Big East – Cincinnati | DePaul | Pittsburgh | Rutgers | Seton Hall | St. John’s (NY) | Syracuse | Villanova
Big Ten – Indiana | Nebraska | Purdue
Mid-Majors – Florida Gulf Coast
Pac-12 – Arizona State | Colorado | Oregon | Utah | Washington
SEC – Mississippi State
WCC – Gonzaga | Loyola Marymount | San Francisco
Denise Schilte-Brown has worked minor miracles in Tampa over the last few seasons, but there was nothing divine about South Florida’s 2011 season, as the Bulls were one of the nation’s most disappointing teams. After a brilliant 2010 season that featured a trip to the Big East Tournament final and an NCAA Tournament first round win over Auburn, expectations were high heading into last season, which made the Bulls’ flop that much more discouraging. Schilte-Brown has in large part breathed life into a USF program that had for too long been nothing more than an afterthought in the state’s competitive soccer scene.
Overshadowed by giants Florida and Florida State and even more modest efforts like UCF and Miami (FL), the Bulls were going nowhere fast when Schilte-Brown took over for T. Logan Fleck before the 2007 season. The Bulls had spent most of their history in Conference USA, or more precisely in mid-table or worse in the league with the sole exception of the 1998 season where USF claimed a shock league title and went a stunning 15-1-3 overall but were unfathomably left out of the NCAA Tournament after losing their only match on the season in the C-USA Tournament. The Bulls weren’t much to talk about in the league after that season, and most thought that South Florida might be in for a world of hurt once they moved up in class so to speak and hopped over to the Big East before the 2005 season.
The Bulls’ first two years in their new home weren’t much to write home about with seven and six wins respectively and failed to qualify for the postseason in either year. Schilte-Brown’s first season at the helm wasn’t great either at 4-10-3, but she did manage to get them to their first Big East Tournament. They wouldn’t get back there until 2009 which was a landmark season for South Florida as they had their first winning season since 1999 and won their first postseason match since 1998. 2010 was another quantum leap forward for the program, with USF making it to the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever on the back of a strong surge down the stretch as the Bulls were one of the hottest teams in the country from the middle of October on.
With nobody daring to overlook the Bulls now, the big question was if the increased scrutiny and respect from their peers would cause USF to wilt under the bright lights. An unflattering answer would seemingly come early, with the Bulls being destroyed in Orlando by state rivals (and future Big East rivals) UCF, 5-1. The shellshocked Bulls got to lick their wounds at home for the next seven matches but suffered further setbacks with a defeat to Vanderbilt and an inexplicable scoreless draw against minnows Murray State.
Confidence in USF was hardly at an all-time high heading into Big East play, and it didn’t rise after the club headed into October on the back of a stretch of just one win in five. While three of those results were draws, they were of quite the different sorts upon further examination. A draw at home to defending national champs Notre Dame on national television highlighted what this Bulls team could do on their day. But the bad side of USF had been exposed four days earlier in a 2-2 draw at an awful Pittsburgh side.
There’d be no late rally in 2011 for South Florida though. Four losses to open up the month ended the Bulls’ postseason hopes with a thud. The last few games were nothing but dead rubber for a disappointed South Florida side who head into 2012 needing to pick themselves off the mat after such a vexing season.
South Florida perhaps paid the price for what could generously be called “dartboard recruiting”. Schilte-Brown and her assistants targeted anyone and everyone seemingly, bringing in international players, DI transfers, and JUCO transfers into the squad in rapid fire fashion. It’s resulted in some nauseating roster churn over the past few seasons, and last year, South Florida had to deal with an unfathomable thirty-five players on the roster. Unsurprisingly, minutes were hard to come by for many, and the bloated roster situation has essentially been corrected with a big wave of graduation and almost as many early exits from Tampa. While the club returns just sixteen players from last year’s roster, it adds in eleven newcomers, putting the expected final roster at a manageable twenty-seven players.
Unfortunately for Schilte-Brown and the Bulls, among those departing are some of the club’s best players. Norway’s Anne Vikre looked like one of the league’s most promising midfielders as a redshirt freshman but has departed. The big loss though is of battering ram forward Chelsea Klotz, who scored just five goals but had little support up front, with nobody else scoring more than four times. Offense on the whole was a sore spot for the Bulls last year, with the attacking bogging down and not scoring a goal a game in the league, helping to spoil the club’s modest defensive effort. Improving in front of goal doesn’t promise to be easy without Klotz though.
Schilte-Brown has some major worries to deal with in goal this year with the graduation of last year’s starter, Nicole McClure. McClure began her collegiate career at Hawaii but eventually fell out of favor, transferring to USF and finally making her Bulls debut in 2010. McClure would maintain a death grip on the starting job throughout her tenure in Tampa, staring all forty matches over the past two seasons for the club. Obviously, McClure’s monopoly on minutes won’t make things easy this year as the Bulls seek out a replacement.
Senior Summer Ikeda, last season’s backup looks like the tentative starter going into preseason. Ikeda came into USF last season with a fair degree of plaudits, having been named a JUCO All-American with American River College after two impressive seasons. Ikeda couldn’t crack the lineup that often last season, but she still has great potential and could end up being a nice find for the club this season. There are plenty of contenders for the job though. Sophomore Hannah Jasurda and true freshman Sydney Drinkwater will also be vying for the gloves, but the real sleeper is another rookie, Christiane Endler.
A Chilean international who represented her country at the 2011 Pan-Am Games as well as the U20 World Cup, Endler was also named Chilean Player of The Year in 2008, 2009, and 2010. The upside for Endler is enormous, and if she acclimates to the American game quickly, she could be an astute addition for Schilte-Brown and co.
The Bulls probably don’t want to hear that they’ve got some issues in defense also, considering the questions hanging over the club in goal. USF used a relatively stable set of defenders on the backline last year, which was good for continuity in the short-term but not so great for this season when the club has to replace half that starting group. Brittany Pilon broke into the starting lineup late in her redshirt freshman season here and started for two seasons before being pushed back into reserve duty in 2010. She roared back into the starting lineup last year though, starting sixteen games in her final season with the club. Also gone is burly Molly Stack, who started every match as a rookie and proved herself a potent threat going forward as well, logging three assists the past two seasons, all in a four game stretch last year. Abby Sams, a versatile sophomore who played in eight games and started three matches last year, also departs, cutting into the depth of a group that was thin to begin with.
The Bulls do return a couple of seniors to the fold to lead what could be a group in serious flux. Alexandra “Boo” Eagle has looked to put fear into opposing strikers for a while now and enters 2012 with the chance to leave Tampa as a four-year starter. Eagle doesn’t have a lot of nous going forward, but she does have boatloads of experience, which could be vital considering the changes this year. Classmate Kelly Campbell also returns and has been a prominent starter the past two seasons with the club and finished with a goal and an assist last season in sixteen starts.
After them? Well, good luck. The other returnees have barely seen the pitch, while only two of the newcomers look to be defenders. Keep an eye on left-back Bianca Norman though. Norman was a member of the national champion Tyler JC squad last season and as the NJCAA National Tournament MVP last season. A burner down the wing, Norman could feature in defense or attack, but given the team’s shortage of defenders, it seems more likely she’ll be on the backline this year. This team does return some veterans, but the overall lack of depth is alarming.
Lots of comings and goings for a group which loses no less than eight players who saw serious time last year. The Norwegian Vikre had missed all of 2010 through injury but had shown her quality last season in fifteen starts, logging a pair of assists and showing tantalizing glimpses of quality, so her loss is a blow for sure. Canadian Gina Pacheco came into the new year as a keen threat offensively after having combined for seven assists in the two previous years but was caged offensively, going without a point in seventeen starts. The other departure with double digit starts, Valorie O’Brien, was another seemingly primed for a breakout season in 2011 after four goals a season earlier but was instead limited to just two goals, though one was against Notre Dame on national television.
Among the other departures, Noelle Pineiro’s absence will certainly be felt. Stardom appeared to be over the horizon after six goals and five assists as a sophomore, but Pineiro cooled off a bit for her final two seasons, though three goals and three assists last season was a respectable haul. Canadian Rehana Murani, Brit Amber Grose, and Floridians Chantelle Goodson and Kathy Drury all depart as well, dealing some big blows to this unit’s depth for 2012.
The best returner on this unit by leaps and bounds is also the only one with more than three starts last year, senior Taylor Patterson. A Canadian youth international, Patterson turned heads in 2010 with six goals, including three game winners in USF’s excellent campaign. She’d score half that last season but is still a solid source of offense and may need to up the goal count considering the fractured nature of the midfield. Sister Cara, a sophomore, had a modest start to her college career with just one start and one goal but will have every opportunity to lock down a starting spot with all the openings this year. Other reserves looking to make their mark include Kayla Bala, a former Florida transfer who started three games last year, and sophomore Sarah Miller, a top option off the bench last season who could also feature up front.
More than likely though, this unit’s fortunes may hang on some of the club’s newcomers. New Zealand youth international Olivia Chance may miss time at the U20 World Cup but should be a creative influence down the left for the Bulls and has been tipped to make an immediate impact by Schilte-Brown. Speaking of missing time for the U20 World Cup, USF might also be without right winger Paola Lopez, another promising talent from Puebla, Mexico, a crafty operator down the flank who actually scored against the Bulls in a 2010 exhibition match with the Mexican U17 team.
Soraya Martinez looks to be the club’s top domestic recruit this season and is another midfielder able to break players down on the dribble. With Martinez being in Tampa the whole season, she could well earn a starting spot very early for the Bulls. This group has a lot of potential from the rookies and has a nice leader in the elder Patterson, but bridging the gap between the newcomers and the elder stateswoman could inevitably give USF fits this season.
Ironically, this may still be the Bulls’ strong point despite the loss of Klotz in attack. Klotz was brutally effective in 2009 and 2010, combining for twenty goals as her, and her squad’s, profile began to rise in the national consciousness. An unflinching forward despite being just 5’4″, Klotz’s physicality will be missed, and the Lakeland native graduates as the club’s third all-time leading goalscorer after last year’s four goal haul.
England’s Demi Stokes will be hoping to pick up the slack in attack after showing some real signs of quality as a rookie last year. An England youth international and former Sunderland Ladies stalwart, Stokes may have just started eleven games but made an impact with four goals and four assists. Stokes would miss the final four games of the season but was still voted to the All-Big East Second Team, a big mark of respect from opposing coaches. A little more acclimated to the college game, she could be a sleeper threat for double digit goals. Welsh classmate Sharla Passariello is another youth international who also happens to own three caps with the senior team and looked like a candidate for a breakout campaign following goals in both of USF’s NCAA Tournament games in 2010. She’d spark for three goals last year, but you get the feeling there’s still more to come from the Abergavenny native.
Returning depth looks hard to come by though, with fifth-year senior Marsha Harper likely the top of the remaining options. Harper started four games in her first season with the club after a transfer from Florida but may also be needed in defense given the lack of numbers there. Stokes is a fine building block, but she may face a tough go of it if Schilte-Brown can’t find other weapons to utilize alongside her.
The Bulls have the unfortunate looks of a team caught between generations this year, which makes their failings last season all the more disappointing. USF gets slammed by losses across the board in every position, including, arguably, the club’s best player in Klotz. There are still some glimmers of quality on display such as Stokes, but there’s also a ton of inexperience here, with newcomers almost guaranteed to see major time right off the bat as Schilte-Brown tries to fill holes. Some of the newcomers have great potential, but potential often takes time to develop in a league like the Big East, likely severely limiting the Bulls’ upside this year. If everything falls into place, a spot in the Big East Tournament isn’t out of the question, but a deep postseason run and a slot in the NCAA Tournament doesn’t look too likely.