A year after a fresh start of one sort, Colorado will be embarking on a fresh start of a different kind as they head into the 2012 season. 2011 had offered a chance at a new beginning for the Buffs as they saddled up in the Pac-12 after their Big XII stint ended with a thud rather than a flourish. Instead, Colorado found the step up in class to the Pac-12 nigh-unbearable, as they finished in eleventh while enduring a dreadful thirteen loss season. One of the worst seasons in program history also marked the end of the line for head coach Bill Hempen, who resigned after the season.
Hempen had taken charge of the program in 2001 and was able to spur the Buffs on in short order, leading CU to its first major trophy two years later when Colorado lifted the Big XII title. While silverware eluded the program after that triumph, the Buffs were still one of the Big XII’s contending sides for much of the decade. Colorado strung together six straight appearances in the NCAA Tournament, making the second round from 2004-2007 and achieving a program best finish in 2006 when they made it to the Sweet Sixteen. It was the end of that NCAA Tournament streak that marked a turning point in the fortunes of the Colorado program though.
In 2008, the Buffs looked to have one of their better sides, finishing just three points off a league title and getting to the Big XII Tournament final before falling to Missouri. The Buffs had all the look of a team that could get out of the first weekend of play in the Big Dance and were duly rewarded with a national seed and home advantage for the first two rounds of the tournament. But Colorado would end the weekend as the answer to a trivia question, becoming one of the few recent nationally seeded team to lose in the first round of the NCAA Tournament as they were shocked by South Dakota State.
In large part, the program has never recovered from that infamous afternoon in Boulder. 2009 was a long slog through a difficult schedule, and the Buffs third place finish in the league was more of an indicator of how bad the league was that year than any real quality from CU. The team were one and done in the postseason and the team’s NCAA Tournament streak was snapped at six seasons. It also marked the first time the team finished under .500 since Hempen’s first season in charge in 2001.
2010 was just about equal RPI-wise, thanks to shock wins over UCLA and Texas A&M, by the Buffs’ form on the whole suffered immensely, with bad losses sprinkled throughout and an eighth place finish in the league. After two straight seasons under .500, the hope was that the conference move would be enough to reinvigorate a stagnant program. But given just how tough league play was likely to be, it was critical that CU get off to a good start in non-conference play. Two dominant wins in the inaugural Colorado Cup over Colorado College and Northern Colorado was a good start, but an upset defeat to Wyoming was the trigger for a massive slump.
The Buffs lost their next three and was only able to draw against an Auburn side using an emergency goalkeeper. A win over lowly Cal State Bakersfield was the team’s first in nearly a month and helped snap a five match winless streak before Pac-12 play started. Quickly, it became apparent that Colorado were well out of their depth in their new conference. The defense was horrific, keeping only one clean sheet in league play, while conceding multiple goals in eight of their eleven league games. The club lost five of their first six, with the only non-loss in that stretch coming in the form of a draw against an equally wretched Arizona side.
An upset of Cal in Berkeley spared Colorado the wooden spoon, but the club would lose their final four matches, including the worst loss in program history since 1999, an 8-0 drubbing at home to UCLA. As a one-off, such a horrible year might have been begrudgingly tolerated. But with the evidence that Hempen’s reign in Boulder had passed its sell-by date, the long-time coach stepped down from his post. The new boss is one of the many that beat the Buffs last year, Wyoming’s Danny Sanchez.
Sanchez made his name at Division II Metro State, building a juggernaut that won two national titles in six seasons, earning him the head chair at the University of Wyoming. Results in Laramie were much more modest. The Cowgirls were just a few games over .500 in his four years at the helm, though they did show improvement in his final year in charge, even making it to the Mountain West Tournament final. After a trying few years in Boulder though, Colorado fans will be expecting much more than middle of the road and will surely be hoping that Sanchez can rekindle some of his old magic from Metro State while at CU.
The bad news for Sanchez is that he faces a major rebuilding project at a program that has very much gone stale over the past few seasons. The Buffs’ move to the Pac-12 probably couldn’t have been timed worse for competitive purposes, with Colorado struggling mightily last season in both facets of the game. While CU were adequate offensively out of the league, they sunk like an anchor going forward once league play hit, scoring just seven goals in eleven matches in Pac-12 play. It was an absolute horror show defensively in league play, with the club shipping twenty-nine goals in league play, though eight of those goals came in one game against UCLA.
The good news for the new boss is that, despite all that, he’s coming into a program with a strong recruiting base in the Rocky Mountain area and which is bringing in a fine recruiting class this season to work with. Those recruits will likely be needed post-haste, with the club returning just seventeen players for the new year. One of those players is senior Amy Barczuk, who moves like silk with the ball at her feet and has had her talents recognized at U23 level by the U.S. youth international setup. Part of Sanchez’s job this season will be finding out where to deploy his talisman, with the Centennial native able to play just about anywhere on the pitch.
Perhaps the only area Sanchez hasn’t and won’t employ some severe tinkering with is in between the pipes, where the Buffs return a pair of keepers with starting experience for the new season. The incumbent is junior Annie Brunner, whose star rocketed upwards as a rookie when Colorado was still in the Big XII, with the Arvada native starting every match and earning All-Big XII Newcomer Team honors in 2010. It wasn’t nearly as easy last season, as Brunner’s defensive line in front of her was turned into Swiss cheese by injuries and ineffectiveness, with the sophomore taking a pounding in goal from opposing offenses. Brunner herself would be stricken with injury in mid-October, missing the club’s final five games.
In her place stepped senior Kayla Millar, a one-time player at tiny CU-Colorado Springs who transferred into Colorado before the 2010 season and had seen time sparingly before being called upon late in the year to fill in. She was the keeper of record in the most unfortunate loss to UCLA, giving up eight goals on ten shots on goal as Colorado was routed. Healthy again, Brunner should reclaim her starting spot but will surely be hoping for a more stable display in front of her this year.
Colorado shuffled the deck an incalculable amount of times last season as they searched in vain for solutions to their defensive woes. Players like Barczuk and Anne Stuller, a natural forward, were thrown into the rearguard as the club tried to find the right combination. Sanchez will probably try to avoid thrusting the above pair into defense if possible but will still have to deal with sizable losses.
Amy Steiner was one of the few constants last season, starting eighteen games and finishing a successful college career at Colorado after having started at Arizona in 2008. Also gone is Caroline Danneberg, who bounced back and forth in defense and up front during her collegiate career. Danneberg struggled with injuries throughout her CU tenure though, and her loss for the back half of the league season hurt the club. Maggi Steury, one of the team’s top reserves also departs, leaving Sanchez with many holes to fill this year.
There are high hopes for sophomore Bianca Jones, who could play either centrally or out wide on the flanks in defense for the club. Jones was impressive in locking down a starting role early on as a rookie and finished with sixteen starts, underlining her potential as a future four-year starter if all goes well. Towering center-back Lizzy Herzl is more famous for her goals against UCLA and Texas A&M as a freshman forward than her later defending, but odds are, the Littleton native will try to anchor the defense as a junior. Those goals in 2010 showed she’s a useful option up front as a target forward though.
Senior Erin Bricker began her college career as a forward and was a top reserve last year but was experimented with in defense in the Spring and could stick there this season if she can acclimate in time. Jet heeled sophomore Alex Dohm missed all of last season recovering from an ACL injury suffered in the Spring, but was a workhorse as a rookie in 2010, ending up on the All-Big XII Second Team at the first time of asking. If she hasn’t lost a step, she could be a big contributor either at full-back or sparking the attack on the wing.
Senior Lauren Shaner, who started twelve matches a year ago could also feature out wide in defense, though Sanchez could also opt to use her further up the pitch on the wing. Depth will likely come from some of the newcomers, but the overall cobbled together nature of this unit might see some severe growing pains this year, though it’s not like the group could get much worse than last year’s showing.
The heart of the Buffs will likely be in midfield, where the club returns some solid, experienced campaigners, along with some very promising rookies. The club will be desperate to replace the prodigious talents of departed senior Kate Russell though. The true engine of the club for the past four years, Russell set the tone early in her career with seven assists as a rookie. She’d suffer a bit of a down year in 2009 before coming back strong as a junior with three goals and five assists in an All-Big XII Second Team season. Russell would close out her college career as the club’s leading scorer last year with four goals, including tallies against Illinois and Stanford along the way.
The team’s new talisman is Amy Barczuk, an aggressive workhorse that can play just about anywhere on the pitch, be it as a ball playing libero in the center of defense or leading the lineup front. More than likely though, Barczuk will be displaying her talents in midfield this season. The senior showed what she was capable of with three goals in four games in September but was slowly enveloped by opposing defenses while also concentrating on defensive duties. Her form is critical to the season, and a standout year could be huge for Colorado.
Besides Shaner, who as stated above could feature out wide in midfield or defense, the club returns a whole lot of options and experience. Senior Shaye Marshall, sister of club legend Nikki, has been tipped for greatness for a while now and could be putting it all together if Spring reviews are any indicator. Marshall tabbed three goals as a sophomore but could built on that last year with a frustrating one goal campaign. If she finally meets her potential this year, Marshall could well help unlock opposing defenses for the Buffs in style. Quinn Krier’s not exactly the prototype size for a midfield enforcer at 5’2″, but the senior still was heavily involved last year, making eleven starts and should again be prominent for Sanchez’s side this year.
Attacking midfielder Darcy Jerman came to campus as a U17 international, and the hype nearly hit overdrive after goals in each of the club’s first two contests. She’d hit a wall later on though, and missed three games of Pac-12 play before firing just one shot in the club’s final five. Jerman still has plenty of time and potential though and could still develop into something special. Classmate Carly Bolyard is a bundle of energy who also came in tipped for big things and held down a starting spot for the club all season. The production in front of goal wasn’t quite there, but every indication is that Bolyard will have a sizable role to play for the club for the next few years.
The club adds some special talent in midfield from this year’s recruiting class as well. Eclipse Select’s Olivia Pappalardo has been an ace in ECNL action over the past few years and is arguably this class’ crown jewel. Sanchez raved about her creativity after inking her signature, and it’s not out of the question that she won’t break in the starting lineup immediately, even in a reasonably strong group. The club also brings in Madison Krauser from the powerhouse So Cal Blues club, and the highly touted recruit should be, at the least, a solid depth player for CU this year. Despite losing Russell, this bunch doesn’t lack for talent and has a great leader in the uber-talented Barczuk. If some of the underclassmen can come through, this unit might just surprise some people in the Pac-12 this year.
While the midfield should be an able and willing supply line this year, there remain questions as to whether there’ll be anyone capable of getting onto the end of that service this year with a shaky strikeforce at Sanchez’s disposal. The closest to a sure thing the Buffs might have is junior Anne Stuller. Illness plagued as a freshman and forced into some work as a defender last year because of injuries elsewhere, Stuller still managed to tie for the team lead in goals with four, including three in the league, and likely hasn’t come close to hitting her ceiling yet.
Also a potential contributor up front is junior Hayley Hughes, a lightning bolt capable of storming down the flanks to create scoring opportunities for herself or others. Hughes is also a capable full-back, but given the team’s paucity of options up front, she seems more likely to be used in an attacking role this year. Sophomore reserves Storie Ledger and Clare Madden showed little in front of goal last year but did get valuable minutes and will be looking to make a breakthrough this year.
The club also adds a prime prospect in attack in the form of Eclipse Select’s Carly Manso, whom Sanchez has called a “pure finisher” and who will likely get every opportunity to lock down a starting place early considering some of the questions in this unit. With so little proven talent, it’s hard to tip this group to make a big leap forward, but there is some degree of potential here, meaning if Sanchez plays his cards right, he could at least see some improvement this year.
Title contenders they ain’t, but it’s hard to argue that this Colorado squad underachieved last season with the talent at their disposal. Sanchez faces a rather steep road to get the Buffs to the level of the league’s big guns, but there’s simply no way this group should be finishing at the bottom of the league again. The midfield, especially with Barczuk, could be surprisingly strong, and they’ll have to be considering the litany of questions around the rest of the side. The backline is still a work in progress, while the Buffs are also desperately in need of a ten goal a season striker up front. Lower mid-table in the Pac-12 is probably the ceiling for this group this year, and while an NCAA Tournament berth looks a bridge too far, Colorado should still show some tantalizing glimpses of the future in 2012, with perhaps a notable upset or two along the way.