AWK’s 2012 NCAA Soccer Preview – DI Independents Preview

It was a turbulent fifth season in Division I for Cal State Bakersfield. The Roadrunners had already been dealt a severe blow by another rejection from the Big West in the offseason when head coach Nicole Van Dyke left for an assistant position at Stanford in the Spring. The vastly inexperienced Melissa Phillips was promoted to the lead chair from her assistant coaching job but found little joy in her first season in charge as the Roadrunners slumped to an awful 2011 season. After a steady string of seasons where Bakersfield consolidated their status as a growing DI program, much of that progress was washed away last year in a torrent of losses.

The season didn’t start off too horribly, with Bakersfield winning two of five, including a nice victory over a San Jose State team some thought could challenge for a WAC title. But defeats started to pile up on the roadrunners, though they ran teams like Denver and Colorado close, even away from home. A draw against UC Santa Barbara was another positive result, but by the end of the season, the defense was shattered, and the Roadrunners began to ship goals like they were going out of style, conceding three or more in six of their last eight. They lost seven of their last eight to rack up a 3-14-1 season, falling almost a hundred places in the final RPI.

The late coaching change obviously could’ve played a major role in some of the downturn in fortunes, but it was still difficult to fathom such a slide down the rankings. The offseason brought no news of Bakersfield’s long wait for conference affiliation ending, meaning the Roadrunners will once again be in for a nomadic season facing opponents of all stripes. It’s hoped that Phillips and the Roadrunners will be a little better prepared for the challenges facing them with a little less turbulence this offseason.

Bakersfield entered last season losing five heavy contributors from the 2010 season, another quite feasible reason that they might have struggled so much in 2011. The Roadrunners face another tough season of attrition this year though, as the club sees a quarter of players who started nine games or more head for the exit after graduation. Losses or no, Phillips knows that her Bakersfield side has to do a much better job in defense if they want to look respectable this season. It wasn’t just giving up twenty more goals last year than in 2010, it was the manner in how they were conceded, which was like death by a thousand cuts. The Roadrunners weren’t given any truly horrific beatings, never giving up more than four goals in a single game, but the defense almost never held firm, with the club keeping just a single clean sheet the whole season, in one of the club’s three wins against Southern Utah in the third match of the year. Such a statistic is hardly encouraging for a coach who still has to prove she isn’t out of her depth at this level.

Cal State Bakersfield’s situation in goal doesn’t exactly make for pretty reading if you’re a Roadrunners supporter. CSUB graduates the only keeper with any experience on the roster in Kym Gause, who played every minute in goal for the club last season. After an impressive one-year stint at Modesto JC in 2008, Gause came to Bakersfield and took up the role of starting goalkeeper for the next three seasons. Gause had the unenviable task of being the Roadrunners’ last line of defense last season, with the keeper being forced into ninety-five saves by her threadbare defense. The only keeper on the roster as of press time was Tori Ornela, who didn’t feature for a single minute as a rookie last year. As you might expect, this is a big worry for Phillips and co.

The rearguard offered little to shout about last season, but they’ll get a chance at redemption at the very least with just about everyone coming back for the new campaign. The lone loss is that of graduated senior Breanna Flores, a key reserve for the side for three seasons before stepping up to start nine matches a season ago. Phillips chopped and changed the defense to a great degree last season, but the one constant was senior Raquel Gervas, the likely leader of the line in 2012. After a couple of years in and out of the starting XI, Gervas became the one unshakable plank of the defense last year, starting all but one match for the club.

Fifth-year senior Daisy Vazquez was another who saw major minutes last year and started the season with three assists in four matches after missing the season opener against New Mexico. Much of the rest of the defense is still quite young, with Taylor French, Sarah Cook, and Becca Ellis still just sophomores. Also keep an eye out for rookie Alexandra Lindberg, a Swede who played for AIK with pace and technical ability who represented Finland at numerous youth international levels.

Despite the loss of a starter and a key reserve, Bakersfield has room for nice improvement in the midfield thanks to some big additions. The starting loss is that of Jessica Fogeltanz, another JUCO success story for the Roadrunners after coming in following two very successful years at Ventura College. She picked up right where she left off at Bakersfield, becoming a key cog in the midfield the past two years, scoring two goals with an assist last year in seventeen starts.

The team’s best midfield returner comes from a long way away in Dallas, Georgia, but Emily Noethe turned heads as a rookie last year with three goals and two assists, including one of each in the 4-2 win over San Jose State. The highest hopes may be with two newcomers though. UC Santa Barbara Erica Shelton will have two years of eligibility remaining, with the Roadrunners probably happy she’s on their side after she scored against them in a 2011 meeting. Shelton is equally capable of pulling the strings and scoring goals and could be a real boon for Phillips. Also coming in is Swede Sonja Ericsson, a towering 5’10” prospect playing for Tyreso FF and a former U16 international who could slot in in defense as well. This group is young but has a lot of potential and looks like the biggest strength of the club by far.

Bakersfield must find a replacement for graduated senior Karli Massey, a player usually good for a few goals over the past four seasons who signed off with three last year, including a brace and the game winner against Southern Utah. She also possessed a ludicrous disciplinary record, getting booked seven times in seventeen games last year, including in four straight matches at one point! Without her, the goalscoring likely falls to the feet of senior Sam Pena. Pena has been a solid performer for three seasons and had hoped to build on a sophomore season with six goals to her name. She’d slide back to four goals but would grab the game winning strikes in two of the club’s three wins, with braces against San Jose State and Drake.

Junior Taylor Jordan scored two goals in the club’s last five last year and could feature again after thirteen starts. Junior Tyler Shirk regressed a bit after a promising freshman season and will be battling for minutes amongst a group that includes newcomer Megan Todd, a big target forward from East Anglia in England who’ll be looking to bull her way towards goal this year. Despite the loss of Massey, this group could be in decent shape if Pena keeps scoring and others, including Todd, step up.

How exactly do you assess a team like Bakersfield, now one of just two remaining independent programs at Division I level? It’s not easy, and getting to .500 would be a serious accomplishment, but at the least, the Roadrunners have to do much better than last season’s bleak 3-14-1 season. Seattle has shown that independents can be respectable given decent resources and support, and even Longwood out east has proven to be a match for many smaller regional foes.

Bakersfield showed that potential in spurts last year, but bookended them with far too many breakdowns. Phillips will obviously be hoping a set of intriguing additions are the solution to CSUB’s woes, and if they come through, the Roadrunners should at least have a great chance at doubling their win total from last year. But nothing’s guaranteed, and the jury is still very much out on Phillips as she begins her second year in charge of the program.

Francis Marion‘s difficult life as one of the few remaining nomadic independent’s in DI soccer continued unabated, as the club slumped to a 4-13-1 record, it’s RPI dipping for the fifth straight season. FMU, a program that just a few years ago could pride itself on having enjoyed back-to-back ten win seasons and cracking the Top 200 in the RPI has sunk further and further in the rankings and was near the dreaded three hundred mark at the end of the 2011 season.

It wasn’t always this way for the Patriots who were once a solid team in Division II in the Peach Belt Conference, winning a few trophies and making the NCAA Tournament on a couple of occasions in their lower classification. As the team made a transition to DI, coach Marty Beall had FMU in a position to be somewhat competitive, finishing with a record over .500 in both 2006 and 2007. When Beall left after the 2008 season to take over the High Point program, much of the Patriots’ mojo seemed to leave with him. Joel Person, an assistant on the school’s men’s team, took charge and has struggled to make an impact in three seasons since. 2011 began with a bit of optimism after FMU managed to beat their former boss, toppling High Point, 2-1.

The Patriots would go 2-2-1 over their next five, including a win over a Winthrop side that finished with twelve wins on the season. But with precious few home games and the haphazard scheduling that goes along with being an independent, FMU hit the skids for the second half of the season. The goals dried up abruptly, with the Patriots suffering through a streak of six matches without a goal. Then, in the final few weeks of the season, the defense collapsed, giving up twenty-one goals in five matches to close out another miserable season. It was a year that ended with ten straight losses against DI opponents and surely had some within the program asking some tough questions about the general direction of the program.

Said direction figures to be changing entering 2012 though, with the abrupt resignation of Person in the Spring. The sudden shock of the decision threw a program already not enjoying the best of times into further turmoil ahead of the new year. FMU named Kennesaw State assistant Frank Pitt to fill the breach, and he figures to have his work cut out for him as he tries to reverse the slide that has consumed the Francis Marion program for the past half decade.

Getting such a late start on the situation can’t help matters any, and 2012 may be a case of damage limitation as the Patriots seek to move forward in the future. In any event, the new boss’ first challenge will be resurrecting an offense that has been uninspiring for the past few seasons, scoring just a goal a game in 2011.

A young and talented frontline will be looking for a big breakthrough heading into 2012. The team’s top gun at the moment is England’s Yasmin Bunter, a junior who has shown solid goalscoring potential through two seasons with the club. A year after a five goal debut for FMU, Bunter led the team in scoring with four goals and four assists, though crucially, none were match winning strikes. Likely partnering her up front will be Canadian Elizabeth Asare, who made a solid debut last year with three goals and two assists, including the match winning goal against High Point in the team’s second game of the season. Depth in attack is hardly the best though, meaning Pitt will have to make the most out of his starting core.

The Patriots will have to do without midfield metronome Erin Breen, who graduates after starting sixteen matches and scoring two goals, including the game winner against Winthrop in early September. Breen recovered from an injury hit 2010 to become the team’s driving force in midfield and will be tough to replace. The surest thing in her stead may be 5’1″ sophomore fireplug Britt Smith, who is already an important part of the lineup after starting all eighteen matches as a rookie last year. It might be midfield by committee after her though, with few Patriots stamping a place in the starting lineup consistently last year.

The Patriots have a whole lot to worry about between the pipes in 2012, with zero minutes of game experience returning for the upcoming season. Senior Lauren Vetock started roughly half of FMU’s matches in 2010 after transferring from DII Shepherd Univeristy before taking up the starting role on a full-time basis last season. With Vetock graduating though, the Patriots suddenly find themselves with a couple of untested sophomores vying for the gloves this season. Neither Kristen Spain nor Taylor O’Berry saw a minute of action last season, making for some potentially hair-raising moments for the new coach this year as the team’s two keepers learn on the job.

Given how shaky the goalkeeping situation looks, it’s probably a good thing that FMU returns their backline intact for all intents and purposes. The leader of the pack will likely be Canadian senior Rebeccah Hoekstra, who has started every match for the club over the past two seasons. In addition to anchoring the defense, the Canadian’s 5’9″ frame makes her an intriguing option to be thrown forward as a target forward if need be, with her two goals as a rookie showing she can certainly fill the role in a pinch.

Fellow senior Kimmy Lawrance made a smooth transition from Cape Fear Community College last season, starting all eighteen matches for the Patriots. Lawrance’s versatility is a definite asset for the program, with the veteran able to play out wide or in the middle in the backline. Sophomore Sandy Odembo hardly looked a rookie last year in making seventeen starts and chipping in with two assists as well, and could be one of the team’s building blocks for the future.

Being an independent in Division I is a hard life and getting harder with the numbers of unaffiliated teams dwindling by the season as conferences continue with their voracious expansion plans. It’s even more difficult for a program wracked by offseason turmoil as FMU has been this year, which probably tempers any enthusiasm one could have about the Patriots in 2012. Given the youth of the Patriots last year, they certainly have room to improve with most contributors coming back, including the promising frontline of Bunter and Asare. But the worries in goal and, most of all, in the hot seat make another dismal season in Florence an unfortunate likelihood.

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