2011 came and went without a breakthrough for San Francisco, the WCC’s great underachievers. The only club in the conference not to have made a trip to the NCAA Tournament, the Dons also have to deal with the bulging trophy case of the USF men’s program, which has raked in no shortage of national honors. Head coach Mark Carr entered the 2011 season under pressure after the program’s lack of progress in recent seasons. Carr had already lost more games in four years than his predecessor, Pamela Kalinoski, did in six coaching the Dons. The program had dropped more than fifty places in the RPI between the end of 2009 and 2010, adding to the overall gloom surrounding the Dons entering into the new season.
Nothing in the first few weeks of the 2011 campaign seemed to be changing any perceptions, with USF losing their first four, including defeats to UC Davis and A10 bottom feeder George Washington. Their first win over the season was a solid one, against MAC contenders Kent State, but they followed that up with arguably the worst loss of the season, to Big Sky minnows Sacramento State. Victories over Nevada and Portland State weren’t impressive RPI-wise but still helped ease a sliver of the worries accrued over the first month of the season. A difficult run to end non-conference play was taxing though, and the Dons entered WCC action with a three match losing streak to their name.
The early part of league play went well for USF though, with two wins in their first three to boost themselves up the table. But a 5-0 hammering to Santa Clara was the beginning of the end, as most of the league’s top sides came calling. The club also suffered four goal defeats to BYU and Pepperdine, though the two early wins did see San Francisco end up a flattering sixth place in the league. It was a hollow victory nonetheless, as USF finished bottom of the league in the RPI and owners of a ghastly 6-14-0 record, the fourteen losses the most for the program since 2005.
Carr fell on his sword after the season, leaving San Francisco to make another fresh start as they try to prop themselves up from the bottom of the WCC pecking order. The Dons have tabbed former USC coach Jim Millinder as the man to try and finally get USF to the promised land. Millinder gained a reputation as a shrewd recruiter in his time with the Women of Troy, building the bulk of the squad that would go on to win the 2007 national title. He was left watching his old charges triumph though after being sacked by the Trojans’ brass following continual underperformance in the NCAA Tournament. Then again, any performance in the NCAA Tournament will probably be just fine for the Dons’ leadership considering that, again, this program has never made it to the Big Dance.
It’s a good thing that Millinder showed a proficiency for recruiting back in the City of Angels, because this San Francisco team needs multiple injections of talent if they want to compete in what has become a major conference in the eyes of many. That the Dons managed to finish in sixth last season was something of a minor miracle considering that they finished tied for last in goals scored in the league with just four in eight games and tied for last in goals conceded, shipping a whopping twenty, or two and a half goals in WCC matches.
The line between the haves and have nots in the league was pretty stark last season, and San Francisco was quite obviously on the side of the paupers. There wasn’t really any mass underachievement to speak of though. The defense had been gutted by losses before the 2011 season and was expected to struggle. The offense had looked bereft of true scoring threats. Sadly, you could say that USF played right down to expectations. More than anything though, Millinder has to come in and change the mindset of a program that’s been mired in the doldrums for so very long.
Putting it kindly, Millinder has got a logjam to deal with between the pipes this season, with as many as three keepers expected to vie for the the starting job for the Dons in 2012. USF used four keepers last season, with three getting starting time, meaning predicting a victor in the race for the #1 spot doesn’t figure to be easy.
An afterthought with Wisconsin-Milwaukee, senior Gabby Guaiumi sought to reinvigorate her career with her hometown club last year. She would win the starting job out of camp and held it until midseason, where she was shelled for six goals by Cal and played no further part in 2011. Junior Heather Haney, a spot starter as a rookie in 2010, reprised that role for the second half of 2011, starting six games and generally faring no better than her predecessor in goal, as USF’s defense was split open repeatedly by opponents. Both were expected to return and contend for the starting job but instead departed over the offseason, narrowing Millinder’s options somewhat.
Sophomore Celia Pellegrini was used a lot in mop-up duty in a handful of those blowouts before taking over full-time for the final three matches of the season and is one contender for the starting nod. Add in Emily Murzinski, another sophomore, and true freshman Madalyn Schiffel, and you’ve got a muddle for Millinder to pick through. Without improvement in the defense though, it’s unlikely to matter too much as to who’s in net for the Dons.
This group was lit up like a Christmas tree last season and simply has to do much, much better if San Francisco is to be respectable this season. The veteran bulwark of the unit looks to be senior Barret Bestard, a key reserve in 2010 before starting all but one game last year and someone whose leadership will have to shine through for what is still a pretty young unit for the Dons. One of the brightest hopes for the future is Canadian sophomore Abigail Phillips, whose signing was a real coup for Carr heading into 2011, with the Vancouver native a U20 international for her country. Unsurprisingly, Phillips immediately broke into the starting lineup and stayed there for much of the season, making seventeen starts as a rookie.
Fellow sophomore Lauren AbuAli was a less heralded recruit but no less important last year, starting sixteen matches and adding a pair of assists to the USF cause. Senior Kelly Farrell would appear to have a leg up on any remaining starting minutes after making eight starts last year despite missing the first three weeks of the season. Junior Kelly Hoose could also find herself in the mix after occasional starts and plenty of time off the bench last year. The club also makes a rather intriguing addition with the signing of Chilean U20 captain Leticia Torres Mandiola. Given last season’s struggles, Mandiola could well find herself thrown into the fire right off the bat to try and cure this unit’s ills.
San Francisco’s midfield has a pretty nice building block for the future in sophomore Jaciara Mello. One of just three Dons to start all twenty matches last year, Mello made an early impression as a rookie with a pair of goals and two assists en route to All-WCC Freshman Team honors, no small feat considering the youngsters that pop into WCC sides each year. Likely to join her in midfield is another constant from last year, junior Tyler Campagna. Campagna has been ever-present in the lineup for her two seasons at USF and could also be used to shore up the defense if necessary.
Depth is a bit of a worrisome problem for this unit after the loss of Keonna Robinson, one of the team’s top reserves for the past handful of seasons who was also almost always called into spot start duty a handful of times each season during her tenure with the Dons. Also gone is senior Joan Piasta, who had a breakthrough offensively last season, with three goals after going without any in her first two seasons with the club.
The only real returning depth looks to be junior Layla Martin, who started four games for the club and was heavily involved early in the year before missing much of the second half of the season. Given what looks like a lack of numbers, this group may need significant contributions from the pack of newcomers. The starting group does look reasonable though, and Mello could become an important part of the future for USF if she continues to develop.
Arguably San Francisco’s strongest unit going into 2012 is their striking corps, which might sound a little strange considering this group managed a half a goal in WCC play, but there’s potential for more on hand. Norwegian junior Christina Moberg was impressive as a rookie in 2010 with three goals and three assists and continued to build on that success last year, leading the team in scoring with five goals and four assists, including three match winning strikes. Moberg started league play strong, with two goals in the club’s first three, both in winning efforts, but opposing defenses clamped down, holding her without a shot on goal in the team’s final five WCC matches.
A little more support might help her out, and the club has another tantalizing prospect in sophomore Mackenzie Krieser. Krieser started her collegiate career on fire, with four goals in the club’s first eight matches. Come WCC time though, defenses began to figure her out, and she was held pointless in the league. If the two can combine and develop a good partnership up top, Millinder might have something offensively. Beyond them, the club will be looking to replace the production of departed senior Molly Hall, who bagged a brace against Washington last season. Senior Megan Connor started nine matches last season and bagged three goals, though only one came against league opposition.
Junior Kelsey Moe missed much of the first half of the season but made eleven starts down the stretch, though she didn’t manage a single point for the club. Sophomores Halle Bissin and Liana Coppola also got some run as rookies last year, though neither proved to be factors in front of goal. Moberg and Krieser have certainly shown flashes of talent for the Dons, but it remains to be seen if either can be the bellcow this team so clearly needs up front.
Millinder was a fine team builder at USC, which is a very good thing for a San Francisco program in desperate need of some shrewd recruiting to turn this group into a contender. There’s potential in defense with players like Phillips and Mandiola, but it’s probably going to take time for everything to gel with such a young unit and a new coaching staff in place. Further forward, there’s a little firepower with the likes of Krieser and Moberg, but these Dons still seem well short on the amount of offense needed to contend consistently in the WCC. Odds are, it’s going to take a few years of stronger recruiting classes to turn the ship around, and for Millinder’s first season in charge, matching last season’s sixth place finish would be a fine accomplishment.