2011 NCAA Soccer Preview – Southland – The (Soon To Be) Departed

Lacey Bockhaus

Southeastern Louisiana's Lacey Bockhaus - More History In Goal In 2011?

You’d forgive the heads of the Southland Conference in feeling a little sheepish at the end of the 2010 season. After an exciting campaign that had seen the emergence of upstart Texas-San Antonio at the top of the heap after the Southland Conference Tournament, there was to be a rather grim comedown in the Big Dance itself as the Roadrunners were systematically dismantled by Portland at Merlo Field, 9-0, in one of the worst beatings dished out in the NCAA Tournament in some time. It hardly took the shine off of a great season from a program that had been nothing but a glimmer in the eyes of a few half a decade ago, but it still stung nonetheless.

Worse was yet to come for the league. After the latest round of musical chairs in conference realignment, the Southland was one of those holding the proverbial bag when the music stopped. In the blink of an eye, UTSA was WAC-bound as of the 2012 season. Adding salt to the wound was the WAC poaching Texas State and Texas-Arlington (though the latter doesn’t sponsor soccer) as well. Suddenly, the league was lighter two of its best performers in recent years and left with eight soccer playing programs.

It’s a lame duck year for sure, but there’s still quality to be found in the Southland for 2011. The league often plays like a pared down version of its much bigger cousin, the Big XII, with explosive scoring, physical play, and sometimes spotty defenses. Hey, it even has the same problems with teams looking for the exit door! While its anybody’s guess as to what the league’s next move is in adding back to its ranks, the brass will surely be desperate to have the focus on who’s on the pitch for 2011 rather than who won’t be there for 2012 and beyond.

(Teams listed in order of final 2010 RPI ranking.)

The hot seat at STEPHEN F. AUSTIN over the past decade or so has taken the shape of a stepping stone for more than one aspiring coach. The program first rose to Southland prominence before the turn of the millennium under the hand of Rachel Skinner who brought home back-to-back league titles in 1997 and 1998. It took a while (and a few more coaches) before Nicole Nelson came in and set the program back on the right track, winning the Southland Conference tournament in her second year in charge in 2003, delivering the program’s first NCAA Tournament bid in the process, before winning the league in 2004.

But Nelson departed for the greener pastures of one of the best assistant coaching jobs in the country at Texas, and the Ladyjacks promoted assistant Jaime Frias to the helm of the program. The new coach was more than effective after the promotion, delivering a league title in 2005 before doing the double in his final season in Nacogdoches. With nothing left to prove at this level, Frias moved on to Nevada, prompting another change at the head of the program. This time though, the Ladyjacks opted for a rather surprising choice in George Van Linder.

Van Linder had looked to be on his way to the top of the college soccer world after four very productive years at SMU but then had been a monumental flop in five seasons at Baylor. Whether Van Linder succeeded in rehabilitating his reputation is up for debate. The team’s W-L-T record in his two seasons in charge wasn’t anything overwhelming, but the team had some good finishes in the league, although they never really got close to silverware. After 2009, Van Linder hightailed it back to the Big XII as the associate head coach at Oklahoma.

Perhaps a little jaded from going down the retread route, SFA chose to opt for some young blood, hiring Rollins Head Coach Tony Amato after Amato had turned the DII school into a quality side in the Sunshine State Conference. Amato’s push to get the Ladyjacks back lifting trophies began with a difficult five match stretch last season in which SFA went 2-3-0. As unimpressive as that sounds on paper, the Ladyjacks still managed to beat a good Louisiana Tech team and added a real feather in their cap with a win over SEC side Arkansas. SFA would also come up just short against two of their ex-head coaches at Oklahoma (Nelson had been appointed Head Coach of the Sooners a few seasons earlier) in a 2-1 loss in Norman.

SFA heated up as the schedule eased up, stringing together six wins on the trot against vastly inferior opposition, although they did mix in a great win at Houston in that streak. Amato’s side stretched that winning run into a ten match unbeaten streak as they looked good bets for the title entering into the stretch run of the season. But the Ladyjacks couldn’t keep up the momentum and dropped close matches on the road to Southeastern Louiaiana and Sam Houston State to all but end their title hopes. SFA rebounded to win their last two matches of the regular season and finished the season as runners-up, three points behind Southeastern Louisiana.

Amato’s team looked to have a decent shot in the Southland Conference Tournament, especially drawn against a UTSA team they had just beaten less than a week ago in the semi-finals. But in a bit of a tempestuous affair, the Ladyjacks went down on penalties after a 1-1 draw. The season may have ended a little prematurely but not before Amato went a long way in proving he might be the right man to get the Ladyjacks back on the trophy winning track.

Stephen F. Austin may have been encouraged by the start of the Amato Era last season, but that may have just been a warmup act for this season, as the Ladyjacks return a good deal of the talent from last year’s title contenders. SFA made the most of a powerful offense, setting the league alight with the Southland’s top offense. The group returns mostly intact but does lose a big contributor in forward Kim Kimmel who confirmed that the seven goals of 2009 was no fluke by topping it with eight goals and four assists last year en route to All-Southland First Team honors.

The rest of the heavy hitters should return though, including South African captain Kylie Louw. Quite how the Ladyjacks and former Head Coach Van Linder were able to convince a South African international, much less the captain of her country, to give it a go in Nacogdoches is one of the more intriguing mysteries in recent college soccer history, but Louw has been nothing short of spectacular in her first seasons with the team. The Southland Freshman of the Year in 2009, Louw didn’t disappoint last year with seven goals and six assists, including ten points in league action to earn Co-Player of the Year honors in the league. Louw is a truly special player at this level and is plenty capable of leading the Ladyjacks to trophies in her final two seasons of collegiate eligibility.

Another midfield offensive spark for SFA is junior Laura Sadler who exploded for six goals and four assists last season and led the team in points in conference matches with eleven. Amato will be looking towards his returnees to help pick up the offensive slack, meaning Louw and Sadler will be crucial to SFA’s postseason hopes this year. The international flair in midfield doesn’t stop with Louw though as Australian senior Edwina Forbes has made an impact on the Ladyjacks as well, albeit as a more defensive midfielder, and will likely be a key figure again for SFA this year. Melissa Gaudet and Breanne Vernon also return with much starting experience to their name, and the Ladyjacks could have one of the best midfields in the league and among mid-majors in the region.

Up front, Becky Johnson could feature in place of Kimmel after three goals and five assists last year in nineteen starts. Janae Lee and Megan Wasiak could also be elevated from the role of super sub up front. With Kimmel gone, Sadler could very well be used up front full time as a forward this year.

Tying Kimmel for the team lead in goals was an unlikely source in defender Jordan King. King, like many of her teammates, a transfer, came from Oklahoma and earned conference Newcomer of the Year honors in 2009 and continued to prove to be a real coup for SFA last season. Success from the penalty spot inflated her eight goal total, but she still struck for five goals in open play and netted four total match winners. Having such an offensive minded defender is just another bonus for Amato who enjoys a capable defense as well.

Starting defenders Kelli Barnes and Jordyn Young may depart, but the team can still call on King and Kelsey Allen, who started eleven matches last season and could be ready to graduate to a full-time role. The only other returnee to see major time in defense was Leslie Shurtleff and that was only in thirteen matches off the bench. Depth is a concern, and some freshmen may have to be ready to play right off the bat.

Amato’s biggest worry could be in goal, where senior Courtney Bauder must be replaced. Sophomore Lacey Lee started four games last season as a freshman though and saw time in four other matches as well and should be the favorite to start in goal this season, although recruits Morgan Glick and Alexandria Marciante might have something to say about that.

The Ladyjacks probably weren’t as good as their mysteriously inflated RPI said they were last season, but they were pretty darn formidable considering Amato got something of a late start in the hot seat after Van Linder’s departure. The question now is if Amato can guide his team through the usually treacherous waters of Second Season Syndrome as he tries to build his own team beyond the foundation that Van Linder left him in Nacogdoches. The Ladyjacks should still have some firepower to spare despite Kimmel leaving with Louw and Sadler ready to keep firing true for SFA. If the defense stays solid, then the Ladyjacks should be in with a shout for honors come the end of the season.

Blake Hornbuckle, the Southland Conference’s all-time coaching wins leader, shows no sign of giving up his spot at the head of the conference table any time soon after another winning season with SOUTHEASTERN LOUISIANA. Hornbuckle has shown a steely resolve with the Lady Lions as could be seen by his overseeing a dreadful 3-11-1 campaign in 2005 and following it up with a league title the season after, the program’s first piece of silverware since 2003.

A few finishes in mid-table preceded the 2009 campaign, which saw SELA finish as runners-up in the league before getting it right in the postseason and finally breaking their long duck in the Southland Conference Tournament and winning their first conference tournament title since 1998. That win elevated expectations going into 2010, with Lady Lions fans hoping that Hornbuckle would be able to bring home the program’s fourth league title in the past ten seasons.

SELA roared out of the gate with an eight match unbeaten streak, but the two blemishes on that run told more about the Lady Lions than the wins did. Draws to Southern Miss and Louisiana-Monroe were not positive results, and a loss to Louisiana-Lafayette that ended the unbeaten run wasn’t exactly great either. SELA entered league play with a gaudy record but one that was built on the DI’s second weakest non-conference schedule according to one measure.

It looked all in danger of coming crashing down around Hornbuckle as SELA’s first league weekend was a winless one, featuring a draw against McNeese State and a loss to Lamar. It’d be the last regular season match the Lady Lions would lose. Hornbuckle’s team romped to the title with seven straight wins. Not to say that there weren’t some nervy moments in that winning streak, as SELA won five straight league matches by a single goal, including a key 2-1 win over Stephen F. Austin.

Another one goal win over Texas State in the Southland Tournament seemed to put Hornbuckle’s troops in position to win the program’s first double. But disaster struck in the title match. SELA couldn’t breach the UTSA defense, and a testy affair saw the Lady Lions’ scoring talisman, Maiya Cooper, sent off in the seventy-second minute. The writing was on the wall after that, and Hornbuckle’s team would crash out in extra time. The Lady Lions had just had one of, if not the, best season in program history, but it must have felt a little hollow without a trip to the NCAA Tournament to go with it.

After that painful loss at the last hurdle before the NCAA Tournament, Hornbuckle and crew will be eager to get back on the pitch and aim for the Lady Lions’ third straight season with a trophy and hopefully their second ticket to the Big Dance in three years. With most of the key pieces from last year’s title winning team back, SELA are in a good position to not miss a beat. The Lady Lions were strong on both offense and defense last year and figure to stay that way in 2011.

The defense may lose a pair of very good starters in Nicole Brannigan and Brittany Prieto but the most important pieces return for Hornbuckle. Big goalkeeper Lacey Bockhaus has been simply amazing for the Lady Lions in her first three years on campus and figures to sneak onto WPS radars with another strong season. Bockhaus was the commanding presence in goal for SELA last season earning Southland Co-Player of the Year honors. Bockhaus enters the season as arguably the league’s best ever keeper and is in the top ten in career clean sheets in DI. If she’s on her game, the Lady Lions have a shot against just about anyone they run up against.

While the losses to the defense in front of Bockhaus could make the Lady Lions sweat a little, the team still brings back one of the top defenders in the league in Canadian senior Kyle MacIntosh. A versatile player with the capability to star in midfield or defense, MacIntosh has quickly grown into the lynchpin on the Lady Lions’ backline. MacIntosh missed some time early through injury but was pure class after and will again be one of the league’s top defenders. Another Canadian defender, Shanyce Shaw, came in as a freshman and was also impressive on the formidable SELA defense and should be set to step up into a role of more importance in 2011. Likely filling one of the gaps will be Canadian senior Lauren Crawford who was one of the team’s key reserves last year. Another option could be the team’s Swiss army knife, Kelsey Salcido, who can play anywhere on the pitch and made sixteen starts last year.

In attack, Hornbuckle’s team is hit by the loss of one of the league’s best midfielders in Natalie Santana but returns the best one-two attacking punch in the league in juniors Maiya Cooper and Karly Dagys. She probably would like to forget the end of last season, but Cooper’s been nothing short of amazing in her first two seasons in Hammond. After twenty-five goals in two seasons, she has an outside shot of reaching Kim McNally’s school scoring records by the end of her time with the Lady Lions. Cooper burst onto the scene in 2009 with fourteen goals, including one against Florida State in the NCAA Tournament. Her production may have dipped a little bit as the secret of her skills spread round the land, but there can be no doubting as to her proficiency at this level.

Lauren Stillians is another top returnee and had three goals and three assists last season as she had a breakthrough season last year for the Lady Lions. Other options up front include sophomore Cambri Prevost, who did most of her damage against weaker teams, and Jaci Tereshinksi, who had a pair of goals in ten starts in 2010.

In the midfield, Canadian Dagys didn’t tally as many goals as Cooper, but did her scoring when it counted in league play, scoring four match winners in Southland play and five overall in conference action. Dagys can be, to put it bluntly, a gunner (she had twenty-five more shots than Cooper on the season), but she’s still more than a little dangerous in support of the attack with nine assists last year. Kerry McWhirter, a junior, could also be one to watch after three goals and eight assists, with the caveat that most of that was done out of conference against an unflattering schedule. A good few reserves will also be stepping up to try and fill the void left by Santana’s departure.

Hornbuckle has done an amazing job in Hammond, and he’s not the conference’s all-time leader in wins by accident. He’s tapped into a nice pipeline of talent in Canada and has done a great job in bringing in domestic players like Bockhaus and Cooper that can excel at this level. His Lady Lions are loaded again and will be favorites for more silverware in 2011.

Let’s get the negative out of the way first for TEXAS-SAN ANTONIO and their 2010 season. The program’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament didn’t end all that happily after a 9-0 defeat to a rampant Portland team at Merlo Field. OK, with that done, it’s a little easier to reflect on the success of one of the country’s top up and coming mid-major programs. The Roadrunners only began life as a DI program in 2006 but were hardly novices on the pitch, getting right out of the blocks and finishing second in the league.

Finishes of third, second, and fifth in the years following established UTSA as a formidable team in the Southland Conference. That success had a little trouble translating into wins in the postseason though, as the Roadrunners always seemed to have trouble navigating that final hurdle and getting to the Southland Tournament title match. Regardless of their postseason woes, Texas-San Antonio still entered 2010 as a contender for their first piece of silverware.

Roadrunners’ Head Coach Steve Ballard was no stranger to leading unfancied programs to the NCAA Tournament having previously overseen Eastern Illinois as they made multiple trips to the Big Dance at the turn of the century. It was very difficult to discern much about UTSA in the non-conference season as the Roadrunners beat a whole bunch of DI’s worst teams by massive margins but at the same time were heavily defeated by their much more prestigious brethren. One of the few tests against a program of equal merit, TCU, resulted in a 4-1 defeat at home, an ominous sign heading into Southland play a week later.

But Roadrunner fans needn’t have worried, as their team won their first three matches in the league and went unbeaten in their first five league matches. UTSA entered the final matchday in the regular season with a chance to win a share of the Southland title after two wins in their previous three matches but came up short in a 2-0 loss at Stephen F. Austin. The bad news for UTSA was that loss also dropped them to the #3 seed on the head-to-head tiebreaker against SFA and forced them into the first round of the Southland Tournament.

Lamar was dealt with there before a rematch with Stephen F. Austin saw the Roadrunners hold their nerve to advance on penalties after a 1-1 draw. It set up a meeting with league champs Southeastern Louisiana in the Southland Tournament final. In a close and cagey match, it would be the Roadrunners who lifted the tournament title on this afternoon as Maria Jose Rojas tallied a golden goal in extra time to send UTSA dancing.

It might not have seemed that way at times during the non-conference season, but UTSA achieved much of their Southland Conference success through defense last season. The Roadrunners rode that defense to five clean sheets in the league and a pair of them in the Southland Tournament while also only giving up more than a goal once in league play. The cornerstone of the unit is Norwegian sophomore Anka Grotle who quietly came into San Antonio after bouncing around a few clubs in Norway and promptly turned into one of the league’s top defenders. Grotle also showed why exactly she was listed as a midfielder/forward on the team’s roster by scoring four goals and adding four assists in 2010.

Grotle may be the de facto leader of the backline now with senior Jenna Pawelek having graduated after last season. The club also loses starter Stephanie Ogilvie unexpectedly, leaving some serious holes at the back. Kimber Chudej, who saw time at defender last season and was a key reserve, and Jodi Leroy, who racked up three goals and five assists last year, also return but there are serious depth issues with just three defenders listed on UTSA’s rather obtuse roster. Alex Saraceno and Jessica Lyon could also see time in the back, while another import for Norway, Charlotte Husoe, will be hoping to make the same impact Grotle did as a freshman.

The Roadrunners will also likely get steady play from between the pipes with junior Dacia Webb set to continue on in goal after fighting off the challenge of Danielle Snyder to win the starting job. Webb proved capable in goal for the Roadrunners last season and will likely be counted on again in 2011 to provide strong play once more.

The defense may be more important than ever for UTSA in 2011, because the Roadrunners take some big hits offensively, losing four attackers, including three in the midfield. The loss of Chelsea Zimmerman, one of the team’s top players thus far in the program’s young history, and Laurel Dierking robs the Roadrunners of two strong midfield performers, while the team also must face the loss of its leading goalscorer up front in Allison Dillon.

Ballard may turn towards some of the team’s South American talents to try and kickstart an average offense in the league last season. Chilean forward Maria Jose Rojas was the team’s leading scorer as a freshman and along with fellow sophomore midfielder Valentina Lefort was on Chile’s team at the Algarve Cup this past Winter. Sophomore Brazilian midfielder Laylla da Cruz also made an impression last season with five goals and assists. The imports (along with everyone else in the UTSA offense) will probably need to show a little more consistency and cutting edge in front of goal this season for the Roadrunners to contend. Also keep an eye on junior Lindsay South who didn’t start a match in Southland play for UTSA but ended up being the only player other than Dillon to tally multiple goals in league action last season.

The Roadrunners also draft in a whole slew of transfers offensively that could make an impact. Haley Harris (Baylor), Edith Lopez (Missouri), Amanda Ortegon (Alabama), and Ryanne Woods (Houston all join UTSA for the new year and could be vital to a team that needs depth after all the losses in the offseason. Lopez and Ortegon in particular are two to watch as former Mexican youth internationals hoping for a fresh start.

Ballard’s defense has a few experienced and talented campaigners, including the excellent Grotle on the backline and Webb in goal, depth, as often is the case at this level, is something to worry about. The offense, for the most part, is full of unproven potential but potential that could lead the Roadrunners forward nonetheless. UTSA was incredibly well balanced offensively last year with seven players tallying at least four goals but none scoring more than six.

With the number of changes in attack this season, UTSA probably needs someone to step up and take on the burden of being the lead scorer. If someone can shoulder that burden, UTSA might just be in contention for more silverware. If not, they’ll probably take a small step back towards mid-table. Ballard’s shown in his career though that counting him out at any point is foolish, and you figure the Roadrunners certainly have a shot at a good season if he can get all the pieces pulling in the same direction by the end of the year. They’ll certainly want to take their best shot this year, as it’ll be their last in the Southland before the Roadrunners depart for bigger shores in the WAC.

It was back down to Earth for TEXAS STATE in 2010 after a pair of brilliant seasons that saw the Bobcats finish in the Top 100 of the final RPI in 2008 and 2009, an achievement almost unheard of from a Southland Conference team. The renewed success by Texas State which included a double in 2008 and a league title in 2009 validated the brass’ decision to stick with long serving Head Coach Kat Conner. Conner had built a winner at the turn of the millennium, winning four trophies in four seasons including a double in 2001.

But in more recent years, the Bobcats had suffered through some horrifically painful seasons, including a 4-12-2 mark in 2007 that represented rock bottom, the program finishing #281 in the final RPI. One season later, the Bobcats pulled off an amazing turnaround, going 12-4-4, winning both the regular season title and the conference tournament and raising their RPI a staggering one hundred eighty-one places. Texas State, with new life surging through their veins, was looking for more silverware heading into 2010 after a heartbreaking loss to Southeastern Louisiana in the Southland Tournament title game in 2009.

The Bobcats didn’t start out well, with three losses in four matches. While defeats to Texas Tech and Fresno State were perhaps expected, a home defeat to UC Riverside was most certainly not. Texas State turned on the offense though after that, winning five of their next six and scoring at least three goals in all of those wins. Yes, the opposition in most cases wasn’t all that good, but the Bobcats did crush TCU on the road, 3-0. League play was a bit of a roller coaster.

A state derby loss to open the season up against Texas-San Antonio was hard to swallow, although a five match undefeated streak that followed was much better. The Bobcats only conceded one goal in that span and looked good for a title challenge. But Texas State lost two of their last three and sunk to fourth in the league. Home advantage for the Southland Tournament meant that they were among the favorites for the league’s auto bid though, and they looked on their way after a win over Sam Houston State in the first round. But bogey side Southeastern Louisiana popped up again, winning a 3-2 thriller and consigning the Bobcats to their third straight loss against the Lady Lions in the past two seasons.

But it’s hard to quibble with three straight seasons of twelve or more wins at a program the size of Texas State. That doesn’t mean that Conner’s team will be content to rest on their laurels though and will be looking to avoid a second straight season without a trophy in San Marcos. The good news for the Bobcats is that they return a reasonably experienced and talented team for the 2011 campaign.

The bad news? One of the three players that saw major minutes last year that departs is Britney Curry, an absolute force of nature for Texas State over the past four years who simply obliterated the team’s offensive record book in her stay in San Marcos. Curry saved her best season for last, adding fourteen goals to her career total and finishing up with fifty-three, twenty-two more than her nearest rival. They were hardly meaningless strikes either, with six of Curry’s fourteen goals last year winning matches for Texas State.

Considering that no other member of the Bobcats scored more than three goals last year, the offense is obviously a worry for Conner and crew. Before last season, the solution would have seemed to be senior Erica Michaud, who, despite only being 5’2″, had been a star for the Bobcats in her first two seasons, winning Southland Freshman of the Year honors in 2008 after seven goals and four assists, including a pair against Texas A&M in the NCAA Tournament. She followed that up with eight goals and five assists in 2009, building expectation to a possible double digit output in 2010. But it never happened, and Michaud’s goalscoring form mysteriously disappeared. Two goals and one assist was hardly a great return, and Michaud should be motivated and then some to exit San Marcos with a bang in her senior season. Sophomore Felicia Leask was one of the team’s best players at the end of the season last year and will be looking to build on her three assists and two goals this year. Another option up front is junior Serena Hines, who scored a pair of goals in her sophomore season last year.

She’ll hope to get support from talented midfielder Kelsey Bernard, who should be a team leader this year as a senior. Bernard’s exploits may have been overshadowed to a degree by Curry’s heroics, but she’s still quietly been one of the top players in the league over the past few years. Conner will also be hoping that talent runs through the Curry bloodline as Britney Curry’s little sister Sydney will be pushing for an increased role after being a super sub for most of 2010. Super sub could used to describe many of the returnees in midfield as Conner did a whole lot of rotating last season. A few players stepping up to nail down jobs full-time would undoubtedly be of benefit this year. Added to the group is Baylor transfer Andrea Mauk.

The defense takes a few hits with the losses of starters Anna Fagan and Jessica Elting. But the team has the Southland Newcomer of the Year in goalkeeper Lauren Frazier who starred after transferring from Houston before last season. That Frazier split time with sophomore Natalie Gardini in goal in league play should give an indication of how highly the staff rates the latter as well. For good measure, even third stringer Deborah Ross has experience, the senior having started seven matches as a sophomore in 2009.

In front of the keepers, junior Alissa Scott is likely the new leader of the backline after giving a good showing of herself last year. Also back are junior Emma Staley, who started every match for the club as a sophomore last year, and versatile junior Taylor Person, another two-year starter who can throw in the odd goal as well.

The Bobcats will be eager to show critics that they were more than a one woman team for the past few seasons after the departure of club legend Curry. If Michaud can recapture her scoring touch, the Bobcats could yet make a run at a trophy in 2011. If not, they’ll likely have to settle for a spot in mid-table.

You can’t help but get the feeling that there’s something promising bubbling under the surface at SAM HOUSTON STATE. The Bearkats got a bit of a late start to the whole soccer thing, only starting play in 2003 but have continued to make progress towards contender status in the Southland Conference. Much of that comes down to the direction of Head Coach Tom Brown who has led the program to three nine win seasons in a row in his first three years leading the Bearkats.

Program matriarch Marcia Oliveira had one very good season, but for the most part, the Bearkats were spinning their wheels near the bottom of the league during her tenure. Having been a long time coach at Division II Angelo State, Brown certainly knew the territory as he took over a program that had been to a Southland Conference Tournament final in 2005 but had done little else since its inception. Making the postseason in two of three seasons has things looking up in Huntsville, with 2010 looking like another step in the Bearkats upward curve.

After a tough 0-4 start to the season on an extended road trip, the Bearkats started to roar, including a fantastic 1-0 win over Sun Belt contender North Texas. SHSU started to heat up as conference play approached, going on a big stretch of seven wins in nine including a marquee conference win against Stephen F. Austin, winning 2-1 against a team that would finish at #67 in the final RPI. It made the following letdown in the final weekend of the regular season that much more disappointing, the Bearkats slipping to defeat at home against Texas-San Antonio and Texas State. The losses cost SHSU a potential bye in the first round of the Southland Tournament, and the Bearkats were dumped out at the first hurdle, bowing to Texas State for the second time in as many games.

But Brown and the Bearkats will be eager to put that failure behind them, because they’ve got a nice shot at making a dark horse run at the Southland title in 2011. That is if they cure their all too evident defensive failings. Sam Houston State’s “score one more than your opponent” style of play may have won them friends among neutrals, but it also went a way into undermining their success on the season. While the defensive numbers are skewed a bit by a 6-0 loss to TCU, this is still a squad that managed only one clean sheet in league play.

Making matters potentially worse is the fact that the Bearkats will be losing arguably the two most talented cogs in that defense in goalkeeper Jenny Pence and defender Nichole Watkins. The situation in goal looks especially tenuous, because one of Pence’s backups, Kelley Sikinger looks to be gone as well. The sudden void likely means that goalkeeping duties will probably fall on either senior Michele McCullough or redshirt freshman Mallory Garthwaite, neither of whom have seen extensive time in goal in college. McCullough has only seen mop-up duty in five matches, with Garthwaite having seen no action at all. Obviously, this is an area of major concern for SHSU.

On the backline, the team also takes an unexpected loss in Carly Rheman, who started nineteen matches as a freshman and was looking like a key piece of the future for Brown’s team. That leaves the returnees short on experience. Lindsey Posner is the elder stateswoman with two years of starting experience, but there’s little else around her. Kayla Anderson logged five starts but only played nine matches last season, while Gayle Ziegler racked up eleven starts last season and looks good for a starting spot. The team may also make use of Hillary Ackerman, a junior listed as a midfielder but who has started on defense for the Bearkats the past two seasons. Besides the freshmen, SHSU also adds Samford transfer Hailey Shelpuk, a seldom used transfer for the SoCon contenders.

If Brown can somehow extricate a competent defense out of last year’s strugglers and some new pieces, SHSU could be in business. That’s because the Bearkats feature an offense with much potential potency, especially in midfield. Kirby Zak has already established herself as one of the conference’s top young offensive talents and announced herself onto the Southland stage with a nine goal, ten assist freshman campaign in 2009. While her numbers dipped to five goals and three assists last year, that was partly because she had a new running mate to help out offensively in freshman Tricia Mallory. The Southland’s 2010 Freshman of the Year, Mallory was a revelation for SHSU in her first season in Huntsville, delivering eleven goals and four assists, with four strikes in league play to tie Zak for the team lead.

The midfield riches don’t stop there with sophomore Emily Edenstrom returning after a three goal, four assist campaign as a freshman. Additionally, the team also brings back experienced veterans Paige Rodriguez, and Deanna Long, both of whom have significant starting experience, meaning this could be one of the deepest units in the league.

Up front, the Bearkats may call on Natalie Johnson, another sophomore who did her damage in league play last year with three Southland goals. Rounding out the SHSU weapons is Amanda Biega, a junior who was more of a super sub, but who still had time for four assists in conference action and who could see an increased role in 2011.

Brown’s arsenal in Huntsville could very well be the envy of the conference if they continue to grow. Expectant fans would be wise to remember though that none of SHSU’s core are seniors in 2011, meaning the very best could be yet to come. But if Brown can coax anything approaching an average defense out of his charges this year, they might just get there ahead of schedule.

Head Coach Jimmy Mitchell is likely beginning to feel the heat at NORTHWESTERN STATE after the program missed out on the postseason for the second straight season. In truth, the rot had set in long before the failures of the past few seasons, as the Lady Demons haven’t won a match in the postseason since their 2005 Southland Conference Tournament title victory over Sam Houston State. Being outside of the title frame has been discomforting for Mitchell’s side who have won three Southland Tournament titles under his reign, including completing the double in 2000 as the school won their first and only regular season title.

But it’s been rough sledding ever since their last title triumph in 2005, and last year was the school’s worst since 2006 as the team slumped to a losing record and a woeful finish in the final RPI. The season started out with so much potential after a three match losing skid to open the season was countered with five wins in six. The lone loss in that stead could have easily been a win as the Lady Demons fell in a wild one to TCU, 4-3. But Mitchell’s charges just couldn’t get it going when Southland play rolled around. A 4-0 loss to powerhouse Stephen F. Austin set the tone, and a four match winless streak after a win over Sam Houston State put the team under pressure in the final two weeks of the season.

Going undefeated in three got the team back in the postseason picture, but they still needed results to swing their way after a beating by Southeastern Louisiana in the finale. Instead, they were pipped to sixth place by Lamar by a single point, meaning another long, hard winter in Natchitoches. The 2010 season marked the first time the program had finished under .500 since 2001 and has to raise questions as to whether the pack hasn’t just caught the once rampant Lady Demons but left them in the dust entirely.

Mitchell will feel confident of his side’s chances of reaching the Top Six in 2011 though with most of last year’s team returning. Sheer inexperience likely played a part in the Lady Demons’ inconsistent ways with roughly half the team being in their first season in college. The club’s only major loss to graduation is midfielder Sarah Sadler who had a bit of a down year by her standards after two reasonably productive seasons. Still, Sadler was a big contributor in midfield for the Lady Demons and filling that void will be key.

A more unexpected loss in the midfield is Pippi Haase, who scored three goals despite not starting a single game and only playing two hundred forty-nine minutes all year! Guyana sophomore Ashlee Savona was leading scorer with three goals and two assists and will likely be a focal point of the offense going into 2011 while potentially being shuttled around from midfield to forward. The team will also be hoping for a bounce back year from senior Rachel O’Steen who had nine assists in 2009 but tailed off to just five points last season. Marissa Lees could also feature after starting most of the club’s non-conference matches before missing the entire Southland slate.

Finding a more consistent outlet for goals will also be necessary for Northwestern State, as the clubs hasn’t properly replaced Chelsey Gibbs who signed off with nine goals as a senior in 2009. Fourteen different Lady Demons managed to put the ball into the back of the net, but nobody managed more than three goals all year. Senior Kayla King will be counted upon as she tries to rebound after diminishing results in each of her past three seasons. The team also gets back Meghan Hunter who had three goals and three assists before missing all of last season. Super subs Alexandria Jackson and Hailey Altenburg could also feature more after scoring twice each last year.

In one of the more improbable stat lines of last year, Lady Demon keeper Jessica Danku managed to score a pair of goals last season with her thundering boot, including a winner against Louisiana-Lafayette with less than a second left on a forty-five yard free kick. It should come as little surprise then that the sophomore is also listed as a forward on the roster, though the six footer is favored to win the starting job in goal over juniors Sam Furlow and Christian Marks.

Danku might have to be at her best in between the pipes with the backline in front of her. While the club does return starters Jade Theriot, Camerron Mason, and Danku’s twin sister, Shannon, depth looks very fleeting for the rearguard. The early losses of Kali Hellinghausen and Melodie Johnson, who would’ve both been juniors, doesn’t help in that regard. Danielle Harding, one of the team’s top reserves may be elevated into a starting role, or there may be early opportunities for Mexican U17 international freshman Alex Rios.

The Danku sisters are just two of a big wave of Canadians that Coach Mitchell has brought into the program to try and resurrect what was once a consistent title contender. The presence of Rios and English freshman forward Nicola Saunders also shows that the Lady Demons may be getting even more of a foreign touch in coming seasons. While there’s probably not enough talent here to suspect a possible return to the top of the table this year, the continuity from last year’s squad should ensure the Lady Demons a fighting chance of cracking the Top Six and a return to the postseason if they can just be a little more clinical in front of goal.

LAMAR were late starters to the whole D1 soccer thing, so you’ll forgive them for celebrating a 4-11-3 season in their fourth year of competition as a sign of progress. Despite totaling four wins for the third straight season, the Cardinals upped their final RPI for the fourth consecutive year and qualified for the postseason for the first time ever with a sixth-placed finish in the Southland Conference.

It didn’t look so promising at the beginning of the season when Lamar only managed to win one of their first eight matches. But once the focus turned to league play, the Cardinals upped their game. A win over basement dwellers Nicholls State was expected, especially with home advantage, but the following win against Southeastern Louisiana was perhaps the greatest win in program history when considering what their opponent did for the rest of the season.

Despite the strong start to their league season, the Cardinals tailed away towards the end going winless in their next six Southland matches. It put Lamar into a do or die situation on the last day of the regular season, needing to beat McNeese State and hope results elsewhere went their way for a chance at the sixth and final spot in the conference tournament.

They hardly could have left it later, blowing a lead twice, before getting in front for good in the eighty-seventh minute. Fate smiled their way, and Lamar headed to the conference tournament. That they were taken down by Texas-San Antonio at the first hurdle mattered little in the big picture. Little by little, the Cardinals are moving up in the college soccer world. That 0-18-0 record in their first season of existence in 2007 suddenly looks a relic further and further in the past.

The jump from edging into the postseason and contending for honors is a big one though. The Cardinals will have the benefit of getting most of their 2010 squad back, hoping that the team can build on last year’s growth. A side that was somewhat short on firepower when it counted, especially in league play, will be happy to see the return of Lisa Hance for one final season with the Cardinals. Hance was leading scorer on the season with five goals and a single assist. The senior will likely need to up her total if her side are to make a jump in the standings in 2011.

For that happen though, a secondary threat has to emerge. It might be Angie Guillory, who looks like one for the future after chipping in with four assists to lead the team in her freshman season. Brit Lisa Topping could also fill the role. She only scored a pair of goals last season but did have three goals and five assists as a freshman, so there’s some offensive ability waiting to come out there. Lorna Maudslay could also make an impact, having scored three goals in 2010. The former Doncaster Rover Belles player could also feature at the back if need be for the Cardinals.

In the midfield, the team returns starters Amber Thornhill and Jennifer Torry to the mix, the latter being another in Lamar’s international corps, hailing from British Columbia. Plenty of reserves also return to the team to scrap it out for one of the other starting spots, but on the whole, unless a newcomer comes in and adds a spark, this unit doesn’t look all that threatening offensively.

If the offense can increase their production, the defense should be solid enough to keep Lamar in contention in the Southland. The club does return junior Grace Bowman, who also had three assists in 2010, and senior Rachelle Barry, a three-year starter for the Cardinals. The team brings in its fair share of defensive recruits, which is a good thing because depth looks a little thin at the moment in the rearguard.

Senior goalkeeper Jennifer Gibbs, has rounded into a reliable keeper for Lamar despite a noticeable lack of size (5’4″). Her backups are still very young as just sophomores, but the team was able to get Kylie Robinett into the fore with three starts last season, so there’s not a complete lack of experience behind their senior leader in goal.

There’s no reason to think this group will suffer a steep decline, despite the loss of Bowman. Coach Dewi Hardman, who took over after the club’s winless inaugural season, has pulled out all the stops into trying to get Lamar into the upper echelon of the Southland Conference. Hardman’s international recruiting connections have paid off with an armada of Brits stocking the Cardinals’ roster, and one can only assume that more foreigners are on the way if Hardman has his way. Continued upward progress may be a bit slower to come for his team though. They don’t seem to have quite the capability in front of goal to trouble the top teams in the league consistently, meaning that Lamar will likely have to settle for fighting it out for one of the last spots in the conference tournament again in 2011.

CENTRAL ARKANSAS combined a rather formidable defense with an unfortunately punchless offense to finish three points out of the postseason in 2010 as they continued to spin their wheels in the lower realms of Division I. The Bears had settled into mid-table in the Southland in their first few years in the league but were ineligible for postseason play as a transitioning school.

Now clear to be eligible for postseason action as of the 2009 season, the Bears have found themselves struggling to break into the top six. Long serving Head Coach Tina Banham had overcome UCA’s short and uninspiring history in DII to turn the Bears into a reputable side just as the program decided to make the daunting move up to DI and a spot in the Southland Conference. While UCA looked to have no problems in acclimating to their new surroundings early on, the road got decidedly rockier beginning in 2008 as the program sank to the bottom of the league, only saved from the wooden spoon by the general ineptness of Nicholls State below them.

The Bears entered the new season coming off of a pair of one win seasons in the league and hoping for a move up the table into postseason contetnion. UCA were shambles early on in 2010, winning only one of their first five, against hopeless Alcorn State. But then the Bears rebounded for three straight wins, including a shock victory over Conference USA’s Tulsa by a 1-0 scoreline. A 3-0 defeat to SIU Edwardsville brought them back to Earth, and zero wins in their first four league matches drove them into the ground. The slow starters managed to go 2-2-1 over their final five Southland Conference matches, but it was just a bit too late to get the Bears into their first postseason as members of DI. 2010 marked the Bears’ fourth losing season in a row after having previously enjoyed five straight winning years under the stewardship of Tina Banham.

Banham’s task of squeezing out a winning year from this group doesn’t necessarily look any easier in 2011 either. While the squad only loses two seniors that played extensive minutes in midfielders Randi Condley and Kari Mars, a pair of early defections could prove much costlier. Amanda Jocz was one of only four Bears to start every match in 2010 and will be a big hole to fill on UCA’s backline which managed seven clean sheets last year. Also gone is utility player Brittany Kemper, who ended the season as joint scoring leader for a somewhat sluggish Bears offense. The player she shared that title with, Julie Foerster, returns for her senior year and will likely stand tall on defense once again. Literally. The defender is 5’11” and an imposing target for set pieces in addition to being a handful for opposing attackers to contend with due to her size.

Starters Caty McMains and Alexa Herbers also return, with Emma Reed and Sarah Correll among the contenders for a starting spot on that defense. Banham will likely be hoping that with all that experience, the defense can improve upon last year’s play and round into one of the league’s top units. In goal, junior Kelsey Gochnauer looks like the choice for the starting nod again after starting every match last season. Her backup is likely to be Northwood University transfer Lyndzey Goff, an Oklahoma native who thrived at the NAIA school in 2010.

In the midfield, Banham likely faces the most questions of any unit with some holes to fill. Junior Elizabeth Brady looks like the leader of the group after having started every match at UCA in her first two seasons with the club. Brady had a pair of assists last year, but her leadership will probably be valued above all other things this year. Canadian Carrissa Rossi is also a contender for a starting spot though she was limited to just eleven matches last season. Reserves Abigail Hodgson and Grace Purtle look like the most likely contenders to battle with the pick of this year’s recruits, Brooke Johnston, for the remaining starting spots.

Up front, Kristin Pollard managed three goals in a decent freshman campaign and will be hoping to up her total in 2011 as she might be the team’s go-to option at forward this year. UCA doesn’t seem to have is a reliable striker to knock them in though, a worry that has carried over from last season. Almost all of the Bears’ sources for goals in 2010 weren’t natural forwards, and as a result, the offense seemed to bog down at times. If a newcomer doesn’t come in and take the scoring reigns, it might be up to Alex Barnett, a sophomore who tallied two goals and two assists last year in eleven starts or Marissa Hicks, a senior who only started eight matches last year. If the goals aren’t coming, UCA will have to rely on its defense, which wasn’t at all bad when compared to the league’s top teams.

The returning experience on defense certainly bodes well in the hopes for further improvement and at least gives UCA what appears to be a decent shot in many matches in the league this year. With over half the teams in the Southland making the conference tournament every season, you’d have to say that the Bears at least have a puncher’s chance of making it to the postseason in 2011. But at the same time, you also get the sense that the program may still be searching for that attacking spark to get them to the next level.

It’s been a mystifying few years for MCNEESE STATE and head coach Scooter Savoie, as the Cowgirls have undergone a bizarre drop in form over the past few seasons. A program that reached three straight Southland Conference Tournament finals and collected one tournament and one regular season title suffered through one of their worst years in recent memory in 2010. League champions in 2007 and runners-up in 2008, the Cowgirls fell off a cliff in 2009, finishing in sixth but at the same time seeing their RPI plunge into the bottom fifty despite only a four match swing in the W-L-T record from a season before.

Though McNeese State still managed to qualify for the postseason (barely), it was still the club’s lowest league finish since 2006. There were also some seriously worrying signs like losses to SWAC sides Grambling and Southern along the way, giving many pause heading into the new year. A 7-0 defeat at Baylor was a foreboding omen, even though the team hammered Grambling, 8-0, in their next match, getting revenge for the previous year’s shock defeat. But a 6-0 loss to Houston triggered a four match losing streak including 4-0 and 5-1 reverses to Louisiana Tech and Ole Miss respectively.

A couple of wins over awful teams in their next three gave Cowgirl fans hope, as did four points in their first two conference matches, including a very good draw at home against Southeastern Louisiana. But McNeese State wouldn’t win another match all season, going winless in their final seven matches to slump to a ninth place finish in the Southland Conference. It marked the first time that the Cowgirls had missed out on the postseason since 2004. Perhaps more importantly, it marked the second straight year that McNeese State had failed to score a win total in double digits after three such years of reaching that plateau.

So will this be the season that Savoie arrests the slide of his program and gets it back amongst the contenders in the Southland? Tough to tell on initial glance. Without question, the team’s overriding problem was an utter lack of defense, although some of the non-conference losses tilted those numbers markedly. But even beyond the non-conference defeats, the Cowgirls were far from a lock solid unit in Southland Conference play, only keeping one clean sheet on the season, against lowly Nicholls State. Seven of the team’s twelve losses were by a single goal as well, meaning the bunch were likely missing a bit of killer instinct that wins titles.

With a few losses on defense, including the early departure of Megan Manus who tied for second on the team in assists with three last year, McNeese State may be depending on some of their freshmen to plug some holes. The club does get back starters Jordan Leinweaver and Callie Albright, the latter also having three assists last year. The team could also benefit from the return of Lauren LaLanne, who started every match in 2009 but was held to only one appearance off the bench last year.

There should be more than enough returning experience in goal this year. Senior Cassandra Read saw most of the action at the beginning of the season but eventually saw her minutes chopped by the emergence of junior Katie Seeber. Seeber should start out as the favorite to claim the starting job this year, but Read could be in line for serious minutes as well.

Savoie will cringe to see, Alana Clark, a midfielder who was a force for the team over the past four years, and Macie Jones, who excelled in a super sub role in 2010, depart this year. But Savoie can rejoice about the return of towering midfielder Audrey LaLanne, who had five goals in 2010, and sophomore Johna Germany, who was a revelation in her freshman season for the Cowgirls. Germany’s six goals and five assists made her the team’s points leader by some distance, and she’ll be eager to avoid a sophomore slump in 2011. It’s interesting to note though that neither Germany nor LaLanne tallied any of the team’s four game winning goals in 2010 though. Also back are juniors Megan Rogers and Rebekah DeJonghe, who could both be used to fill holes on defense as well. Sophomore Katilin Tue missed all of last season but had four assists in 2009 and could provide depth at either midfielder or defender.

Up front, Jordan Picou and Hannah Hopson will battle for time. The latter scored three goals and added two assists despite being limited to seven starts and eleven appearances overall last season. Another of the LaLannes, freshman Sarah, could also be a factor as a forward. The Cowgirls may need to score them by the hatful, because last season’s defense was porous to say the least. Perhaps one of Savoie’s legion of recruits can help out in that regard.

Despite minimal losses through graduation, the program is bringing through at least ten recruits for the new season, most of them listed as midfielders. Given Savoie’s track record with McNeese State, it’s difficult to believe the team could be as bad as in the two seasons past. A return to the conference tournament should be the minimal goal this year with some of the offensive talent on hand, but any early struggles may have some whispering that the current regime may be past it’s sell-by date.

Thanks to what would have to be truthfully classified as “creative” scheduling, NICHOLLS STATE emerged from 2010 with their highest win total of the five-year cycle, with six, or exactly half the total of the past four years combined. That probably gives you some kind of idea of what Nicholls State has been over the years, but if for some reason it doesn’t, consider this: The Colonels had gone a staggering 9-106-6 in league play from 1998-2009. That included last place finishes from 1998-2002 and again in 2008-2009.

Miraculously, Nicholls State has qualified for the postseason twice, although the first time in 1998 was strictly by default, as every school in the still embryonic Southland Conference gained entry. Since then, NSU has only been back in 2004 where they snuck in as sixth seeds and were trounced in the first round, 6-1. Unsurprisingly, there’s been a fair amount of upheaval in the hot seat in Thibodaux over the last decade or so.

The latest to try their hand at the job is Dylan Harrison, plucked away from DIII Sewanee after the 2008 season. With a middling record at the tiny program, the jury was out on whether the new coach would finally be the one to break the program’s long streak of futility. His first season in charge wasn’t exactly a revelation, with one point in league play and another finish near the bottom of the RPI. But last year, the Colonels broke into the Top 300 of the RPI for the first time since 2006, albeit not by much.

Then again, it’s not exactly rocket science to figure out just how they got there. The Colonels shamelessly scheduled SIX SWAC teams on their non-conference schedule. At least they had the decency to travel for four of those tilts. Even then, the Colonels managed to draw with Prairie View A&M in their season opener. Nicholls State also managed to beat Sun Belt doormat Louisiana-Monroe on the road as well. A real indicator of the Colonels talent level came in their one non-conference showdown with a team in the RPI Top 150, Louisiana Tech. They lost 8-0. If that didn’t put a damper on things before league play, nothing would.

When Southland play eventually started, it was nothing less than embarassing beating after embarassing beating for the Colonels. They lost their first six league matches by at least three goals while only scoring once. There was some damage control in the last three conference matches, but the Colonels only managed a solitary point in Southland play, taken from a season ending draw with Central Arkansas.

The challenge to improve for Nicholls State comes on two fronts in 2011. The Colonels have to fortify a defense that conceded twenty-four goals in nine league matches last season while also pumping up an offense that managed a single measly goal in Southland Conference play in 2010. While both seem like massive asks to complete over the course of just one offseason, the latter could prove more difficult after the loss of Kaity Mattsson to graduation. On paper, Mattsson came through with a mighty impressive goal haul in 2010 with twelve tallies and a pair of assists to boot. And then you realize that all but one of those games came out of conference play, against what could be called defenses in name only.

If Mattsson proved a shrinking violet in league play, her teammates could be accused of never blooming at all. Nobody else managed a goal in Southland Conference action, while only two other players even managed more than goal, even against mostly dodgy non-conference opposition. There is a fair degree of experience returning, with starter Kandice Champagne and key reserves Nicole Doherty and Alexandra Marino returning in 2011. The trio combined for five goals out of league play but will have to solve their woes against Southland foes if NSU are to succeed this year. Added to the mix is English freshman Claire Pitt, who played for Newcastle United before venturing to Louisiana.

In midfield, another Brit proving crucial to NSU’s hopes will be senior Sam Etherington, another Newcastle product who’s been one of the few constants for the program the past three seasons, being a starter since she was a freshman in 2008. Also back is Canadian senior Carolyn Noble, who led the team with five assists last season and started fourteen matches for the program. A wave of new recruits will battle some of the returnees for the remaining midfield spots.

Sophomore Meghan Lanteigne looks like the new leader of the defense which does return a fair share of starting experience from last season. The unit could be boosted by the return of Canadian Christina Bilczuk who started five games for NSU before being sidelined by a knee injury for the rest of the year. The situation is a little more stable in goal where fifth-year senior Molly Mersereau returns and will likely be in between the pipes again in her final season at NSU. The team also adds a pair of freshmen for depth, and in particular, massive Irish keeper Beth Cummins is one to watch for the future.

Besides Mattsson, the Colonels lose a starter each in defense and midfield but return a wildly bloated roster for this level, even though it’s been thinned out to a great degree over the offseason. Whether any of those players or the handful of recruits being brought in in 2011 can make a difference is anybody’s guess. Harrison certainly won’t be hurting for options to solve his team’s many problems. But it’s a long way out of the Southland basement for what looks like a long-term rebuilding project, and it’d be a miracle if this team got anywhere near the postseason in 2011.

Projected Order of Finish

* = Projected NCAA Tournament Automatic Bid Winner

*1. Southeastern Louisiana
2. Stephen F. Austin
3. Texas-San Antonio
4. Sam Houston State
5. Texas State
6. Northwestern State

7. McNeese State
8. Lamar
9. Central Arkansas
10. Nicholls State

Non-Conference Strength of Schedule Ranking (From Most to Least Difficult)

1. Texas-San Antonio
2. Stephen F. Austin
3. McNeese State
4. Sam Houston State
5. Texas State
6. Northwestern State
7. Lamar
8. Southeastern Louisiana
T9. Central Arkansas
T9. Nicholls State

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