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 | Rice
Pac-12 – Arizona | Arizona State | Colorado | Oregon | Utah | Washington
SEC – Mississippi State | Ole Miss
WCC – Gonzaga | Loyola Marymount | San Francisco
Erin Aubry’s reign as Arkansas head coach ended with a decided thud in 2011, as the Lady Razorbacks finished dead last in the SEC after a fourteen loss season that surely must rank among the struggling program’s worst. The Lady Razorbacks had shown a few flashes of potential in Aubry’s first season with the club in 2009 with wins at Michigan, Florida International, and Vanderbilt, but an encore in 2010 wasn’t in the cards, as Aubry learned the hard way that it’s not easy to win in Fayetteville. 2011’s failure extended the club’s long line of futility, now having been out of the postseason for every season since 2000.
Fayetteville has taken on the role of the league’s coaching graveyard, with Aubry making victim number seven after her resignation following the season. And considering the list of past Arkansas coaches includes such figures as Marcia McDermott (still the only Lady Razorbacks coach with a record over .500 at the school) and current Illinois coach Janet Rayfield, one has to wonder if there’s something in the water down Fayetteville way rather than just a curse of bad coach selection.
Aubrey’s side looked to be in a rough way going into 2011, trying to blood in handfuls of freshmen to a side that was already struggling for talent and cohesion in 2010. No evidence of the horror show ahead was evident in the season opener though, when the club logged a fine win against SMU at home. The success would be fleeting though. The true nature of just how bad this Arkansas team was would be revealed for much of the rest of the non-conference season as they were lit up like a Christmas tree by opposing offenses. Against the likes of Kansas, Oklahoma State, and Nebraska, teams with firepower to spare, Arkansas stood little chance, giving up fourteen goals in that horrendous stretch, including six to the Cornhuskers.
But the club wasn’t even looking competitive against reasonable mid-major sides, losing by multiple goals to Missouri State before a humiliating 5-0 reverse at Colorado College. The signs were looking ominous as SEC play began, which made the Lady Razorbacks’ first weekend of league action that much more shocking. Aubry’s side swept the Mississippi schools in a completely unexpected development that had Arkansas joint top of the table after one weekend of play. It wouldn’t last.
The rest of the SEC used Arkansas for target practice, as the Lady Razorbacks lost their last nine in the league. The defense in particular was particularly abhorrent, giving up twenty-three goals in those last nine matches, including in all of their final eight. The final numbers were gruesome, with just one clean sheet kept all season and eleven losses by multiple goals. Not that the offense did much better. They were shutout in ten of eighteen matches and scored just three goals in their final nine matches.
While there weren’t rumors of pressure from up top, it was hardly a surprise to hear that Aubry had had enough, the coach throwing in the towel after just three seasons in charge. Inheriting what looks like an unholy mess is UCF associate head coach Colby Hale. Long considered one of the top assistants in the game and almost constantly linked with a move into a head coaching seat, Hale was finally tabbed to lead a program of his own after helping with the Golden Knights’ success over the past decade. Part of a very shrewd and successful recruiting effort in Orlando, Hale will need every bit of his wiles to survive with a program that’s devoured coaches over the course of the last few decades.
He’ll need every bit of coaching nous he can muster up this season to make it even remotely successful, such is the disparity of talent between the Lady Razorbacks and the rest of the league. Whereas Arkansas’ offense was actually not bad at all in 2010 compared to fellow SEC squads, the Lady Razorbacks’ attack suffered greatly last year, scoring just six goals in eleven league goals and eleven overall, a pitiful total for a club from a major conference. Some might have envisioned a step back given some of the many losses in attack from 2010’s squad, but such a regression was hard to fathom. It seems like rubbing salt in the wounds of Arkansas at this point, but the club loses leading scorer from last year Kailey Anders to graduation. Every other scorer returns, which is a mild consolation when you consider that they combined for just seven goals.
The defense was equally horrid last season, finishing bottom of the league in conference goals conceded with twenty-four, or over two a game. It’s probably not a great sign then that the club sees last year’s top recruit, Emily Lillard, a former U18 international, depart for Miami (FL) after just one season. It’s just one of many problems Hale will have to solve if Arkansas is to approach anything close to respectability this season.
Problems to say the least here for Hale and co. Lillard was, for all intents and purposes, the present and future for Arkansas in goal, the type of prospect that just didn’t make their way to Fayetteville and a potential game changer in between the sticks. Losing her after just one season was a massive blow, not just for those reasons but also because she started every game as a rookie last year. The ranks were further thinned out by the departures of backups Brittany Hudson and Kendal Winston, leaving the Lady Razorbacks in between a rock and a hard place with their goalkeeping situation for 2012.
Sophomore Kelly Roliard also came in with some plaudits last season but not nearly to the degree of Lillard, though as the only returning keeper, she may be on top of the depth chart come preseason. The club adds transfer Sarah Story to the mix, an enigmatic and well-traveled junior who showed some signs of real potential at Ole Miss as a true freshman but found herself in JUCO purgatory a year later at Darton College. Admittedly, she would do quite well with Darton, helping lead the team to a national runner-up finish last season. Second chances at this level don’t come along too often, and Hale will be praying that the gamble to bring Story in won’t blow up in his face and that the junior can at the least provide cover in goal.
The club also brings in true freshman Sarah Gardner, who probably has a better shot of seeing minutes than many would give her credit with the unstable situation around her in goal. Arkansas’ situation in goal is concerning to say the least, not the best of signs in a conference with such an offensive bent.
That situation in goal probably doesn’t make Hale feel any better considering the problems the backline had in stopping anyone last season. Their record in the SEC was bad enough, but the club gave up a total of forty-seven goals in eighteen matches, or more than two and a half a game to seal their place as one of the nation’s very worst defenses. Call it a blessing or a curse, but most of that beleaguered unit from last season returns for another go of it. The lone loss looks to be redshirt freshman Lauren Locklear, though it should be noted that she did start eight games for the club after missing the first month of the season.
If this group has a leader, it’s probably junior Melanie Foncham. Foncham had been a non-entity at Texas at the beginning of her career but transferred to Arkansas before 2010 and promptly made the SEC All-Freshman Team, leading the club in minutes and generally impressing. She’d be just one of many who’d struggle last year though, despite starting every game for the club for a second straight season. The other two full-time starters last season, Sam Wolf and Kaylyn Cooper, were both rookies, and not especially ones who were tipped to make an immediate impact. The SEC isn’t a place where most want to learn on the job, and Hale will have to be hoping that confidence for the duo didn’t take a hit after last season’s woes.
Among others fighting for the remaining starting role are Courtney Williams, another rookie last season who started eight games despite missing a handful last year, and sophomore Jenn Fryrear, who made six starts but was also more marginalized last year after starting fifteen games as a rookie. Depth behind the above is practically non-existent, meaning Hale will be hoping for some instant results from his recruits or one of the squad players to emerge. But this group is still amazingly young and could be exposed be SEC offenses yet again this season.
Though Arkansas doesn’t lose anyone who started more than ten games, overall depth in midfield is chipped away by the loss of a handful of players from last year’s squad. The biggest loss, both in a short-term and long-term sense, is of Maddee Loughlin, a freshman last season who managed ten starts as a rookie, and who at least looked to have a little potential to grow into. Also departing are reserves Daniella O’Shea, Chelsea Tidwell, and Margo Davis, who all saw varying amounts of time off the bench last season.
The one real mainstay in the midfield last season was sophomore Tyler Allen, who did enough to ensure she was in the starting lineup for every game last season as a rookie. Allen also showed a little spark offensively as well, with assists against NCAA Tournament qualifiers Kansas and South Carolina. Fellow sophomore Beth Stratton is the club’s leading returning scorer with three goals, including a pair in the league, and Hale will be hoping she can build on that return with a season of collegiate ball under her belt.
Of the other returnees, junior Jessie Givens probably has a leg up for a starting spot having made twenty in two seasons thus far. Givens isn’t much of a threat going forward though, with just fourteen shots in two seasons and no points. Junior Taylor Green was one of the team’s top reserves last season and will also be in the mix, along with sophomore Kendall Jordan and senior Andrea Carlson, both seldom used reserves last year. This group was, like other units, filled with youth last season, but it still looks some way short of quality despite the reasonable degree of experience coming back from the returnees.
This group couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn last season, and Hale will be desperate to find a scoring solution in his first year in charge. The departed Anders’ four goals lead the club last season, but she only scored once in the league and had shots on goal in just two SEC matches on the year. Big things were likely expected of senior Allie Chandler going into last season after nine goals combined in her first two seasons in Fayetteville. She would end up on the All-SEC Second Team, but one wonders why when you see that she needed a whopping eighty-three shots to score just two goals, though both came in the league. She might be the sturdiest returning option though, so Hale will be hoping for a return to her freshman or sophomore form instead of last season’s wasteful effort.
Likely partnering her up top will be sophomore JeriAnn Okoro, tipped as one to watch coming into last season as a freshman. Okoro did enough to be named to the All-SEC Freshman Team last year but was hardly the most prolific in front of goal, scoring just once. More will be expected of the sophomore this season, as Hale tries to get the Texan towards meeting her potential.
The above two will have to be on form, because there’s practically no depth behind them. Juniors Bethany Labac and Yvonne DesJarlais, along with sophomore Allie Tripp, were used sparingly off the bench last season, meaning the club may well need some of the newcomers to come in and make an immediate impact. Needless to say, this unit is a serious concern for Hale going into the new year.
There are small-scale disasters and large-scale ones, and Hale looks to be walking into one of the latter this year as he takes charge of Arkansas. The Lady Razorbacks are young and not exceptionally talented all over the pitch, with serious problems in depth everywhere as well. The backline and midfield have potential to be better if some of the youngsters gel this season, but how much better certainly remains up in the air. The situation in goal and the lack of spark up front look to be absolute nightmares though and could lead to some very dark days in the SEC indeed.
While nobody’s expecting much out of this group in the short-term, it might be the long-term future that’s most concerning for Lady Razorbacks supporters. Comparing the projected signings for the club over the next few years with those of their rivals makes for bleak prognosticating for Arkansas, as one wonders how in the world this program will keep up with their league rivals. There aren’t going to be any quick fixes in Fayetteville. Avoiding the bottom this year would be an achievement, while it could take a half a decade to get this program back into contention for the postseason.