The road to San Diego starts here. Yes, it’s that time again, where we speculate as the buildup to the new season percolates. Stay tuned to AWK over the next two months for team previews, league previews, predictions, and pre-season All-American picks among other things. Detailed team previews of the big conference schools (and some top mid-majors) begin tomorrow, with two a day until the beginning of the season. Until then, here are some talking points to pass the time.
1. Can Stanford Win It All Again?
Paul Ratcliffe’s side need only look at the perils of last season’s Notre Dame team to see how hard it is to defend a national title. And that’s before you factor in the loss of four starters from last year’s title winning team. The Card offense has some serious question marks hanging over it after the loss of Lindsay Taylor as the spearhead, Teresa Noyola as the supply line, and Kristy Zurmuhlen as the energy in the middle. Sophomore Chioma Ubogagu certainly looked the part as the club’s next big offensive threat last year, with her hypnotic dribbling and assured finishing adding much to the Stanford arsenal. But she’ll be missing for the first month of the season for the U20 World Cup in all likelihood, and you question what Stanford has in reserve.
Marjani Hing-Glover has certainly dazzled in stretches but does not seem to be a leading scoring option, while the likes of Alex Doll and the Payne twins have done little to justify lofty reputations coming into Palo Alto. The solution may ultimately be at the feet of junior Courtney Verloo, returning after missing 2011 through injury. Verloo played in defense in 2010, but it’s difficult to imagine her not shifting back into the attack given the paucity of proven options in the frontline.
With those worries, Stanford might be doing it with defense this year. While the loss of AWK Defender of the Year Cami Levin is a titanic blow, the Card return otherwise intact, with seniors Alina Garciamendez and Rachel Quon likely to push for All-America honors. To that group, Stanford adds blue chip freshmen Laura Liedle and Maya Theuer, both of whom could be immediate factors on the backline. Bizarrely, junior goalkeeper Emily Oliver has found herself out of favor with the U20 team despite being age eligible for the upcoming U20 World Cup, but her loss is Stanford’s gain, as the star stopper will again be an important figure for what looks like a potentially outstanding defense. That defense could lead Stanford back to a College Cup once more, but the question marks over their attack mean this club is far from a lock to make it to San Diego in December.
2. Is It Duke’s Year?
It certainly looks that way on paper, doesn’t it? The Blue Devils return an almost unheard of eleven starters from last year’s runner-up team and look to be relatively unscathed from the U20 World Cup, with the lone loss, albeit a big one, being Mollie Pathman, forward for club, full-back for country. Once Pathman gets back, Duke should have a scintillating attack, with a three-headed monster consisting of herself, Kelly Cobb, and Laura Weinberg aiming to terrorize opposing defenses. When you add in the marauding Kaitlyn Kerr from the midfield, Duke should be able to score goals for fun, even in the notoriously difficult ACC.
The defense should be top notch again, with last year’s defensive revelation, Natasha Anasi, back to control the game from her center-back spot after last year’s All-American season. Starting keeper Tara Campbell returns as well and should again be one of the best in the nation, helping a defensive unit which should be one of the stingiest in the country. A strong recruiting class adds even more depth to the defense and midfield, giving Church, who has historically built some very deep squads, even more weapons to utilize in the Blue Devils’ push for a national title.
So, any reasons why Duke could be felled in that push? Well, let’s just say it’s a little unusual for Duke to be in the role of the hunted instead of the hunter with the North Carolina juggernaut just down the road. Not many expected the Blue Devils to be in the national title game when the season started last year, which certainly won’t be the case heading into 2012. Church’s side will have a bullseye a mile wide on their back going into the new year, and how they cope with it will likely be the difference between glory and tears come the end of this season.
3. Can College Soccer Royalty Top The Throne Once More?
The latter stages of last year’s NCAA Tournament made for some strange viewing for long-time fans of the sport. Nowhere to be found in the Elite Eight were North Carolina and Notre Dame, the two most prestigious programs in women’s college soccer. UNC had been bounced in disappointing fashion a round earlier by UCF on penalties, while the Irish had had a dire season by their standards, going out meekly to Illinois in the opening round of the tournament. The question now is if both can prove that last season was just a bump in the road or if there are stormier days ahead for these two titans.
On paper, North Carolina would appear to be better off in the short-term, with a talented squad being buttressed by a top notch recruiting class. The Heels lose just one senior starter in Courtney Jones while adding scores of talented rookies. There’s just one rather onerous problem for UNC: many of those talented newcomers, along with a sizable chunk of the most talented returners, will be absent for the U20 World Cup in Japan the first month of the season (and for the U17 World Cup later on in the season in Summer Green’s case).
Most of the worries probably rest up front in attack for UNC, where the club finds itself without the graduated Jones and the Japan bound Crystal Dunn, Kealia Ohai, and newcomer Lindsay Horan. The Heels could have a dynamite attack once everyone is back, but who exactly is going to score in the meantime? The likes of Amber Brooks and Megan Brigman have been mooted as options up front, while senior Alyssa Rich may also be leaned on. There’s no question that head coach Anson Dorrance has an immensely talented squad at his disposal. A squad that could perhaps even challenge for a national title if Dorrance can gel all those parts together by the end of the season. But considering the comings and goings over the course of the season, that’s a very big ‘if’ indeed.
At first glance, Notre Dame’s situation looks a bit more fraught. Gone are three quarters of the team’s backline last year, two to graduation and Kecia Morway having departed the team after last season as well. Midfield stalwart Courtney Barg graduates after another injury affected season, while junior Mandy Laddish figures to be among those missing time for the U20 World Cup. Most pressing perhaps is the void up front, where Melissa Henderson, the team’s goalscoring talisman these past four years, graduates. The expectation last season was that rookie Lauren Bohaboy, a phenom at youth level, would be able to come in and be an immediate factor in attack. Bohaboy showed flashes of being something special, but she wasn’t an automatic starter and ended up with just six goals as a freshman, not a bad tally by any means, but certainly not enough to make you think that she’ll be able to seamlessly fit into Henderson’s shoes.
The club adds another youthful maestro up front this year in Cari Roccaro, part of another fantastic recruiting class brought in by head coach Randy Waldrum and his staff. The problem is that Roccaro will likely be joining Laddish at the U20 World Cup for the first month of the season, and there’s no telling how smooth she’ll transition to the college game as a freshman having missed preseason camp. Add in some continued worries about the club’s goalkeeping situation, which features a bushel of options but no standouts at the moment, and it’s no guarantee that the Irish will rise to prominence this season. Counting Waldrum out is hard to do though, and the club still does have enough raw talent to cause some waves if the boss plays his cards right.
4. Just How Much Chaos Will The U20 World Cup (and U17 World Cup) Cause?
Short answer? Lots. Long answer? We aren’t even sure of the total ramifications. On a large scale, there is going to be more than one team feeling the sting of having one or more of their best players absent for at least a month of the season, with no guarantees on fitness or motivation once they return. That loss of talent could, at best, leave some big teams underseeded come NCAA Tournament time thanks to the early RPI hit, meaning we could be in for a very upset laden Big Dance. At worst, those RPI hits might be too much to overcome for some teams near the bubble, leading to one or two unexpected omissions from the NCAA Tournament.
With final rosters not due for a while and final selections for teams outside of the U.S. very much up in the air, it’s still a little hard to judge who is going to be hit hardest by the competition. The likes of Stanford, Notre Dame, Santa Clara, and UCLA are among those looking like losing at least two players to the tournament, but eyes will likely be trained most on the fortunes of North Carolina and Virginia. The Heels will be without a veritable armada of talent, with Crystal Dunn, Bryane Heaberlin, Lindsey Horan, and Kealia Ohai all likely to make the final U.S. U20 roster, while Katie Bowen will likely be on New Zealand’s. Additionally, Summer Green, a star of CONCACAF U17 World Cup qualifying, will likely be absent later in the season for the U17 World Cup. It could equal a selection nightmare for the Heels and coach Anson Dorrance as he tries to gel together a contender. Virginia doesn’t lose as many players, likely seeing defender Olivia Brannon and midfielder Morgan Brian gone for the tournament, but they do lose their head coach, Steve Swanson. Swanson will have undoubtedly left meticulous instructions to his assistants in his absence, but the it’ll be very interesting to see if the squad becomes unsettled without their boss to start the new season.
5. New Faces in New Places…Which Coaches and Teams Will Have The Biggest Effect In Their New Environment?
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past season, you’re probably aware of the massive changes within the college athletics world as the big conferences have tried to consolidate power with new members, while other conferences have scrambled to try and keep from being left in the dust. Though next season promises to be an even bigger year for conference movement, this season still brings about some big changes. Here are three schools worth watching in their new homes:
1. West Virginia (from Big East to Big XII)
With Texas A&M leaving for the SEC and Oklahoma State going through a serious transition process after the loss of half of last year’s starting lineup, there’s apt room for someone to sweep in and try to fill the void at the top. When one of those someones includes the reigning Big East double winners, you’d have to say there’s certainly intrigue in the air. The Mountaineers shouldn’t be lacking in motivation after last season’s shocking exit in the NCAA Tournament and return a fantastic squad with the likes of Canadian international defender Bry McCarthy, midfield maestro Bri Rodriguez, and talented young striker Kate Schwindel. While the defense needs some serious retooling after the loss of three senior starters, head coach Nikki Izzo-Brown has built West Virginia into a club that reloads rather than rebuilds, with the Mountaineers looking to begin a winning Big XII legacy this season.
2. Texas A&M (from Big XII to SEC)
A club that didn’t totally gather itself until league play started after some trying times early in the year, the Aggies were back to their usual selves, for better or for worse, by the end of the 2011 season. A&M were able to flex their muscles against most of their beleaguered Big XII opposition but again were found lacking when the chips were down in the NCAA Tournament, crashing out in the second round to Virginia Tech. The Aggies are bringing a whole lot of firepower with them to the SEC though. The sophomore scoring duo of Kelley Monogue and Annie Kunz combined for a mouth watering thirty-three goals and sixteen assists as rookies last year and are moving to a league where many defenses aren’t exactly stout in their constitution. It will be interesting to see how the Aggies, and their SEC brethren, deal with the marathon league season, along with their fortunes in the NCAA Tournament, a competition in which they’ve underachieved greatly in in recent years. One thing’s for sure: A&M couldn’t have asked for an easier league schedule, with all the contenders coming to College Station and into one of the most intimidating atmospheres in college soccer.
3. Missouri (from Big XII to SEC)
Is a change of conference scenery all that’s needed for these Tigers? Missouri, once one of the Big XII’s top teams, has fallen on hard times as of late, and sixth in the Big XII last season was hardly what was desired for a club that has never seemingly recovered from the indignation of winning the Big XII in 2008, only to be left out of the NCAA Tournament. It’s been a plain struggle since then for Bryan Blitz’s program. The Tigers have often won the recruiting races in Spring, only to be let down come the Fall by their underachieving talent. Last year, the club managed to tighten up their comically bad defense of 2010, but they still leaked too many goals and didn’t score nearly enough to vault them to the top of the pile in the Big XII. This year will undoubtedly bring new challenges for the Tigers, but if Missouri’s season ends in heartbreak as it has the past few campaigns, serious questions may be asked about the direction of the once flourishing program.
Adding to the conference shuffle turmoil is a massive undercurrent of coaching changes in the DI ranks. There have been thirty-eight seats that have changed hands over the offseason in an unusually brisk environment for coaching changes…and that’s not even factoring in the four coaching slots that are still vacant at Delaware State, Lamar, Minnesota, and Western Illinois. Here are three new coaches to watch for 2012:
1. Brian Pensky (Tennessee from Maryland)
He worked near miracles at Maryland, and he’s not inheriting a situation nearly as bad as the one in College Park when he moved into that job a while back. Pensky’s Maryland teams were often dynamic in front of goal and combative all over the pitch, which should endear him greatly to the Lady Vols faithful. Tennessee should return a young defense intact, and while the club must replace the likes of Emily Dowd from the attack, Pensky bringing in New Zealand international attacker Hannah Wilkinson, once a commit for him at Maryland, is a massive boon. In a league where the offensive arms race always seems to be increasing hurriedly, the thought of Wilkinson teaming up with returnee Caroline Brown could give opposing coaches insomnia. Though the coaching change was a shock to the system, the arrival of fresh and accomplished blood could go some way in averting a hangover from last season’s dismal NCAA Tournament exit.
2. Matt Potter (Oklahoma from Washington State)
Oklahoma has always been a program that has seemingly dreamed big and achieved little in the world of college soccer. The latest flash of hope with the Sooners proved to be a flash in the pan, as Oklahoma slid back to their usual inconsequence last season. It’s perhaps a little fitting then that the club tabbed Potter, a coach who has shown a habit of making the most out of little, as their next savior. Potter did very well to assemble some credible squads in Pullman, a place that is notoriously hard to recruit to, tapping into a deep Canadian pipeline to bring in some of the country’s top talent. Last year’s Washington State squad was doggedly tenacious on defense, and Potter will be looking to assemble a similar squad in Norman this year. He might have his work cut out for him, with the Sooners having given up over two goals a game in league play last year. Potter certainly doesn’t shy away from challenges though, and OU could be a lot more competitive early on than some give them credit for.
3. Danny Sanchez (Colorado from Wyoming)
Some might be prone to argue that Sanchez is still living off a reputation built as the maestro in charge of some fabulous Metro State squads in the lower realms of college soccer, but what a reputation! He parlayed it into the Wyoming job a few seasons back and showed signs of slowly bringing the Cowgirls up to snuff, culminating with a trip to the Mountain West Tournament final last season. Heavily favored to take over the CU job from the minute it became open, Sanchez duly accepted the task of bringing a program that had been lurching around the Big XII and Pac-12 since a shock first round NCAA Tournament loss to South Dakota State in 2008. While the Buffs are still a side with the problems of a club that went 4-13-2 last season, they also have something many clubs in such a position don’t have: a bonafide potential star. Amy Barczuk has been winning rave reviews for some time now and has featured at youth international levels for the U.S. and could be a spark in either defense or attack for Sanchez’s new look Buffs. She and Sanchez will be looking for an instant turnaround, though such a feat in the Pac-12 looks to be easier said than done.