AWK’s 2012 NCAA Soccer Preview – Gonzaga – Do Bulldogs Have Enough Bite Up Front?

Cassie Geerdts

A Healthy Cassie Geerdts Might Be Gonzaga's Best Hope Up Front This Season

Second chances don’t come often at the head coaching spot at the DI level in college soccer, so current Gonzaga head coach Amy Edwards is doing her very best to prove she’s the right woman for the job some ten years after her last stint in the lead chair with Tulsa, just a few years removed from graduating from the Golden Hurricane. In truth, Edwards didn’t do too badly for herself in her four seasons at the helm in Tulsa, winning at least eleven matches in each of her seasons at the helm. After two successful stints as an assistant at Notre Dame and Missouri, Edwards was given the head job in Spokane, hoping to spur the Zags onto the next level after the program had been stranded on a yearly basis in mid-table.

Once one of the worst programs in America, Gonzaga had made progress under Shannon Stiles, slowly climbing up the WCC ladder and even reaching the NCAA Tournament for their first, and to this date, only time in 2005 after a third place league finish. That feat wouldn’t be repeated though and the Zags slowly sank back towards the lower half of the league. Edwards’ first two seasons in charge were marked by a rise up the RPI but still for the most part little progress above mid-table. The Zags certainly had their chances to charge up the table in 2010, but they swooned late and had to settle for fourth in the league.

The Bulldogs’ leaky defense had done them in on numerous occasions through Edwards’ tenure, which certainly made the season opening 5-1 defeat to Illinois a little harrowing for the season ahead. A loss two days later to a woeful Loyola (Ill.) team wasn’t a great result either, but the club got back on the right track a little closer to home, winning four straight matches to surge above .500. The problem was that none of those teams would finish in the final uRPI Top 240, and Gonzaga was ill-prepared for a homestand against the Washington Pac-12 schools, losing to both on a single weekend.

Still, the Zags would head into WCC play on a high after three clean sheet wins in a row, including a great 2-0 win at Seattle. League play was an abject disaster though. It didn’t look like that’d be the case after two draws to open up WCC action against St. Mary’s (CA) and Loyola Marymount, but the Zags then went in the tank for the final six matches, losing all of them and finishing without a league win. The end result was Gonzaga propping up the WCC table and undoubtedly some hard questions being asked in Spokane ahead of Edwards’ fourth season in charge in 2012.

The heat will undoubtedly be on this season, though in all honesty, expectations were probably a little low from an outsider’s perspective going into last season. The Zags entered 2011 floored by losses to graduation and early defections, especially in defense, where it was a bit of a skeleton crew after all the departures. It showed in the results too, as the Bulldogs ended up giving up two goals a game in the league, a partial explanation as to their last place WCC finish. The other part of that, of course, was an anemic offense that scored just four goals in the league, tied for worst in the WCC with San Francisco and Loyola Marymount.

Gonzaga should be a bit better off with personnel losses this season, losing just a pair of starters. Unfortunately, one of those starters is Canadian attacker Sarah Rhodes, arguably the team’s top player last year. At five goals and six assists last year, Rhodes was the team’s top scorer, and her loss isn’t good news for a club who had problems in front of goal in 2011.

Goalkeepers

When the dust had settled after graduations and transfers that had fallen through, Gonzaga was left with just one keeper last season after a transfer that had worked out alright for the Bulldogs. Canadian senior Susan Brown had logged major experience at Arkansas State for two seasons before transferring up to the Pacific Northwest and ended up the team’s top option by default. Thankfully, Brown stayed healthy and on the pitch for the Zags and should be more comfortable a year removed from her move to Spokane. Gonzaga should also be able to breathe a little easier with their backup situation having improved significantly with the addition of true freshman Christie Tombari. Tombari doesn’t seem likely to displace Brown at the top of the depth chart but should provide a capable fallback option if needed.

Defenders

This group certainly has the potential to do much better than giving up two goals a game, with three starters returning for the new campaign. The sole senior loss is of full-back Caitlyn Salo, a reserve for most of her first three seasons with the club before starting seventeen matches a season ago. Senior Morgan Manchester is likely to be the club’s rock in the middle and was already one of the club’s veteran leaders as a junior last year. A three-year starter already, Manchester is also capable of feeding in assists, with two in each of the past two seasons, including one against state rival Washington last season.

Towering sophomore Cricket Harber is likely to partner her in central defense after making a fine impression as a rookie. Harber started all but one game and got involved offensively as well, with the game winning goal and an assist against Idaho while also scoring against BYU in the league. Canadian senior Anna Lund started five games a season ago and should provide depth at center-back this season as well. Occupying one of the full-back spots will likely be sophomore Katey Pennington, who was a nice asset offensively with four assists, including three in the club’s first six games to finish second on the team in helpers. Pennington was one of four players to start every game for the Zags and should again be a constant out wide in defense for Edwards’ side. Who replaces Salo out wide is the big question.

Top reserves Danielle Simien, a junior, and Kenzie Lubeck, a sophomore, both saw plentiful time off the bench last season and will battle some of the newcomers for a starting spot. This group is still a little young and doesn’t really have a star name, but they did gain valuable experience last season and should be able to take a few steps forward this year.

Midfielders

Rhodes, who played both in the frontline and in midfield during her career in Spokane, is obviously a big loss for the Zags. The Canadian was a consistent threat in attack for the club over four seasons and was doggedly consistent in front of goal the past two seasons, with five goals and six assists in 2010 and 2011. The veteran would be held in check later in the season though, scoring just once in the club’s final twelve games, the offense suffering mightily as a result. Also departing is key reserve Casey Gould, a versatile option in defense or midfield who had found a niche coming off the bench for her four years in Spokane.

There are plenty of intriguing options coming back in midfield for the club though. Junior Ali Ohashi had as many goals as she did bookings last year but caught fire for a four game stretch in late September and early October, scoring her three goals in a four game span. More will be expected this year as Gonzaga tries to compensate for Rhodes’ lost offense. The other likely lock for a starting role is junior Emily Eckmann. Eckmann’s not a big threat in front of goal but does have two years of starting experience, a big plus in a unit that looks a bit lacking in that department.

Sophomore Tori Lee should be one of the favorites to claim a starting spot after three goals as a rookie while mostly coming off the bench last year. Classmate Jordan Travis can play in defense or in midfield and made nine starts last year with two assists and should find major minutes again somewhere in this lineup. More depth will be added by the newcomers. Though the club does return a fair amount of experience, there are no players the calibre of Rhodes here, meaning it’s tough envisioning this group not slipping a bit this year.

Forwards

Obviously, the loss of Rhodes is going to have an effect on this group too, since they’ve got to up their scoring to help compensate for the loss of their offensive talisman. This group should mostly come back intact though, with the lone scheduled loss looking to be fifth-year senior Katie Spangenberg, a key reserve last season, but one who only scored once in her final year with the Zags.

Bulldogs fans will be keeping a close eye on fifth-year senior Emma Dolcetti to see if the Canadian can make the leap this year and be the club’s top scoring option. Few knew what to expect from her in 2011 after she had missed almost the whole season following an injury in the opener a year earlier. Dolcetti answered the doubters with four goals and two assists, including a brace against Eastern Washington in early September. Dolcetti would struggle in league play though, not recording a point and recording just four shots on goal in eight games, so the jury’s still out on whether she can be a top option at this level.

Sophomore utility player Kasey Rubosky started twelve games and scored twice, including a goal against BYU, and could see more time for Edwards’ side this year if she isn’t deployed elsewhere. Senior Emily Hutchins had three goals in the league as a rookie but has found it tougher going since and was held without a goal last year despite making eleven starts. Sophomore Mikayla Anderson was arguably the club’s top recruit from a season ago but ended up missing most of the season after playing in the club’s first six games as a rookie and will be hoping for better fortunes this year.

The wild card is sophomore Cassie Geerdts, expected to be a big contributor last season after three goals and seven assists as a rookie. Geerdts was lost for the year in preseason though, and her absence was most definitely felt by the Zags’ offense. She could be just the boost the club needs if healthy and on form. Minus Rhodes’ goals, this club desperately needs Dolcetti and Geerdts to step it up in 2012 if they are to contend in the WCC.

Outlook

Star power is a necessity to contend in the constantly improving WCC, and the Zags appear to be lacking that at the moment. What looks like an underwhelming recruiting class probably won’t remedy that this year either. Rhodes was the real mark of quality running through the team last season, and her departure isn’t likely to make things easier for the Bulldogs. A more settled situation in goal and defense could see Gonzaga tighten things up and ensure they’re at least in more league games, but a lack of cutting edge in front of goal looms large. Lower mid-table looks like the ceiling for this season’s Bulldogs team, but even that might be a bit optimistic.

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