The team of “close but no cigar” for nearly half a decade, Loyola Marymount, didn’t get anywhere close to the NCAA Tournament in 2011, paying the price for an abject second half of the season. Before last year, LMU had often been found fighting in mid-table in the struggle to be the best of the rest of the conference below the eternal war between Portland and Santa Clara at the top of the league. The Lions last reached the NCAA Tournament in 2006, a season after the team hit an emotional rock bottom after the tragic preseason death of team leader Jessica Hanson. Playing in nigh-impossible circumstances, the Lions endured six extra time matches in a row to begin 2005 and finished at the bottom of the league come the end of the season.
There was rebirth in 2006 though, and the program rebounded to a fourth place finish in the league and only the second ever bid to the NCAA Tournament in Lions history. It was also a perfect time for longtime head coach Gregg Murphy to bow out, as the Lions boss took over as Jerry Smith’s #2 at Santa Clara after the season. In came UCLA assistant Joe Mallia who had made a name for himself at another Loyola, Loyola (MD) of the MAAC before coming to the Pac-10 and joining the staff of Jill Ellis. Mallia had turned the Greyhounds into a lean, mean, trophy winning machine during his seven year tenure, and hopes were high in Los Angeles as he took the reigns of the program.
The first season under his control was a promising one with twelve wins and a third place finish in the league. It wasn’t good enough for a spot in the Big Dance though, and neither was third place the season after in 2008. Both times, the Lions may have been just one or two signature results short of the field, a frustrating feeling for the LMU faithful. There wasn’t any stress on Selection Monday in 2009 though, as the Lions weren’t anywhere close to the bubble. The program had won eleven games and finished a stellar fourth in the league, but the overall profile was much weaker with too many non-conference patsies and too few meaningful wins on LMU’s resume. Mallia’s side would improve in 2010 and likely went into the final day with a good shot at making it to the NCAA Tournament if they could beat San Diego but wound up losing in agonizing fashion in extra time, again being left out of the Big Dance field in the end.
Mallia entered the 2011 season likely realizing that the near miss act was probably getting a bit tiresome for the supporters of Los Angeles’ third team, which was why LMU’s performances early on were so encouraging. A big win against Texas in Austin to open the season was the catalyst for a run that also featured solid wins over Long Island, Texas State, Cal State Fullerton, and SMU. Nothing too exceptional, but enough to get many to think that this could finally have been the year for the Lions. But sitting at 6-1-1 going into the middle of September, Loyola Marymount would see their season collapse for the next two months. The club lost their final three non-conference games before WCC play started up in October.
A 1-1-1 start in the league was tempered by the knowledge that the club’s conference schedule was backloaded, with most of the difficult games coming later. And it showed in the results column, with the Lions losing their final five matches in the league against the WCC’s best. The end result was the club’s first losing season since 2005 and a finish out of the RPI Top 100 for the first time in a long while.
Mallia won’t get another chance at lifting the Lions into the postseason though, having taken a job at Tennessee as an assistant on new coach Brian Pensky’s staff. The Lions brass decided to look within for his replacement, promoting longtime assistant Michelle Myers into the lead chair. Myers certainly doesn’t lack for experience with the program, having been with the club for over a decade and a half. The question is whether she can help shake LMU from a status quo which has been disappointing more often than not in recent seasons.
A main knock against Loyola Marymount heading into last season was that they looked a thoroughly one-dimensional side going forward, wholly dependent on the goals and guile of Tawni Martino to lead them to victories. Martino had been a big hit as a rookie for the Lions but found carrying the team on her back last season to be a tiring task. After eight goals as a rookie, the Lions’ talisman saw that total halved to just four goals. Even worse, Martino didn’t manage a shot on goal in the club’s final seven matches and went without a goal in the final nine. That she still ended up the club’s leading scorer spoke volumes about the struggles of LMU last year.
With the clear struggles in front of goal, the Lions needed their defense to come up big if they were to stand a chance of a respectable finish in the league. It didn’t happen, with LMU giving up nearly two goals a game in the league. It added up to a desperately poor season and lots of work to do for Myers as she prepares for her first season at the helm of the Lions.
LMU’s unquestioned #1 is junior Brittany Jagger, who redshirted in her first season here but has since turned into one of the league’s top netminders. Jagger earned WCC All-Freshman and Honorable Mention plaudits in 2010 as she played every minute in goal and saved her club’s bacon throughout. Little changed last season, with Jagger starting every match in between the pipes and seeing almost every minute of action throughout. In a league full of great keepers, Jagger should again be a standout with quick reflexes and a big-game mentality. The battle to back her up will likely come down to junior Paige Pennington, who saw mop-up duty in three matches last season, and true freshman Makenzie Larson, a rare Lions recruit coming from the Midwest.
Though this group underachieved overall last season, it does return a solid anchor in the form of junior Etajha Gilmer, a Cerritos native who looks destined to become one of the league’s top defenders. Gilmer was highly impressive as a rookie in 2010, winning a starting job right away and ended up reprising her role in defense last season on her way to All-WCC Second Team honors. Gilmer’s good for a goal or two as well, as evidenced by a pair of strikes last season. One concern is replacing departed senior full-back Marissa Zamora, a starter for three seasons out wide in defense whose experience was invaluable to the club.
Fifth-year senior Jaide Garcia will be one of a handful of Lions trying to make up the difference in defense this year. Garcia entered 2011 as a relative neophyte as far as starting experience went but ended up slotting into the starting lineup in all but one game for LMU. The versatile Garcia is also a long-throw specialist for the Lions. Sophomore Jenni Benger redshirted in 2010 but made a smooth transition back into the lineup last year, starting sixteen games, and could also feature in midfield if needed by Myers. The club will also be hoping for a return to health for senior Rachel Fell, a Brit who won plaudits in 2010 after a move to center-back that helped stabilize the LMU defense. Fell went down after just four games last season though, and her return could mean a world of difference to this defense.
Some newcomers will also be hoping to make an impression this season. Whitney Sharpe has been with the club since January of 2011 but was forced to sit out due to transfer rules, with this being her third DI stop after previous seasons spent at UCLA and Texas Tech. Once a blue chip recruit, Sharpe will be hoping to go out with a bang as a member of the Lions’ rearguard. Junior Shannon Ward comes from Cal State Northridge, where she started twelve matches a season ago and will be looking to hit the ground running as well.
Additionally, the club adds promising rookie Cassidy Nicks, who was a member of the Mustang SC club that captured the 2010 ECNL title in the U16 age group. With a fine leader in Gilmer, good depth (especially if Fell is healthy), and some tantalizing newcomers, this group should make sizable strides forward this year.
Myers should have choices galore as she seeks to establish a supply line to Martino up front. The lone expected loss in the midfield zone is Brittney Sanford, an extremely versatile player who played in midfield and defense at LMU and was a key figure in the starting lineup the past two seasons after two years as a top reserve. Sanford also took penalties and corner kicks for the club and scored two of her three goals last season from the spot. Leading the way in all likelihood will be senior Cori McGovern, a ball winner in midfield who brings three years of starting experience to the fore and is good for the odd goal and assist here and there.
Dutch sophomore Linda Bakker came in with a good deal of international experience, having played on the Holland U17 & U19 teams and ended up starting every game as a rookie here. Bakker made a modest contribution on the stat sheet with two goals and four assists, with more to come in all likelihood. The Dutch attacker could also be a second striker alongside Martino if necessary. Junior Darien Pyka, strong in the air for the Lions, was a key reserve as a rookie but saw a big boost in minutes last season, making ten starts and adding a pair of goals and assists to the cause. She’ll battle with second year players Emily Maletis and Brianne Medved, who combined for nineteen starts, for a starting spot. Medved is the second leading returner with three goals, with all three coming as game winners, and Myers will likely be hoping for an encore for her goal shy squad this season.
Providing depth are junior Megan Gallagher, one of the club’s first options off the bench after barely playing as a rookie, and sophomore Amanda Dudley, a Puerto Rican youth international. Benger could also find herself among the midfield options if needed with the increased depth available in midfield. Added to the mix are a number of newcomers, including Jocelyn Blankenship, a product of the powerful So Cal Blues club, who should give the club some more attacking thrust from midfield. If the likes of McGovern, Bakker, and Medved can produce, this group could show some appreciable improvement this year.
It really is all about Martino, whose fate is likely tied with her team’s this season, such is her importance to the offense. A Californian who was recalled into the U.S. U20 team after her superb 2010 season, Martino dazzled as a rookie, earning All-WCC First Team honors, a rarity for a first-year player in such a competitive league. Martino more than earned the plaudits though, having led the team with eight goals, including five game winners, a new school record. But without some of her supporting crew last season, Martino found herself a marked woman, ending up suffering through a very real sophomore slump.
The question now is if LMU has enough surrounding her so that she avoids a similar fate in 2012. The initial impressions aren’t exactly promising. The club loses another of the out and out listed forwards on the roster, Erin Rementer, who scored five goals in 2009 but then only one more the rest of her career, though she started thirteen games last year. San Diego Deprise Brazel, a transfer from Davidson, was the only other true forward listed on last year’s roster but was mostly a reserve last year, seeing time in just seven games and taking just one shot.
While Bakker could also see time up front to help ease the pressure, she didn’t show a distinct cutting edge in front of goal last season. It may ultimately be up to some of the newcomers to help provide some secondary scoring options beyond Martino. With that in mind, this situation is still worrying for Myers and co., and the club’s leading lady may find herself harried by swarming opposition pressure again.
While promoting Myers to the lead chair was a savvy move that quelled the usual chaos that surrounds a coach’s exit, it’s difficult envisioning this squad making too many substantial gains in her first year in charge. The defense has a chance to make a nice step forward with Fell’s return and the additions of Sharpe and Ward, but the questions on offense remain. Martino showed that while she’s very talented, she can’t do it all on her own, yet she might be facing that prospect this year with her supporting cast not necessarily looking like a group that will strike fear into the hearts of WCC defenses. If someone doesn’t step up to help take thre pressure off the club’s talisman, Marymount stands little chance of rising above mid-table in the league and almost no chance of breaking their NCAA Tournament duck.