last year. The Bruins would take a few knocks in losses to Florida and North Carolina early on, but they showed their potential with wins over Texas A&M and Penn State among others before league play kicked in. League play brought bright spots, such as wins over USC on the road but also some growing pains, with defeats to Colorado and Utah mixed in as well. When all was said and done, UCLA finished fifth in the Pac-12 but looked like a side nobody wanted to play in the NCAA Tournament. The Bruins showed why that was the case, beating Seattle and Nebraska by multiple goals to set up a huge showdown with West Virginia in the last sixteen. UCLA would give the eventual national runners-up all they could handle, only bowing out on penalties after a 1-1 draw in a match that showcased the long-term potential of this program.

That long-term potential might become a present reality in 2017 with another tremendous recruiting class making its way to Westwood. The hope has to be that some of those rookies are going to offset the loss of four starters for the club. The frontline in particular takes some major hits, as two of the team’s three leading scorers, Darian Jenkins and Amber Munerlyn, both graduate after combining for thirteen goals last year. Jenkins’ departure is a particularly difficult blow, as she looked on course for her best season as a collegian with seven goals in eleven matches before suffering a horrific injury that ended her college career.

The Bruins return just one player that scored more than three goals last year, but it’s a singular talent in Canadian wunderkind Jessie Fleming. Fleming missed the first few games of the season while playing at the Olympics, but she hit the ground running and scored eleven goals and added five assists while looking every bit the superstar she was touted as. Also impressive as a rookie was Anika Rodriguez, who may have been a bit wayward with her shooting but who was great setting teammates up with a team leading eight assists for the Bruins.

Beyond Fleming and Rodriguez, it’s a question of which of UCLAs’ bright young newcomers is going to make the biggest impact. The odds on favorite might be Ashley Sanchez, one of U.S. Soccer’s most promising prospects and a player who figures to be in the full USWNT mix before she leaves Westwood. The midfield gets its own injection of blue-chip talent with Marley Canales, who would have been here last year if she was not with the U.S. U20 team last year, as well as Viviana Villacorta, another strong prospect who could see a lot of time early. There are plenty of other dark horses here that would be surefire starters elsewhere, such as forward Issy Bellinghausen and midfielders Melanie Sheehan and Olivia Athens.

Defense has been a sore spot here for a few years, and though they improved last season, they were still rather average by Pac-12 standards. However, this group still has some young key pieces, meaning a breakthrough might just be around the corner. Junior Hailie Mace is a converted forward who still shows some of those roots on forays up the pitch but has a lot of potential and could round into one of the Pac-12’s best defenders with a little more seasoning at center-back. Joining her as an anchor is sophomore Kaiya McCullough, another highly thought of recruit heading into Westwood last year who stepped right in to solidify the spine of the UCLA defense.

The forecast at full-back is a little cloudier, with numerous contenders to fill the gaps, including Mackenzie Cerda, Jacey Pederson, Gabrielle Matulich, and Zoey Goralski, though there aren’t really any stars apparent from that grouping. This group also adds some great prospects as well, with Canadian starlet Kennedy Faulkner another potential star at full international level, as well as American Karina Rodriguez. Towering rookies Dani Satterwhite and Hannah Sharts probably aren’t going to displace either starting center-back, but they’re also both solid prospects who add nice depth here.

After a frightful 2015 in between the pipes, UCLA added some stability with Australian Teagan Micah last year. Micah’s still a little raw but has the potential to be one of the league’s better keepers.

Had Pugh stayed with UCLA, the Bruins probably would’ve been earmarked by many as a potential national title winner. They still might get there this year, but the elite talent might take some time to gel, which means UCLA will be fearsome but perhaps just short of the big prize at season’s end.

Cal’s existence for the past decade has been punctuated by a maddening inability to get beyond the opening few rounds of the NCAA Tournament despite having talented teams and access to a pipeline of some of the nation’s best youth players in California. While Cal has now made every NCAA Tournament since 2003, they also haven’t been past the second round since 2005 and have been knocked out in the first round in three of the past four seasons. Last year, the Golden Bears racked up ten wins in their first twelve, though they also didn’t get an RPI bump given the iffy non-conference strength of schedule. Cal would allay any fears about that early in league play, going 5-0-2 in their first seven and beating eventual national champs USC along the way. But Cal also seemed to hit a wall late, losing three of their final four in the regular season to sink to sixth in the league. Pepperdine were a tough opponent in the NCAA Tournament first round, but Cal took them to penalties before falling short.

This year’s Golden Bears side is likely going to have a very different look on offense thanks to a major chunk of last year’s attacking core graduating. The two big pieces that depart are the deadly frontline duo of Arielle Ship and Ifeoma Onumonu. Ship couldn’t match the pace of her junior season but was more efficient with her eleven goals last season. Onumonu shook off serious injuries in previous seasons to score ten goals herself and ended up being taken early in the NWSL Draft by Boston. Also gone is Emma Fletcher, an attacking midfielder with a lightning quick trigger who had four assists for Cal last season.

Nobody returning netted more than five goals, and just one netted more than three, meaning there’s a massive question as to where the goals are going to come from in 2017. There are high hopes for Abi Kim, who was the other member of Cal’s three-pronged attack last year and who had a solid season with three goals and three assists, though she figures to take on a much bigger role in the attack this season. The frontline also boasts newcomer Emma Westin, a Swedish youth international who could see major minutes early. It could be a bit more stable in midfield despite the loss of Fletcher. Veterans Kelly Fitzgerald, the team’s leading returning scorer, and Miranda Nild should provide some much needed experience, while Mia Corbin is another youngster with a ton of potential in her sophomore season. There are even more impact rookies in midfield, with U.S. U18 international Luca Deza one of the crown jewels of this class. New Zealand international Daisy Cleverley and Carolina Clark are also highly regarded rookies capable of contributions this year.

Cal’s defense is probably going to have to be the unit that leads it to victory while the offense tries to gel. The Golden Bears benefit from having senior Emily Boyd, one of the nation’s best goalkeepers as their last line of defense. A U20 international for the U.S., Boyd is a potential All-American as a senior and likely will hear her name called in the NWSL Draft if she chooses to go that route in January.

The best on the backline in front of her is likely going to be senior full-back Haley Lukas, who saw time on the left and right last year and was generally one of the league’s best defenders. The other full-back spot figures to be filled by Heather Walleigh, a converted forward who was a constant on the backline last year for the Golden Bears. Center-back could be a little less settled, as though senior Indigo Gibson returns for her fourth season, the other spot could be up for grabs with Lynsey Hromatko and Anna Mejia both departing. U.S. U19 international Emily Smith is one of the best defenders in this rookie class and could be an option, while fellow rookies Kailee Gifford and Kai Henderson have also been tipped for big things in Berkeley.

The Golden Bears are a bit tricky to project, as they have a rebuilding offense and a defense which could potentially be one of the nation’s best and most experienced. They’re largely going to be dependent on a great rookie crop coming in and impressing, but they look like a high ceiling side who could become even more fearsome in the next few years.

The Women of Troy marched to the top of DI last season, as USC won their second national title in domineering fashion. The Trojans were a sleeper for a lot of observers considering their growth under Keidane McAlpine, but few honestly expected them to be the last team standing in December. This was especially true once USC had lost their first two matches to Santa Clara and Long Beach State. But USC opened a lot of eyes on a ten match winning streak that featured multiple goal margins of victory in all ten, including triumphs over Pepperdine, Auburn, North Carolina, and Stanford. A few slip-ups in the league down the stretch meant USC would have to be content with second in the Pac-12, but they looked a dangerous side going into the NCAA Tournament. Texas A&M (after penalties), Utah, Auburn, and Georgetown all fell to set up a College Cup final showdown with West Virginia. USC would emerge victorious in one of the most thrilling finals in DI WoSo history, riding to victory to cap off an unbelievable season.

As great a job as McAlpine did last year, he and his staff might need to pull a giant rabbit out of the hat to repeat as national champions. The Trojans get gutted by graduation, as a conference high six starters graduate. In particular, the defense gets hammered, with Mandy Freeman, Savannah Levin, and defensive midfielder/full-back Kayla Mills all departing. Add in goalkeeper Sammy Jo Prudhomme’s graduation, and you’ve got quite the situation for the Trojans to handle. In goal, the club is likely to decide between senior Julia Murphy and redshirt freshman Kaylie Collins, though true freshman Emily Cuthbert is also highly rated.

The new anchor on the club’s backline is likely to be Ally Prisock, though she’s not a newcomer, having served two very accomplished seasons for the Trojans thus far. Also back is Julia Bingham, whose performance at full-back as a rookie allowed the club to move Mills to defensive midfielder, potentially changing the course of USC’s season early last year. Filling the gaps left by Freeman, one of the Pac-12’s best defenders of the decade, and Levin will be crucial. Dominique Randle returns as a fifth-year senior after missing last year through injury and should immediately contend for a starting spot given her quality. Other returnees who could make an impact include sophomore Ashleigh Plumptre and redshirt freshman Samantha Bruder. Rookie Tara McKeown is listed as a forward but played full-back in scrimmages and is considered an elite prospect, while Georgia’s Jessica Haidet isn’t far behind her in terms of freshman quality.

The attack takes some big hits as well. Katie Johnson wrote herself into USC lore with her goals on College Cup weekend and finished as joint top scorer with ten goals as a senior. Also gone is Morgan Andrews, who went out a champion after transferring from Notre Dame a few seasons earlier and also had ten goals for the club last season. Much of USC’s offense this season is likely to be based around the duo of Alex Anthony and Leah Pruitt. Anthony was a transfer from Maryland and was hyped as someone who could be the pure scorer USC needed going into last season. She fit the bill with ten goals, including four match winners and will like her chances of going from strength to strength this year. Pruitt’s probably more of a raw talent and was a super sub for most of the year after transferring from San Diego State but finished with four goals and eight assists herself.

There are many who could step up into bigger roles this year such as Nicole Molen, who netted five goals last year, Amanda Rooney, Sydney Sladek, and Sydney Johnson. The new names to watch are Savannah DeMelo, who delayed enrollment to play with the U20 World Cup team last year, and Arlie Jones, another very promising prospect who could make her mark early here.

Matching last year is probably going to be impossible for these talented but reloading Trojans. They should still be good for a nice Pac-12 finish and a few NCAA Tournament wins, but deeper progress could be dependent on many new stars coming to the fore in L.A.

Figuring Washington out over the years has been enough to give even the most steadfast expert a migraine. Tremendously inconsistent as a program, the Huskies found a little bit of consistency last year but exactly the wrong kind. UW had seemingly shown signs of being a good side early in non-conference play as they beat Santa Clara, but two straight losses to close out the schedule before league play kicked in kicked off a downward spiral in form at the worst possible time. The Huskies lost their first four in the league and then five of their final six to cap off a miserable season in eleventh place. The twelve losses overall were the highest mark here since 2007, while the Huskies finished out of the RPI Top 100 for the first time in a decade. In short? A very bad year.

The Huskies’ very bad year extended into the offseason, as the tumult didn’t quite stop with the final game of the season. Washington was rocked by the transfers of Kamari Hines, who had been a prestige recruit before redshirting this past season, and Kelcie Hedge, one of the club’s best recruits ever who redshirted in 2016 while playing with the U.S. at the U20 World Cup. While both of those transfers could prove painful, they don’t really cut to the heart of the biggest problem at UW last season, namely, a brutally bad defense that gave up two goals a game in the league and kept zero clean sheets against Pac-12 foes.

Early signs probably aren’t great for a huge leap forward. Starters Madi Kinzer and Havana McElvaine are gone, with full-back Dominique Bond-Flasza and center-back Taylor Sekyra the starters for the Huskies that do return. Rookie Kaylene Pang is the pick of the newcomers on defense, but most of the recruiting attention appears to have been focused on offense. Neither Sarah Shimer nor Kaylyn Smith inspired much confidence in goal last year, with only the former returning this year. Without a big time recruit to push her, Shimer will likely begin the season as the club’s full-time #1.

So given the above, Washington’s probably going to have to shine on offense to stand a chance of making the NCAA Tournament. In this regard, there’s hope for the Huskies. The attack is likely to be fueled by the senior duo of Shannon Simon and Kimberly Keever, who plugged away last season despite the duo being far from their best. Both have shown flashes of quality during their collegiate careers, but their productivity lagged last season, as if you take penalties away, they combined for eight goals on one hundred shots.

It’s a good thing then that Washington has bulked up with a lot of midfield and frontline additions. Fifth-year senior Amanda Perez’s leadership should be huge after missing the 2016 season through injury, while Virginia Tech transfer Anissa Dadkhah could be an underrated addition in midfield. Rookies Caitlin Sanchez, Olivia Van der Jagt, and Jessika Cowart also come to Seattle with a reputation that could see them get major minutes in midfield sooner rather than later. The latest great hope for UW though has to be rookie forward Mireya Grey, a local product and U20 international that might finally be the answer to UW’s prayers for a consistent big time scorer.

Your opinion of Washington’s prospects might largely depend on whether you value offense or defense. The latter could be a mini-catastrophe, but the former could be sneaky good if the chips fall Washington’s way. My projections are optimistic and feel UW are a top-half Pac-12 team, which means an NCAA return is a real possibility.

Tony Amato has worked wonders at an Arizona program that was once one of the nation’s worst in a major conference, but 2016 was an inevitable step backward after two very nice years. The Wildcats’ best non-conference result was a draw at Texas Tech, but Amato’s side entered league play still looking for a big win it could hang its hat on. It didn’t really get it though, as Arizona would struggle to a 1-6-0 start in the league that all but killed off its postseason hopes. The Wildcats would finish strong with three wins in their last four, including a good victory over Cal, but it was only their third win over an RPI Top 100 team all season and not nearly enough to get the team in the bubble discussion. While the Wildcats will probably hope that last year was just a bridge to better things in 2017, they’ll also be wary of the fact that things that go down in the Pac-12 don’t always immediately come back up.

Amato’s side will be hoping to improve greatly upon a low powered offense in 2016 that netted just a goal a game in the league, well behind some of the top attacks in the conference. There’s precious little doubt as to who the first option in Tuscon is going to be for a fourth and final season. Gabi Stoian announced herself as a star here as a rookie with thirteen goals, but it’s been a much harder go of it since for the Wilcats forward. She’s netted just six goals in each of the past two seasons for UA, which was a problem last season considering she needed a whopping seventy-five shots to get those six goals.

There are some major worries if Stoian isn’t having a great season though, as two of the club’s other three leading scorers last year, Hannah Stevens and Paige Crouch, who each netted five goals, both depart. The only other Wildcat returning with more than one goal last season is Cali Crisler, who scored four goals, with just one of those coming in the league. It appears that offense has been a major focus in recruiting for the Wildcats, who bring in a solid crop. Hannah Clifford and Jada Talley could make a big impact on the frontline, while Bryanna Duckett and Amanda Porter could fortify the midfield. Regardless, if Stoian’s not firing true, Arizona’s attack could be in trouble.

Arizona’s defense has definitely been hit or miss with Amato and his brand of aggressive pressing. It was middling last year, and given some of the questions on offense, it’s going to need to improve in all likelihood. The Wildcats lose the likes of Stevens and Laura Pimienta, but they still return a decent amount of personnel in the defense. Former JUCO transfer Brandi Park and the duo of Brynn Moga and Samantha Falasco all saw major action here in their first year with the club and could show signs of growth with a little more time together in the defense. An intriguing wild card is Finland’s Tia Painilainen, who the club had high hopes for coming into last season but who also missed all of last season through injury. Hailey Clifford, another member of this year’s freshman class is probably the best bet of defensive newcomers to find major minutes this season. Junior Lainey Burdett made the starting goalkeeping job her own last season and figures to get the bulk of the minutes in net again this year.

Arizona looks very dependent on Stoian having a good year, but they bring in a nice recruiting class and could challenge in mid-table, which mean a potential return to the NCAA Tournament.

Utah entered 2016 having not had a winning season since 2013 and with more questions than answers given some of their recent struggles. There wasn’t really much in a decent non-conference slate to make observers believe the Utes would be a force in league play, but they defied expectations by opening up Pac-12 action with a 5-0-1 mark to set themselves up as unlikely title challengers. Some might have argued that that was a product of having the bottom half of the league early on the schedule, but the Utes also went 1-1-3 in their final five, with a win over UCLA and draws with Cal, USC, and Colorado showing they weren’t flat-track bullies. The Utes would make a nice little postseason run as well, topping Texas Tech in the first round in extra time and then stunning the WoSo world with a victory over Florida State in round two. USC edged them out in the Sweet Sixteen, but it had still been a potentially transformative season for the Utes.

Maintaining momentum in the Pac-12 can be a tenuous process sometimes, so Utah will be looking to build on last year’s revelation, returning eight starters this year. Historically, Utah has often had problems scoring goals, which is why the emergence of junior Hailey Skolmoski as a go-to scoring option was so welcomed last year. A former defender who missed much of 2015 through injury, Skolmoski was brought to the frontline last year and was an instant hit, netting thirteen goals and getting a recall to the U.S. U23 team in the offseason.

The problem for Utah is that other than Skolmoski, there are questions as to where the goals are going to come from. Nobody else who returns this season netted more than two goals with the club’s two second leading shot takers Taylor Slattery and Katie Rogers both graduating. Natalie Vukic, Max From, and Holly Daugirda all saw starting minutes on the frontline last year and return, and Utah really needs one or more to step up to relieve some of the scoring pressure off of Skolmoski. Rogers leaves a pretty big void in defensive midfield, with Cabria Turang also departing. Janie Kearl and Eden Jacobsen both saw starting minutes, but the midfield might rise or fall on the return of Paola van der Veen, who missed most of the season through injury but adds some much needed class and talent to the Utes’ midfield when in the lineup.

Utah gave up the second fewest goals in the Pac-12 last season, a defensive trend they’ll look to continue this season.The amazing thing is that the Utes were able to accomplish that with a very young unit that looks to return unscathed going into 2017. The lynchpin is sophomore center-back Tavia Leachman, who looks like she could be a cornerstone for a great era of Utah soccer. Leachman came into Salt Lake City as a heavily hyped recruit and was more than up to the task as one of the nation’s best center-backs, getting a recall to the U.S. U23 team in the offseason. Fellow sophomore Natalee Wells was also solid as a rookie and should give Utah a nice long-term partnership in central defense with Leachman. The flanks should be in good shape as well, with Aleea Gwerder starting at left-back, and right-back potentially going to either Kearl or Daugirda, who both also saw time in the midfield.

In goal, junior July Mathias eventually wrested the starting job away from Carly Nelson and figures to be first choice this season. Newcomer Sarajean Edwards is a highly thought of prospect though and could eventually force her way into minutes.

Utah looks like a solid Pac-12 team on paper once again, with two great building blocks in Skolmoski on offense and Leachman anchoring the defense. But they look one-dimensional in the attack, and unless they can find some other outlets for goals, mid-table in the Pac-12 might be their ceiling for 2017.

Few probably knew what to expect out of Colorado in 2016, as the Buffs came into the new season right off of one of the most disappointing seasons in program history in 2015. But with a new cadre of talented freshmen and a now customary influx of transfers, Colorado enjoyed a great season that has injected new enthusiasm around the program. Starting out with just a 2-3-0 record, the Buffs began with some struggles, but they promptly reeled off ten straight wins, including six straight to open up the Pac-12 season as unlikely title contenders. Against the meat of the Pac-12 schedule, the Buffs cooled off a little bit, but they still managed wins over Cal and UCLA and a draw with Utah to finish third in the Pac-12. A return to the NCAA Tournament beckoned, and Colorado whipped Oklahoma State in the opening round before falling in a close match against South Carolina in Columbia. CU might have been a bit disappointed to go out at that stage, but it had still been a phenomenal season.

The Pac-12 isn’t an easy league to stay near the top of for an extended period of time though, and Colorado will want to prove that they’re not just a one-hit wonder after the glory of 2016. They’ll like their odds of avoiding such a swoon thanks to the return of sophomore stud Taylor Kornieck, who was every bit as good as advertised as a rookie after coming in with a lot of hype behind her. Kornieck was a monster in midfield for CU, netting eleven goals to tie for the team lead, including some absolute scorchers from range. She has first round NWSL Draft potential down the line and should be one of the nation’s most exciting to watch this year.

The big question for the Buffs is who else can do the scoring after the club sees the graduation of both Danica Evans and Emily Bruder, the other two prongs of the Buffs’ dangerous attack who combined for fifteen goals. The only other returnee with more than two goals is Canadian midfielder Sarah Kinzner, but she’s not a natural scoring option. Again, it might come down to newcomers for Colorado. The highest hopes have to be for Jorian Baucom a transfer from LSU who has one year of eligibility remaining. Baucom had thirty-three goals in three years with the Tigers, but she faced criticism of feasting on smaller teams at times, though her physical tools are undeniable. Other transfers who could make a mark include once hyped prospect Becca Rasmussen from Georgia and Cassie Phillips from Maryland, both midfielders. Freshmen Libby Geraghty and Martine Puketapu, a New Zealand international, also are highly regarded and could see major minutes early here.

CU was better than expected on defense considering the backline had to battle injuries at stretches last season. At center-back, the club has to replace Australia Kahlia Hogg after an injury interrupted season, though the club does have returning experience in the form of the mountainous duo of Alex Vidger and Kelsey Aaknes. Out wide, Joss Orejel and Erin Greening were first choice for much of the season and look to return for the 2017 season, meaning the Buffs are going to have the bulk of last year’s backline back again. As you might expect, head coach Danny Sanchez has added to his ranks via the transfer market again, bringing in former South Carolina player Courtney Kaplan to add depth.

Colorado’s pretty stacked in goal as well, with Jalen Tompkins having won the starting job from Scout Watson last season and looking quite impressive as a redshirt freshman. She looks like one of the nation’s best young keepers and should again be vital this year.

Colorado’s a team with a lot of hype behind them going into 2017, understandable given how well they played for much of last season. But though they might still be a top twenty team, CU might take a step back in the murderously difficult Pac-12 this season with questions over who besides Kornieck will do the scoring and with a lack of star power on the backline. Still, this is a very dangerous team more than capable of a higher finish in the Pac-12 than these projections indicate and definitely with the potential to win at least a few games in November.

Oregon has been for years the Pac-12’s slumbering giant, still waiting for an NCAA Tournament berth and still waiting for anything approaching success in one of the nation’s toughest women’s soccer leagues. The Ducks haven’t had a winning season since 2006, and the pressure may be building on current head coach Kat Mertz to get OU into contention for the postseason. They looked to be on that road last season after a hot start, going 5-0-1, including a great win over a strong Nebraska side in Eugene. But the Ducks had an extremely tough draw to open up the beginning of league play, facing the top six in the conference right away and losing all six. Theoretically, Oregon could have battled their way onto the bubble had they dominated their late season stretch, but a 2-2-1 finish, including a season ending loss to rivals Oregon State, again left them on the outside looking in, though the club’s RPI finish was still its best under Mertz.

While nobody is likely to confuse the Ducks with a title challenger this season, Oregon also looks like they could be in a position to at least make a little upward progress in the Pac-12 table. Mertz has delivered a more than significant recruiting class to Eugene with some big additions through both freshmen and transfers. One of the main goals has to be finding a top level scorer, as OU hasn’t had anyone hit double digits since 2010. The odds of one of the returnees breaking that dismal streak don’t appear to be great. Junior Marissa Everett got a rather generous All Pac-12 Honorable Mention nod despite putting up just a single goal on a team leading thirty-eight shots but probably still has the most raw ability of the returnees and had a team leading five assists. Of the other returnees, junior Kyra Fawcett with five goals and senior Abby Morrow with four goals are the leading scorers, though both seem more set to be complementary pieces towards this attack.

The wild card in the bunch is a sophomore transfer in the form of Emma Eddy, a hometown product who somehow slipped through the cracks and ended up at Idaho last year. Eddy would be the Big Sky’s co-Newcomer of the Year in 2016 and is an interesting addition to a group that needs to find some scoring power in 2017.

Attention then is probably going to be more focused on the defensive side of the ball for Oregon. The group gave up nearly two goals a game in Pac-12 play last year, so there’s definite room for improvement, but Oregon should get all of their starters from the backline back bar the graduated Ashlee Schulz. The Ducks should have plenty of veteran experience in defense, with Caitlyn Wong, Mia Costa, and Michelle Rockey all seniors and all having started for much of last season here.

They’ll all be looking over their shoulders though, as Oregon has brought in multiple newcomers with the potential to start immediately. The biggest addition is Canadian youth international Hannah Taylor, a player who looks to be a bright prospect for the future given her call-ups to camps with the full Canadian WNT over the past year. Additionally, the Ducks bring in Mia Palmer, a highly rated defensive prospect with multiple looks in U.S. U18 camp. Finally, OU adds experience by bringing in Jazmin Jackmon from Santa Clara, with the defender having started the past two years for the Broncos’ backline.

Mertz juggled junior Halla Hinriksdottir and sophomore Katelyn Carter in goal last season, and it remains to be seen if one will win the job outright this year, though whoever is in goal should be playing behind a more stout backline.

OU probably isn’t a top-half team in the Pac-12 this season, but they do have a reasonable shot of creeping up the table a bit and maybe a longshot bid for an NCAA berth.

Arizona State may have, for all intents and purposes, gone belly up last season, but the real damage had already been done in 2015. Then, an ASU team that looked loaded on paper limped to a mid-table finish in the Pac-12 and a finish well outside the NCAA Tournament picture, the squad besieged by injuries and underachievement. The blowback hit last season, as ASU appeared to have shaken the malaise off in non-conference play but still put up many warning signs with defeats to the likes of Denver and San Francisco. But the time Pac-12 play rolled around, it was a pretty clear that the Sun Devils were outmatched by most opponents, and after one win in their first four matches, the Tempe club lost their final seven. With a last place finish in the league and just one NCAA Tournament in four seasons, it was hardly a surprise to see Kevin Boyd depart at season’s end.

What was a bit of a surprise was who ASU tabbed as Boyd’s replacement. Certainly not from an accomplishment standpoint, as new boss Graham Winkworth achieved near miracles at South Alabama, including countless Sun Belt trophies and a win over Florida State during his tenure. But Winkworth also doesn’t seem to have connections to the Southwest, so how he recruits will be interesting, though he didn’t have trouble attracting talent to Mobile at South Alabama.

Indeed, Winkworth may have already won a huge recruiting battle by bringing English full-back Jemma Purfield with him to Tempe. Purfield put up absurd numbers as a full-back for Winkworth at South Alabama, including leading USA in goals with eleven last year. The club also added Oklahoma transfer Angela Boyle, with the newcomer having started on a stingy OU defense last year. If Purfield adapts to this level well, and Madison Stark performs to her potential, ASU’s backline could be in decent shape. There are questions in goal though, where Megan Delaney may not have a firm grip on the starting job after splitting time with the departed Emma Malsy last year. Freshman Nikki Panas could be the biggest contender after a recall to Canadian U20 camp earlier this year having also represented Poland at youth international level before.

A more pressing concern might be who scores for this team. ASU netted a woeful six goals in eleven Pac-12 games last year, easily the worst mark in the conference. The task isn’t about to get easier, with the departure of Aly Moon, who leaves with a year of eligibility remaining after an injury plagued career with the Sun Devils. If any returnee is going to do the scoring, it’s probably going to be Jazmarie Mader. Mader scored eight goals last year and did so in just twelve games, missing a big chunk of league play through injury. More than likely though, the Sun Devils are going to need newcomers to help her out. ASU brings in more than one forward in this year’s recruiting class, though there’s not a can’t miss prospect amongst the bunch. Forwards Aubree Incardone and Olivia Jones look the most promising, while Winkworth also was able to bring in Brazilian midfielder Lara Barbieri, who could be a crucial signing if the new ASU boss’ record with previous international signings holds true.

Winkworth worked wonders at South Alabama, but this is a team with real flaws, so it might take a few seasons to get the Sun Devils rolling in the Pac-12.

The music finally stopped for Washington State in 2016, as they missed out on their first NCAA Tournament since 2010, also coincidentally their last losing season. Considering the coaching upheaval here in the past decade, that it took this long for the Cougars to slip slightly is probably a statement towards how WSU’s had a nice eye for new bosses. Current boss Todd Shulenberger looks like he’s here for the long haul, and his Cougar side began last season with a big win against Santa Clara after having taken BYU to the limit in an extra time defeat. WSU would notch another nice draw at TCU before league play started, but they were stuck spinning their wheels in the league, winning just one of their first eight and all but ceding their postseason hopes in the process. The Cougars did finish out with two wins and a draw, but they still finished under .500, making them ineligible for an at-large bid that wouldn’t have come anyway with them off the bubble.

WSU still finished eighth in the Pac-12 at season’s end, but the Cougars could struggle to match that placement this season. The offense looks like a serious concern at first glance, with WSU netting just nine goals in eleven league games last season. The club’s best overall player, Kaitlyn Johnson graduates after a strong career here, finishing out with three goals and six assists last year. That may seem a pedestrian total, but keep in mind Johnson was likely #1 on every opponent’s scouting report, with teams forcing others on WSU to beat them, something that happened far too seldomly here. The Cougars are also going to be without Alysha Overland this season, with the junior finishing second on the team in scoring last year with six goals despite starting less than half of last year’s games.

Much of the weight then is going to settle on the shoulders of sophomore Morgan Weaver, the leading scorer last year with eight goals, and the only returnee that netted more than two. Even so, Weaver’s goals mostly came against non-conference foes, as she scored just two in the league. Given the depth of the losses, WSU is going to need a huge contribution from newcomers if they want to contend. Up front, rookie Brianna Alger will be in the mix right away, while giant midfielder Marin Auth should also feature early here. Others to watch include Canadian youth international Shanya Dhindsa and midfielder Sydney Pulver also could factor in, but there are still a ton of questions going into 2017.

The Cougars have been known historically as a great defensive team, but their calling card was a bit frayed at the edges in 2016. WSU will benefit from the experienced and talented Ella Dederick in goal once again. The junior couldn’t quite match the impressive rookie year she turned in here, but on the whole, she was still probably one of the Cougars’ best performers in a difficult 2016 season.

The backline ahead of her looks pretty settled going into the new season as well. The lone big loss is of center-back Susie White, who started every match for WSU last season. Both starting full-backs, Jordan Branch and Kelsee Crenshaw should again be in the starting lineup and will be vital bombing forward if the Cougars stick with a 4-2-2-2 formation. Junior Maegan O’Neill will return at center-back, though with the defensive lineup pretty consistent last season, it’s a question as to who replaces White beside her. WSU brings in a lot of defensive newcomers, with the trio of Sarah Davidson, Aaqila McLyn, and Lauryn Payne all pressing for major minutes in their rookie seasons here.

The Cougars could be solid, but the vacuum in scoring is plainly noticeable right now. Weaver’s going to get swarmed with the offense looking one-dimensional, and one-dimensional sides in the Pac-12 tend to sink like a stone, which might be WSU’s unfortunate fate in 2017.

Oregon State supporters have seen the good (a three year stretch in 2009-2011 when OSU was one of the league’s best), the bad (the past few years in the league), and the ugly (0-17-3 in 2014) over the past decade in Corvallis. Odds are, they would like to see a stop to a string of four straight losing seasons that was extended last year. The Beavers had some decent results with draws against Cal State Northridge and North Texas and a win at Michigan State in non-conference play but hardly looked a side to be feared going into Pac-12 action. They got a murderous beginning to league play, getting the best six teams in the conference out of the gate and unsurprisingly losing all six matches. With things mercifully cooling down a bit in the back half of the league season, OSU won three of five to go out on a positive note, including beating state rivals Oregon in the regular season finale. A ninth place finish in the league may not sound like much, but considering OSU finished eleventh in 2015, it was still a solid step forward for the Beavers.

There’s a creeping sense that last year may have been some kind of peak for the Beavers though. The club looks set to lose five starters, among the most in the Pac-12 and not a great sign for continued progress up the table. As has been the case here since the days of Chelsea Buckland and Jenna Richardson ended, OSU had trouble scoring goals with regularity in the league last year, netting just eight in eleven conference matches, second lowest in the Pac-12. The Beavers netted just twenty-one on the season and only three players had more than a single goal, which is an indicator of the lack of multidimensionality in the attack.

More than ever, OSU will likely lean on senior Nikki Faris, joint leading scorer last season with six goals, including three in the league, and team leader in assists with six. Norway’s Helene Haavik departs after being the other Beaver with six goals last season. Natalie Higgins also returns following a four goal display, while Emma Jones was the other notable forward here and chipped in with five assists but was extremely wasteful in front of goal, shooting forty times and scoring once. Given the above, it’s perhaps a good thing OSU signed rookies Kaillen Fried and McKenzie Weinert, both Oregon natives and both highly rated, with the freshman duo likely in the frame for major minutes in the attack right away.

To be fair, OSU weren’t any great shakes on defense either in the league and conceded almost two goals a game against Pac-12 foes. The biggest asset the Beavers probably have working for them in defense this season is starting netminder Bella Geist. Geist is an imposing 6’0” with three years of starting experience and some surprisingly safe hands for such a young keeper.

Her backline kept her busy last season, and it might be that way again in 2017. This unit is absolutely crushed by graduation, with three starters departing. Gone are Annie Govig, Greta Espinoza, and McKenzie Redberg, leaving an enormous void in terms of experience on the backline. Fifth-year senior Kathryn Baker does return after successfully making a return from a serious 2015 injury, but there’s absolutely no telling who’s going to be playing around her on the backline. There’s not the influx of strong prospects in attack, meaning head coach Linus Rhode will likely be depending on returnees stepping up and making the role their own or perhaps switching players’ positions in preseason.

I don’t think Oregon State is an awful team, but they’re in a brutal league without a bell cow on offense and numerous questions on defense, which might mean a plunge towards the bottom of the Pac-12 in 2017.

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