To resurrect a dead program, sometimes you have to look a little outside the box. And make no mistake about it, Syracuse was as dead as dead could be for much of the last decade. Program matriarch April Kater never really established Syracuse as a national force, but she did get the program to a pair of NCAA Tournaments and had the Orange in the higher end of the Big East until the bottom fell out in the final few seasons of her reign.
With a major decision on their hands as to the next leader of their program, Syracuse opted for a retread with ex-Penn State coach Patrick Farmer leaving Tennessee Tech high and dry after just one season to head back north. Saying the Farmer and Syracuse marriage was an abject disaster would be putting it very kindly indeed. Four losing seasons in a row with just one postseason appearance in Farmer’s first season on the job was enough for the plug to be mercifully pulled after the 2007 season.
The new man to lead the program was semi-famed goalkeeper whisperer Phil Wheddon. Wheddon’s travels have taken him along a winding career path with experience as an assistant/goalkeeping coach with both the men’s and women’s U.S. National Teams, MLS’ MetroStars, and the WUSA’s Boston Breakers among his previous employers. It’s not exactly a stretch to say that Wheddon’s latest job is the most challenging of his career, the Brit inheriting a team in disarray and a program that had been utterly uncompetitive in the Big East for years. Through four seasons under Wheddon though, Syracuse is still looking for its first winning season since 2003.
After two seasons of the Orange slipping much deeper into the mire and nearing the dreaded two hundred mark in the final RPI rankings, Syracuse finally began to make progress, in the RPI at least. The club nearly cracked the Top 100, but they still were uninspiring in non-conference play before fading badly in the latter half of league play to finish out of the postseason again. Pressure was beginning to mount on Wheddon and the Orange heading into 2011, especially once the impending move to the treacherous waters of the ACC was finalized.
It probably wasn’t a good thing then that Syracuse’s first result of the new year was a 1-0 loss to NEC minnows Robert Morris. While Cuse would save a little face on that road trip with a win over Florida Gulf Coast, that victory would be their only triumph in their first seven matches. Granted, the Orange didn’t play any of those contests at home, and granted, they also managed to draw at Boston College in that stretch, but it still didn’t look very good for Wheddon’s bunch heading into league play. Even less so once the club lost two of its first three in Big East action.
But suddenly, Syracuse rose from their slumber and started winning. A lot. The Orange managed to win four in a row and five of their next six to surge up the standings. The hot streak was enough to see the club finish third in their division, even with defeats in their last two regular season matches. In the postseason for the first time since 2005, Cuse would get a tough draw, going to Georgetown in the quarterfinals, knowing the Hoyas were desperate for a result for their NCAA Tournament hopes. Georgetown would dig a hole for Wheddon’s side early, and Syracuse found themselves down by two goals after just nineteen minutes. The Orange would be unable to recover and fell, 3-1, ending their season. While the club didn’t really budge in the RPI and still finished with an overall losing record, getting back to the postseason was a much needed sign of progress for a program aching for some upward momentum after so much disappointment.
That Georgetown match could well prove important for Syracuse’s hopes this season, though probably not in the way that Wheddon and his staff would’ve hoped. Club talisman Tina Romagnuolo’s Orange career ended in disgrace after being sent off after swearing at an official and then shoving an opposing player on her way off the pitch. The Canadian promptly transferred to Miami (FL) after the season for her final year of eligibility. It’s not just that Romagnuolo was the club’s best player, it’s that she was also their leading scorer last season. That’s not really saying much though when you see that she just scored four times in 2011.
The leading returning scorer for 2012 is Swede Cecilia Borgstrom…and she’s naturally listed as a defender. Romagnuolo ended up taking almost double as many shots as anyone else on the club, so it’s safe to say that Wheddon and his staff will be desperate for someone to step up into the lead attacker role this season. The Orange’s prospects the other way are a little better. The defense wasn’t great last year but returns just about everyone and also boasts junior keeper Brittany Anghel, a recent call-up to the U.S. U23 team. She and her backline might have to stand on their heads if the offense doesn’t take a big leap forward though.
One of Syracuse’s saving graces defensively last season was the play of Anghel in goal, a netminder whose profile has risen rapidly in her two seasons with the Orange thus far. Anghel was immediately thrown into the fire as a rookie, winning the starting job in 2010 and generally being kept busy by a somewhat porous defense but also earning Big East All-Rookie Team honors for her trouble. The native of East Meadow would monopolize the minutes again in goal for the Orange, though the backline in front of her held up a little better, forcing twenty-six fewer saves from the keeper. Anghel did enough to catch the attention of the U.S. youth international setup, with the Orange netminder being called up for the Summer tournament in Scandanavia against Norway and Sweden. Anghel figures to see close to all the minutes again this year, with sophomore Sarah Dejak the untested understudy.
With what looks like everyone set to return for the new season, the Orange’s backline should have a reasonable chance at improvement in 2012. Leading the line for Syracuse this season will be seniors Amanda Hamilton and Skylar Sabbag. A key reserve in 2010, Hamilton moved back into the starting lineup full-time last year, starting every match in addition to scoring against Rutgers. Sabbag, a former reserve at Central Michigan, has turned into a fine addition to the Syracuse defense, starting all but one game last year.
Junior Rachel Blum started every game for the Orange last season and can play in either defense or midfield, with the latter a very real possibility given that unit’s losses. A trio of juniors should also be in with a shout for starting assignments on the backline. Borgstrom, a Swedish U19 international, ended up being quite the find for Wheddon and co., with the Stockholm product starting twenty-six games through two seasons so far. Her three goals showed that she’s no soft touch in front of goal either. Jackie Moriarty was in and out of the teamsheet last season, much like her rookie year, but she still managed nine starts in 2011.
Canadian U17 international Kayla Afonso also saw eleven starts last season and still has plenty of upside after some promising displays last season. Another junior, Lauren DeCarlo, mostly came off the bench but proved her worth against Providence, scoring her first career goal that went down as the only strike in that 1-0 win over the Friars. Added to that group is true freshman Taylor Haenlin, a prospect with experience on the Region I ODP team and another promising youngster for the club to work with. Besides Borgstrom, this group’s not filled with blue chip prospects, but continuity and experience should work in their favor, meaning this could be a potentially above average Big East defense.
This unit figures to be one of the most concerning for Syracuse personnel-wise. The Orange lose the services of both Romagnuolo and Casey Ramirez, a departing senior who was capable in either defense or midfield for the club. Life without Romagnuolo may be a little difficult to contemplate for Syracuse supporters, with much of the club’s offense running through the Canadian in her stint with the program. The temperamental attacker was also willing and able to put in a shift up front, and her versatility and drive will be missed.
Romagnuolo wasn’t the only talented Canadian on offer for the Orange though, with the club returning Alyscha Mottershead for her senior season. After a stellar freshman season with three goals and five assists for Iowa in 2009, the Canadian youth international transferred to Syracuse and has been a starter for the two seasons since. She hasn’t been a huge threat in front of goal, but nonetheless, she’s an invaluable member of the squad and will be looked to for veteran experience. Fellow senior Rosina Callisto also looks like a lock for the starting lineup after being in the lineup for most of the previous three seasons. Callisto looked to be on the up after two goals and three assists in 2010 but couldn’t reproduce those offensive numbers last year.
Former U15 international Megan Hunsberger lived up to her advance billing as Syracuse’s top recruit last season, scoring a couple of goals off the bench while earning All-Big East Rookie Team honors. She should be favored to nail down a starting spot this year either in midfield or defense. Senior Brielle Heitman, who began her career with Central Michigan and scored four goals in 2010, and sophomore Hanna Strong, who started four games as a rookie, are among the other returnees in line for increased minutes.
Worth watching as well is rookie Jackie Firenze, another prospect from the Empire United club and another mainstay of the Region I ODP team that the Orange have liberally plucked from for their recruiting class this year. This is a solid group, but talismans like Romagnuolo don’t tend to get replaced overnight.
The heat will be on this group for sure, as the loss of Romagnuolo also saw the team’s top outlet for goals depart. Wheddon will be hoping the duo of senior Jenna Rickan and junior Brittany Kimmond can help power the offense this season for the club. Rickan suffered a serious knee injury early in her freshman season and has struggled in front of goal since. After scoring once as a spot starter in 2010, Rickan joined the starting lineup for almost all of last season but only scored twice in seventeen starts last season. Kimmond had seen time mostly off the bench in 2010 but also moved into the starting lineup last season, making sixteen starts for the Orange. She wasn’t exactly prolific either though, netting just twice, and one of those goals was from the penalty spot.
Behind that experienced duo, there’s very little proven to draw upon. Senior Jasmine Watkins has been a key reserve and occasional starter for three seasons but has scored just once, that goal coming last year against Rutgers. With that in mind, Wheddon will likely be praying for instant impact from some of his recruits. One of those likely to emerge up front is Kari Quinn, another Region I ODP veteran who comes from the powerhouse Albertson Fury club. Even if she does produce early, this group looks threadbare as far as goals are concerned and could be a serious weakness for this Syracuse club this year.
Glaring weaknesses tend to get exploited ruthlessly at this level, which is bad news for a Syracuse team that looks woefully understrength in front of goal. Romagnuolo wasn’t an ideal center-forward, but she was the best Syracuse had as far as scoring went, with her departure eating a big chunk out of the Orange’s offense. Barring a sudden breakthrough from a returnee or an offensive explosion from one of the offensive recruits, Syracuse will probably have to do it with defense this season. With Anghel in between the pipes, that’s not impossible, but the rearguard is more solid than spectacular. Even if the defense does hold fast, Syracuse’s woes on offense could consign them to a struggle for a postseason spot in the Big East this year.