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 | Ole Miss
WCC – Gonzaga | Loyola Marymount | San Francisco
Common logic states that no side in a league as big as the Pac-12 should be in the Bottom 100 of the RPI. Any team in a league like the Pac-12 or ACC typically gets a massive boost in the RPI rankings due to degree of difficulty of opponents, especially in league play. Therefore, for Arizona to end up near the 250 mark in the RPI a season after they had been at #138 despite a 5-13-2 record, you knew that something had to have gone drastically wrong. It was not the kind of sophomore season head coach Lisa Oyen could have envisioned or hoped for with the Wildcats.
Arizona had taken the interim tag off of Oyen after the former assistant had stepped up into the role in the middle of the 2009 season when former coach Dan Tobias had stepped down. Tobias had brought success to Tucson once upon a time but had lost the locker room and his reign was coming under increasing scrutiny from the local media, not helped by waves upon waves of defections from the program. After a 4-15-1 season in 2009, the feeling was that regardless of how Oyen did in her first season in charge, the program couldn’t sink much further. To a degree, the sentiment was correct. Despite a tattered side, put together piecemeal from those who had braved out the storm of the previous leadership, the club won one more game than in 2009 and only dipped a few places in the RPI.
But warning signs were evident heading into 2011. The club was perilously thin on the ground in veteran leadership with defections having taken their toll. And to their credit, UA was not shying away in the least from a challenge, scheduling a long line of challenging non-conference opponents. But the Wildcats found themselves completely and utterly toothless going forward. It wasn’t just that Arizona was losing but that they were looking so feeble in the process. The club went its first five games without scoring a goal before scoring two in a 4-2 loss against Oklahoma. The losses continued to pile up until the club battled for a 0-0 draw against Texas Tech.
Some wondered if the Wildcats stood a glimmer of a chance of even winning a game, entering Pac-12 play with a 0-7-1 record. A 7-0 loss to Stanford in the opener likely slashed the odds of a winless season considerably. As did a draw with fellow strugglers Colorado and a 3-1 loss to a Utah side that many felt was the league’s weakest. At long last though, the Wildcats would squeak out a 1-0 win against Oregon, the club’s first victory in nearly a calendar year. There would be no more coming in 2011 though.
Through the final seven matches of the season, the club scored just two goals as they lost their remaining games. Four losses would be by just a single goal, but there was little sugarcoating how bad Arizona had been. You could reasonably make a case for these Wildcats as having been one of the worst major conference teams over a single season of all-time.
Oyen will be hoping that 2011 was the low point of her time in charge of the Wildcats, and realistically, it can’t get much worse for the club. The offense was just mindbogglingly bad, scoring just eight goals all season, though the club did step it up in league play, with six of those goals, though they still finished on bottom in the Pac-12 attacking chart. Defensively, things were little better for the Wildcats, as they gave up over two and a half goals a game in the league, their mistakes being punished ruthlessly by some of the nation’s best.
Things should be looking up from an experience standpoint as well. The attrition that had ravaged the club also left them very young last year, with just one senior on the club, goalkeeper Ashley Jett. The experience problem should be better this year with all the returnees, while a very talented group of newcomers could close the talent gap between the Wildcats and some of the other Pac-12 clubs if they can acclimate to the collegiate game quickly.
The club does suffer a big blow with the loss of Mexican international Renae Cuellar though, as the would-be senior fought injury problems and then University administration after being forced out of CONCACAF Olympic Qualifiers that caused her to miss classes. Unsurprisingly, there was no way back for either party after that, and Cuellar transferred to Oklahoma in the offseason. It leaves the club without their biggest threat in front of goal going into 2012, which might be a severe problem considering this team’s scoring struggles last year.
One of Oyen’s biggest challenges in 2012 will be finding a netminder capable of standing up to the barrage of shots Arizona’s likely to face in this, another rebuilding year. Departed senior Ashley Jett started every match last season and made thirty-seven starts in the past two years after two seasons of mop-up duty. Oyen has plenty of options available to her to replace Jett, but the experience is lacking to say the least.
Junior Lorena Aragon started the first two matches of 2010 and played in relief two times last year but faces stiff competition from three other keepers. Classmate Jamie Wilkinson may be the longest shot having not played a single minute in two seasons thus far. The favorite for the position may be sophomore transfer Gabby Kaufman, who started three games for Texas Tech last year but was likely surplus to requirements in Lubbock with the emergence of Victoria Esson.
For good measure, the club also adds Canadian freshman Alison Gondosch to give Arizona four keepers to choose from in 2012. Kaufman is the likely favorite for the spot, but with so little experience, Oyen may elect to give multiple keepers a run out until someone locks the starting spot down.
With a lack of experience in goal, this group is going to have to be on their toes to help the new netminder out. That itself could be problematic considering as stated above how bad this defense was last year. If there’s a little solace, it’s that an extra year of experience might do the returnees some good. Of course, there’s also the fact that Oyen injects the club with some fresh talent which also can’t hurt. Canadian senior Alex Smith is the likely leader of the group after starting every match last year. Smith had been a promising freshman who had missed much of the early half of 2010 through illness, and getting the Calgary native back for the entirety of last year helped. Smith also scored the team’s only game winning goal last year, which happened to come from the penalty spot.
Junior Shannon Heinzler was recruited as a midfielder but pressed into defense as a rookie and has stuck there for two seasons. With the influx of defenders, she could well be shifted back into the midfield if necessary. Senior Kirstyn Magyar was the other defender with double digit starts and likely would’ve piled on more to her thirteen had she not missed a stretch of four games in September. Magyar’s a three-year starter and also provides plenty of starting experience for the Wildcats.
Junior Gabrielle Linderman had started the first twenty-nine games of her career, including the first nine last season before being knocked out for the season and could slip back into a starting role if healthy. Sophomores Mykaylin Rosenquist and Desiree Bramlette combined for eight starts last year but will be in a battle along with the other returnees with some promising newcomers on the backline.
Altadena native Alexa Montgomery has pace to burn, while Sheaffer Skadsen is a physical presence who could also be tried out up front to liven up the team’s attacking potential. Tall, rugged hometown product Sheridan Cohen also comes in tipped for success and could fill any of the spots on the backline for Oyen. Honestly, the defense can’t get much worse than last year’s follies, and the infusion of freshman talent could do this group some real good.
The midfield’s another area getting the bulk of its personnel back for 2012, as well as also getting a much needed talent boost from rookies. Fifth-year senior Jessica Culver had been highly praised by the coaching staff but had struggled to stay healthy until last year, where she finally stayed off the training table and was a mainstay in the starting lineup, with eighteen starts for the club. Also making eighteen starts was senior Ariel Boulicault, who came into 2011 after a three assist campaign in 2010 but went without a point last year.
Senior Kristin Griffin missed almost all of four seasons for the Wildcats but made a successful return to the club last year, making eleven starts in the midfield for the club and should be back for a sixth and final year if granted medical hardship by the NCAA for the seasons missed. Sophomore LeeAndra Smith also will be looking for more minutes after starting a pair of games last year and generally being one of the club’s top reserves.
Depth should be provided by some of the returnees up front, along with some promising freshmen. Lexe Selman is a two-footed Utah native who turned some heads in ECNL play with the Utah Avalanche club, while Kaitlyn Lopez is another local product who can play in either the midfield or attack but will likely be used in midfield for her offensive talents. This group has experience and a fair amount of depth, but it remains to be seen if they’ve got the punch to support an offense that could struggle.
Losing Cuellar certainly isn’t the best of news considering the Mexican international had been the team’s only spark in attack for quite some time. Though injury prone, she had six goals in five games in 2010 and eleven as a freshman in 2009. But before getting hurt last year she also felt the strain of the club’s lack of firepower, being shutout as defenses felt free to swarm around her.
Colombian youth international Ana-Maria Montoya was thrown into the deep end as a true freshman in 2010 and did well, scoring goals against UCF and Cal. Montoya only scored once last season though and will be hoping for a big breakthrough as a junior this year. Classmate Jazmin Ponce has had a similar career track (albeit without the international experience) and made a big impact in 2010 with three goals but slipped to two last season. Those goals were in the club’s final five games though, and Oyen will be hoping some of that late season momentum can carry over.
Canadian senior Kristin Strother brings lots of experience to the table, including fifteen starts last year, but has shown little in front of goal, with no goals in the past two seasons. Strother is one of many contenders from this group to be moved into midfield. The rest of the group is short on experience and even shorter on production. Seniors Sarah NeSmith, Susana Melendez, junior Samantha Cummings, and sophomores Julia Glanz, Brie DeFelice, and Emily Lai will all be jockeying for minutes in a crowded field of forwards.
The big wild card is junior Candice Osei-Agyemang, who’s missed two seasons due to injury and a transfer from Yale but is a former Ghana youth international and could easily play her way into big minutes this year. This group is the clear weakness for the Wildcats right now, but you question whether they’ve improved it enough over the offseason to make a difference in an unforgiving league.
Uphill battle doesn’t even begin to describe it for Oyen in Tuscon. While the head coach of the Wildcats put together a nice recruiting class this season, it’s plainly going to take more than one good set of recruits to turn around the fortunes of a program which cratered last season. Uncertainty and lack of production in goal and up front are usually a combination for disaster for collegiate teams, and Arizona faces both this season with Jett’s graduation and Cuellar’s transfer.
The latter is more worrying at this point, because Arizona looks so feeble in attack, with this recruiting class also short on forwards. Getting to .500 would probably take a miracle unless the club loads up on creampuffs in non-conference play, and that wouldn’t be worth it considering it’d likely leave the team ill-prepared for Pac-12 matches. Getting off the bottom of the league this year is going to take some doing, but Oyen surely can’t endure another one-win season without her job security becoming a concern.