In retrospect, it’s a little hard to believe that at one time Seton Hall played host to one of the very best players in the world, England and former Boston Breakers’ attacker, Kelly Smith. Of course, it’s also more than a little telling that even with Smith in their ranks, the Pirates still never hit the big time and made the NCAA Tournament. With talents much lesser than Smith on the books, Seton Hall has struggled to keep up in the rapidly improving Big East. Entering 2011, the Pirates hadn’t managed a winning season since Smith left campus after the 1999 campaign, also the only time Seton Hall had managed to win a match in the postseason. To make matters worse, the Pirates hadn’t qualified for the Big East Tournament since 2006, especially galling since the league takes ten teams to the postseason.
The introduction of Kazbek Tambi as head coach in 2007 after the resignation of program matriarch Betty Ann Kempf-Townsley was supposed to solve that problem. Tambi took the job having had reasonable success as coach of the U.S. U17 team including a runner-up finish in the 2008 U17 World Cup. After a respectable if unspectacular debut season in which the Pirates finished at 8-8-2 in 2007, Seton Hall struggled through two thoroughly unsatisfying five win seasons before a slight improvement in the wins column if not the RPI in 2010. Given the program’s long run with success and the fact that he was entering his fifth year in charge, you could’ve argued that Tambi was on a very hot seat coming into the new season.
The start of the season was tepid if anything, with the club beating some modest opposition but also drawing with the likes of Lehigh and, inexplicably, Iona. It was hard to get a gauge on the Pirates considering they hadn’t really played any top level competition going into Big East play. Cynics would have to stand up and take notice though, as the club promptly won three of its first four matches, including a stunning 3-2 win over Georgetown in the opener. Suddenly, Tambi’s Pirates looked like a viable postseason contender.
But just as it seemed like SHU was building momentum, the team went through a horrible lurch in form that saw them lose five of their next six, dropping from the realm of potential bubble team to potentially missing out on the postseason entirely. Playing in the weaker of the league’s two divisions paid dividends though, and a final day draw with Rutgers was good enough to see the club qualify for the postseason for the first time in half a decade. Tambi’s side got to host a first round game in the Big East Tournament in fact, having finished in fourth in their division.
They’d make that home advantage count as well, topping St. John’s (NY), 1-0, for their first postseason win since 1999. The Pirates would get throttled by West Virginia for a second time in 2011 in the quarterfinals, but it didn’t diminish what had to be considered quite the successful season for Seton Hall. Tambi had delivered the club’s first winning season since 1999, in addition to breaking the club’s long postseason and postseason wins drought. Progress may have been slow in coming in New Jersey, but after 2011, it certainly looks like Seton Hall may finally be on the up, which is great news for Tambi’s job security after a pressure packed season.
The Pirates carried a blunt edge into battle in 2010 but solved those problems somewhat last year, rising up the league’s goals scored table, albeit only into the middle of the pack. On the other hand, the Seton Hall defense, which was decent in 2010, was much less secure last season. Actually, that’s probably understating the point a bit. The Pirate D gave up twenty-three goals in the league, or more than two goals a game, with only Pittsburgh recording a worse goals conceded total in Big East action.
Clearly, Seton Hall are a club craving some balance between their offense and defense, and will be hoping 2012 provides just that. The Pirates will likely be leaning heavily on junior Katie Ritter for their goals again this season after the Hagerstown native led the team in scoring for the second straight season with six goals. The big question is if there’s anything left behind her, with second leading scorer Taylor Wilson having departed. With some fairly promising defensive recruits coming in, Tambi will be hoping a little fresh blood is all that’s needed to revitalize a defense that was a severe liability last season.
The club loses one head of its two-headed monster in goal, but the Pirates still return a fair amount of experience in goal in 2012. Departing is Elizabeth Bond, who had seen action sparingly in the two seasons running up to 2011 but who ended up starting nine games last year, including much of the first half of the league season. Senior Jennifer Pettigrew is back and is likely the club’s undisputed #1 heading into the new season. Pettigrew was a big factor in goal right from the start in New Jersey, starting fourteen matches as a rookie and then being named All-Big East Third Team in 2010 after another sterling year. Pettigrew did end up missing nearly half the season last year, but the veteran doesn’t have vastly experienced cover behind her this season, meaning she should be in for the distance this year.
The club adds in Alyssa Kelly, a graduate student transfer from Vermont as an option at backup this season. Kelly started seventeen games in three years for the Catamounts, but this is obviously a big step up in class. She’ll battle sophomore Peggy Nicolle and true freshman Gina Maiorana for the understudy role this season.
This group struggled mightily last season but could be in line for a sizable improvement with much of the unit returning intact along with the addition of a few promising recruits to add depth. The sole expected loss is of Ashley Beamish, who tallied double digit starts the past three years and also cored twice against Big East foes last season, including the game winner against St. John’s (NY) in the Big East Tournament. Senior Cristina Barthel will likely step into the defensive leadership role after starting every match on defense last season. A starter for the past two seasons, Barthel will hope to lead be example in the back this season.
Classmate Taylor Mims had been a reserve for the first half of the season but started the last eight games of the season and could stick in the backfield again this year. Junior Meghan Hayes has been a starter for much of the past two seasons and is capable of playing up front or in defense, though she has been a lynchpin in the latter for the majority of her college career to this point. A favorite for the other starting spot is sophomore Kristina Meier, a relatively unheralded rookie coming into campus last season who ended up starting thirteen games last year and being a workhorse for the Pirates as a freshman.
Looking to follow in her footsteps this season are arguably the club’s two top recruits this year. D’Yonna Riley is a former U.S. U15 international and has been praised for her one-on-one defending, along with her ability to contribute in the attack as well. Joining her in pursuit of a staring role in defense this season is Alexis Urbanski out of powerhouse New Jersey club side PDA and a mainstay of the Region I ODP team in recent seasons. Those additions combined with a relatively stable group of returners should see this group take a decent sized step forward at least this year.
The most worrisome unit for Tambi to sort out this season is likely in midfield, where the club must find a replacement for Taylor Wilson, an All-Big East Third Team selection last season. Wilson, who had been a stalwart at defender in 2009, had undergone a fitful 2010 season that was blighted by injury, making only six starts. She was back to form last season though, with four goals and six assists. Her brightest moment was likely in the 3-2 win against Georgetown, where she scored one goal and set up two more in the huge win over the Hoyas. It was part of a stretch of three goals and three assists in four games that coincided with three SHU wins. Also departing are reserves Caitlyn and Meghan Milazzo, twins from Rhode Island, further cutting into the club’s midfield depth.
This group is still extremely young, with four of the likelier starters all juniors. Amie Ruhe had looked like one of the club’s most promising prospects in 2010 after two goals and three assists, and though she didn’t score a goal last season, Ruhe still started all but one game and looks like a cornerstone in midfield for the club. One likely to join her is Ashley Clarke, who has posted identical two goal, two assist stat lines her first two years with the Pirates, and who scored the game winner against Colgate last year.
Likely helping fill out the starting midfield this season is German junior Marie Klemme. Klemme came to Seton Hall with experience as a member of German powerhouse Turbine Potsdam’s youth setup while also being a German U17 international. Her CV hasn’t translate to offense yet, but she still has twenty-seven starts in two seasons and is another experienced campaigner. Another junior, Brittney Albrecht, was in spot start duty last season, cracking the first XI on nine occasions while also serving as a key reserve. Albrecht scored just once last year but made it count, nabbing the winner in a 3-1 victory over DePaul.
Adding depth are senior Rebecca Warrington and sophomores Alyssa Stipcak and Angie Shehaj. The latter grabbed three assists to finish second on the team in that category and was called up to the Albanian WNT in the offseason. Tambi doesn’t exactly have a star studded unit in midfield, but they have been accruing valuable experience these past few years. Despite losing Wilson, they could well surprise some in the Big East this year.
Ritter’s been more than solid so far in her Seton Hall career, but if the club wants to take the leap to the next level, she’s going to have to take it with them in all likelihood. Ritter, began last season in style, with three goals in the club’s first six, but there were questions over whether she’d be able to replicate that form in the league. Two goals in the 3-2 win against Georgetown seemed to have provided a stark answer to that question. But Ritter would only score once the rest of the season, against lowly Pittsburgh, and only managed two shots on goal in her final five games. She’ll need to score at a higher clip if Seton Hall are to progress towards an NCAA Tournament berth this season.
Likely to partner her up front this season is fifth-year senior Stephanie Soma. Ironically, Soma turned out to be the better of the starting duo in front of goal against Big East clubs, scoring three goals in the league. Soma enjoyed a bit of a mini-breakthrough last season, scoring more goals (4) than she had in two previous seasons combined (3). Ritter and Soma will have to be locked on this season, because there’s very little proven behind them. Depth players Christina Cinelli and Wiebke Balcke both depart, though neither were a factor in front of goal. The only real returning depth is Shehaj, who could also be used in midfield this season.
Ritter and Soma are an above average Big East strikeforce, but the cupboard is almost barren behind them, meaning the Pirates are walking a tightrope with their attacking corps this season.
Seton Hall has the looks of a solid but not especially spectacular outfit in 2012. The club has one major loss in Wilson but basically returns the rest of their heavy hitters, though this isn’t exactly a team of stars beyond Ritter and perhaps Pettigrew. Tambi has seemingly gone about solidifying last season’s glaring weakness in defense though, which certainly has to be a boost to Seton Hall’s hopes this year. Realistically, the Pirates should ease to a record above .500, are good best to return to the Big East Tournament, and maybe even have a puncher’s chance at sneaking into the NCAA Tournament should everything fall their way this year.