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 – Arkansas | Mississippi State | Ole Miss
WCC – Gonzaga | Loyola Marymount | San Francisco
Oklahoma supporters would be forgiven for thinking that fate was toying with their club at this point. After spending the better part of a decade and a half in a state of arrested development, the Sooners seemed to have finally awakened from their long coma after a 2010 season that saw them reach the Big XII Tournament final while also making it to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003. But the Sooners were unable to make the momentum last and regressed badly in 2011, finishing eighth in the league and six games under .500. If that latest depressing chapter in the history of Oklahoma Soccer wasn’t enough, the year would be further blighted by the announcement of the resignation of head coach Nicole Nelson.
It was a shocking development considering OU was just a year removed from what looked like a breakout season. It was just another disappointing setback for a program that has largely been Division I’s poster child for unfulfilled potential. The Sooners’ early days in the late nineties were more notable for what transpired off the field (leading to an ESPN Outside The Lines special) than the dismal results on it. Randy Evans took over before the 1999 season for the disgraced Bettina Fletcher and got the team into mid-table within a couple of seasons. There was further progress in 2003 when the Sooners snuck into the NCAA Tournament despite a sixth place finish in the league and a somewhat unflattering 8-7-5 record.
Instead of being a jumping off point though, it was the high water mark for the Sooners under Evans. The team couldn’t dislodge itself from mid-table in the Big XII and were miles off the NCAA Tournament picture by the time Evans fell on his sword after another poor year in 2007. His replacement came from an unlikely source: the coaching staff of arch-rivals Texas. Nelson, formerly head coach at Stephen F. Austin and then an assistant on Chris Petrucelli’s staff at Texas, was the choice to take the helm, sure to have caused a few murmurs in Norman considering her association with the hated Longhorns.
Nelson’s first few seasons weren’t much to write home about either. The program hit rock bottom on the pitch with a 3-15-1 mark that had Oklahoma close to the #200 ranking in the final RPI. Nobody expected miracles overnight in Norman, but Sooners supporters surely were hoping for something more than the sub-glacial progress Nelson’s reign had brought after two years. 2010 would finally bring a payoff to long suffering Sooners fans though. After a solid non-conference campaign, OU would heat up later in the league season and put themselves in a great position for an NCAA Tournament berth that was confirmed after wins over Texas and Texas A&M in the BIg XII Tournament. The Sooners would go on battle Oklahoma State bravely in the final, only falling after penalties but still earning an at-large bid to the Big Dance. Nelson’s side would be taught some harsh lessons in the NCAA Tournament though, being beaten comprehensively by a Washington side that was up 3-0 at the half.
While Oklahoma had soared in 2010, some big losses in the offseason meant that consolidation was a worthy goal heading into 2011. After a 5-0 opening day demolition of UAB, the club would tumble back to earth, losing three straight. Defeats to Tennessee and Oklahoma State were tough but understandable, but the club’s 1-0 loss in Norman might have sent alarm bells ringing. For their part, the Sooners won four of their next five but also slipped to a 3-0 defeat to Pac-12 strugglers Arizona State. One of the biggest wins of the season, a 2-0 victory over BYU, was followed up by two straight losses in non-conference play that did not portend well for league play.
Indeed, the club lost its opening three Big XII matches and looked to be in deep trouble as far as postseason play was concerned. A win over Iowa State kept their heads above water, but the club were badly beaten in their next three and needed a last day win against Kansas just to make it into the Big XII Tournament field. Despite another tough battle with Bedlam rivals Oklahoma State in the Big XII Tournament quarterfinals, the Sooners would ultimately fall to a late goal, capping off a most disappointing season.
Nelson’s shocking exit would come soon after, leaving the Sooners to make yet another fresh start in a program history seemingly littered with them. The new figure trying to buck history is former Washington State head coach Matt Potter. The longest tenured coach in Cougars history, Potter turned in seven winning seasons in nine for WSU and got his side to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in 2011.
Able to capture same alluring talent in his days in Pullman, Potter will need all that recruiting skill and more to try and bridge the talent gap in Norman between the Sooners and their rivals. Potter will also have to work to change a culture of losing at OU that has seen the club finish with a losing record in five of their last six seasons.
One thing likely to change is Oklahoma’s woeful defensive record, because conceding nineteen goals in eight league games again would seem to be utter anathema to a Potter coached side. Potter’s WSU teams often had withering defenses, with last year’s Cougars side a prime example, having conceded just fourteen games all season. Much may ultimately depend on the health of junior Carrie Whigham though. Arguably the highest touted recruit ever to come to Norman, Whigham had been a former captain of the U.S. U18 team and had been in U20 camp as well. But the Arizonan suffered through disabling migraines following a concussion and missed almost the entirety of last season. A healthy Whigham has the potential to be one of the league’s best defenders, but there’s no telling when, or if, she’ll be back to full speed for the Sooners.
With the defense’s fate uncertain, Oklahoma might just have to get it done with their attack. That could be a problem as well though, as the Sooners’ offense lagged behind their league rivals, scoring just a goal a game in Big XII play. Oklahoma does return leading scorers Caitlin Mooney and Amy Petrikin though and adds another weapon in Arizona transfer Renae Cuellar. It’s a welcome addition, as Potter figures to need all the help he can get in turning around OU’s beleaguered program.
For the fourth season in a row, Oklahoma will in all likelihood welcome Kelsey Devonshire back to the fold as the club’s starting netminder. The #1 in Norman for what feels like an eternity, Devonshire enters her final season with the club as a steady, battle tested netminder who’ll be hoping for a little support defensively in front of her. Devonshire was forced into over a hundred saves in both of her first two seasons on the job but suffered most last year, where she gave up an almost identical number of goals on far fewer shots on goal faced. Odds are, the Texan will be in goal for most of the season considering she loses both of her backups behind her to graduation this year.
True freshman Martha Turrentine looks to be the only other keeper on the books this season, and the relatively unheralded prospect from Plano will likely be doing a lot of sitting and watching as a rookie this year.
It’s probably a bit hyperbolic to say that Oklahoma’s defense will live and die on the health of Whigham, but there can be no doubting the importance of the junior to the Sooners. With her in the lineup for every game in 2010, the club made a run to the Big XII Tournament final and in to the NCAA Tournament. Without her for almost all of last season? You get the point. In her stead, the club does return a whole host of experience from last season’s squad. English senior Katharine Nutman is a U19 international for her country and has been a key contributor here for the past three seasons. Nutman ended up starting every game for the club last year and can do a job either on the backline or as a defensive midfielder.
She’s likely to be joined in the starting lineup by junior Zoe Dickson, though where Dickson ends up playing is less certain. The Californian began the season as an attacker but moved into defense and started twelve games there towards the second half of last season. Classmate Sam Howell was another convert, recruited as a midfielder but seeing time in defense for much of her tenure with the club so far. Howell scored three times in 2010, so ability in front of the not is definitely there. Senior Brianna Turang is the relative veteran of the group and usually finds her way into the starting lineup by the end of the season each year and made fourteen starts for the club a season ago and could feature prominently again in her final season in Norman.
Utility players Kathryn Watson, a junior, and Emily Bowman, a sophomore, both started eight games last year and could also be real contenders for starting spots right away for OU. Junior Carley Yates and sophomore Molly Richey saw sparing time last year and add depth. To the group Potter adds true freshman Jade Depaah, a two-way threat from the back who has excelled at the competitive Solar SC club in Texas in ECNL and USYS action. Given the experience and depth returning, this group has the potential to be above average to good in the Big XII. If they want to be great though, Whigham likely has to be in the lineup and on form this season.
Potter and the Sooners suffered a big loss in the offseason with the news of Dria Hampton’s transfer to Florida State. A top prospect coming into OU in 2009, it could also be argued that Hampton never really met her potential with the Sooners. Though Hampton scored four goals and added six assists last season, keen observers would note that she didn’t score in the league and only had a pair of assists in Big XII matches, both coming against the laggard Kansas defense. Still, Potter probably would’ve liked to have seen what he could’ve gotten out of the one-time big name recruit in her senior year. Also departing is Sage Coralli, who began her OU career as an undisputed starter but blew out her knee in the 2009 opener and functioned as a substitute most of the time after, including last year, though she still started six games.
If the defense holds up without her, Nutman is a prime candidate to move back into a defensive midfield role, shielding the back four and providing veteran leadership. Sophomore Abby Hodgen can do a little bit of everything, literally, with the Yukon native being listed under every position on the official roster. She had a pair of assists as a rookie and should get a chance to build on last season’s thirteen starts. Junior Annalisa Hall is similarly versatile and broke into the starting lineup late in 2010 as a rookie and likely would have stayed there all of last season had she not been injured for most of the early part of the year. Hall delivered the goods in the league with three Big XII goals and could be a vital source of offense this year as well.
Sophomore Hannah Gordon was mostly used off the bench as a top reserve and could be a favorite for a similar role, while fifth-year senior Alison Farrell, once a member of arch-rivals Oklahoma State, saw minutes in a handful of matches last year as well. A wild card could be Jordan White, who started the first three seasons of her career before missing all of last season due to the effects of a concussion. If healthy, White’s due a fifth year and would be a huge lift to this group this season.
Added to the mix is freshman Madison Smith, a Region III ODP stalwart with a great long-range shot and the versatility to play up front if necessary. Despite satisfactory depth, the loss of Hampton robs this unit of a lot of offensive punch, and the midfield as a whole looks like this squad’s weak point this year.
It’s a little of the old and a little of the new for a Sooners frontline which will be hoping for some consistency in front of goal in 2012. The club must find a replacement for departed senior Michelle Alexander though. The Texan was in fine form early last year and scored as many goals in 2011 (4) as she had in her three previous seasons combined. Alexander, like most of her teammates, fell short in the league though, her goals drying up in Big XII action. Also gone is Kelsey Kraft, a big target at 5’11”, who was a trusted reserve for much of the later part of her career as she struggled with ACL problems.
Much of the offense this year seems likely to flow through senior Caitlin Mooney. After a promising debut season at Maryland, Mooney transferred back home to Oklahoma and has thrived, combining for thirteen goals in her two seasons in Norman. Mooney did a lot of her damage in one two goal, two assist outburst against Oral Roberts though and needs to up her strike rate in the league for OU to be successful this year. Junior Amy Petrikin seems likely to join her on the attack after turning some heads with six goals last season following none as a rookie. Petrikin usually made them count as well, with three going down as game winners. The Tulsa native only started eleven games, so she could well approach ten goals or more as a full-time starter.
Junior Bailey Boulware and sophomore Kelly Price were both heavily involved off the bench, though neither showed much in front of goal last year. Cuellar could be the big ticket addition up front this team has been craving. A part of a club versus country row in Tuscon that saw the Mexican international forced back to campus during CONCACAF Olympic qualifiers, it was hardly surprising to see the veteran depart the Wildcats for more hospitable shores. Cuellar was hobbled by a knee injury in 2010 after a furious start and struggled along with her Arizona teammates through last season’s nightmare. There’s no denying her talent though, and if she’s fit and acclimates quickly, the senior could be a candidate for ten goals or more for OU.
True freshman Cassidy Nangle joins as well, and the rookie has been a Region IV ODP member in the past and should add so more depth at the very least right away. This group has a good deal of potential and could be a dark horse to be one of the league’s better attacks if Potter can hit the right note from the get go with his forwards.
Potter’s no stranger to difficult situations, but Norman’s a bird of a different feather, with a culture steeped in underachievement despite formidable resources. Potter’s first task will likely be to help fortify a defense that was mostly woeful in the league last year. Given the new boss’ track record and the sheer amount of experience and numbers at his disposal, it’s not out of the question to believe the Sooners could take a big step forward defensively, especially if Whigham’s healthy.
Offensively, OU’s got plenty of forwards with the potential to be dangerous spearheads in the Big XII, including Mooney, Petrikin, and Cuellar among others. It remains to be seen if any of the above can be the star striker the club needs, but having multiple talented options doesn’t hurt. The midfield does look a sight understrength though, and the shortcomings in the middle of the park could ultimately undermine any hopes of a sudden turnaround to contender status. Still, the Sooners look a lot more likely to end up in mid-table than propping the league up, and an outside shot at making the NCAA Tournament in Potter’s first season isn’t out of the question.