AWK’s 2012 NCAA Soccer Preview – Big Sky Conference

Preview Index

General | Conference Realignment Breakdown | Final 2012 Recruiting Class Rankings | Early 2013/2014 Recruiting Class Rankings

DI Independents

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 | Arizona State | Colorado | Oregon | Utah | Washington
SEC – Mississippi State | Ole Miss
WCC – Gonzaga | Loyola Marymount | San Francisco

Teams listed in order of final 2012 RPI finish:

For a while the youngest member of the Big Sky Conference, Northern Colorado came of age in 2011, winning the Big Sky title in their sixth season in the conference. The Bears surprised many by finishing in second place in the Big Sky in just their second season in the league in 2007. Two years of finishing at or near the bottom of the conference followed, leading some to question whether UNC was just a one hit wonder. It was good then that the Bears came up with perhaps their best season in DI up to that point in 2010, with UNC topping double digits in wins and rocketing up the table.

With a settled and quietly talented squad at their disposal, Northern Colorado entered 2011 as many sharps’ picks to win the Big Sky and make a push for the NCAA Tournament. The new year started with two losses to state rivals Denver and Colorado in the inaugural Colorado Cup, to be followed by a draw with Jacksonville, which was not all that bad considering the fine season the Dolphins had. UNC would have to wait until after a close loss to Utah State for their first win, beating Air Force on the road. Two straight losses after left the Bears at an unflattering 1-5-1 though, and despite some of the competition faced, it was a disappointing mark.

The Bears would start turning things around though, going 3-0-1 over a stretch that coincided with the beginning of league play before dropping two more close decisions to Wyoming and Big Sky rivals Weber State. Two wins and two draws heading into the final weekend set the Bears up with an opportunity to win the league with a victory on the final day against Montana. That they did, with a 2-0 triumph over the Grizzlies that gave UNC their first major trophy at DI level.

The Bears would be stung a few weeks later in the Big Sky Tournament semi-finals though, going down on penalties to those same Grizzlies on home turf and having to watch Montana lift the Big Sky Tournament title a few days later. It had been a job well done overall for UNC, but without the NCAA Tournament berth, there was still a sense of unfinished business in Greeley at the end of the year. Long tenured coach Tim Barrera has yet to fully recreate much of the success he brought to Greeley in the Bears’ DII existence, but the progress in recent seasons, including last year’s title, has been promising to say the least and bodes well for the future of the program.

Northern Colorado could be left rueing that near NCAA Tournament miss though, because the Bears are ravaged by graduation this year. While losing four senior starters would be tough for many schools, it hits UNC extra hard when you consider that included in those losses is the Big Sky’s reigning Defensive MVP, the league’s reigning Goalkeeper of the Year, and the club’s top points scorer. It’s the loss of Defensive MVP Aundreaha Martinez that could hit hardest though. In a league that often involves tight contests, keeping a stout defense is often of paramount importance, and UNC’s defense, tops in the league last year, were led by Martinez, one of the more unheralded star mid-major defenders in the country.

The offense loses the four goals and four assists of Ariel Cook but does manage to retain leading goalscorer J.J. Wykstra, who tallied five goals last year and will be hoping to help the Bears repeat their status as Big Sky top scorers in the league. A title winning team like UNC shouldn’t fall off a cliff, even with those losses, but it’ll clearly be a test of Barrera’s mettle to see if the Bears are in the hunt for trophies this year.

Staying on top of the heap defensively in the Big Sky means adequately replacing Kirstin Salminen, the reigning Big Sky Goalkeeper of the Year and a player who blossomed into a goalkeeper of great repute for UNC. Splitting time somewhat for her first two seasons in goal, Salminen took over full-time as a junior and began to show real potential for the burgeoning Bears. While the stability of her playing every minute was an asset last year, it also means that replacing her could prove to be a real burden for Barrera.

The two potential replacements on the roster haven’t played a minute for the club, which is worrying to say the least. At least senior Natalie D’Adamio has some collegiate experience, having played in four games for Minnesota State in 2009 before transferring. Challenging her will be sophomore Marissa Cooper, a Centennial native. Given the massive drop in experience and the unknown capabilities of the replacements, this area’s a real worry for UNC going into 2012.

Martinez’s departure leaves a big hole to be filled on the backline for the Bears. The Olympia product was a bit of a late bloomer for UNC, being a top reserve as a freshman but not playing a minute in 2009. The light clicked for her in 2010 though, as she started eighteen matches and turned into one of the league’s better defenders. The tough tackling defender would go even better last year on her way to Big Sky Defensive MVP honors and will not be easily replaced.

She’s not the only loss though, as the club also has to replace Laura Wayland. Wayland began her career at Metro State before transferring to Greeley and promptly turned into a fine defender in her own right, starting every match possible during her three year stint at UNC. Also departing is Janelle Kramer, who started four of the club’s first five games last year before missing the rest of the season.

At least the Bears can take solace in the return of senior Alexsys Tamayo to the fold for 2012. Tamayo had started every game for the club as a rookie in 2009 while scoring three goals but missed all of 2010 and was a somewhat unknown commodity going into 2011. She promptly started eighteen games, scored two goals and added two assists and should be one of the league’s top players in either defense or midfield for the Bears this year. Senior Eryn Daniel should also be a fixture in the starting lineup after eighteen starts last year, those coming after two years of mainly being one of the club’s top reserves. Those two will have to be big, because the rest of the lineup is threadbare in starting experience. Tamayo’s a fine lynchpin, but she’s not Martinez (yet), and the lack of strength in depth could be exposed this year.

The big loss for the Bears in the middle of the park is veteran Kimmie Feidler, one of the Bears’ most steadily excellent players of the past four years. A three-time Big Sky All-Conference honoree, Feidler began her career with five goals as a rookie and hardly looked back, chipping in with goals and assists at every opportunity, including a team leading five helpers last year, with three of those coming in the league.

Massive senior JJ Wykstra will be the team’s midfield leader in all likelihood going into the new year. Wysktra led the team in scoring last year with five strikes last year, as the Flagstaff native used her size to great effect on corners, scoring three of her goals that way. Junior Tara Rickenbach looks like a future difference maker and should be in the running for a starting spot after eight starts, two goals, and two assists last year. Senior Lauren Vallen and sophomore Angela Csaszar both saw extensive time from off the bench last season but combined for just one goal, though both could increase their output with more minutes this year. Feidler’s a big loss, but Wykstra’s a fine leader, though the depth around her probably won’t be as strong as last year.

As is the case with the other units at UNC, the Bears have some retooling to do up front with the loss of Ariel Cook. Cook made an immediate impact on the club as a rookie in 2008 with five goals and went up from there, scoring six in 2009 and then seven in 2010. Some thought she could be in line for a ten goal season, but instead, Cook actually finished with a career low four goals, though she did add four assists and ended up All-Big Sky First Team at any rate.

There are no shortage of talented options waiting to fill her shoes. Junior Brittany Dunn was a key reserve as a rookie with four goals but forced her way into the starting lineup last year and scored three times in eighteen starts, including the game winner against Air Force. Hopes will also be high for senior Danielle Birdsall this season. Birdsall looked to be on a fast track for fame after winning the Big Sky Offensive MVP award in 2010 on the back of eight goals. She’d be bottled up for most of the year though, scoring just twice and missing most of the Big Sky season, not putting a shot on goal after October 2.

The big hope for the future (and the present) is likely sophomore Madison Yoswa, who started eleven games as a rookie and showed no hesitation in pulling the trigger, finishing third on the club in shots while racking up two goals and four assists. Birdsall getting back on scoring form would help mitigate the loss of Cook, while Dunn and Yoswa are intriguing prospects as well, meaning this group will probably be the club’s strength this year.

Hopes for a second major trophy in as many seasons will probably have to rely on the Bears making it into the Big Sky Tournament, because the club simply loses too much to be league title contenders in all likelihood. The loss of Martinez in defense and Salminen in goal could be particularly costly, especially the latter considering the paucity in experienced replacements. The good news is there’s still talent like Tamayo, Cook, Birdsall, and Wykstra to fall back on, meaning UNC still has a decent shot at making it back to the postseason. At worst, the Bears should be a mid-table team. At best, they might just sneak up on somebody come the Big Sky Tournament ala Montana last year.

Seven coaches in eighteen seasons does not stability make, so Portland State fans are probably breathing a few sighs of relief as it appears that current coach Laura Schott has the potential to be the long-term solution the program has been craving. Entering into her fifth season in 2011, Schott is now the longevity leader at the school and looks to be well entrenched after bringing home a share of last year’s Big Sky title. Schott had big shoes to fill, with former coach Tara Erickson having delivered the program’s first league title in 2004 after inheriting a mess upon her arrival in 2001, the team having gone winless a season before.

That feat was matched by Schott in her second season at the club in 2009 after having taken over before the 2008 season after Tim Bennett’s shock move to the associate head coach position at Iowa State. That 10-6-4 campaign was also PSU’s first winning season since Erickson’s second year at the helm in 2002. Schott entered 2011 having made a name for herself thus far at PSU with two runner-up finishes and the aforementioned league title in 2009 but still searching for postseason success.

Defeat to Utah Valley in the opener probably wasn’t the way Schott had envisioned opening the season, and a close loss to Utah State a few days later put the Vikings in an immediate 0-2-0 hole. The rest of non-conference play would be a stomach churning experience, as PSU proceeded to win four straight, including a solid 2-0 win over Detroit, before losing their next four, including worrisome defeats to Boise State and San Jose State, neither of whom enjoyed great seasons.

League play ended up being a knockdown, drag out affair, with no Big Sky team winning more than four games. PSU managed to win their first two and last two, with a pair of draws mixed in between. Their one loss was to the team they eventually shared the league title with, Northern Colorado. Tasked with a rematch in the Big Sky Tournament against a Weber State team they had beaten a few weeks earlier, the Vikings found their offense firing blanks, with the match ending in a 0-0 draw. PSU would come away the unlucky party in the resulting penalty shootout, and once again, the Vikings found themselves the victims of another postseason flameout.

The Vikings may end up ruing that shootout defeat, because it looks like 2012 could be a much tougher struggle for trophies. The club loses a whopping five senior starters from their title winning side of a season ago, none bigger than defender Toni Carnovale. Carnovale leaves Portland as not just one of the best players in club history but one of the best in recent Big Sky history after three straight All-Big Sky First Team nods and a pair of winner’s medals in the league.

While the losses are sure to take their toll on the Vikings, the club will still at least be able to count on senior striker Megan Martin, last season’s Big Sky Offensive MVP. Martin scored five goals in the league and six overall to bring in the gong and may need to score and keep on scoring given the talent drain suffered by the side around her. The Vikings were near the top of the offensive and defensive charts in the league last year, but that feat may be hard to repeat if Schott can’t work some magic to reshuffle the lineup this year.

A season after earning Big Sky Offensive MVP honors, Megan Martin will try to go out with another bang in her final season in the black and green. Few could have foreseen Martin’s rise up the scoring chart after starting just once in 2010 and not even recording a point. While Martin came into league play with just one goal, she’d be worth her weight in gold after a hat trick to shoot down Sacramento State on the road and a brace against Montana a week later to record another valuable point.

Consistency is now the key, as she scored in only three of the club’s eighteen games, a number that needs to go up if PSU are to contend. Especially with the loss of Melissa Trammell and Kala Renard this year. Trammell put up four goals and two assists for the second straight season and looked to be on course for a huge season after three goals in the club’s first six games. However, she tailed away before scoring a goal that will go down in lore, netting the golden goal against Idaho State that brought home a share of the league title. Renard wasn’t quite as prolific as in her four goal campaign of a season ago but did net a huge game winning goal against Eastern Washington and provided the assist on Trammell’s goal against Idaho State.

There are multiple contenders for the other forward roles beside Martin this year. Mexican youth international Daniela Solis got her feet wet at this level with a goal and an assist last year, but more will be expected in her sophomore season, though she’ll miss the first month at the U20 World Cup. Classmate Kayla Henningsen netted the golden goal against UNLV in an early season upset but struggled for form later on despite starting fifteen matches. The real wild card in the mix is sophomore Eryn Brown, the team’s leading scorer in 2010 who netted six overall and four in league play but who missed all of last season.

Less damage is done by attrition in midfield for the Vikings, but there’s still the loss of senior Tish Wise to overcome. Wise was honored by the league all three seasons she was healthy, including last season where she started sixteen matches. Senior Amanda Dutra is a three-time All-Big Sky Second Team honoree and has been a big part of the club since missing her true freshman year through injury. After nine assists in her first two seasons, Dutra added two goals and three assists to her career points total last year despite missing three games.

Freshman Ariana Cooley started six matches a season ago and is a contender to move into the lineup full-time, as is versatile junior Teal Sigler, who has started twelve matches in two years thus far and was one of the club’s best options off the bench last year. This area isn’t hit that hard by attrition, but there’s a noticeable lack of depth despite the quality of Dutra.

Losing Carnovale obviously rips the heart out of this defense which conceded just above a goal a game last year. The classy Seattle native was in many ways the heartbeat of this PSU club over the past four years and will be very difficult to replace. Making matters worse is the simultaneous loss of Esty Geiger, a utility player who essentially played all over the pitch in her Vikings career. After a stint as an attacker earlier for PSU in her career, Geiger moved to defense last season and promptly led the club in assists with four. Geiger earned All-Big Sky Second Team honors and is another difficult link to replace.

The new leader is likely Carlie Martin, Megan Martin’s twin sister. Martin broke into the backline in the middle of the 2010 season and has barely looked back since, starting seventeen matches last season and adding a goal and an assist. Fellow senior Michelle Hlasnik also looks like a good bet for a starting role after thirty-nine starts in three years. Among others in contention will be sophomore Kelsey Henningsen, one of another set of twins on the club, junior Lexi Greenwood, who made a couple of starts last year, and junior Kajsa Sporseen, who started seven matches in 2010 but missed all of last season. The loss of the club’s two best defenders doesn’t bode well for this group, who could take a sizable step back this year.

The Vikings rolled the dice a bit in goal last season by going with JUCO transfer Melissa Ferguson as the team’s #1. Ferguson did more than enough to repay the faith shown in her with twelve starts for the club and five clean sheets on the season. She was named All-Big Sky Honorable Mention at the end of the year and should again be one of the league’s leading netminders as a senior this year. PSU won’t be lacking for experience behind her either, as Hawaiian senior Lainey Hulsizer returns as well. Hulsizer has finished each of the past two seasons with six starts and is an experienced and reliable backup, giving the Vikings perhaps the best goalkeeping situation in the league.

In a sense, it might be death by a thousand cuts for Portland State, who lose a big chunk of their title winning team last year. The biggest slice of all comes from the departure of Carnovale, unquestionably one of the best in program history. Her loss and that of Geiger means that PSU’s defense could be a liability this season, meaning Martin, and hopefully, Brown need to come out firing for this club to have a chance. The losses also took a toll on overall depth, with the incoming class mostly unknown commodities as well. Given all that, PSU will probably face a slide into mid-table this year, and getting back to the postseason would be a fine achievement for a side that’s probably going to be rebuilding a bit this year.

2011 was a decidedly mixed year for Weber State. On the one hand, after losing fifteen matches in 2010, it was hard to envision things getting much worse in Ogden. And indeed, the Wildcats did manage to shave off five losses from that total last season. But they still finished four games under .500 as the losses piled up in non-conference play. There was some measure of redemption in league play though, as Weber State returned to the postseason with a third place finish in the league and advanced to the final after toppling Portland State on penalties, only to have the tables turned by Montana, the Wildcats dying by the sword in a penalty shootout themselves.

Regardless of the sour ending to the season, it was still a step in the right direction for a club which had been stuttering as of late. Weber State, once in the lofty heights of the mid-hundreds in the RPI had fallen on tough times, dropping in the RPI for fourth straight seasons before last year’s recovery from a low of 285 in the RPI the year before. Still, it’s a far cry from the glory days of Tim Crompton’s first few years in charge where he had the Wildcats lifting Big Sky trophies en route to the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Success has come as recently as 2008 with the Big Sky regular season title, but two very lean years had seen doubt start to creep in. Five time league champions and three time Big Sky Tournament champions, the Wildcats were also responsible for the league’s last win (though technically a draw) in NCAA Tournament competition when they advanced over BYU after penalties in the first round in 2005. Weber State hasn’t been back to the Big Dance since though and last season’s penalty misadventure in the Big Sky Tournament final has been about as close as they’ve gotten.

That they made it that far was something of a minor miracle in the first place given their early form. One win in seven was dire early season form, and though there were some hard matches in that run, with six straight road games and matches against Utah State and Washington State, surely the club could’ve mustered up something more than a 1-0 loss to Air Force. A win over New Mexico State in dominating fashion was a nice prize for the team’s return home, but a true revival would have to wait until league play started.

The Wildcats stormed out of the blocks with three wins and a draw, more impressive when you consider that the opening three matches were on the road and that one of those wins was against eventual league champs Northern Colorado. The Wildcats’ title ambitions would fall by the wayside after a loss to Eastern Washington, inexplicable given the Eagles’ struggles. After a loss to Portland State, Weber State would recover with a regular season ending win against Sacramento State to seal third in the league and a return to the postseason where they would fall just short in the end.

The Wildcats had a very serious problem conceding goals in 2010 and did more than enough to solve that problem last year by conceding twenty-three less come season’s end. That renewed defensive solidity came at a price though, as an already static offense grew even more anemic, scoring just twelve goals all season. Only three players managed more than one goal, and just one managed more than two, giving you a little idea as to just how bad the offense was last season. While Crompton tries to sort out the offense, he’ll have to also deal with the fact that there are just fifteen returnees this season.

That could be less of a serious issue though, as the Wildcats make good use of club side La Roca Premier essentially being a feeder club for Weber State, adding a whopping fourteen players from the youth side this season. Unlike last year’s haul, this season’s crop comes with some impressive plaudits, with five of the newcomers coming in with regional ODP experience. Gelling the newcomers with the returnees should be less of an issue than at other schools thanks to the familiar club ties, meaning Weber State will likely once again be looking towards contending for silverware this year.

Weber State has seen steady progress in goal from junior Ryann Waldman, who is now well entrenched as the club’s #1 after three seasons with the club. Redshirting in 2009, Waldman grew into the starting role in 2010 with fourteen starts, enduring a trial by fire from a struggling team who was pried open defensively far too often. But with Waldman getting better support from the backline in front of her, she blossomed as a sophomore, with her stats improving exponentially as she kept five clean sheets in the process while also making twelve saves in the 0-0 draw against Portland State in the Big Sky Tournament semi-finals. A Big Sky All-Tournament Team and Honorable Mention honoree last year, Waldman should continue to grow into one of the league’s better stoppers this year. Backup Kirsten Anderson has graduated, meaning true freshman Danielle Mackay will serve as Waldman’s understudy this season.

The rearguard improved nicely last year after 2010’s horror show, and the potential to be one of the league’s top units is there with most of the key players returning for 2012. The centerpiece of the defense is likely to be full-back Mackenzie Day, last season’s Big Sky Newcomer of the Year. Playing all but six minutes as a rookie, Day looks to have the potential to be one of the best the club has produced in recent memory. The Wildcats do have to replace full-back partner Roxanne Tebbs though. Tebbs started every match last season and earned All-Big Sky Second Team honors at the end of the year.

Centrally, junior Bailey Eames looks to continue to grow after starting every match for the club in her first two seasons with the team. Eames is a smaller center-back at 5’4″ but hardly put a foot wrong last year on her way to All-Big Sky Honorable Mention status. Her likely partner in the middle is sophomore Abbey Kennedy, who played all but nine minutes last season as a rookie and provided a big boost to the defense. Though the starting core should be strong, depth is an issue, so Crompton will be hoping that highly touted rookies Brecken Holbrook and Shaylee Petersen can come in immediately and provide the kind of lift that Kennedy did last year.

The midfield’s a little harder hit for Weber State with the dual loss of Collette Simmons and Emily Freshman. Simmons was a capable performer on the flank at either full-back or up the pitch at midfield and was a threat offensively with three goals in 2009. She wasn’t quite as prolific after that season but did score two goals last season while starting every match for the club. Freshman began her career as one of the club’s top reserves before rapidly working her way into the starting lineup, starting thirty-five games for the club over her final two years with the Wildcats.

Despite the losses, there’s still plenty to be optimistic about for the Wildcats. Sophomore Kendra Bailey returns after an outstanding rookie season that saw her named to the All-Big Sky Second Team last year. Bailey only scored once but made it count, nabbing the crucial game winner against Sacramento State in the regular season finale. Another who impressed as a freshman was Ryley Hansen, who came right in and started every match last year for the club. The Bailey-Hansen one-two punch in midfield gives Weber State lots of optimism for the future.

Senior leadership will come in the form of Kierstin Raught. Raught went down with a serious knee injury early in 2010 but made a successful comeback last season, starting every match and chipping in with a goal and an assist and will provide much needed experience this year. WSU may be hoping for big minutes right off the bat from Chansi Crompton, another of the club’s impressive recruiting class. Depth issues aside, Bailey and Hansen make this a strong group if they avoid a sophomore slump.

With the defense and midfield looking strong, the big question is who on this team is going to score goals. It’s more pressing now without Jessie Baddley in the equation. Despite starting just seven matches last year, Baddley ended up winning All-Big Sky First Team honors as a senior, a year after landing on the Second Team. One wonders if voters didn’t get their seasons mixed up considering Baddley had five goals and four assists in 2010 but slipped to just two goals and two assists on sixty-three shots in 2011.

As for the returnees, Felicia Sortor could be one to watch after the junior led the club in scoring last year despite making just six starts. Sortor made her goals count too, with game winners against New Mexico State and Idaho State. The ace in the hole could be returning senior Ari Wood though. An All-Big Sky First Team selection in 2010, Wood sat out the entire 2011 season but will return for a fifth year. Wood had three goals in each of her first three seasons and may well be this team’s best scoring threat if healthy and on form. There’s certainly room for incoming rookies Stacy Bair and Kenzie Harrison to make an impact immediately up front for a side thirsting for goals. This is the team’s clear weakness and must be addressed if WSU is to challenge for honors.

Despite scoring just twelve goals last year, Weber State were a few spot kicks away from an NCAA Tournament berth, which bodes well with another strong side returning for 2012. The defense should be among the best in the league, if not the best in the Big Sky, while the midfield looks solid as well. The obvious apprehension comes in the offense, which surely has to improve this season after last year’s struggles, especially with Wood back in the fold. Putting all your recruiting eggs into one basket club-wise can be a boom or bust proposition, but with the Wildcats seemingly having hit gold with this year’s crop from La Roca Premier, WSU could well bring home silverware if the team gels well.

When does a 6-12-4 season count as a fairy tale year? Maybe when that season ends in the NCAA Tournament after lifting the Big Sky Tournament title. TCU associate head coach Mark Piakorus walked into an unenviable situation at Montana before the 2011 season, trying to restore a fallen Big Sky giant to prominence after some serious hard times in recent years. In 2010, the Grizzlies had bottomed out at a depressing 3-12-3 mark that had led to Neil Sedgwick being shown the door after seven seasons in charge. It was the culmination of a long fall from grace for a program that had once shocked the world by beating Pac-10 side Washington State in the first round of the 2000 NCAA Tournament.

Getting a quicker start on soccer than most of their Big Sky brethren, the Grizzlies racked up the silverware in the early part of the league’s soccer existence under matriarch Betsy Duerksen. But Duerksen resigned to spend more time with her family after 2003, and it was a veritable roller coaster ride under her replacement, Sedgwick, for the next seven seasons. The silverware stopped making its way to Missoula and the program only managed one winning season in Sedgwick’s seven seasons.

Plakorus took charge of a team that hadn’t been a stranger to success in their past history but who had seemingly forgotten how to win with any regularity in recent seasons. Expectations were low to say the least with a team that looked short on depth and top-flight talent going into the season, but Montana turned a few heads in the early weeks, beating Boise State twice while also upsetting Wyoming. The Grizzlies would play Idaho close but fall, 3-2, kicking off a rather painful slide that saw the team lose six of their next seven, with Montana only getting a draw against Southern Utah in that stretch.

Little came of Montana’s early league form, the Grizzlies going 1-2-1 in the first half of the league season to put their postseason hopes on thin ice. But two crucial wins against league bottom feeders Northern Arizona and Idaho State put Montana on ten points which turned out to be good enough for fourth in the league despite a loss in their league finale against league champs Northern Colorado. Nabbing the last spot in the Big Sky Tournament, Montana made it count, using two displays of penalty prowess to knock out Northern Colorado and Weber State after 1-1 draws to take one of the most unlikely conference tournament titles in recent memory.

It was the first Big Sky Tournament title since 2000 for the program and sent the Grizzlies back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since their shocking upset of Washington State over a decade ago. The bad news was that Montana was heading into a matchup against Pac-12 champions Stanford. With the Grizzlies RPI the lowest in the field and Stanford, well, being Stanford, many predicted a bloodbath. In the end, Montana lost 3-0, but they hardly embarrassed themselves in defeat, playing with unbelievable heart before bowing the the Card. They may have finished with twice as many losses as wins, but few could deny the optimism in Missoula after Plakorus’ first season in charge.

Whether Montana’s shock Big Sky Tournament triumph ends up being a blessing or a curse in the long-term is up for debate. After so little was expected of him in his first season in charge, Piakorus now faces the delicate balancing act between rising expectations that that piece of silverware brought with it and the reality that Montana still finished the season 6-12-4. The Grizzlies, as stated above, were the lowest ranked team by RPI in the NCAA Tournament and still only finished fourth in the RPI in their conference.

But still for Montana supporters, only a cynic of the highest order wouldn’t be giddy about the program’s rapid progress just a year into Piakorus’ reign. When looking at the raw numbers, it isn’t hard to see how Montana shot up the league table last year. The Grizzlies more than tripled their output in goals scored from 2010, and though they didn’t score a goal a game in the league, they still did just enough to squeeze into the postseason.

The defense? Well, let’s just say there’s definite room for improvement. There were some grim moments early, but the club managed to plug enough leaks by the league season to stay competitive. Staying competitive and on the winning track isn’t a given this year. Montana’s element of surprise they had last year is gone, and the trophy they took home last November ensures that none of their conference brethren will be overlooking them this Fall.

One expected that junior India Watne could be one of Montana’s better players last year after she won Honorable Mention All-Big Sky honors as a rookie, but few probably could’ve anticipated her blossoming into one of the league’s top players just a season later. Watne reeled in First Team All-Big Sky and Big Sky Tournament MVP honors after a virtuoso season with four goals and eight assists, including five helpers in the club’s first four games. Watne cooled off a little later on but still ran the show for the Grizzlies and looks set for another big year.

Senior Lauren McCreath isn’t quite the offensive threat but is a big body in the middle who started every match for the club last season and was voted team MVP by her teammates. Sophomore Tyler Adair chipped in with a goal and two assists as a rookie, making eighteen starts for the club and likely would’ve had more had she not missed three matches with an eye injury mid-year. Also likely to feature in midfield is junior Mary Makris, a top reserve in 2010 who started every match last year and showed no hesitancy in pulling the trigger after finishing fourth on the team in shots.

Senior Ashley Tombelaine recovered well from an early season injury to finish with three goals and two assists, including a brace against Idaho State and the assist on the club’s only goal in the draw with Weber State in the conference tournament title game. And added to all that is the reigning Montana Gatorade State Player of The Year, Savannah Witt, who could well break into the lineup sooner rather than later. This is a deep, talented group that could be one of the best among regional mid-majors.

It’s not like there was a lot of complexity to Montana’s ultimate gameplan last season: Get the ball to senior Erin Craig and get it there often. After three goals and two assists in two seasons, Craig exploded for ten goals and three assists last year while winning All-Big Sky First Team honors and being named the conference’s Offensive Player of The Week three times. Craig scored a hat trick in the 4-4 draw with Southern Utah and assisted on the other goal, while also scoring a brace in the club’s second win over Boise State early in the year. Craig began on fire, with six goals in four games but cooled a bit later in the year as teams began to close down on her, scoring once in the final thirteen matches for Montana.

Newcomers Witt and Mackenzie Akins, a member of last year’s ECNL National Champion San Diego Surf team, will look to spell her or steal some major minutes of their own, while Tombelaine and some other reserve midfielders could also see time up front. Craig’s certainly a nice weapon, but Piakorus will be hoping others can come through if their offensive talisman isn’t firing true.

The Grizzlies defense wobbled a bit at the start of the 2011 season but rounded into effective enough form by the end of the year. The good news is that just about everybody will be back for another go of it, including senior Lauren Costa, one of the league’s best defenders. A steady presence in the center of defense, Costa played every minute for the club and even assisted on the late game winner against Wyoming early in the year.

Full-backs Maddey Frey and Kate Wilkins saw extensive starting time last season and should be stalwarts at the back again. Wilkins had missed all of 2010 and barely played a season before but was unshakable for the club last season. Frey was one of the team’s most promising players as a freshman and continued to grow last year, starting all of Montana’s games a year ago. Also in contention for starting roles will be sophomore Brooke Moody, who made fourteen starts before being limited by a shoulder injury the rest of the way, and junior Alyssa Nystrom, who was hobbled by a leg injury early before starting the club’s final eight matches and seeing extensive time in each. This group is very deep and could be one of the league’s best.

Piakorus spoke of it being a tight race for the starting spot in goal coming out of camp last year, with incumbent Kendra McMillen being pushed as a sophomore by the relatively inexperienced Kristen Hoon, who had played in just three games a year before. And so it was as the season began, with the pair splitting time before fate would intervene, with McMillen missing the team’s final twelve matches after suffering a concussion. Hoon would go on to finish out the season as the team’s rock in goal and won Big Sky All-Tournament team honors after her shootout heroics led the club to the NCAA Tournament. Both return for 2012, but it remains to be seen if Hoon did enough to claim the starting job on a full-time basis or whether she’ll be sharing duties with McMillen as she did at the beginning of last year.

With just about the entire team returning and no shortage of young talent permeating the roster, it’s hard not to be very optimistic about the future for the Grizzlies. The defense should make some big leaps forward in the second year of Piakorus’ system with Costa leading the charge. Watne and Craig are two of the league’s best in attack and should ensure that Montana keeps ticking over going forward. And in Piakorus, the club appears to have a master motivator and shrewd recruiter whose coaching stock skyrocketed after taking what looked to be a long-term project into the NCAA Tournament at the first time of asking.

Montana has to stay grounded though. The second year is always more difficult than the first, and the Grizzlies aren’t sneaking up on anybody any more. Lack of element of surprise aside though, there’s no reason this team can’t compete for trophies on both fronts in the Big Sky.

It’s likely back to the drawing board for Sacramento State head coach Randy Dedini after a 2011 season that ranked among the worst in recent program history, with the club finishing three matches under .500 just a season after winning the Big Sky Tournament. After former coach Katie Poynter had begun to curb the Hornets’ historically underachieving ways, Dedini has turned the program into a threat for Big Sky silverware, albeit a sometimes inconsistent one. Dedini struck gold in his first season at the helm, winning a Big Sky double in 2007 that netted the Hornets their first trip to the Big Dance. Success had proven a little harder to come by in the years after, slipping out of the postseason picture for two seasons after before coming good in 2010 with the league’s auto bid to the NCAA Tournament.

There were warning signs afoot early on in 2011, as the club lost five in a row to open up the season, though the Hornets were facing sides like Long Beach State and Fresno State, so they weren’t shying away from a challenge. They were struggling to score goals though, nabbing just one in those five defeats and suffering through a four match scoreless streak. The Hornets would get back in the win column with three in a row at home, including a 2-1 win over MVC contenders Creighton. A loss against a woeful Nevada sapped some momentum though, and the club would lose their opener in the league against Portland State.

The Hornets would fire back in a big way though with wins on the road in their next two to vault them up the table. While draws at home against Northern Arizona and Northern Colorado weren’t the worst thing in the world, it did point Dedini’s team in a position where they needed points on the final weekend of the regular season if they wanted a chance to defend their Big Sky Tournament title. The Hornets would fall agonizingly short though, squandering a lead twice against Idaho State, the second time with just nine seconds to play in the match before losing in extra time. A win over Weber State in the regular season finale would’ve been enough as well, but the club couldn’t hit the target, falling 1-0 to finish a disappointing sixth in the league and out of the postseason.

Hornets fans may view 2011 as an opportunity lost, because Sacramento State is rocked by losses to graduation this season. In all, the club loses six senior starters, including several key pieces from the Hornets’ past few campaigns. No loss is bigger than that of All-Big Sky First Team defender Shea Roberts though. After transferring from UC Irvine after her freshman season, Roberts held down the center-back spot for the Hornets for three seasons and will not be easily replaced.

What surely must be frustrating for Sacramento State supporters is that the club’s overall stats weren’t that bad in Big Sky play, with the club finishing middle of the road in both goals scored and conceded in league games. The season ended with the club being slightly worse than middle of the road though, and to miss out entirely on the postseason after some had pegged them for more silverware in the league was very disappointing. A step to getting the Hornets back up the table might be invigorating the offense which, while OK in league play, underwhelmed on the whole, scoring less than a goal a game in 2011.

The Hornets could be in for a difficult time in goal this season with the graduation of hometown heroine Savannah Abercrombie. Abercrombie took charge of the starting spot in the middle of her redshirt freshman season in 2008 and never looked back, starting every match of her final three seasons while playing every minute for the club in 2010 and 2011. In addition to raking in no end of All-Big Sky honors, Abercrombie finished her collegiate career with twenty-nine clean sheets, not just a program record, but a record for the Big Sky Conference as well.

Filling that hole in between the sticks doesn’t promise to be easy considering the Hornets have a pair of keepers without any DI experience aiming for the #1 spot. Shelby Tomasello was once a solid JUCO keeper at Ohlone JC, but that seems like an eternity ago, as the San Ramon native hasn’t played a minute in two years with the Hornets. Sophomore Kimberly Mata has also been rooted to the bench for two seasons in Sacramento and will also be pushing for the job.

If the goalkeeping situation wasn’t going to give Dedini some sleepless nights, then reworking his defense might just do the trick. Losing Roberts, arguably the team’s best player, is a real hammer blow, and it isn’t the only loss the Hornets face in defense this year. Also gone is Laura Bahno, another talented defender who also showed a deft touch in front of goals at times, as her two goals and two assists in 2010 could attest to.

Leading the charge for the returnees is likely to be junior Gabriela Trenton, a reserve as a freshman but a player who started fourteen games a season ago for the club. Beyond her, it’s a bit muddled. Towering sophomore Kassi Anast was a key reserve last year who also made four starts and will likely be pressed into starting duty more often this year. The loss in defense of quality and quantity likely means a step back for this group this year.

The situation is a little less dire in midfield for the Hornets, as the only major loss is that of graduated utility player Paige Tucker. A big presence in the middle who was the team’s defensive midfielder last season, Tucker was third in minutes for the club while starting every match last year. A fair amount of experience does return in the middle of the park for the club this season though. Senior Jessica Castano has been a rock in a defensive midfield role for three years thus far, racking up fifty-one starts so far in her Hornets career and winning All-Big Sky Honorable Mention honors last year.

Fellow senior Victoria Ramirez could be among the team’s top scoring threats this year after scoring six goals and adding three assists last season, though a pair of those goals came agains non-DI opponent The Master’s College. Senior Megan Burg and junior Jami Shimada started a combined twenty-eight matches as well, and look set to reprise their roles this year as well.

When you don’t score a goal a game over the course of a season, there’s naturally room for improvement, and so it is with the attack of the Hornets in 2012. The team will have to make do without starting forward Caitlin Pulver, who was the second leading scorer for the club last year with five goals as she started every match as a senior. Much may depend on the status of Elece McBride. The Antelope native missed all of last season a year after being named Big Sky Tournament MVP with winning goals in both of the clubs postseason wins. McBride scored seven goals in that junior season and looked to be a key to the team’s 2011 season but was stuck on the sidelines all year. If she gets a redshirt and returns for a final season, it’d be a huge boost for the Hornets.

Fifth-year senior Jordan Carlberg had five assists in 2010 and two goals and three assists last season and should again be an important cog either up front or in midfield but likely isn’t a top scoring option. Jordyn Rolling made a smooth transition to the Hornets after transferring from VCU with six starts and scored three times in 2011, with game winning goals against San Jose State and Eastern Washington and could push for major minutes as a junior. Freshmen Maggie Pleis and Kassidy Kellogg, impressive for Crossfire Premier and Utah Avalanche respectively in ECNL action also join as the crown jewels of the recruiting class and could be a factor right off the bat.

Everything about 2012 screams ‘rebuilding year’ for the Hornets. The heavy losses all around the pitch but especially in defense means Dedini is going to have to do some rapid shuffling if he wants his club to have a chance of climbing the ladder back into the postseason with Sacramento State this season. But given the uncertainty around the rearguard and in goal, this club is probably going to have to come through in a big way on offense to contend. That doesn’t look too likely given the current personnel, meaning mid-table may be the best the Hornets can expect in 2012, with a postseason spot relatively unlikely.

A new adventure awaits North Dakota in 2012, as the Fighting Sioux exit the Great West after a disappointing and rather nondescript final season in the league that saw them finish fifth of seven teams. It was a far cry from the success of 2010 that saw them strong in the league and just falling short in the Great West Tournament. The down year stopped the Fighting Sioux’s upward trek, with North Dakota a program that has been through its fair share of turbulence throughout its history, especially for a school with a winning pedigree at Division II level.

But UND has gone through a ridiculous amount of coaches in its little over a decade of existence, with current coach Kristen Gay the sixth person at the helm and the longest tenured, entering year five in charge in 2012. It’s not been a fun ride for much of North Dakota’s time in DI thus far. The first full reclassifying season saw the Fighting Sioux go a miserable 3-14-2 and struggle even in Great West play. UND would continue to labor in non-conference action a year later but showed strides in the league that bode well for 2011.

The year started out well enough, with wins over South Dakota and MAC side Northern Illinois putting the Fighting Sioux above .500 heading into September. UND would be in tough from that point on though, going winless in their next five, a stretch that included a 9-0 loss to Marquette. Gay’s team would roll into Great West play off a creditable draw with North Dakota State and extended an unbeaten run to four matches after the first weekend of league action. Three straight losses put paid any title hopes though, and UND ended up finishing fifth in the league despite a last day win over NJIT.

The Fighting Sioux managed to avenge one of their league losses in the conference tournament, with a 2-0 win over Howard but were then shot down by Utah Valley in the conference tournament semi-finals, their last match as a Great West member with the program joining the Big Sky for 2012 and beyond.

The new home in the Big Sky might be a much needed breath of fresh air for the Fighting Sioux, who had certainly taken their knocks at DI level, but who had also performed well enough in 2011 that some were tipping them for a potential trophy winning season in their final Great West campaign. Needless to say, they fell well short of those expectations, with the club being mired in mid-table while also making an early exit in the Great West Tournament. UND’s offense was reasonably good last year, especially at Great West level, where they managed to finished second in league goals scored.

The problem was on the other end of the pitch, where the Fighting Sioux’s sieve-like defense saw them finish tied for the worst defense in league matches, while overall, they gave up over two goals a match. A “score one more than you concede” approach might not work as well this season either, with leading points getter Rachael Loomis having graduated after an eight goal, six assist senior year.

It’s all about replacing Loomis for North Dakota, one of the finest to ever suit up for the Fighting Sioux. The Fargo native was a starter from day one with the club and broke out as a freshman with seven assists before hammering home eleven goals a season later in 2009. Loomis’ final two seasons brought some balance between goals and assists, topped off by last year’s eight goals and six assists, scoring four in three games at one point and finishing with four match winning strikes for the club.

The Fighting Sioux’s new scoring star could be senior Rhaya Ballon, a player of simmering potential for two seasons who broke out last year with nine goals to lead the team. After opening up with just one goal in six, Ballon caught fire, scoring in four in a row and six of seven. The star of the future could also be sophomore Megan Anderson, who made a big impact as a freshman with four goals and three assists despite missing five games as a rookie. Some of the rookies could factor into this promising group also, which could still be formidable despite losing Loomis.

North Dakota’s midfield isn’t a star-studded unit but does have some solid performers to fall back on ahead of their move to the Big Sky. The likely leading light is junior Amanda Dahl, who blossomed into a fine player for the Fighting Sioux last year after mainly serving as a reserve as a freshman. Dahl started fourteen matches and finished tied for second on the club with three assists, including on both goals in the 2-0 win over NJIT. Recruited as a forward, Dahl could be tried up front as the club searches for a replacement for Loomis. Beyond Dahl, it’s mainly a battle to see who can replace departed senior Kelsey Zachman, a 5’10” rock who didn’t add much to the offense but did rack up minutes as a stabilizing force.

The Fighting Sioux will be hoping for a big breakthrough from their defense as they make a step up in class to the Big Sky, and they’ve got plenty of experience to draw from as they head into 2012. The leader of the backline is likely to be senior Sheri Stapf, who rounded into one of the Great West’s most promising defenders by the end of last year. Having started all of the club’s games the past two seasons, Stapf also proved herself handy in front of goal in 2010, scoring four goals for UND.

The Fighting Sioux return most of their starters from last season but will have to make do without Canadian Veronika Zischka, a four-year starter who knocked in a pair of goals last year for Gay’s squad. Other likely starters for the club include junior Kaylynn Burgess, who has started every match in two seasons for the club, and senior Caitlyn Haring, another who started every match for the club last year. With all the experience returning and a solid leader in Stapf, it’s hard to see this group not making a sizable improvement this year, even with the conference move.

An area that was a big worry for North Dakota last season should be much less so this year, thanks to the return of sophomore starting keeper Kristi Hestdalen. The Fighting Sioux entered 2011 with a real dearth in experience in between the pipes, with a pair of true freshman and a seldom used sophomore vying for the role. Hestdalen would win out in the end and played all but a game and a half in goal for the club as a rookie. It was trial by fire in almost every sense, as Hestdalen paid the price for her side’s inefficient defense, often facing a barrage of shots in goal. Junior Alex Ciaccio and sophomore Mariah Paz will vie for the backup role.

Any Big Sky team expecting the rookies on the block to be an easy mark might want to check that assumption, because this North Dakota team looks to still have enough sting in the tail to cause some defenses in their new conference home some problems, especially if Anderson can continue to grow as a compliment beside Ballon, who’s a threat for double digit goals in her senior season. But the defense, abused far too easily last season in the Great West, gives some pause to thoughts of the Fighting Sioux as instant contenders in their new home. The offense will likely help North Dakota contend for a spot in mid-table, but that rearguard will likely ensure the Fighting Sioux don’t go any higher this year.

2011 looked a whole lot like 2010 for a struggling Idaho State program who again finished out of the postseason. The absence from the Big Sky Tournament was hardly the only similarity in seasons for the Bengals. In 2010, ISU had started out strongly before collapsing to the finish line, a destiny that would largely be repeated one season later. Long-time bullies on the block with four Big Sky Tournament titles (including three in a row from 2001-2003) and double winners in 2002 and 2006, the Bengals have finished on bottom of the pile in two of the past four seasons and weren’t far off of making it three of four last year.

Additionally, the team has only qualified for the postseason twice in the past six seasons. It’s been a desperate struggle to replace the program’s most successful coach, Gordon Henderson, who left for a stint with Arkansas after the 2003 season and seemingly took all of ISU’s mojo with him. The Bengals may have coaxed Central Michigan coach Mark Salisbury to Pocatello, but the ex-CMU boss was a spectacular bust, out after two seasons without postseason action.

Coach Allison Gibson looked to be the one to continue the good times after winning the league and tournament titles in 2006 in her first season in charge but has found the going much harder since. The Bengals went without the postseason again in 2007 and 2008 but made a return with a third place finish in 2009 that raised expectations going into 2010, expectations that would go largely unmet.

Under the radar again going into 2011, ISU would again flatter to deceive early, beating Southern Utah and then claiming a reasonably sized scalp with a 2-1 win over WAC side Nevada. The Bengals promptly imploded after that, being washed away in a flood of bad defense, conceding left and right in a ten match winless streak that featured nine losses and seven of those defeats being by multiple goals. By the time ISU won a basement battle against Eastern Washington, their postseason hopes had all but been cooked. As it turned out, two wins in their final four matches was enough to keep the Bengals off the bottom of the league but was far from enough to deliver them back to the postseason.

As stated above, it was Idaho State’s defense that was the main culprit in many of their woes last year. The 2011 edition of the Big Sky was a league where it was kept impossibly tight at the back, with just barely above two goals a game in league play. Therefore, it was a telling sign that ISU finished with the worst defense in league play, giving up thirteen goals in seven matches, with their next closest competitor in the bad defense sweepstakes only giving up nine. The bad defense was unfortunate too, as the Bengals were tied for the second best offense in league games. The good news for Gibson and ISU is that most of last year’s protagonists will get another shot at it, with the club set to lose just one senior starter from last year’s squad.

The name on everyone’s lips in Pocatello come the end of the 2011 season was Amanda Ellsworth, who pulled down Big Sky Co-Newcomer of the Year honors after a seven goal debut season, including three match winning strikes. A good fit for the center forward role in the 4-3-3 thanks to her size, Ellsworth will be looking to avoid a sophomore slump as she attempts to fire Idaho State back into the postseason. Senior Rachel Strawn will likely be flanking Ellsworth on one side, with her deadly pace helping her rack up a team leading five assists last year. The only step for Strawn now is to improve her goalscoring tally, as she only netted twice for the team last year. The question is who will be replacing departed senior Taylor Powell, who started nine matches a season ago for the club.

All eyes in midfield figure to be on senior Ashley Jones, the team’s star player and a former Big Sky Newcomer of the Year who will be looking to go out with a bang in her final year in Pocatello. For so long the club’s top option in attack, Jones is a player who once had three assists in a half against Montana as a freshman and comes into her senior season having scored twelve goals, including four in a three game span in league play last year. Fellow senior Anna Pingree blossomed into a fine player for the club last season, starting thirteen games and notching the golden goal in the club’s 2-1 win over Nevada. The third spot in the team’s midfield in Gibson’s 4-3-3 is a little less set in stone, with sophomores Madeline Gochnour and Alyssa Kenney the most likely options.

Getting an underachieving backline up to speed will be that much harder with the loss of full-back Megan Stainbrook, considered by Gibson to be a player who gave her heart and soul to the team. A leader with a license to attack down the flank, Stainbrook’s contributions offensively, defensively, and with her intangibles will not be easily replaced.

Despite her departure, the rest of the defense essentially picks itself. Stainbrook’s sister Allyson looks set to follow in her sister’s footsteps after starting twelve matches as a sophomore last season, chipping in with four assists on the season, good for second best on the squad. Sophomore Mikaela Carrillo was arguably the team’s best defender as a freshman, starting all but one match for the club as a rookie and looks to be a part of the team’s foundation for the future. Oregon State transfer Lia Margolis missed a chunk of time in the middle of the season that coincided with some of the team’s worst defensive performances of the year and was mostly unshakable from the lineup otherwise.

With the goalkeeping competition wide open going into preseason last year, it was junior Carly Hutchings-Maloney who stepped up into the breach to take the starting job. She never let it go either, only ceding token minutes to her two rivals, as the Utah native started all seventeen matches in goal for the club.Sophomores Lexi Smith and Maria Dela Cruz will fight for the backup slot again, with the latter the early favorite after playing in four matches a year ago.

Despite their noted struggles last season and in recent years before that, Idaho State looks a solid team across the board in 2012. They’ve got experience and leadership from the likes of Jones and Strawn, while Ellsworth and Carrillo are part of a nice new crop of talent being brought in by Gibson. The Bengals don’t really have a glaring weakness if that defense can make the returning experience count and tighten up along the back. In short, there aren’t many excuses if Idaho State misses the postseason in 2012. If that happens, some serious questions may be asked in Pocatello of the leadership about the direction of the program.

After a somewhat unceremonious start to his career as head coach of Northern Arizona, Andre Luciano came into 2011 with the Lumberjacks seemingly moving onwards and upwards in the Big Sky Conference. NAU had been best known as an unlucky almost team for much of their history, with three Big Sky Tournament final losses in seven seasons while taking root in mid-table in the regular season standings.

All of that changed in 2008 as the Lumberjacks won their first major trophy, beating Weber State in the Big Sky Tournament final to make it to their first NCAA Tournament. NAU would make it back-to-back tournament titles a season later by thumping Idaho State in the final. The trophy haul continued in 2010, with the Lumberjacks winning the Big Sky title before being beaten in heartbreaking fashion in the Big Sky Tournament final.

The enthusiasm surrounding the program may have been at a fever pitch entering last season, NAU christening the newly renovated Lumberjack Stadium, a glittering monolith in the desert with luxury boxes and covered seating. Despite some heavy losses to graduation, few expected the Lumberjacks to slip anywhere below mid-table. Sadly, those prognosticators would be proven wrong in stunning fashion, as NAU slipped to one of the worst seasons in program history.

There should have been warning signs early on, as Luciano’s side lost 7-0 to Arizona State on opening day, a season after having ran the Sun Devils close in a 4-3 loss. The defense continued to concede at a staggering rate, conceding twenty-eight goals in their opening seven matches, including another seven goal loss, this time a 8-1 pounding at Nebraska’s hand. Three draws on the trot, including against Ball State and TCU stopped the bleeding, but the Lumberjacks would have to wait until early October for their first win against a DI opponent, beating league rival Idaho State, 3-2. Despite their early season struggles, NAU actually came perilously close to the postseason, buoyed by a run of six league games with just one defeat.

Unfortunately for the Lumberjacks, three of those matches ended in 1-1 draws, leaving NAU in fifth place and one point off the Big Sky Tournament come the end of the season. With seven draws to their name, Northern Arizona probably wasn’t as bad as their final RPI may have indicated, but they were still pretty bad. It was hardly the type of year to christen a beautifully renovated stadium with.

Repairing the team’s creaking defense has to be priority #1 for the new season for Luciano after last season’s torrid display. While NAU was replacing club legend Kristi Andreassen, nobody quite expected them to struggle to such a degree. Of course, losing the team’s second best defender and starting goalkeeper didn’t help matters any, and the Lumberjacks will have to be hoping that the rearguard is a little more settled this season. NAU was banking on what looked to be a threatening offense on paper to make up for any defensive deficiencies, but the group as a whole struggled to match 2011’s pace and must now deal with some heavy losses going into the 2012 season. In short, Luciano has his work cut out for him if he wants to get the Lumberjacks back into the postseason in the new look Big Sky.

The big question in midfield is how the club replaces midfielder Sam Monahan, one of the league’s top players for the past two seasons. Monahan was the only Lumberjack to start every match last season and was a massive factor in the team’s unlikely run into mid-table in the league last year. While she was more known for her assists, with her twenty-one career helpers second all-time for the club, Monahan was more of a goalscoring threat last season, leading the team with seven.

The new lynchpin of the midfield could be towering Alaskan Sarah Tarver. Tarver finished on the All-Big Sky Honorable Mention list as a freshman last year after starting for most of the season and scoring twice. Also likely to feature heavily is junior Kathryn Wertz, finally healthy after three injury stricken seasons and crafting herself into a workhorse last season with four appearances of more than a hundred minutes.

NAU looked to be hurting in a big way after the offseason transfer of goalkeeping standout Tori Rocke to Oklahoma. Rocke had been a big part of the Lumberjacks’ stellar defense in 2010, and her loss only exacerbated the growing pains for a defense that was juggling personnel. In the end, things worked out OK, as junior Lauren Weaver stepped up into the breach and performed admirably for NAU. The Winnetka, California native had started six matches as a rookie and needed just a few weeks of the 2011 season to win the job full-time.

Senior Natasha Slaughter has been riddled with injuries over her career and had started three matches in 2011 before being lost for the season again. She is likely to battle freshman Natalie Gilbertson for the backup role behind Weaver.

A tough situation got dramatically worse for Northern Arizona a few games into the 2011 season when the player they had counted on to lead the defensive line suffered a season ending injury. It was generally all downhill from there for a green defense, but spirits have to be raised a bit by the news that Georgia Foltz will be returning for a fifth and final year with the club after receiving a medical redshirt for 2011. She’ll again be tasked with trying to stabilize a defense that was pried open all too easily last season.

That task could be a bit harder with the loss of Katie Tribbey, who missed all of 2010 but rebounded to play out a fine senior season. Tribbey began the season as a forward but utilized her versatility to move to the defense during league play and helped improve what had been an awful defense.

The Lumberjacks have some work to do to reconstruct their frontline after losing starters Jenna Samora and Chelsea Bednarz. One of the top players in program history, Samora finished out her NAU career with twenty-five goals over four seasons, including five last season. Big things had been expected of Bednarz in 2011 after the Santa Clara transfer had been the Big Sky Newcomer of the Year in 2010. But the Chandler native was less than impressive with just two goals despite leading the team with forty-eight shots.

Replacing them won’t be easy though, because very little experience and production are left up front for NAU. Juniors Elinor Priest and Shawnee Morgan would appear to be first in line among the returnees, though neither has been prolific at this level thus far. More than likely though, Luciano will be looking for one of his many attacking recruits to make their mark. A good bet among the freshman could be Nicole Sherwin, who cut her teeth at club level with the powerful San Diego Surf program.

Even if NAU can recover from their defensive disaster of a year ago, the odds of a return to the postseason look slim given the amount of production lost going forward. Samora and Monahan were both key cogs in the offense, and losing them seriously diminishes the firepower available to Luciano and his side. If the defense can get it together and some of the offensive recruits pan out in a hurry, than you might give the Lumberjacks an outside chance at reaching the postseason again in the Big Sky. However, all those pieces falling together looks unlikely for 2012, meaning mid-table may again be the best NAU can hope for.

New coach, new conference, and hopefully new momentum for a Southern Utah program that has fallen on hard times as of late. Becky Hogan is the new boss chosen to guide the Thunderbirds forward after the resignation of Brian Stock after the 2011 season. Hogan, last an assistant at Idaho State, inherits a team headed to the Big Sky Conference after another disappointing season out of the postseason in the Summit League.

Though SUU didn’t finish rock bottom in their final season in the Summit, they were still a whopping thirteen points off of the final conference tournament place. 2011 turned out to be the last straw in Cedar City after a series of poor seasons under Stock’s command. After a pitiful 2-14-2 season in 2009, SUU crashed to an equally dismal 3-11-1 record in 2010 against D1 opponents that was manipulated upwards with a pair of wins against lower division opponents that didn’t help out their RPI a bit.

The side from Cedar City has endured nine losing seasons in the past eleven campaigns, including four in a row counting last season. SUU also hasn’t won more than seven matches in a single season over that span and haven’t won a match in the postseason.

Last season actually didn’t start out that badly for Stock and co., as SUU went 2-1-1 in their first four matches, with wins over Northern Arizona and Northern Iowa to their credit. But the Thunderbirds would lose their next four matches by multiple goals and never really recovered, with that losing streak a part of a winless streak that hit thirteen matches before the team trounced South Dakota and UMKC to finish out the season in eighth place in the league. SUU’s defense had been extra offensive in 2011, having not kept a single clean sheet throughout and having actually conceded multiple goals in a staggering twelve straight matches in the middle of the season.

It pretty much played to expectations, with most of the concerns before the season dealing with a defense that was trying to incorporate many new pieces to the lineup. The end product was a ten goal swing in the wrong direction, with SUU finishing with one of the league’s worst defenses. It blunted another solid season from one of the league’s more respectable offenses.

The good news is that the defense should be more settled with another season under their belt. The bad news is that the worries are now further up the pitch, with the midfield being hit by the double blow of losing Riley Bassett and Elyse Osborne, who combined for seven goals and ten assists last season. There’s still some firepower left, but the returnees have to up their game and perhaps get a lift from some newcomers if they want the offense to hum under first-year coach Hogan.

Without a doubt, SUU’s strength this season will be in it’s frontline, with three dangerous threats to throw at opponents. The leader of the pack if senior Stacey Brinkman, who enjoyed her best year as a collegian last season with six goals and four assists. The Las Vegas native started slow, with no points through eight matches before rolling down the stretch with four goals in three and six goals in seven, including a virtuoso one goal, two assists showing in a 6-1 drubbing of South Dakota.

She’ll be ably assisted by another pair of seniors in Missy Laczano and Shelby Ostler. Laczano started the season on fire, with three goals in the club’s first four games before going cold and without a point for nearly two months. She’d heat up with two goals and two assists in the club’s final four games, but more consistency will be desired this year. Ostler was another who came on late, scoring a goal each in the club’s final two matches and has nine overall the past two seasons. Getting all three on the pitch and on the same page this season could prove to be a boon for Hogan.

Replacing one of the midfield duo of Riley Bassett and Elyse Osborne would be hard enough, but replacing both at the same time? It could be Hogan’s biggest challenge as boss this season. Bassett had been a growing force in the middle of the park for the Thunderbirds, with the hulking 5’11” midfielder having come into her senior year having scored seven goals in 2010. She was a constant threat again her final year with the club, scoring four goals and adding six assists, including one of each in the team’s upset over UMKC in the final game of 2011.

Osborne was more of a late bloomer who really began to come on as a junior, cracking the starting lineup after featuring as a reserve for much of her career. She’d finish 2011 with three goals, including the winner against South Dakota, and four assists, including two against Northern Arizona.

The brightest hope for the future looks to be sophomore Kirsten Anthony, who was a constant in the lineup last year but who also still appears to have some way to go to become an offensive threat. Senior Charly Booth and junior Breana Fitzgerald split time in goal last season, with Fitzgerald enjoying the slight advantage in minutes over the course of the year. It marked a successful return to the pitch for Fitzgerald, who had also split time with Booth when the pair were freshmen in 2009 but who had then missed all of 2010. Booth had been in net on a full-time basis in 2010 but was back to sharing the spot with her teammate last season.

Going into last season, the hope was that SUU would be able to call upon senior Allyson Duda to stabilize a backline that featured more than one youthful face. Duda had rounded into one of the team’s top defenders after transferring from Cowley CC and taking a season to acclimate to the higher level. While Duda was ever-present on the defensive line once again as a senior with eighteen starts, the defense as a whole struggled and must now deal with the loss of their leader.

Fortunately, most everyone else returns for another go of it. Stepping up into the leading role this season is likely to be senior Rachel Krenzer, a tall rock at the back who has been a starter here since her freshman season in 2009. Beside her is likely to be junior Kristy Baron, much improved after seeing little action as a rookie.

To be honest, Hogan doesn’t seem to be inheriting an awful situation in Cedar City. The attack is vibrant and multi-pronged, the team has plenty of experience in goal, and the defense is bound to show some improvement after returning most of last year’s personnel. It’s the midfield that’s the big bugaboo, and Hogan will have to be hoping that some of last year’s bit players step it up or that some of the mostly attacking focused newcomers can find a role in SUU’s system right off the bat.

More than likely, Hogan’s biggest challenge will be instilling a winning mentality in a program that has been buried by bad results over the past few seasons. That and acclimating to a move of conferences to the Big Sky, which shouldn’t be underestimated when combined with the plights of being a first-year coach. Though the Thunderbirds probably won’t be enjoying a trip to the postseason this year, they might have a better chance of making it into mid-table than some might think.

Now two years on from a stunning rise to second place in the league, it’s looking more than ever like that great 2009 revival was just a flash in the pan, as it’s been nothing but misery for Eastern Washington since. Last season may have been one of the worst in program history, a dreadful 2-13-1 campaign with just one win over a Division I opponent. It was the eleventh losing season in twelve years for Eagles coach George Hageage and one that saw the club drift even closer to the bottom of the RPI.

League champions in 2004, Eastern Washington still hasn’t been able to translate that into a Big Sky Tournament title and the club’s first NCAA Tournament berth. They haven’t even been able to work themselves into the chance to win that berth, having never reached the Big Sky Tournament title game in their time in the league. Any hopes of a rebound season in 2011 were squashed quickly, as the Eagles’ defense was pillaged for goals repeatedly by the opposition, conceding multiple goals in the team’s first six matches, all defeats.

The shoddy defense was a bit of a shame, as EWU actually managed to score in their first five matches but just couldn’t stem the tide of opposition offense. The defense did tighten up in the middle of the season, but then, the goals stopped flowing in, with the club being shut out in five straight matches, including in four straight 1-0 losses. The last three in that string came in the club’s opening Big Sky fixtures, meaning the club was already hurting for points by the time they did break through, in their fifth conference match with a resounding 3-0 win over Weber State.

It was too little, too late though, and the Eagles were already dead and buried as far as the postseason was concerned by the time they went down limply to Northern Arizona in the team’s final conference game, 3-0. Further humiliation was heaped on by non-conference foe Seattle, who routed EWU, 5-0, in the Eagles’ final game of the season.

It’s difficult to be bullish on EWU’s short-term future, as the club loses its best player in attacker Whitney Brannan, along with the club’s defensive lynchpin in Dashia Huff. There’s a few noteworthy players throughout the rest of the lineup, but the Eagles were so far off the pace last season that it’s going to take an injection of talent to get them back competitive in the conference again. With few newcomers appearing to be added to the lineup as of press time, Hageage looks like trying to get some improved results from his returning bunch.

Defensively, EWU wasn’t horrible as far as Big Sky results were concerned, but the club was pitiful offensively, scoring under a goal a game in the league while netting just eleven against DI opponents all season. That’s worrisome to say the least with Brannan’s graduation. Losing Brannan is a big, big loss, considering she was so much of the club’s offense, being involved in seven of the team’s fifteen goals on the year. She had twice as many shots as anyone else on the team, and her three goals could’ve been many more had she not been swarmed on by opposing defenses given the club’s lack of other options.

Sophomore Cassie Black looks like the team’s great hope for the near future, with the Battle Ground native having led the club in goals with six last season, including a brace against Air Force in late August. Black also showed a nice sense of timing, with two of her goals being the club’s only match winning goals on the season. But she figures to see much of the same treatment Brannan did if nobody else steps up.

The team’s heartbeat in midfield is senior Lauren Jacobsen, a three-team All-Big Sky Honorable Mention performer who started every league match last year after fighting through injuries. More graft than craft, Jacobsen is still an important senior presence for a club having to replace some key contributors in midfield, with prospective replacements looking like role players at best.

In defense, Huff is the biggest loss, with the departed senior having been a star at Walla Walla Community College for two seasons before moving on to EWU for two more years. She was an instant impact contributor with the club in 2010 starting all of the club’s games and was ever-present in leading the rearguard last season. The club’s new defensive leader looks to be sophomore Katie Cashman, who made a smooth transition to the defense after coming out of high school primarily as an attacker. Another year removed from the transition, Cashman figures to be even more comfortable and hasn’t come close to hitting her ceiling for the Eagles. The rest of the defense is shaky though, with EWU relying on youth and unproven producers to try and fortify the backline.

The Eagles appear to be in safe hands in goal with the return of senior stopper Jamie Walker. Walker had come into her junior year having split time in her two previous campaigns but made the position all her own as a junior, starting fifteen matches for EWU and generally impressing in her time in goal. She should be one of the league’s better netminders this year and could be key to keeping EWU in games with the lack of offensive punch on the roster. Swiss sophomore Nathalie Schwery should serve as Walker’s understudy again in 2012. Schwery came into the program with a lot of hype having been a member of Switzerland’s 2010 U20 World Cup side but was unable to unseat Walker as a freshman despite seven appearances.

The Eagles have a very plain to see Achilles’ heel in the shape of their toothless offense. Brannan wasn’t a big scorer last season but was still by far the club’s most dangerous threat going forward. Black has potential, but if the club stays one-dimensional offensively, it’s hard to see her faring well shouldering the load. There are a few reliable performers in defense and in the middle of the park, but the talent to compete for a postseason berth does not appear to be here. Any improvement will likely be marginal in nature, and the Eagles will probably be battling to avoid the wooden spoon in the Big Sky once more.

Predicted Order of Finish

* = Projected NCAA Tournament auto-bid winner

*1. Montana
2. Weber State
3. Northern Colorado
4. Idaho State

5. Southern Utah
6. Portland State
7. Sacramento State
8. North Dakota
9. Northern Arizona
10. Eastern Washington

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