NCAA – 2017 Big 12 Preview

Chris’ Big 12 Projections

1. West Virginia
2. Texas Tech
3. Texas
4. Baylor
5. Kansas
6. TCU
7. Oklahoma
8. Oklahoma St

9. Iowa St
10. Kansas State

Last year, West Virginia finally shed their tag of being the best program in DI women’s soccer to have never reached the College Cup. In reality, the Mountaineers came achingly close to lifting their first national title but fell just short against USC in the final. The Mountaineers opened up their 2016 campaign with eight matches unbeaten, including wins against Clemson and at Duke before an extra time loss to Georgetown. It was WVU’s last loss in a long, long time as they ran the table in the Big 12 before winning three more matches in the Big 12 Tournament to do another league-conference tournament double. The Mountaineers’ NCAA Tournament road would be an adventure, as they needed extra time in the second round to beat Ohio State, penalties to down UCLA a round later, and a mighty defensive effort to take out Duke in the Elite Eight. WVU would overcome North Carolina in the College Cup semi-final before running up against USC in the final and giving a valiant effort in defeat. It was a painful end to what had otherwise been a brilliant season.

The Mountaineers will go into the 2017 season with nine starters returning, but it’s the two that don’t that could be tough for WVU to overcome. Gone are Canadian internationals Kadeisha Buchanan and Ashley Lawrence, who were two of the NCAAs best players last season and two of the brightest hopes for their nation’s footballing future. The offense is hit particularly hard by Lawrence’s departure, as the midfielder led the club with ten assists last season while also chipping in with four goals to the WVU cause.

With Lawrence gone, the offense now likely revolves around Michaela Abam, a potential first round pick in January’s NWSL Draft. Abam chipped in with twelve goals and nine assists last season but is also a high volume shooter whose efficiency can suffer at times. There are plenty of other intriguing weapons for the Mountaineers. Sh’Nia Gordon had a breakout season as a sophomore and netted seven goals, second most on the team last year. Senior Heather Kaleiohi also had six goals as she locked down a starting spot for most of the season. The key though could be senior midfielder Carla Portillo, a silently brilliant midfielder who’s been overshadowed by Lawrence here for the past few seasons. Portillo had five goals and seven assists last season and is a good bet to have a big jump towards stardom this season at WVU. Newcomers could make their mark as well, with Heather Kaleiohi’s sister, Malia, a highly rated prospect in midfield, with New Zealand youth international Issy Coombes another contender for early minutes in the middle of the park.

Overcoming Buchanan’s departure on defense isn’t going to be easy either. Buchanan has emerged as one of the world’s preeminent center-backs and was worth her weight in gold as a four-year superstar on the backline for WVU. The Mountaineers do return the other starters on the backline though, meaning this unit isn’t about to drop off a cliff. It seems likely that the surest thing at center-back in Buchanan’s wake is Canadian junior Easther Mayi Kith, who started every match on the backline for WVU last season. The other center-back spot is a mystery, with Carly Black graduating and Dalanda Ouendeno transferring to Miami (FL).

The full-back spots are probably a little more settled with a veteran Canadian connection. Amandine Pierre-Louis actually finished third on the team in shots and can play an attacking role as well as a converted forward. Bianca St. Georges missed about half the season on international duty but remains a steady presence at the back as well. WVU brings in some cover in the form of English youth internationals Lois Joel and Grace Smith who could both work their way into the rotation early on in their WVU careers.

In goal, Rylee Foster should be the undisputed #1 after splitting time with Michelle Newhouse, who transferred to East Carolina in the offseason. Foster is a Canadian youth international and missed a chunk of last year at the U20 World Cup but has outstanding potential to develop into one of the nation’s best keepers.

This West Virginia side will be hard pressed to repeat a trip to the national title match as last year’s side accomplished. However, there’s still a ton of talent on display, meaning WVU are again Big 12 favorites and could make a solid run in the NCAAs.

Few will argue that luck wasn’t with Texas Tech in 2016. The Red Raiders got a fortuitous berth to the NCAA Tournament despite having what looked to be on paper a pretty hollow resume. They’d started out non-conference play well enough, but a draw with a middling Arizona side and 4-0 loss to Cal at home probably revealed much about this TTU side as league play approached. The Big 12 season itself was a nightmare in most respects, as Tom Stone’s side won just one of their first seven, a big win over Iowa State that probably factored into their NCAA appearance. They needed a result in their regular season finale against Oklahoma to just make the Big 12 Tournament and held out for a nervy 1-0 win against the Sooners to claim the #8 seed. Most thought TTU’s goose was cooked after a 3-0 loss to WVU in the Big 12 Tournament considering their awful league performance and dearth of non-conference results, but the Red Raiders were spared and netted an at-large bid. Hopes of a dark horse run in the NCAAs died early, the club losing to Utah in the first round.

The Red Raiders will take heart in knowing that last year was largely a rebuilding effort after the loss of some big hitters, and ten starters returning makes the Lubbock side immediately interesting in the topsy turvy Big 12. It seems crazy for a Tom Stone team and this TTU program in particular, but the Red Raiders’ offense was painful last season, netting just five goals in the league and twenty overall. The club had to replace Janine Beckie’s offense up front, but even with some big time recruits, the task proved a difficult one. Just one player netted more than three goals last season, that being sophomore Jade King, who scored six times but needed a whopping seventy-shots to get there. King clearly needs some help, but the question is where is she going to find it amongst the returners. Rebekah O’Brien was second on the team in shots but isn’t really a true attacking player despite three goals last year, while Jordan Duke’s return of one goal on thirty shots was a big disappointment.

The hope has to be that sophomore Jordie Harr can continue to develop this year after coming into Lubbock as a highly touted prospect last season. Harr missed six games though and finished with two goals and three assists, so the Red Raiders will be hoping for a complete season this year with more production on the stat sheet. Junior Gwennie Puente didn’t make a big dent in the stat sheet but still returns as one of the league’s best midfielders. Much may depend on the club’s addition of Kirsten Davis, a U.S. U20 international who could make a big impact early in the attack. Other newcomers with early potential here include forwards Ally Griffin and Brianna Stewart and midfielder Macy Chilton.

Defensively, Texas Tech probably had one of the league’s better sides last year. However, the Red Raiders could face an uphill climb to match 2016’s pace defensively without the graduated Lauren Watson in goal. Watson was seldom mentioned in the ranks of college WoSo’s superstar keepers, but she was solid enough here in her time as the club’s starter. It would be a surprise if the gloves weren’t passed down to rookie Marissa Zucchetto, a Canadian youth international who has featured extensively for her nation at U17 level and who could become this program’s next great keeper. The backline takes a few hits through graduation as well, with Meagan McCullough and Jade Dapaah graduating. Among the returning candidates at full-back are Gabbie Puente, Cassie Conarty, Margaret Begley, and Cassie Boren. Boren and O’Brien could also factor in at center-back, along with fellow returners Brooke Denesik and Mary Heiberger. TTU also adds some newcomers to boost the ranks as well, with Californian Alexis Rushlow a player who could make a difference early here.

My projections think the Red Raiders have a good shot of rocketing back up the table this season thanks in no small part to a great recruiting class. If the rookies can make a big impact, don’t count this team out of making a little run in the NCAA Tournament either.

2016 was nothing short of a catastrophe for Texas. A loss in the season opener to Seattle in Austin was an ominous sign of the struggles to come, as the Horns passed through non-conference play with nary a big win and then proceeded to rack up poor results in league play. UT would need six tries to get their first Big 12 win, shocking Texas Tech at home but still needed a result in their regular season finale to claim a spot in the Big 12 Tournament. They didn’t get it, losing at TCU, 3-2, and suffering the utter humiliation of finishing dead last in the league and being the only team to not qualify for the postseason. Most expected head coach Angela Kelly to get the axe considering UT has just one NCAA Tournament appearance and win in five years, but the UT brass extended Kelly’s contract through 2019 despite some particularly withering criticism from the local Austin media.

Though her immediate job security appears to have been settled, Kelly will still want to get things turned around in Austin. At first glance, even in a pretty tightly packed Big 12, the Horns do have some significant upside this year, mostly thanks to their recruiting class. One of the goals has to be to improve an offense that was languid in the league, netting less than a goal a game and just twenty-eight goals overall despite a somewhat lightweight non-conference slate. Nobody here netted more than five goals, though that player, Alexa Adams, probably would have finished with more had she not missed a third of the season. Similarly, prized recruit Cyera Hintzen missed a handful of games early through injury and displayed a blunt edge in front of goal, taking forty-six shots and netting just a pair of goals. Adams and Hintzen are probably the best hope for goals from the returners, but Kelly and the Horns are probably going to need big contributions from newcomers to score consistently this year.

The big name is Haley Berg, known by most casuals as the player who made waves for committing at such a young age to the Longhorns. As a U.S. U19 international though, Berg looks to be a huge pickup and could be a revelation to this attack. Less highly touted but still intriguing are U.S. U18 international Emily Strouphauer and Boston College transfer Amber Stearns, who’s looking to breathe new life into her career after being a once highly rated prospect a few years back.

Texas needs significant improvement defensively as well, as they conceded twelve goals in eight league matches, the second highest mark in the offensively challenge Big 12. For the second straight season, the Horns find themselves needing a new netminder. After Abby Smith’s graduation, Texas brought in transfers Paige Brown and Taylor Braun, with the former winning the job full-time. However, both depart this season, along with third keeper Cara Connatser, essentially meaning the Horns start from scratch this year. The likely new #1 is Californian Savannah Madden, one of this recruiting class’ best overall goalkeepers. The backline was in a state of flux last year as well and might be so again this year with the loss of Monique Iannella and Isabelle Kerr. The club does return Emma Jett and Atu Mshana, though both are still just sophomores. Texas adds many rookies on the backline, though the one to watch is likely Taylor Currie.

For all the angst of the last calendar year, Texas could be decently placed for a rebound. The attack has the potential for goals if the youngsters hit the ground running, though defensive questions will likely put a ceiling on UT’s upside for the moment. I do believe the Horns will be in the upper-half of the league standings and are also a legitimate threat for an NCAA at-large bid.

The magic has faded from Waco, as Baylor enters the 2017 season having missed four straight NCAA Tournaments after two dream seasons in 2011 and 2012. The Bears had much to prove last season after 2015 brought their worst RPI finish since 2008. Baylor’s non-conference slate wasn’t really much until the finishing kick, where losses to Samford and Auburn didn’t portend well, with the club entering league play having not beaten anyone that finished in the RPI Top 100. Things started out in middling fashion in the league with the Bears going 1-1-1 to open up Big 12 action. They’d rattle off three wins to breathe life into their postseason hopes, but losing their last two in the regular season dropped them to third in the table and crucially sunk their RPI into a position to where they needed a good Big 12 Tournament to reach the NCAAs again. They’d top Oklahoma State but fall to TCU in the semi-final, and given their putrid non-conference RPI, didn’t make it to the bubble for the Big Dance.

While Paul Jobson (along with current volunteer assistant and former co-head coach Marci Jobson) helped make the Bears relevant again, there has to be a little urgency to breaking the club’s current NCAA Tournament drought. There might be a little extra onus this season considering the relatively wide open nature of the Big 12 behind West Virginia and the fact that Baylor appears to have a nice young core of players to build around. Goals are going to have to be a priority for the Bears though, as they barely averaged over a goal a game in league play in 2016. The clear building block in the attack is junior Lauren Piercy, who led the club with seven goals last season. The former league co-Freshman of the Year stepped into a starting role last year and may need to hit double figures for Baylor to truly contend this year.

A big question is where the rest of the offense is going to come from though at an oftentimes goal shy program. Sophomore Raegan Padgett showed flashes as a rookie, while midfielder Julie James was joint first in assists and could be one of the league’s best in the middle of the park this season. Junior Sarah King is another to watch after being heavily involved in the offense last year, but the real player to watch might be one of the club’s recruits, Zionah Browne, who has been tipped to make an impact here.

Defensively, Baylor’s never been accused of being a light touch, though they were relatively average in the Big 12 last season. The Bears have a pretty big hole to fill in between the pipes though with the departure of starter Sara Martinson in goal. Compounding matters is the loss of the club’s top backup Rebecca Gartner, meaning Baylor’s going to be entering the new season with essentially no experience returning in goal. The battle will come down to sophomores Hannah Parish and Maggie Burton and true freshman Jennifer Wandt, with nary a minute played in DI among them, though Wandt comes in with a decent pedigree.

The situation on the backline really isn’t that much better, as this group gets rocked by attrition itself. Gone, among others are Lindsay Burns, Emory Cason, and Bridget Hamway, creating a giant void for the Bears to fill on the backline. Senior Precious Akanyirige is the likely leader now on the backline, while additional returnees Kylie Ross and Caitlin Schwarz also saw a fair amount of starting minutes last season as well. The Bears also add Welsh youth international Chelsea Jumratie, and she could see time immediately given the depth of the departures.

Baylor could be solid on offense but takes major hits on defense, but many of their league rivals are in a similar boat with offseason losses. That means another upper-half Big 12 finish is possible, as is an NCAA Tournament return if their non-conference RPI isn’t an anchor again.

You never really know what you’re going to get out of Kansas on a year-by-year basis, but last year’s Jayhawks were pretty good in comparison to some of the recent seasons in Lawrence. KU were coming off a season where they had reached the Big 12 Tournament final but fallen in controversial fashion and missed the NCAA Tournament. Wins over Marquette and Colorado set an early tone for last year’s Jayhawks, and they looked like title challengers after winning their first three in the Big 12. But they’d pick up just two points in their next three, and despite winning their last two, finished seven points adrift of league champs West Virginia, though a second place finish in the league was still tremendous for KU. They’d be upset by TCU in the quarterfinals in the Big 12 Tournament, which was a bitter blow though not really enough to derail NCAA Tournament plans. Topping Missouri in the opening round of the NCAAs surely felt like bliss, but Kansas would see their season end a week later in the second round against North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

Despite last year’s success, Kansas will be wary, knowing that they haven’t made back-to-back NCAA Tournament since 2003-2004. It could be a battle again, as KU loses five starters, though that puts them in the same boat as many of their other Big 12 rivals. Kansas was second in the league in both goals allowed and conceded in conference games, though a lot of the focus is going to be on the attack, spearheaded by junior Grace Hagan. Hagan, naturally, led the club in scoring last season with seven goals, including three in league play, but she also slowed down noticeably at season’s end, with just two shots on goal in the club’s final five. The other likely big attacking threat here is sophomore Katie McClure, who actually led the club in shots, but who also wasn’t particularly accurate with said shooting, needing fifty-four shots for her five goals. It gets a bit sparse in scoring after that, as nobody else that returns had more than three goals in 2016. The more pertinent worry might be in midfield, where Kansas loses a couple of big hitters in Tayler Estrada and Hanna Kallmaier. Neither were a big difference maker in the box score, but both were experienced veterans who were among the league’s best.

Given a few of the questions in the attack, Kansas will probably lean on its defense a little more in 2017. While Aurelie Gagnet and Morgan Williams both depart, there’s still a decent amount of talent returning on the backline. Chief amongst the returnees on defense is senior Kayla Morrison. Morrison has started sixty-three matches in three seasons and is again set to be one of the Big 12’s best defenders. Also coming back after an impressive 2016 is sophomore Addisyn Merrick. Merrick wasn’t a starter right out of the gate as a rookie but worked her way into being a lineup stalwart by season’s end. KU’s rearguard should be bolstered by a slate of talented additions as well. Welsh youth international Ceri Holland is a product of Manchester City’s youth academy, while on the domestic front, Avery Hall is one of the picks of this class and like Holland could feature in midfield as well. KU also adds a transfer with power conference starting experience in Madison Meador, who started much of the season with Ole Miss last season.

There could be a little uncertainty in goal as well. Senior Maddie Dobyns started for most of the year, but sophomore Regan Gibbs was the starter in the NCAA Tournament. With both returning, the Jayhawks could end up juggling the pair again.

While many preseason assessments have KU as again the best of the rest behind West Virginia, my projections think a regression to the mean is in order. They lose some solid players in midfield and look a bit limited offensively, meaning I think mid-table could be their landing spot this year, though an NCAA Tournament return also looks a possibility.

Breakthrough. It was a word that defined TCU’s 2016 season and a much needed concept after so many years in the wilderness both in the Mountain West and now in the Big 12. Doubts may have been beginning to creep in about Eric Bell’s tenure with the program given the slow progress being made heading into last year, but the Horned Frogs took a solid step forward in 2016. The Horned Frogs probably turned some heads with an unbeaten non-conference campaign, albeit against weak opposition, but a win over a good SMU team perhaps swayed some doubters. But the Horned Frogs would find their postseason hopes endangered by an awful start in the league, taking just one point from their first six matches. TCU would come through in the clutch though, beating Texas Tech and Texas before making a big run to the Big 12 Tournament final and nearly shocking league champs West Virginia. It was enough to get the club to its first NCAA Tournament, though Texas A&M would edge them out in the opening round.

It’s now about TCU showing that they aren’t just a one-hit wonder and can further establish themselves as a top half team in the Big 12. With five starters departing though, Bell and the Horned Frogs probably have their work cut out for themselves. TCU scored just six goals in the league last year, a mark that has to improve markedly for them to be consistent winners in the conference. Matters aren’t necessarily helped by the club losing Michelle Prokof, one of the club’s best attackers who netted six goals and five assists last year, as well as the second leading scorer on the club, Faith Carter, after a seven goal season.

However, the Horned Frogs do have some tantalizing weapons returning. Oddly, the players taking most of the shots for TCU weren’t the ones doing most of the scoring last year. Emma Heckendorn put up an inefficient three goals on fifty-three shots but more than made up for it with nine assists and will be key again here this year. Junior Kayla Hill also had a solid presence as the club’s second leading shot taker but also needs to be a bit more efficient as she netted just four goals on her forty shots. TCU will hope for a repeat of Allison Ganter’s nine goal season, especially after she netted a goal in the final regular season match and in all three rounds of the Big 12 Tournament last year. Bell’s side well also hope for an instant boost from New Zealand youth international Tayla Christensen, a towering presence at 5’10” for TCU.

TCU’s defense has to improve in 2017 after it conceded a league high thirteen goals in the league last season. Among others, the backline has to replace Megan Murphy, who had a nice showing in the club’s Big 12 Tournament run in 2016. Also gone are the likes of Lauren Sajcewich, Brittany Little, and Courtney Forte, creating a massive void in experience on the backline for the Horned Frogs. Junior Cachet Lue looks like a big piece to the puzzle heading into the new season after making her college debut following missing the entire 2015 season through injury. Lue and Ryan Williams, a three-year starter here are really the only sure things on the backline going into 2017, meaning TCU’s going to need to integrate some newcomers. Allen native Astrid Souto is a highly regarded prospect, while Serbian youth international Tijana Djuricek could also see time early given her international pedigree.

Sophomore Katie Lund won the #1 job in goal by the time league play rolled around and will be favorite to retain the job at the beginning of this year. It may be worth keeping an eye on Mexican youth international Emily Alvarado, however.

This might be a year of consolidation instead of big steps forward for TCU, but they still should have a decent shot at the postseason if they can fill some of the gaps they incur through graduation.

2016 was a standout season for Oklahoma, who won fourteen matches, an all-time high for the program. OU had delivered back-to-back ten win seasons and looked respectable going into the new campaign, but there were few signs of the season to come going into 2016. It didn’t take long to make a loud statement of intent though, as the Sooners held eventual SEC champions South Carolina to a draw on opening night. Outside of a shocking upset loss to Utah Valley, the Sooners rolled through much of the schedule, reeling off eight wins in a row at one point. Their form slipped noticeably down the stretch though, and OU won just one of their final five Big 12 matches, leaving them in fourth in the league. The Sooner would bow out in the semi-finals of the Big 12 Tournament to West Virginia, but they had still done more than enough to earn an NCAA Tournament berth. They’d get by SMU in a tough first round matchup but fell to BYU in round two a week later.

On paper, last season seems to have been a bit of a perfect storm for OU, as they lose six starters from last year’s squad, most in the Big 12. In a league where most of the clubs are tightly bunched up on a yearly basis, that could make repeating last year’s amazing success very difficult. Though the Sooners have established a reputation as a defense first team under Matt Potter, they actually finished third in the league in goals scored last season in the Big 12. The attack gets absolutely crushed by graduation though, as the club’s top four scorers, and everyone that netted more than two goals last year, departs. The biggest loss is of Liz Keester, a transfer from Texas A&M who shook off injury problems to net nine goals, including five game winners, and six assists. Also gone are Madison Saliba, who netted five goals to tie for second most on the team, and Jemma Cota, who wasn’t a factor on the stat sheet but who still helped this midfield tick.

Where the goals are going to come from this season is anybody’s guess, with nobody that netted more than two last season returning. One option might be Kaylee Dao, who scored four goals in 2015 but who missed almost all of last season through injury. Midfielders Tori Bowman and Lizzie Luallin are also fairly certain bets for big roles again in 2017, but neither have been big scorers in the past. As you might guess, the lack of proven scorers is a massive worry for the program going into the new campaign.

It places an enormous amount of pressure on the defense heading into the new year. The bad news here is that this unit takes losses as well, including one of the nation’s best senior defenders in Rachel Ressler. Ressler wasn’t just a defensive presence either, as her five goals were tied for second most on the club. Also gone is Angela Boyle, who transferred to Arizona State after starting eighteen matches. The likely new leader of the backline is junior Paige Welch, a two-year starter who impressed for OU last year. Madeline Brem and Jordyn Knox-Webster both logged starting experience last year and figure to be in contention for major minutes again this year, with Knox-Webster also potentially getting a look in attack as well. OU also adds rookie Darbey Hargrove, the standout in this recruiting class from the Sooners, and a player likely to get a shot at winning a role on the backline early on.

Also gone is Kassidie Stade, last year’s starting goalkeeper, who was in between the posts for every minute of 2016. Fifth-year senior Kaitlyn Keith has seen just nine minutes as a Sooner, and her experience advantage is almost nil over true freshmen McKinley Crone and Paige Hobart.

The Sooners will be hard pressed to replicate last year’s success. There’s still talent here, but they look destined for an NCAA bubble battle and mid-table fight in the Big 12 this year.

You could accuse Oklahoma State of living a bit of a charmed life in 2017. The Cowgirls ended up punching an NCAA Tournament ticket despite a shaky profile following a rather tepid season in the Big 12. The non-conference season certainly wasn’t much to shout about, with a draw against Georgia and 7-2 loss to Florida among the lowlights, as OSU failed to get much outside of a draw with Memphis to put on their non-conference resume. League play started out poorly as well, with the Cowgirls dropping their first two at home to Iowa State and Baylor. With their backs to the wall, OSU went on a 3-1-1 stretch in the league before dropping the regular season finale to West Virginia to finish sixth in the league. Going into the Big 12 Tournament, most felt OSU needed a run having won just one game against an RPI Top 40 opponent. Instead, the Cowgirls lost to Baylor in the quarterfinal, with most thinking that was game over for their NCAA hopes. However, OSU got a shocking reprieve, earning an at-large bid, though they made little out of it, being pounded by Colorado in the first round.

The big question now is whether the Cowgirls can use last year as a springboard to getting back amongst the elite in the Big 12. On paper, OSU appears to have a big task ahead of them, even in a topsy turvy conference. The biggest challenge is likely replacing last year’s leading scorer, Nigerian international Courtney Dike, who tallied nine goals and seven assists on strong efficiency numbers. Dike never quite developed into the superstar some expected, but she was still a huge part of the plan on offense for OSU.

Dike’s departure could leave the keys to the offense in the hands of junior Marlo Zoller, who actually led to the team in shots last season. Zoller netted just four goals though and went cold towards the end of the season, and it remains to be seen if she can be a first option in the attack. The other returning options are somewhat limited. Haley Woodward had a nice stretch of four goals in three games last year but finished with just six goals, though she’s still the leading returning scorer. Additionally, Jaci Jones will be looking for an increased role after a very promising rookie season, while Anna Beffer could also play a bigger part on offense this year. Newcomers could also play a part for OSU, with rookie forward Taylor Olson one of the most likely to stamp her quality on the attack this year.

Defensively, the Cowgirls have a proud history, but they were plainly average last season. A great improvement upon that mark could be difficult this season with OSU losing the best defender from last year’s unit, center-back Natalie Calhoun. Also gone are full-backs Christina Jean-Charles and Niki McKnight, cutting into the experience of the group as a whole. There is a bit of experience returning for the Cowgirls this season though. French senior Laurene Tresfield and sophomore Elise Hawn look most likely to return at center-back, while sophomores Claire Gantzer and Charme Morgan are both contenders at full-back. Someone will likely have to make room for rookie Kim Rodriguez though, a big time addition from this recruiting class for the Cowgirls. A Mexican youth international by way of Texas, Rodriguez looks like one of her nation’s most promising young players and figures to see major minutes early here, be it in midfield or on the backline.

There could be controversy brewing in goal, as Michela Ongaro, the incumbent and a senior, struggled last season. Short-term competition is likely to come from Mississippi State transfer Tanya de Souza, a French youth international who herself had three largely forgettable years in the SEC.

Losing your best attacker and best defender usually isn’t a recipe for success, and OSU might find that out firsthand in a season which could be a step back from last year.

At a program that entered 2016 without a winning season since 2007, Iowa State was desperate for a good season in the Big 12. They entered last year having gone winless in the league in 2015, with the pressure on for an improvement on all fronts. After a crushing defeat to Florida in their opener, ISU reeled off seven wins in eight, including a win over rival Iowa, the league opener over Oklahoma State, and, most importantly, an away win at SEC power Auburn, one of the biggest wins in program history. But ISU hit a massive rut after their league opener, promptly winning just one of their next six, a run that included a humiliating home defeat to MVC side Drake. A split in the final two league games left the Cyclones fifth in the conference heading into the Big 12 Tournament, a near miracle given the history of the program. ISU still entered the postseason with an iffy profile for the NCAA Tournament though, so a win in the Big 12 Tournament quarterfinal against Oklahoma was vital, but the Cyclones laid an egg in a 2-0 defeat. Firmly on the bubble going into Selection Monday, ISU was left heartbroken, as they were denied an at-large bid to the Big Dance.

The job now for fourth-year head coach Tony Minatta is to not make last season a peak and instead use it as a stepping stone to finally get the Cyclones into the NCAA Tournament. Reading the tea leaves, ISU might have some trouble in making that happen in 2017. The massive worry for the Cyclones has to be where the goals are going to come from. ISU scored just four goals in eight league matches last year and seventeen goals overall, one of the lowest marks for a “Power Five” conference team.

Junior Emily Steil tried to carry the offensive load in league play last year, taking twenty-one shots, eleven more than anyone else, but she also failed to score in the Big 12. Two of the four goals in league play came from sophomore Hannah Cade, who is one of the great bright hopes for the Cyclones. Another to watch could be junior Klasey Medelberg, who ended up the team leader in goals despite starting just eight games. If Medelberg is a full-time starter this year, she could have a chance for a true breakout campaign in the attack for the Cyclones. It could be slim pickings beyond that in terms of returnees though, meaning the newcomers could be under pressure to perform right away. The name to watch among the newcomers in attack this year might be Nevada native Tavin Hays, who should have every chance of winning major minutes early.

Given their league finish and the above tepid offense, you might think Iowa State must have dominated on defense. However, based on goals conceded in Big 12 action, the Cyclones were about middle of the road compared to their peers. While ISU does return a fair share of experience, they will have to overcome the loss of center-back Madi Ott and full-back Kourtney Camy. Fifth-year senior Brianna Johnson started every match last season and should again anchor the backline here. The other constant last year was senior Sasha Stinson out wide, the Texan helping out with the game winning assist against SEC side Georgia early in the year. There are also likely to be major minutes for returnees Jordan Enga and Riley Behan, but the Cyclones are probably going to be depending on a newcomer or an unsung player to make a big leap forward if the defense is to make big strides this year. Senior Lindsey Hendon was as busy as ever in goal and played all but a half in between the pipes and figures to be first choice again for ISU.

The Cyclones had a pretty good season by their standards in 2016, but looking at their goals scored and goals allowed in the Big 12, it’s semi-miraculous they ended up fifth and in the mix for an NCAA Tournament bid. My projections think they’re going to crash back to Earth in 2017, but if they can find some consistent scoring, they could still fight their way into mid-table, though that’s a very big ‘if’.

It’s been a long road for Kansas State soccer. The Wildcats were long known for being one of the few power conference programs without a women’s soccer team up until a few years ago when the Big 12 side sought to set things right. KSU have looked to gradually build the program up, beginning varsity play last season but doing so as an independent school and not subjecting themselves to what surely would have been a series of beatings from their league brethren. 2016 was full of ups and downs for the Wildcats, as they netted four wins and even drew Big East side Creighton in Omaha. They played just one Power Five side all season, at Texas in a non-conference matchup in October and lost but were credible in the 2-0 defeat. All in all, things could have certainly gone much worse for KSU, and supporters will hope for steady growth in 2017.

Now? The difficulty ramps up in a serious way for Kansas State. The Wildcats not only jump into a full Big 12 schedule, but they also sprinkle in some more matches against power conference opposition, specifically a road trip to open up the season at Pac-12 sides Oregon State and Oregon. KSU does still have a fairly lenient non-conference slate, but no opponent can be taken for granted for a second year program. Kansas State will be hoping that a full season together will have bred more cohesion into the attack that scored just sixteen goals last season. It’s hard to tell where the scoring is going to come from, with nobody here netting more than three goals last season, though both Tatum Wagner and Laramie Hall, joint leading scorers in 2016 do return. It could be a hard league season if the attackers can’t find a scoring rhythm in the non-conference slate.

It’s more likely then that defense is going to be a priority for KSU going into their first Big 12 season. The Wildcats weren’t great last year, but they also probably weren’t as bad as you’d expect a first-year program to be, conceding more than two goals in just their opening game. The goalkeeping situation could be one to watch, with senior Miranda Larkin, who started most of last year, potentially challenged by transfer Emma Malsy, who started multiple games at Arizona State last year. KSU’s growth likely depends on getting top players into the program, and while there’s not a superstar on the horizon, signee Hannah Davis (who could also play in the attack) was recently named Nebraska Gatorade State Player of the Year and joins fellow rookie Mikayla Edwards as a potential difference maker as a freshman.

It would be borderline miraculous for a second-year program to make the postseason at the first time of asking, so KSU probably shouldn’t consider a finish outside the top eight a failure. Looking strong in non-conference and competitive in the Big 12 should be enough to convince KSU supporters that the program is tracking positively going forward.

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