(This is the first in a series of in-depth previews we’ll informally dub the ‘AWK 105’, of the clubs in the Big Seven conferences and a select group of mid-majors. Expect two of these a day for most days up to the beginning of the season, with smaller conference previews dispersed in there as well. A fair sized portion of the ‘club history’ section of each preview are from last season’s previews, but the reviews of last year’s season and the personnel previews are from scratch.)
In a sense, you could say that Villanova’s 2011 season took a sharp turn on September 9 when the club lost a high profile derby at PPL Park to Ivy League side Penn. It was the first of six straight losses that would ultimately doom the Wildcats’ season and raise more questions about the direction of the program after a second straight losing campaign.
John Byford has certainly enjoyed a bit of a topsy-turvy start to his career as Wildcats boss through four seasons in Philadelphia. The ex-Loyola (MD) supremo came to the Wildcats with rather big shoes to fill in the wake of Ann Clifton’s sudden departure after the 2007 season. Clifton was the architect of much of Villanova’s success over the years with five NCAA Tournament appearances in six years, a trip to the Sweet Sixteen in 2003, and a Big East Tournament title in the same year. A .649 winning percentage in the regular season and a .585 winning percentage in Big East play showed that Byford had some way to go to convince the Villanova faithful that he was the right man for the job.
It was a bit of a rough transition between coaches in 2008 as Byford’s Wildcats suffered through their first losing Big East campaign since 2000 and missed out on the Big East Tournament for the first time since 2000 as well. Needing a rebound season in 2009, Byford got just that with seven matches unbeaten to open the year, including a big win over Virginia Tech. Nova’s Big East form was still erratic, but the Wildcats did just enough to slip in the back door of the NCAA Tournament, their first appearance in the Big Dance since 2006. 2010 would be an injury riddled campaign though, that was testing on many levels, with the club battling bravely but ultimately unsuccessfully on most days. Byford’s side would finish dead last in the league, with the twelve losses suffered overall the most for the program since 1992.
With basically nowhere to go but up coming into 2011, Villanova started out a house afire in the early weeks of the new season. After a draw at home with James Madison, Nova won their next four, including a big win against Georgia on the road in late August. A creditable draw at a strong William & Mary side early in September likely had Wildcat fans dreaming about the NCAA Tournament, with their 4-0-2 start making Villanova look like one of the surprise teams of the season. But the aforementioned loss to Penn and the subsequent losing streak dragged Nova back to Earth in a hurry. The club would lose five of those six games by just a single goal, but the offense was dead in the water, scoring just a pair of goals in that six match stretch.
Byford’s team wasn’t about to roll over though and proceeded to rally in stunning fashion, the offense exploding for thirteen goals in their next five matches, four of which ended in victory. The highlight was a 4-1 drubbing of eventual double winners West Virginia, a result that rekindled fading postseason hopes. But a defeat on the penultimate day of the regular season meant that Nova had to beat Georgetown on the final day to assure themselves of a spot in the postseason. Anything less would mean they could be bounced by results elsewhere going against them.
Rutgers’ draw with Seton Hall essentially meant that all Byford’s side needed against the Hoyas was a draw. They didn’t get close. The Wildcats found themselves suffering their worst loss since 1997, as Georgetown brought VU’s season to a thudding conclusion with a 6-0 beating. Now four years into Byford’s tenure, Villanova has missed out on the postseason two straight seasons and has just one NCAA Tournament appearance to show for their efforts. The pressure may be beginning to mount in Philadelphia.
Given the recent struggles, Byford quite likely enters the season on the hot seat, and nothing less than a return to the Big East Tournament may do for the Villanova head coach. It’s less than encouraging then to see that the club loses four senior starters from last year’s squad, with the big, glaring loss being goalmouth predator Katie Ryan, one of the nation’s most impressive forwards over the past four seasons. After having scored at least eight goals in all three seasons heading into 2011, Ryan outdid herself, adding twelve more to her career total in her final season.
As you might expect, Villanova’s problems weren’t really focused on the offensive side of the ball. Though they weren’t necessarily great, they were comfortably above average going forward. Defensively? Not so great. The club gave up twenty-two league goals, or two a game. That mark was third worst in the league and a very telling reason as to why Villanova went without the postseason once more. Considering the offense will undoubtedly feel the sting of losing Ryan, getting the rearguard up to snuff will be paramount for the Wildcats’ hopes this season.
The Wildcats would appear to be set in goal with the return of junior Jami Kranich to the fold. That does come with a catch though. Kranich has forced her way into the U.S. U20 team setup over the past year and appears to have all but locked up a spot on the roster for the upcoming U20 World Cup in Japan. Naturally, this means she’ll probably miss at least the first month of the season. Having won the starting job as a true freshman and carried on with her duties faithfully last year, Kranich will be a big loss when she’s away for international duty.
The big question now is who fills in for her while she’s away. Senior Kelsey Quinn would appear to be the favorite, with a fair degree of relief experience, though injuries to others have forced her into a role as a field player at times. Having not played at all last season though, one wonders if Quinn will be rusty in between the sticks. The club also adds in true freshman Tracy Rendano, but her addition will do little to solve the club’s inexperience problem in goal. Once Kranich returns though, this group should be fine…it’s just a question if any serious damage will be done by her absence in goal.
A lack of depth and a lack of a standout figure equaled troubles for the Villanova rearguard that was all too pliable last season. While neither aspect seems to have changed too appreciably over the break, Nova should still be in a little better shape with most of its personnel returning on this unit. The lone exception appears to be full-back Megan Verdeur, who started every match for the club last season. Verdeur had been a playmaker type on the frontline for much of her collegiate career going into last year but was shifted into defense out of necessity and ended up being steady enough to keep a starting spot for the whole season. She still showed some offensive instincts though, chipping in with four assists.
Junior Taylor Houck is the likely lynchpin this season in defense and is capable in either central defense or on the flanks, though she seems likelier to occupy the former this year. Houck began her career at Nebraska but transferred before the 2010 season and has been crucial here ever since. Also adept on corner kicks, Houck racked up four assists in 2010. Junior Alexa Carugati made a successful return from injury last year after missing all of 2010. Carugati had looked a fine prospect as a rookie before going down with injury and should be better this year another season removed from being hurt.
Victoria Gersh, recruited as a midfielder, was shoehorned into a full-back role last season and ended up starting thirteen games. The Maryland native should continue here again, though losses in midfield make a shift a possibility as well. Sophomore Kaitlin Hogman missed a big chunk of league play towards the end of the year, but the utility defender still made nine starts on the year and should be plugged into a role that needs filling this year if she’s healthy. Depth is a little in question though, with squad players and unheralded freshmen likely to make up the numbers. In short, this unit doesn’t look great, but continuity and experience should see room for a little improvement if everyone stays off the training table.
This unit will take some rebuilding after the loss of starters Katy Nagy and Erin Ryan. Part center-back, part defensive midfielder, Nagy was a versatile asset throughout her Villanova career and closed it out last year with three assists to her name from the midfield. Ryan, no relation to Katie Ryan, began her college career as a full-back on both flanks before moving further up the pitch before her senior season. The pacey Pennsylvanian struggled with injuries for parts of her career but stayed healthy last year, starting all of the club’s games, though her offensive impact was limited to one goal and two assists.
A more unexpected loss is that of freshman Bryana Gold, thought of as one of the best prospects from the state of Georgia last season but who ended up being little more than a key reserve last year. Gold transferred to Auburn after the season, cutting into the club’s depth at this unit. Also gone is Channing Press, a grinder in midfield who missed all but the club’s first six games as a sophomore last year. Returning sophomore Stephanie Myers redshirted in 2010 after being injured early, and the Downingtown native was worth the wait for Villanova after an electric season for the club. Two goals against Georgia in August were a warning sign to the rest of the league, and five more strikes followed, including two against Louisville, while Myers also added five assists. With so much change around her, Myers will be counted on for both offense and leadership this season from the midfield.
Sophomore Amanda Penkrot was one of the best of a relatively disappointing crop of rookies last year, starting ten matches as a freshman. Penkrot can either help steady the ship in midfield or play in the backline, which could be useful considering the club’s lack of depth there. Returnees providing depth include senior Lauren McCoy, who struggled for minutes last season after missing all of 2010, and sophomore Katie Sanquist, who ended up a decent option off the bench despite being one of the club’s least touted recruits.
Junior Kendra Jones will also be back in the game after sitting out last season following a transfer from American. Jones started every game in her final season with the Eagles and was good for a few goals while also being able to provide depth up front as well. Added to the group is freshman Rhea Barghash, another versatile option either in midfield or up from who is strong in the air and has been a mainstay in the Region I ODP team while also playing for marquee club PDA. Myers is a potential star and could grow into one of the league’s best midfielders, but the group around her is unproven, making this unit full of question marks heading into 2012.
Ryan obviously casts a huge shadow as she leaves Villanova, finishing third in goals and points all-time for the club but perhaps more importantly, first all-time in game winning goals with fifteen. Ryan wasn’t one with explosive pace, but she was one of the deadliest finishers with the ball at her feet in the penalty area and showed it last year with twelve goals to her name. Ryan began the year on fire, with goals in the club’s first six games before a mini-slump that was broken in style with six goals in the club’s final seven games. Ryan’s finest hour arguably came against West Virginia, where she had a hand in all four goals, scoring two and setting up the other two in the shock 4-1 win. It speaks volumes that only two clubs kept her without a shot on goal all season.
So who steps up to replace her? A good bet is senior Heidi Sabatura, herself a rising star with the Wildcats. The 2009 Big East Rookie of the Year, Sabatura stormed to fourteen goals and thirteen assists in her first two seasons with the club before another strong season last year with six goals and six assists. Sabatura has been eerily consistent through three seasons, but she’s now likely the club’s lead gun up front, which carries with it a whole new set of responsibilities and expectations. If she handles it with aplomb, ten goals or more are certainly possible.
Depth is a huge worry though, with little behind her. Sophomores Kelly Mahoney and Caitlin Forte both saw plenty of time off the bench last year while both also featuring as starters twice. Neither scored though, and both still have it all to do to prove they can cut it at this level. More depth comes from senior Colleen Lineweaver, a walk-on born in the U.S. but raised in large part in Australia. Lineweaver played sparingly last season but could see more minutes with Ryan’s departure. One to watch from the freshman class is Reanna Marino, a forward who excels with her back to goal and could be key in holding up play for the frontline this season. Sabatura’s a fine centerpiece, but you don’t lose someone like Ryan and expect to get better right off the bat, meaning this group could take a step back this year.
Byford’s feet may well be held to the fire in Philadelphia as doubts begin to increase over the direction of the Wildcats. To have failed so spectacularly over the past few seasons in the Big East despite having a weapon like Katie Ryan at their disposal is hardly the best of omens, and though injuries have eaten this team alive, questions about the construction of the team leading to the lack of depth have to be asked. It leads to a potential do-or-die season for the current regime, with things not likely to be easy without Ryan to lean on up front and without Kranich for the first month of the season in all likelihood.
The defense has experience but may not be appreciably better than last season, while the midfield looks like a one-woman show at the moment. Up front, Sabatura is quality, but what surrounds her only raises more questions. Despite bringing in a good many rookies, most of the class looks nondescript, meaning it’ll likely be up to the returnees to help fuel a postseason run. But odds are, the Wildcats will likely be scratching and clawing for one of the last spots in the Big East Tournament this season, with failure a potential death knell for the current regime.