Big East – Cincinnati | DePaul | Pittsburgh | Rutgers | Seton Hall | Syracuse | Villanova
Big Ten – Indiana | Nebraska | Purdue
Pac-12 – Arizona State | Colorado | Oregon | Utah | Washington
SEC – Mississippi State
WCC – Gonzaga | Loyola Marymount | San Francisco
2011 was a year for celebration for the Eagles of Florida Gulf Coast. It was about celebrating the club’s fifth straight winning season since making the move to Division I. It was about celebrating the team’s second straight league title, though they actually ended up sharing a piece with East Tennessee State and Jacksonville. But most of all, it was about celebrating the double, as FGCU won the Atlantic Sun Tournament and sealed a trip to the NCAA Tournament at the very first time of asking. These are heady times in Fort Myers as head coach Jim Blankenship has put the program on the map in short order, turning these Division I newcomers into one of the nation’s hottest mid-majors in a very crowded soccer landscape in the state of Florida.
It’s been an impressive career resurrection for Blankenship who won three national titles at NAIA Lynn University and helped architect Miami’s program before his star burned out in the early part of the decade. After a stint as an assistant with Florida Atlantic, Blankenship was entrusted with the reigns at Florida Gulf Coast and has more than repaid the school’s faith in him thus far. The Eagles had likely been chomping at the bit for 2011 to get started, having been in a postseason spot at the end of their previous A-Sun seasons, only if they had been eligible for postseason play. Particularly bittersweet was 2010, when the club had lifted the A-Sun title but had been unable to play in the A-Sun Tournament in their final transition year.
The 2011 season would begin at a canter, with the Eagles beginning the new season with four wins in five, which really should have been a perfect five in five had they not dropped a close one to Syracuse early on. A true reflection of FGCU’s potential could be seen in their early September loss to Blankenship’s former employers, Miami (FL), the Hurricanes only emerging with the win after extra time. A hammering against Florida was sandwiched by more positive results, a 3-2 win against Florida International and a 0-0 draw at UCF.
It didn’t take long for the cream to rise to the top once league play started. After an early scoreless draw against Jacksonville, FGCU was indomitable, winning six in a row and stretching their unbeaten run in the league to eight games. Unbelievably enough, the Eagles came into the regular season finale having yet to concede a goal in league play and carrying an overall shutout streak of nine matches. Which made it all the more shocking to see Blankenship’s side lose to Belmont in the finale, 1-0. While the Eagles still won a share of the league title, the result still saw them concede a share of the trophy to East Tennessee State and Jacksonville.
There’d be no mistakes in the A-Sun Tournament though, as Gulf Coast downed North Florida and Mercer by a goal each to complete the double and advance into the NCAA Tournament. The Eagles wouldn’t get any favors for their maiden voyage though, as they were drawn into a rematch against the Florida team that had handed them their worst loss in DI history earlier in the season. It was about as bad a draw as FGCU could have hoped for, coming up against a team that was not only very strong, but also a team that had intimate knowledge of them and wouldn’t be surprised in the least. There were no shocks to be in order, as FGCU fell 3-0 to the Gators in Gainesville. It was a minor blip on an otherwise extraordinary season for the Eagles. Now quite entrenched as the dominant force in the Atlantic Sun, the question is just how far these Eagles might be able to soar in the future.
Blankenship’s Eagles might see their wings clipped in the short-term though, as FGCU takes it on the chin as far as graduation losses are concerned. The club loses a whopping six starters from last year’s double winning team, which is enough to give any coach heartburn. The club’s defense is hit especially hard, as a unit that gave up just a single goal in the league season loses its anchor in the outstanding KC Correllus, as well as their rock in between the pipes in the 2011 A-Sun Defensive Player of the Year, Stephanie Powers. The problems in Fort Myers aren’t just limited to the defensive side of the ball either. The Eagles lose their top two scorers in the form of Gina Petracco and Olivia Elias, both All-ASun First Team selections who combined for fourteen goals and nine assists a season ago.
In all, the club has just fourteen returnees from the 2011 squad, which may have some seriously doubting FGCU going into 2012. All is not lost though, as Blankenship has shown a keen eye for talent in the past, be it in the transfer market or in the youth ranks, and that eye could pay off again this year. The Eagles landed a major coup by bringing in Wisconsin transfer Julia Roddar, who was good enough to start most of her rookie season with the Badgers, no mean feat. The Swedish youth international gets some company from a Swedish compatriot as well, as former U17 captain Sofia Fors joins the midfield for the Eagles, ensuring that, if nothing else, they’ll be able to wield a little continental flair in 2012.
One of the biggest challenges facing Blankenship and the Eagles right off the bat in 2012 is solving their goalkeeping situation, where the club must replace the ever-present Powers. Powers put her name on top of the FGCU record book (though that wasn’t hard considering the embryonic nature of the program) in style, winning All-ASun First Team honors twice to go along with last season’s Atlantic Sun Defensive Player of the Year honor. Playing behind a dominant backline, Powers established herself as one of the region’s steadiest netminders, and as a four-year starter for the club, leaves a massive void of experience behind her.
The incumbent is sophomore Danielle LeRoy, although that’s in name only considering she didn’t see a minute of action as a true freshman for the club but got the reps in Spring as the club’s only rostered goalkeeper. The club also adds some competition for her in the form of true freshmen Brittany Brown and Emily Dolan. The race for the starting job looks wide open, but filling Powers’ big shoes doesn’t figure to be easy.
The Eagles’ defense was as good as a brick wall last season in the league, conceding just once, and suffocating many a foe en route to the double. A repeat of that defensive showing could be difficult to accomplish considering the club loses half of its dominant backline to graduation. First and foremost, the club has to find some way to replace Correllus, an early contender for the program’s best ever player. Standing at what some would consider a generous 5’1″, Correllus also laid claim to being one of the A-Sun’s best ever after a career that included three All-ASun First Team selections and A-Sun Player and Defensive Player of the Year nods in 2010.
The club also must do without the services of Kathleen Hunter, another fifth-year senior who really began to blossom as an upperclassman, earning All-ASun First Team honors as a senior, along with All-ASun Tournament Team honors as well. Hunter also nabbed the crucial winner against Mercer in the regular season to help the team towards a league title.
The cupboard’s not completely bare for the Eagles though, who still return half of that dominant backline. Fifth-year senior Ashley Ciesielczyk has grown into an invaluable member of the side after beginning her career mostly as a reserve and a midfielder. Last year was a revelation though, with Ciesielczyk breaking out offensively with a whopping twelve assists to go with three goals, including two game winners. She had three assist games against North Florida and USC Upstate but may be more focused on defensive duties this season as one of the club’s defensive leaders.
Fellow senior Jennifer Crittenberger is the other starting holdover from last year’s defense and should feature prominently again. After taking her place as a rookie starter, she suffered through an injury hit sophomore season, being limited to just seven games. Crittenberger shook those woes last season though, starting twenty matches and looking assured throughout.
The key, perhaps to FGCU’s whole season, is finding replacements for those lost starters. A good bet is Kansas transfer Tamarah Stewart, who redshirted for the Jayhawks last season and was in for the Spring with the Eagles. Sophomore Dani Schulman might also be in the frame for a starting spot after being one of the club’s top reserves and also starting two matches as a rookie last year. Other options include sophomore Melissa Arnold and Roddar, who both saw time in defense in the Spring. This group probably isn’t going to fall off a cliff with Ciesielczyk and Crittenberger returning, but matching last season’s great league performance probably isn’t going to be in the cards.
While the losses in terms of sheer numbers aren’t quite as severe in the midfield, the Eagles do have to overcome the loss of shining light Olivia Elias, the club’s second leading scorer last season with six goals and four assists. A four-year starter who debuted with six assists in 2008 and earned All-ASun First Team honors in 2010 and 2011, Elias gave the midfield some needed offensive spark and is another vital piece that needs replacing this year. Also gone are reserves Amanda Goble, who scored three goals in her final year in Fort Myers, along with Brianna McCall, one of the team’s top options off the bench the past four seasons.
This season’s midfield lynchpin figures to be senior Danielle Faller, the A-Sun Freshman of the Year in 2009. Faller hasn’t quite hit the heights of stardom that that honor might’ve predicted, but she’s still been a fine disruptive force in the midfield with the ability to score the odd goal here and there as well. She earned All-ASun Second Team honors last season and could easily go one better this year. Also likely to feature is junior Kayley Clay, who transferred to FGCU from Lynn University before the 2011 season and turned into a midfield mainstay for the club as a sophomore. Three goals was a fine return, and Clay should be capable of even more as she continues to settle at this level.
The question is who on the club replaces the big presence of Elias in the midfield. Arnold saw time up front last season and in defense in the Spring but is listed as a midfielder on the roster and could provide a little bit of offensive punch after a fine four goal, three assist season as a rookie last year. Roddar comes to the club with tons of youth international experience with Sweden and perhaps just as importantly, a year of experience in the bruising Big Ten. She wasn’t a big factor offensively but is the type of player that could be a big contributor at this level.
Compatriot Fors also comes in highly regarded as a U19 international and captained her country at U17 level. While that’s no guarantee of success in the college game, Fors nonetheless is a very intriguing prospect and one that could turn out to be a big boost for the club if she pans out. Replacing Elias doesn’t promise to be easy, but there are some solid pieces here, with the additions of Roddar and Fors potentially being masterstrokes in the short and long-term for Blankenship.
Yes, FGCU has another sizable loss to compensate for in another unit, as the club has to find a way to replace Petracco, a player capable in midfield and up front who somewhat unexpectedly became the club’s leading scorer as a senior. Petracco had been a solid contributor but hadn’t even been a starter in 2010 or won All-Conference honors at any time in her career before 2011. That changed decisively last year though, with an eight goal, five assist season that was good enough to see her named to the All-ASun First Team and Atlantic Sun All-Tournament Team. After going scoreless in her first six, Petracco would turn it on, scoring her eight in the next thirteen, including braces against North Florida and USC Upstate.
Also gone is Brittany Burt, who began her career with two seasons at USF before transferring to the Eagles and ending up a major contributor, standing out most last season with an impressive seven assists, including three against Kennesaw State. Reserve Kayla Hoffay also departs after being one of the club’s top options off the bench last season.
Likely being depended on to carry the load this season will be sophomore Shannen Wacker, another of the youngsters that impressed so thoroughly on last year’s FGCU side. Wacker broke right into the first team from the first whistle, starting every match and looking lively throughout. It’d be in the A-Sun Tournament where Wacker would shine brightest though, as she scored a pair of goals, including the golden goal against Mercer that locked up an NCAA Tournament bid and A-Sun Tournament MVP honors for herself. She’ll be expected to continue making forward strides considering the losses around her.
Given those losses, Arnold might end up seeing time in attack again this year having shown she’s already handy with the ball at her feet around the goal after four goals as a rookie last year. Senior Jessica Swartzentruber also returns with starting experience, having started most of 2009 and 2010 before slipping into a super sub role last season. Swartzentruber knows where the target is as well, having scored ten goals in three seasons so far. Also fighting for time will be returning reserves Sam Vinton and Julia Martin, along with some of the newcomers. Losing Petracco might give some FGCU supporters some pause, but the return of Wacker and Arnold bodes well for the future if both don’t suffer from a sophomore slump.
It’s not like Florida Gulf Coast’s rise to the top of the Atlantic Sun was a great shock last year. They quite clearly had the most talented team in the conference going into the season and methodically polished off what was put in front of them and were very unlucky to be paired against a superior Florida team in the NCAA Tournament. This year though should tell us a great deal about the staying power of this Eagles program. Blankenship has done a fantastic job of bringing in under the radar players, along with some quality transfers in the past and might have two more gems in Roddar and Stewart. Don’t discount the addition of Fors either, a U17 captain of a country like Sweden coming to Fort Myers isn’t an every day occurrence.
The Eagles lose a lot of talent this season though, from every area on the pitch. There’s still a solid amount of talent remaining, but strength in depth might take another season or two to rebuild. You’d be foolish to count this team out entirely, but a run in the A-Sun Tournament looks far more likely than an outright league title this year.