Big East – DePaul | Pittsburgh | Seton Hall | Syracuse | Villanova
Big Ten – Indiana | Nebraska | Purdue
Pac-12 – Arizona State | Colorado | Oregon | Utah
SEC – Mississippi State
WCC – Gonzaga | Loyola Marymount | San Francisco
Time could be running short for Cincinnati head coach Michelle Salmon, who will undoubtedly be under a microscope for a pivotal fifth season in charge of the Bearcats. After a promising first season in charge in 2008, it’s been all downhill since, with last season’s dismal effort one of the lowest points in program history. It’s a massive departure from when, for a few seasons, Cincinnati was on top of the college soccer world, or at least to the extent that your run of the mill mid-major can be on top of the college soccer world. Meridy Glenn’s side strung together seasons of sixteen, twenty, and seventeen wins one after the other to go along with a Conference USA Title in 2001 and Conference USA Tournament titles in 2001 and 2002. More impressively, the Bearcats got to the Sweet Sixteen in 2001 after a famous victory over Notre Dame and then to the second round of the NCAA Tournament a season later.
And then the magic went away quite abruptly. Cincy sank back into the depths from which they emerged and suffered through five straight losing seasons from 2003 on until Glenn departed following the 2007 season. In between that time, the Bearcats had moved into a much harsher jungle, trading in Conference USA for the unforgiving clime of the Big East. Needless to say, the early years of the transition were not fruitful for Cincy as the team could be found more often than not in the bottom tier of the league.
The Bearcats found a replacement in the form of Salmon, who had worked minor miracles at Ball State in her brief time in Muncie. Indeed, after one season in charge, it looked as if Cincinnati had made a very astute choice in management with Salmon delivering the program’s first winning season since 2002 while getting the Bearcats to their first Big East Tournament and recording the program’s first postseason win in their new conference against St. John’s. Second season syndrome bit hard in 2009 though, and the Bearcats slid back to another losing record and missed out on the postseason once again, with 2010 being little better for the club, despite a non-conference win over Wisconsin.
After finishing in a tie at the bottom in the league in 2010, the pressure was on in 2011 to arrest the team’s slide and get back on the right track. An opening day loss to Cal Poly was not conducive to that goal though, and despite the Bearcats recovering with two wins in a row right after, the club would still struggle for consistency, drawing with mid-majors Loyola (Ill.) and Western Carolina. Cincy entered Big East play on a two match winning streak though and extended it with a win at DePaul for a quick three points in league play.
It’d be the team’s last win for nearly a month, as they promptly went 0-5-2 in their next seven, shipping sixteen goals in the process. A win over Seton Hall ensured the Bearcats wouldn’t be finishing on bottom of the league again, but two losses to close out the season left Salmon’s side in an unflattering fourteenth in the league when all was said and done. It also ensured that Salmon would likely be on one of the hottest seats in a major conference going into 2012.
While Cincy weren’t exactly inspiring on either side of the ball last season on the whole, they at least managed to plug the tide of goals that swept over them in Big East play in 2010. The Bearcats didn’t exactly set the world on fire, still giving up over a goal and a half, but considering that mark was much worse a season earlier, it represents progress at the very least. Offensively though, Cincinnati were uninspiring last season, not meeting the goal a game mark in the league and generally looking toothless up front. Scoring options were certainly limited last year, as only seven players scored goals, and two of those depart this year after graduation.
The good news may be that the club does return the top two leading scorers in the form of Mackenzie Grause and Jazmine Rhodes, who combined for half the club’s goals last season. They’ve still got some room to grow as well, as neither is a senior this year. More than anything though, the Bearcats need a star to emerge to help carry the team from their chronic doldrums. Given some of the promising recruits scheduled to come into the program the next three years, you’d bet on that star arriving sooner rather than later. Whether she arrives soon enough to save Salmon’s neck in the hot seat is another matter entirely.
The Bearcats were bold in tabbing true freshman Kristina Utley as their starter at the beginning of the season, and the Californian repaid the faith shown in her by holding the starting spot and so nearly playing every minute in goal for the club as a rookie. Utley had come into the program as a relatively anonymous recruit but ended up being a decent find and could be the club’s answer in the short and long-term in goal.
Senior Ashley Daniels started six matches in 2010 but was marginalized last year and may not even be assured of the backup role with the addition of hotshot recruit Natalie Smith. A regional ODP mainstay as a club player, Smith could well win the backup role if she isn’t tabbed for a redshirt this season. Then again, if she lives up to her potential, she might just challenge for more right off the bat.
Cincy could face a tough time of it on the backline without a pair of starters and with depth looking a bit limited. Kelli Pawelko’s bombing runs down the right became a familiar sight for Bearcat fans over the past four years, and the Lemont native saved her most prolific offensive season for last, leading the side with five assists as a senior. The club also must do without Erin Kaufman, a reserve forward for the first few seasons of her collegiate career who made a transition to center-back before her junior season. She was nearly unshakable from the starting lineup after that point and ended up starting every match in defense for the club in 2011. Also gone is Kay Young, a starter on and off for three years before last season where she ended up being one of the top options off the bench, with seventeen reserve appearances for the club.
Junior Kate Schmidt will likely be the club’s go-to player in the middle this year after starting every match last season. Schmidt had racked up nine starts as a rookie but really took until last year to come into her own and even tabled her first career goal in 2011 with a strike against UConn. Who partners her is a big question, with senior Liz Miller a candidate. Miller started four games in 2010 but none last year and was mostly used off the bench in her junior year. On the flanks, Jae Atkinson seems like a lock at left-back if healthy. Atkinson began the year as a constant in the lineup but only featured in five league games, and Salmon will be hoping for a full and productive season from the sophomore this year.
Canadian senior Kaylee Dakers is another option out wide after eight starts a season ago for the Bearcats. A versatile player capable of playing in defense or midfield, Dakers saw most of her time in defense last year and started the club’s final four matches. Depth isn’t exactly great, but the club does add some freshman defenders to the mix. They’ll be expected to help continue the club’s improvement in defense, but losing two starters, including Pawelko, won’t make matters easy.
This unit loses just a single starter from last season, but it’s a big loss, with the club saying farewell to Logan Ballinger. More than anything else, the club will miss Ballinger’s sheer versatility. A defender for all of 2010, Ballinger would see duties in both midfield and at left-back as a senior. The hometown product showed no hesitation in pulling the trigger, leading the team in shots on the season and finishing with three goals and two assists, including a brace against Seton Hall in the league. Depth also takes a blow with the early loss of Katie Johnson, who had functioned as one of the club’s top reserves for three seasons here.
The fulcrum in the midfield in Cincy’s 4-3-3 system is likely to be sophomore Megan Cravenor, who acquitted herself quite nicely as a rookie last year, starting every match at defensive midfielder. Cravenor didn’t get involved offensively that much but showed she can still make things happen when she did, scoring against Notre Dame. Classmate Christi Howard was equally influential as a rookie last year, also making nineteen starts and chipping in with three goals during her freshman year. The most dramatic of her scoring efforts was a late winner against Northwestern in August, and the hometown native should continue to be a mainstay in the lineup this year.
Finding someone to replace Ballinger in the starting lineup could be key for this unit. Junior Katie Buczek was a top reserve with some spot starts last year and added a couple of assists to the cause and might be considered a top candidate for the vacant starting role. Sophomore Elizabeth Wargo wasn’t quite as involved offensively but still made thirteen appearances off the bench last year and likely would’ve made more had injury not taken her out late. The club will also likely be looking for a comeback from junior Natalie Domanic, who played in eleven games as a rookie but missed all of last year. Cravenor and Howard are nice building blocks for this unit, but they’re still both young and now without their senior leader beside them, meaning this unit could be up and down at times this year.
A priority for Cincy will likely be finding a replacement for departed senior Emily Hebbeler, one of the team’s constants in the lineup over the past three seasons. Hebbeler looked to be on the way to stardom for the Bearcats after six goals as a sophomore but struggled to live up to those expectations after, with her goals total dipping for two straight season after. Hebbeler would score three in seven early last year but ended up firing goose eggs in league play, not scoring in the team’s last eleven games, though she did finish with four assists.
Luckily for the Bearcats, some of the scoring slack was picked up by the young duo of Rhodes and Grause. A towering junior from Long Beach, Rhodes again showed improvement after a solid freshman season by scoring five goals on the year, including golden goals against the College of Charleston and league rivals DePaul. Grause was a big hit as a rookie with six goals and three assists, including three goals and two assists on one weekend against the College of Charleston and Coastal Carolina. She’d slow down a bit later in the year, with just two goals in the league, but Grause still showed tantalizing signs of talent for the future with the Bearcats.
Senior Evi Ranson and junior Alexis Scott were relatively sparsely used as reserves last year and may have trouble holding off the club’s bright young thing for Hebbeler’s vacated starting spot. True freshman Laura Rose comes in with plenty of plaudits and potential and will be expected to make a big contribution right off the bat for the club. It’s not a very deep group, but there’s enough potential here to think that Cincy could be moving on up offensively this year.
The Bearcats might consider going with the same starting group for so many matches last season part blessing, part curse. On the one hand, it allowed the club to build some continuity (even though it didn’t exactly work out in the final table). On the other, it leaves the team facing something of an uphill battle when graduation hits hard like it does this year. There’s some very intriguing young talent on the club, especially up front, where the likes of Grause, Rhodes, and potentially Rose, could be an exciting group to watch against Big East foes.
But proven depth is in short supply, as is overall experience, which has to temper hopes severely this season for the Bearcats. If the youngsters don’t tighten up in key moments, Cincy could make an outside run at the postseason. More than likely though, the Bearcats may have to be content with marginal gains in a building process that may well truly test the patience of the Bearcats brass as Salmon tries to continue to build a contender.