Big East – Cincinnati | DePaul | Pittsburgh | Rutgers | Seton Hall | South Florida | 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
The SEC table hasn’t made for happy reading for Ole Miss supporters over the past two seasons. After a long, long history of mostly mid-table mediocrity, the Rebels had put together their best season in ages in 2009, challenging for an SEC title and making it to the NCAA Tournament. But the news that longtime coach Steve Holeman had jumped ship and taken the head job at conference rival Georgia jarred the program from its moorings. Since, it’s been more of a rebuilding project than most Ole Miss supporters would probably care to admit.
Ole Miss turned to Texas assistant Matt Mott to fill the coaching vacancy before the 2010 season, and it’s been a struggle to keep up in the league in the two seasons since. Mott was thrust into a rather difficult situation, taking over in the spring of 2010, with basically no time to bring in any of his players before the season. Quickly into the new campaign it became apparent that this Rebels team was a far cry from 2009’s title contenders, and Ole Miss, still trying to compensate from some heavy losses to graduation and long-term injury, found itself in a fight just to make the postseason. A late rally in October had most thinking the Great Escape was on, but Ole Miss were upset on the last day of the season by Mississippi State, seeing them drop out of the postseason places. It was a depressing end to a run that had seen Ole Miss qualify for every SEC Tournament since 1997.
With a little more time to settle into the job, the goal in 2011 was to rise back into the postseason in the demanding SEC. The season started out decently with three straight wins, though only the victory over Texas Tech, in Lubbock, really resonated. A draw with Wright State was less than desirable, and followed by predictable defeats to Duke and Memphis, away from home. The real beginning of the end for the Rebels began just before league play started though, as the club suffered a disastrous defeat to Conference USA strugglers UAB, 4-2.
It was the beginning of a tailspin that saw the club lose eight of nine, including seven of the club’s first eight SEC matches. To stand any chance of making it back to the SEC Tournament, Ole Miss would have to win their remaining three matches and pray for results elsewhere to swing their way. Things looked good going into the final day, after Ole Miss had crushed Vanderbilt before upsetting Kentucky in Lexington. It appeared that the Rebels had gotten out of jail on the last day of the season after getting revenge on Mississippi State for the end of 2010, beating the Bulldogs, 2-0. But Alabama would swoop in late to beat Auburn in their finale, leaving Ole Miss in the unlucky ninth spot in the table once again. It must have been doubly frustrating for the Rebels considering they had whipped Alabama, 3-0, in the regular season.
Inevitably though, Mott’s side had nobody to blame but themselves in the end. The Rebels had lost in extra time to league doormat Arkansas, blown chances to pick up points against LSU and Auburn, and perhaps most egregiously, fluffed their lines against Tennessee, going up 3-0 after thirty-two minutes, only to lose in extra time, 4-3. Ole Miss has certainly suffered some cruel hammer blows at the end of Mott’s first two seasons in charge, but there have been some self-inflicted wounds that have to be eliminated in the future if the Rebels are to get back in the SEC Tournament and beyond.
Consistency is probably going to be the name of the game in Oxford if Ole Miss harbor hopes of getting back to the SEC Tournament come November. The Rebels showed that they could be a real offensive force last season with a big win against Alabama and the early minutes of the game against Tennessee bearing witness. But the club laying an egg against Arkansas, the second half against Tennessee, and the accompanying no-show a few days later against Georgia only seemed to confirm the maddening ups and downs this club was prone to.
Something that might breed a little more consistency is a full season of Brazilian Rafaelle Souza. Souza had come into Oxford as a key member of the Brazilian youth international sides and was as good as advertised as a rookie, with nine goals and seven assists. Injuries late in the season took their toll though and showed just how reliant the Rebels were on their talisman. The offense had to be on their game, because the defense was a wreck at times last year, giving up almost two goals a game, though that was still in line with many of the lesser teams in the league. If Ole Miss has any ambitions of exiting that group though, they have to tighten up that rearguard in a hurry.
Transition might be the name of the game this season for Ole Miss, who’s still searching for someone to come in and lock down the starting role that has been passed around like a hot potato for Mott’s tenure here. Departed senior Alley Ronaldi had looked like a potential star as a sophomore a season after winning the starting job late in the year as a freshman walk-on. A severe downturn in confidence would lead to Ronaldi losing the starting spot in 2010, though her competition, Sarah Story, transferred after the season. History essentially repeated itself last year, with Ronaldi beginning the year as the club’s starter but losing her job at the beginning of October to true freshman Kelly McCormick.
A promising prospect from the powerhouse So Cal Blues club, McCormick came into Oxford with a lot of potential but suffered through some inconsistent and nervy displays in goal last season. She still looks the club’s goalkeeper of the future (and present), but performances need to improve this season to maintain that status. Battling for the backup role this season will be junior transfer Brianna Supulski, who saw a handful of starts at Indiana State as the Sycamores backup the past two seasons, and true freshman Emily Wilbert, another Californian.
Defense wasn’t exactly this team’s strong suit last season, and it might take a Herculean effort to change that this season with the loss of two full-time starters and another veteran who started nine games. The big loss is of ironwoman Meredith Snow, a rock on defense who ended up starting every possible match in her four-year career with the Rebels while winning All-SEC Second Team honors last year. Another full-time starter departing is Kendyl Mygatt, who began her career at Texas Tech and than transferred to Ole Miss where she played up front for a season before making a move to defense, where she started the past two seasons. The Georgia native also chipped in with three assists as a senior last year. Also gone is Chelsea Heimann, who started twenty-one games in two years for the club after transferring from North Texas before the 2010 season.
Starting experience isn’t exactly a strength for the returning defense. Hulking senior Emily Sinovich saw a lot of time as a defensive midfielder last season but may end up back where she played at UAB, in the backline, likely as a center-back. Sinovich started eighteen games last year, which is much, much more than the other returnees. Junior Maddie Cunningham has mostly been a reserve for the club up to this point but did make eight starts a season ago and scored against Arkansas. Junior Kim Duff and sophomore Virginia Seiler were scarcely used reserves last year but could be pushed into more minutes out of necessity. Additionally, if things get bad, the club could turn to forwards Alix Hildal, who played as a full-back her first two seasons here, and Rafaelle Souza, who plays as a full-back for Brazil, to plug a gap or two with the offense in general looking in much better shape than the defense.
More than likely though, Mott and his staff will be leaning heavily on some newcomers to do a job right away. Left-back Jessica Hiskey is a two-footed, marauding attacker that also has been praised for her 1v1 defending skill and should compete for a starting spot right away. Versatile Maddie Friedmann comes from Midwest powerhouse St. Louis Scott Gallagher and has been another rookie tipped to impress right out of the gate for the club. Given the general inexperience and unproven nature of most of the returnees, the above duo and a few others might win starting minutes right off the bat. There’s great upside with this incoming group, but there’s also a lot of youth, meaning the Rebels could be in for some growing pains on the backline in a very unforgiving league.
This group takes a major hit from a depth perspective, with the loss of at least five players from last year’s unit, including unit lynchpin Dylan Jordan. A three-year starter for the Rebels after transferring from SMU, Jordan saw her goals total increase every season at Ole Miss, finishing with eight goals and All-SEC Second Team honors last season. Impressively, six of Jordan’s eight goals as a senior came in league play, including a hat trick in the defeat to Tennessee.
The losses down the depth chart are heavy as well. Jenna Strother, who started every match as a junior in 2010, was more of a key reserve and spot starter last year but scored three goals having not scored any in three seasons before. Abbie Curran had started in defense in 2010 before blowing out her knee in SEC play. She’d return to the starting lineup late last season and did a little bit of everything for the Rebels during her four-year tenure with the club.
Fortunately for Ole Miss they do return a few experienced campaigners to the lineup. Junior Mandy McCalla built on an SEC All-Freshman Team campaign in 2010 with another successful season as the club’s second leading scorer with five goals, including a brace against Mississippi State. McCalla should again be a midfield stalwart for the Rebels while be good for a handful of goals in the attack. Likely joining her in the midfield will be classmate Emily Reid, who was a solid success after a transfer from Oklahoma before the 2011 season, scoring two goals and adding an assist against The Citadel while starting all but one game for the club.
If the defense gets sorted out quickly, Sinovich could end up back here as well as a much needed shield in front of the back four. Depth is most definitely not this group’s strong suit though. Senior Meghan O’Rourke and sophomore Mary Louise Clawson both saw fleeting time off the bench but are probably among the top returning options in reserve for the club. With that in mind, this is definitely another are of the pitch that should see its fair share of freshman contributors this year.
Attack, attack, attack is likely to be the credo employed by the Rebels this season as they try and compensate for some defensive inadequacies. Luckily for Ole Miss, they might just have enough weapons going forward to get away with gung ho stylings. Rafaelle Souza is obviously the focal point of the attack, used as a full-back for country but irresistible up front for the Rebels leading the line. Five goals in her first three games were sign enough that the Brazilian may have been as good as the hype that surrounded her arrival in Oxford, and the rookie would continue to show her dazzling form throughout the season, though she did slow down in SEC play, scoring against just one team, a brace against Alabama. Souza was injured against Tennessee and the club promptly lost the three games she missed by multiple goals, underlining her importance to the club. Possessor of outrageous free-kick ability and typical Brazilian flair, Souza was a contender for a spot on the Brazilian WNT’s Olympic roster, having earned her first cap at senior level this offseason. Though she fell short of that goal, the junior should still shine this season with another year to acclimate to the physical play of the SEC.
Senior Alix Hildal was arguably the club’s top performer last season after a move to the attack from full-back and scored a crucial game winning goal against Kentucky late in the year. With ten goals combined in the past two seasons, Hildal has shown her value in front of goal but may be slid back into defense given the improved depth in attack. Junior Erin Emerson has been another steady performer the past two seasons, having started every game for the club in attack. Emerson was not as prolific as some of her teammates in front of goal though, with two strikes last season both coming against Jackson State, though she did add four assists.
Returning depth isn’t great, with Margaret Thomas, a sophomore, one of the few other returnees to the frontline this season. McCalla could probably be used in a pinch up front, but the Rebels will likely turn towards some of their highly touted attacking recruits to add firepower this year. The reigning Tennessee Gatorade State Player of the Year, Olivia Harrison is a big, quick, two-footed goalscorer who can play as a center forward or as a wide forward and is able to dish out assists as easily as she scores goals and should be an instant contender for serious minutes here.
Also a Gatorade State Player of the Year, Mississippian Sara Coleman is another quick attacker with extensive ODP experience as well as being a member of the powerful NASA club and should also feature early in her Rebels career. There’s plenty of firepower here, both returning and new, but it remains to be seen if they can score at a high enough clip to compensate for what looks like a potentially wobbly defense.
There’s middling and dull and middling and exciting, and Ole Miss figures to fit the archetype of the latter this season. Souza has the potential to become one of the league’s very best strikers if she isn’t kicked into the air ad nauseam by opposing defenses in the SEC. Fortunately for the Rebels, they’ve got some nice secondary weapons, including some rookies who could provide an instant injection of offense to a club that has struggled with depth the past few years. Going the other way? Well, it’ll probably be exciting, though not for the reasons Rebels fans are probably hoping for.
Some of the youngsters have great upside, but upside only counts for so much in an all-offense, all the time league like the SEC, so the Rebels’ rearguard could get plucked apart by high powered opponents this season. There’s enough offense here to hold off the lower reaches of the league in all likelihood while potentially springing an upset or two in the league, which might just be enough to get Ole Miss back into the postseason for the first time since 2009.