AWK’s 2012 NCAA Soccer Preview – SWAC

Preview Index

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

Big Sky | DI Independents

Big XII – Oklahoma
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 – Arkansas | Mississippi State | Ole Miss
WCC – Gonzaga | Loyola Marymount | San Francisco

There was little suspense as to who the queens of the SWAC were in 2011. Arkansas-Pine Bluff spent October and the beginning of November bludgeoning their conference rivals with a ceaseless tide of offense while suffocating said opponents with defense. The Lady Lions took home the double with shocking ease and could have easily made a case for themselves as one of the SWAC’s better teams in recent memory. The rapid rise of Pine Bluff can be attributed to the hard work and canny skills of Roberto Mazza, who molded the Lady Lions into last season’s SWAC juggernaut.

But a couple of years into Mazza’s reign as head coach, there were likely a few derisive laughs to be heard. Mazza’s first two seasons were marked by a two-win campaign in 2007 and a 305 RPI finish in 2008. It seemed as if APB’s existence as one of the dregs of Division I soccer would continue unchecked. The Lady Lions had been nothing more than SWAC filler in their early years under the hand of Adeduro Olagbegi (brother of Jackson State Head Coach Adeniji Olagbegi), with rock bottom coming in a one win season in 2006.

The Golden Lions are the furthest thing from a joke now, all-conquering in the SWAC in 2009’s stunning turn as league champions, lifting the SWAC Tournament title and earning a berth in the NCAA Tournament in the process. 2010 brought continued success for Mazza’s side with another league title and a perfect mark in the regular season in the SWAC. But a SWAC Tournament semi-final defeat to Mississippi Valley State was a shock to the system and threatened to unravel a lot of Mazza’s good work if the Lady Lions had a long memory and let the failure affect their 2011 form.

There were the usual challenges that SWAC teams face in non-conference play early on. After decisive defeats to Tennessee-Martin and Arkansas-Little Rock, Pine Bluff threatened an unbelievable upset when they forced Mississippi State to extra time before falling, 1-0. They’d come close again against Southern Miss and most emphatically against Arkansas State, taking a 3-0 lead after twenty-seven minutes and then a 4-2 lead into the final thirty-seven seconds before fluffing their lines and having to settle for a 4-4 draw. Pine-Bluff than broke the league’s hoodoo in non-conference play, tallying the SWAC’s first DI non-conference win of the season with a 1-0 triumph over Central Arkansas.

SWAC play was a little touch and go at first, with the club winning their first three matches by just a single goal. But it was lights out for the rest of the league after that, with Pine Bluff winning their remaining SWAC games all by three goals or more and heading into the SWAC Tournament with five straight clean sheets to their name. There would be no mistake in the postseason this time, with two more clean sheet wins before a cathartic 3-0 win over Mississippi Valley State in the final.

Given the right matchup in the NCAA Tournament, the Lady Lions would have been a tantalizing longshot. They got Oklahoma State instead, and lost by eight clear goals. To be fair, the Lady Lions had only trailed 2-1 at the half before the Cowgirls flexed their might in the second half. Perhaps realizing that he in all likelihood had hit his ceiling with UAPB, Mazza latched on with Sun Belt strugglers Louisiana-Monroe after the season, obviously hoping to work some more of his magic.

The new man in charge is no stranger to the challenges of building a contender in the SWAC, as Rohan Naraine was once at the helm of Southern University. Naraine found the most of his success at Coastal Carolina though, leading the Chants to back-to-back titles before being turfed out by the administration in truly bizarre circumstances. After a few years at St. Andrews College, Naraine finds himself back in DI with a golden opportunity to continue building on the solid base Mazza has constructed for the past half-decade.

It’s not just the loss of their old boss that the Lady Lions must overcome this year though. UAPB also finds itself having to replace a handful of starters, including three of the club’s leading scorers. The biggest blow is the loss of Silvia Fuentes, who put up an unbelievable line of fifteen goals and twenty-eight assists as a senior. To put that into perspective, that’s the fifth highest assists per game total in a season and the sixth highest total assists count in DI history. While it’s true that that total was built on the back of a lot of rather woeful opponents, it’s still a mindboggling few numbers to wrap your head around.

Then again, most of the numbers associated with UAPB were mind-boggling last year, as the club scored nearly three goals a game against league foes and only conceded two goals in nine regular season SWAC games. It’s safe to say with the changes in store, the Lady Lions might take a step back in both categories.

Though the club faces some serious losses in the field, at least Pine Bluff can count on the return of a pair of experienced and talented keepers in 2012. That includes the 2011 SWAC Freshman of The Year, Meaghan Storie. One of many Canadians drafted in by Mazza during his tenure, Storie took over in goal at the end of September in the club’s SWAC opener and never looked back, helping lead the team on their amazing league run to the double. The Victoria native already looks a class apart from the other keepers in the league, and it’ll be interesting to see if she can keep it up with a few losses on the backline in front of her.

Fellow Canadian Olivia Wood got most of the time in goal early on before ceding to Storie and eventually showing up in the field towards the latter half of the season. Storie’s a big asset for the club though, especially given the shifts further up the pitch this year.

The situation in goal needs to be reassuring, because there are some serious losses to overcome in defense. First and foremost, the club bids farewell to Erika Forbes, the two-time and reigning SWAC Defensive Player of the Year. While that award is somewhat ironic considering the league’s general aversion to defense, Forbes was a deserving winner as the captain of the club’s stout defense. Forbes was also a force in front of goal in 2009 & 2010, combining for thirteen goals and eleven assists, though her offensive contributions last year were much more muted. The club also loses England’s Emma Johnson, another four-year starter who was a significant contributor to the club’s success in recent years.

Canadian senior Kaitlin Morin is a big presence at 5’11”, and there’s every indication that the Sault Ste. Marie product will be one of the league’s best defenders with her experience and skill ranking among the best in the league. Versatile countrywoman Reaghan Zilkie can play in either defense or midfield, and showed a decent touch in front of goal as well, with three goals and three assists, including the club’s only goal in the NCAA Tournament loss to Oklahoma State. Others favored for starting roles included sophomore Sarah DeKlerk, who started ten games as a rookie and should be a big part of the future, and classmate Lindsey Roberts, who started seven and added a pair of assists to the Lady Lions’ cause. Forbes and Johnson are big losses, but the club still has some solid bodies here including Morin, so they shouldn’t fall off a cliff, though conceding just two goals like last year could be hard to replicate.

The Lady Lions must also do without their midfield talisman and another of Mazza’s successful Canadian legion, Rachel Harker. Harker, like many of the club’s other departed seniors, was a four-year starter who made an immediate impact as a rookie in 2008 with nine goals and nine assists, and her impact was such that she was named a captain straight away as a rookie. Harker’s finest hour perhaps would be in 2010, when she chipped in with a whopping fifteen assists. She didn’t quite match that pace last year but still managed six goals and eight assists to finish out a fine collegiate career.

While there don’t appear to be any returnees on Harker’s level, Taryn Wright and Molly Stone are still excellent midfielders at this level. Wright, a senior, has also played as a forward for UAPB, and could be called upon to move up front this year given the club’s losses there. In actuality, Stone might be the better option as a forward, considering she scored six goals and added seven assists last year, including a brace against Texas Southern in the league. Sophomore Perri Weslosky got her feet wet with nine starts as a rookie and didn’t disappoint with four goals and three assists, and could be in line for major minutes this year.

Replacing even half of Fuentes’ production would likely be good for Naraine, as the departed Californian eclipsed the heady heights she had reached in JUCO ball as a member of San Bernadino Valley College. Few likely believed that Fuentes could top her eighteen assists as a junior, but her rather crazy numbers testify to her skill, which included a pair of four assist contests against Alabama A&M and Texas Southern.

The club suffers a double blow with the subsequent loss of Nicole Parks-Powell. The 6’1″ behemoth was likely overlooked a little given Fuentes’ numbers, but it’s easy to forget that she did score sixteen goals as a rookie. Parks-Powell wouldn’t match that total in subsequent years, but she still hit for eleven goals and five assists last year, including a brace in the 4-4 draw against Arkansas State. Jade West, the third of the potent trio to depart this year, began her career with seventeen goals and thirteen assists in 2008 but couldn’t match that pace in later years and was hobbled last year, kept to just two starts and a string of cameos off the bench.

The obvious question now is where the goals are going to come from. Senior returnee Casey Hogan has a fair amount of experience but hasn’t really exploded offensively in three years, while sophomore Alyssa Cobbs played in just five games as a rookie. Perhaps a solution will come from one of the newcomers, who weren’t available for scrutiny as of press time. Whatever this unit looks like, it’s probably safe to say they won’t match last year’s blistering pace.

It’s a little hard to judge this UAPB team. While it’s extremely unlikely that the Lady Lions are going to fall off a cliff and into the SWAC’s version of Never Never Land, retaining their title is far from certain. They’ve got heavy losses to overcome all over the pitch, with the attack in particular being totally decimated. Add in a new coach, albeit a talented one, and there’s probably more questions hanging over this squad than in any recent season. Mazza built a good foundation in his stay in Pine Bluff though, meaning the Lady Lions are still certainly in contention for silverware, even if the domination of last year will likely not be repeated again in 2012.

One season after Jackson State reached the giddy heights of SWAC domination with a league and conference tournament double, the Tigers faced a more modest return for their efforts in 2011. An 8-0 loss to open up the season against Ole Miss was a difficult wake-up call as to JSU’s place in the college soccer hierarchy. Some of the non-conference results that had gone their way a season before weren’t falling for them last season either. Despite coming very close on numerous occasions to recording a creditable non-conference result, JSU would lose three of their next four by just a single goal. An 11-0 loss to Stephen F. Austin was a serious cause for concern, though the Tigers did manage to win their first three SWAC games to reestablish their place in the league pecking order momentarily.

A draw against Alabama State broke a streak of fourteen straight wins in the league, dating back to 2010’s all-conquering side. JSU still managed to stretch their SWAC unbeaten run to nineteen games though, winning four matches after that draw with the Hornets. The regular season finale brought a heavy defeat though, as JSU were toppled by four clear goals by their arch rivals, Arkansas-Pine Bluff.

From the face of it, the defeat had a serious negative effect on the defending league champs in the SWAC Tournament. In a massive upset, the Tigers would fall at the first hurdle, losing to Prairie View A&M and ceding their conference tournament crown. For Tiger supporters it must’ve felt like a depressing callback to the years before 2010 where the program had been a strong force in the regular season, only to fall short when it counted most in the SWAC Tournament with an NCAA Tournament bid on the line.

The grey skies don’t figure to linger over the Tigers for too long though, as Jackson State still has a better infrastructure set up than most of their league rivals, with the coaching upheaval at main title rivals Arkansas-Pine Bluff also likely to help their cause in 2012. Not that there isn’t room for improvement this year though. The team scored just once in non-SWAC games, while the defense was generally thumped like a pinata. On the whole, Jackson State’s offensive and defensive numbers were both down across the board from 2010’s double winning season. While the program still remains one of the league’s best, progress still needs to be made on both ends if the club aspires to be more than just big fish in a very small pond.

Despite the losses of occasional starter Raycine Clarke and reserve Naira Crimiel, the midfield should be in good shape for the upcoming season with lots of starting experience to work with. Many eyes could be focused on sophomore Kimberlie Hernandez, who made a big impact as a rookie a year ago. Starting sixteen matches as a rookie, Hernandez was also second leading scorer with four goals and two assists, including a virtuoso two goal, one assist performance against Mississippi Valley State. Considering the transition being made up front, she could be called upon to lead the line.

Other favorites for spots in the starting midfield include junior Patricia Cartwright who had four goals as a rookie in 2010, and Oluwakemi Sokunbi, a Nigerian junior who could be of use in defense as well. The same could be said of fellow junior Brittany Renner, though ten assists over the past two seasons indicate her value to the offense.

It’s Knight time no longer for the Tigers who must replace the team’s leading scorer of the past two years in Liana Knight. Knight was a terror to SWAC defenses for the past two seasons, with nineteen combined goals. Despite making just nine starts a season ago, Knight still hit for eight goals, including four game winning strikes in SWAC play, with three in four games. Replacing her could be a tall order, with senior Shahamin Nunes having not scored in two seasons, while sophomore Ivory Wade was mostly used off the bench last year. Hernandez and Renner are among a good many of the Tigers who may be auditioned for roles up front in the wake of Knight’s absence. It’s a situation very much up in the air right now and one that needs to be resolved if JSU is to contend in the SWAC.

The backline will be aiming for better in 2012 after getting filleted by most of their non-conference opponents. JSU was much better in the league, but still has room to improve to catch up to the top units of Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Alcorn State. The centerpiece of the back line and likely one of the team’s building blocks for future success is sophomore Tayler Alston. Alston came in a lot more highly regarded than most SWAC freshmen, and the Las Vegas native was an instant fixture for JSU, with sixteen starts.

Versatile senior Kleopatra Ruddock will also be in a position to start on the backline after twelve starts as a junior and could also play just about anywhere on the pitch for the club. Theoretically, Adeoba could also find her way back to the defense if she isn’t deployed in goal, and the sophomore is even a mild threat going the other way after two assists last year.

Jackson State entered last season in a spot of bother, with senior Allison Lane having graduated and the club having no recognized returning goalkeepers to work with heading into the new year. The specter of freshmen in goal is always an unpredictable one, and so it was for the Tigers last year, with a pair of rookies seeing significant minutes in between the pipes.

Texan Taylor Emerson looked to be first choice as the team’s only dedicated goalkeeper on the roster going into the season and started the club’s non-conference season, being worked over heavily by opposing offenses in the process. But as the season progressed, she began to lose out to fellow freshman Adebola Adeoba.

This was made all the stranger considering Adeoba had been playing as a field player for the first half of the season and is also listed as a defender on the team’s roster. Regardless, Adeoba played the bulk of the minutes in SWAC play and even kept a few clean sheets in the process. It’s anybody’s guess as to who’ll be in goal come the start of 2012, though if the plans include Adeoba, it might be best to convert her to goalkeeper full-time.

How much will Jackson State’s spectacular early flameout in the postseason last year cost them in terms of momentum and morale? The Tigers looked to be a clear #2 in the league behind runaway winners Arkansas-Pine Bluff but threw it all away in the SWAC Tournament. Now they’ve got to rebuild without Knight, their offensive talisman of the last few seasons, and with a shaky situation in goal and major questions in attack.

The Tigers do get a lot of their personnel back, but the loss of Knight shouldn’t be discounted, as having a consistent goalscorer at this level is critical. JSU does have a key advantage over their rivals in the quest to overhaul UAPB in that this is a program with a recent history of knowing how to win. That should at least allow for some benefit of the doubt to be given when sizing up the Tigers’ prospects for 2012. Given that, it’d be disappointing for the club if they didn’t put in a challenge for SWAC silverware on multiple fronts this year.

Two years into her stint at Texas Southern, and head coach Tamura Crawley-Marigny is undoubtedly finding it a little more challenging than in her last stop at Grambling. The TSU boss, having been poached from SWAC rivals Grambling had known nothing but success in her short coaching career, with four divisional titles and an overall title in her first year at the helm in 2006, getting the club to the NCAA Tournament in the process. Crawley-Marigny’s hiring looked pretty good after a solid first season after so many listless seasons under her predecessor, Tracey Lashley.

In her first season in charge, Crawley-Marigny had led the Tigers to some fine results in SWAC play in the regular season but saw her team flame out at the first hurdle in the SWAC Tournament. Obviously, the goal heading into 2011 was to avoid Second Year Syndrome while making inroads into winning silverware, either through the league or in the conference tournament.

The Tigers found it exceedingly difficult early on though, their defense getting shelled every time out. TSU was so bad they lost every one of their non-conference matches by five goals or more, including an 11-0 defeat to Lamar. The bad defense was one thing, but TSU also couldn’t score early on, being shut out in their first seven before putting two past Northwestern State in an 8-2 loss.

Hoping results would begin to stabilize in league play, the Tigers instead were the living, breathing definition of SWAC mediocrity, with a 3-3-1 record in league play. The somewhat disappointing regular season would’ve looked a little better with some postseason success, but for the second straight year, TSU went down at the first hurdle in the SWAC Tournament, being bounced by Mississippi Valley State on penalties after a 1-1 draw. For a coach who was used to frequent success at Grambling, the Tigers’ inability to get over the hump and ascend the SWAC hierarchy has to be a bit grating heading into her third season in charge.

A season ago, I wrote that Texas Southern’s sieve-like defense couldn’t get worse in 2011. Oops. It got much worse. The Tigers’ defense was so bad that the club finished rock bottom in goals allowed, giving up eighty-six goals in nineteen matches, or roughly four and a half goals a game. Granted, much of that damage was done in the club’s non-conference schedule where they lost by ridiculous margins every time out, but TSU still finished with one of the SWAC’s worst defenses in league play. Making matters worse, the club’s offensive production dried up as well, as the club wouldn’t score until late September and then slipped into the middle of the pack as far as SWAC offenses go in league play. While the defense obviously is the more pressing concern, the attack still needs to improve as well.

Crawley-Marigny has some real worries in a midfield that takes some hits from graduation ahead of 2012. The biggest loss is Saycha Mitchell, arguably the team’s top player. Mitchell wasn’t able to show that form last season though, missing out on almost all of the second half of the season. Mitchell wasn’t able to affect the offense as had usually been the case, not recording a single point after scoring seven goals and adding five assists as a junior.

Youngsters Gabriella Perales and Briona Reid will likely be counted upon to pick up the slack after starting every game in the 2011 season. There are also high hopes for sophomore Brendaletzy Lopez, after the Freeport native tied for second in goals on the team last year with three.

Pity Rebecca Hajny, who was the unfortunate soul getting shellacked game-by-game in the Texas Southern goal. Like many clubs at this level, Texas Southern only had one goalkeeper on the roster last season and didn’t bother trying to throw a field player in between the pipes when things got rough, so Hajny gave up all eighty-six goals the Lady Tigers conceded. That’d be enough to shatter the confidence of most mortals, but does TSU have any other options to work with?

The unfortunate group on the backline will be looking to restore a little of their reputation at least come 2012 when they get a chance to make amends for last season’s chilling display. Youth was not a virtue for Texas Southern’s defense last season, with a whole gaggle of freshmen finding the transition to DI soccer difficult to say the very least. The veteran of the unit looks to be senior Folrence Onyera, fresh off of sixteen starts last season and thirty-six combined over the past two years. Onyera also can hit for the odd goal, such as in 2009 when she hammered home five. She’ll be in charge of organizing a young group, with sophomore Ashley Taylor also likely to feature prominently after starting every game as a rookie last season.

After scoring sixteen goals in three seasons, there was a great fall for Angelica Belford in 2011, as the senior went out with a whimper, scoring just once. Despite the downturn in form last year, her departure leaves a void in attack that the Lady Tigers will be desperate to fill. The obvious option would appear to be junior Jessica Smith, who was a sensation as a rookie, scoring thirteen goals and adding four assists in a stunning debut. But Smith’s sophomore season was marked by a steep decline, as she only managed three goals, though all three were in the club’s final five games. Much will depend on her finding her scoring stroke once again this season. Also likely to feature is senior Nancy Cadenas, who led the team with four goals and four assists last season, including four in a stretch of five games late in the year.

Crawley-Marigny enjoyed great success at Grambling but has found Texas Southern to be a much tougher nut to crack so far. To even come close to the heights she hit at her previous stop, the TSU boss has to get the defense in order after an utterly humiliating season in 2011. You’d expect a little bit of improvement at least with the continuity from the group, but it’s still very young for the most part, meaning you shouldn’t expect a quantum leap overnight. Going the other way, it’s also going to be difficult to replace Mitchell and Belford, though there are some experienced options to choose from.

Given the defensive frailties that are likely to linger, Smith will probably have to be firing true and firing often if TSU is to have any chance of making some noise. Even so, that defense is likely to ensure that mid-table in the SWAC is the absolute best that Crawley-Marigny and the TSU faithful can hope for this year.

Once a match for most of the programs in the SWAC, Southern has spent the better part of the last half decade watching as other programs in the league have risen up and passed them by. The Jaguars looked to be under decent stewardship under the reign of Rohan Naraine, but once he left for Coastal Carolina after the 2004 season, it’s been a steady slide into disappointing waters in Baton Rouge. John Knighten, who looked to have a fairly decent resume at much lower levels, took the helm in 2005 but has failed to spur Southern on to new heights. A side that was good enough to approach a handful of wins in the past hit rock bottom in 2010, only able to win a single match, against fellow strugglers Grambling in their SWAC opener.

With that in mind, there was really nowhere to go but up for the Jaguars in 2011, though their early season form was hardly confidence inspiring, with four straight losses by three goals or more to open the season, including a 6-0 loss to a nondescript Houston Baptist side. The losing streak was stopped at six with the team’s 2-1 win against Prairie View A&M in their second SWAC match, which actually was the catalyst for a three game winning streak that had some wondering if the Jags could be dark horses for honors in the league.

Those notions were put to rest by losses in three of their next four, though the side did recover to top Grambling in their final regular season match to finish the year with five SWAC wins. Knighten’s side came up trumps in an opening round shootout against Alcorn State in the SWAC Tournament, earning a rematch against league champs Arkansas-Pine Bluff. After being beaten handily by the Golden Lions in the regular season, the Jags gave a better account of themselves in the second encounter but still fell, 1-0. Despite that defeat, the Jags at least appear to have righted the ship a bit after a few years in the wilderness.

Outside of the dominant two at the top of the SWAC, the Jaguars boasted one of the league’s better offenses, with twelve goals in nine matches against SWAC opponents. The defense though was fairly pedestrian, even if Southern was only blown out by one league opponent, champions Arkansas-Pine Bluff. With a roster approaching twenty players, Southern was able to enjoy a little more depth than some of their beleaguered conference rivals and should again this season if they add a few reinforcements after losing just a few seniors.

Outside of the advantage of depth, Southern looks like a team craving a star personality. Defender Raedean Kurtz was probably the team’s top player over the past few years but departs, leaving a void that needs to be filled if the Jags are to have a chance at gaining ground in the hunt for silverware. The big Nevada native was a rock at the back for the club throughout her Southern career. Not really a big factor going forward, Kurtz nonetheless was the glue that held the defense together last season.

The worry is that a group that was merely passable last season with Kurtz in the mix could take a big step backwards without their leader in the lineup. If the Jags have anything going for them, it’s that they return a fairly experienced defensive unit in 2012. Seniors Brenda Parra and Britney Lewis are both experienced campaigners, with the latter also an occasional threat to get involved offensively as her two goals and two assists in 2010 can attest to.

Perhaps with an eye towards the future, Southern opted for youth in goal last season, rolling with true freshman Sarah Forde in goal for much of the season. After the team started Bahamian veteran D’nae Capron in the opener against South Alabama and saw their old hand get shelled, Forde started the rest of the season and got valuable experience in the process. The Canadian’s far from a finished product, but the job looks to be hers for the near future.

The future looks bright for Southern up front, with some nice young talent set to sparkle. Besides Gallien, the club will also benefit from the skills of sophomores Alexa Miles and Jazmine Harrell. A jack of all trades type, Miles is capable of playing in many positions but figures to be used for her attacking talent after scoring three goals and adding two assists last season. Miles was a big part of the club’s early SWAC success last season, scoring those goals in five games and bagging the match winner against Alcorn State in the regular season. Not to be outdone, Harrell was big in her own right in the middle of the season against Alabama State, bagging a brace in a 3-2 win.

Despite the loss of the experienced Natasha Witt from the midfield unit, Southern could still be strong in the middle of the park thanks to some of their younger returnees. Sophomore Rekeia Gallien made a big impact as a rookie, scoring five goals on twenty shots last year, including game winning strikes against Alabama A&M and Grambling in league play. Gallien could feature up front as well, but no matter where she lines up, she should be a key component of the Jags’ offense.

Southern look a solid but unspectacular proposition for the 2012 season. The defense has experience, despite the loss of Kurtz, while the attack has some creditable young talent. Perhaps more importantly, depth looks less of a worry here than at some of their league rivals. The Jaguars don’t appear dynamic enough to contend for a title or even postseason honors, but they should have enough in the tank to slide comfortably into mid-table as they try and build to something more significant in the years to come.

At long last, there might be a little light at the end of the tunnel for a beleaguered Alcorn State program that had spent much of the past half decade at the very bottom of the Division I barrel. Going into 2011, the Lady Braves had been a brutal 6-54-1 against Division I opponents over the previous five seasons, their peak coming in 2007 when they won three matches but have failed to make progress from that year, winning only one match in 2009 and 2010 after going through 2008 winless.

The program had humble beginnings less than a decade ago with patriarch Peter Rinaldi trying to build a team from scratch with players from the program’s club team, a few select recruits, and some who had never even played the game before. With that kind of beginning, it’s no surprise that’s it’s been a tough existence for Alcorn State. Current head coach Christie Chambers-Brandon was a member of that inaugural squad but can’t even afford to devote all her energies to the soccer team as she also doubles as an assistant for the school’s men and women’s track teams.

Early signs in 2011 weren’t that good, with Alcorn losing to Southeastern Louisiana by six goals and Troy by seven, leading many to believe that another very long year could be in store for the Lady Braves. But SWAC play breathed new life into Alcorn State, and the club promptly went 2-1-1 in their first four SWAC games, conceding just once in that stretch to boot. All those matches were at home though, and ASU’s form became frail when tasked to head out on the road, losing three of their next four as the offense wheezed and the defense began to leak goals.

They’d end the regular season on a high note though, beating Mississippi Valley State, 2-0. Back in the SWAC Tournament, Alcorn looked to make the most of the opportunity in the postseason, holding Southern to a 0-0 draw but would fall on penalties at the first hurdle. Despite that shootout loss, you couldn’t help but be a little encouraged for the Lady Braves after 2011. They netted their highest RPI finish since 2007 while also winning twice as many matches against DI opposition as they had in the previous three years combined!

That enthusiasm might be tempered a bit with the knowledge that the club loses the services of five seniors from 2011’s squad. As is almost always the case with SWAC sides, rosters are a touch-and-go affair, and the edition as of press time shows just eleven returning players with no news on reinforcements for the upcoming season. Chambers-Brandon will likely be hoping that the club’s renewed emphasis on defense carries over into the new season despite the personnel shakeup.

Despite finishing in mid-table in the SWAC, Alcorn State still ended up conceding the second fewest goals in league play, with just five in nine matches. The downside was that a relatively toothless offense going the other way ensured Alcorn were unlikely to trouble the league’s top teams. Still, given the team’s horrendous form before 2011, dour and unadventurous but solid and stout will probably suit the natives just fine. Of course, with limited numbers, an injury or two could throw everything off kilter.

Alcorn’s continued commitment to strong defense will have to continue in 2012 without their top defender and one of the club’s top overall players in Mexican Andrea Vera. Named All-SWAC First Team after the season, Vera helped marshal the rearguard into one of the league’s best while also saving a bit of time for the offense, finishing third on the squad in shots. Canadian Mallory Dayot is another departee, and the upheaval could leave Chambers-Brandon scrambling to reshuffle her backline. Many of the returnees are quite large size-wise, an asset at this level, but experience and depth are lacking.

As is the case with many smaller schools, Alcorn State sports just one keeper on the roster. Canadian junior Ashley Murray found 2011 a much more enjoyable experience after being shelled as a freshman and finishing with a 4.22 GAA at the end of Alcorn’s awful 2010 season.

The midfield is less hard hit than the defense, but Alcorn still must do without Canadian Jessica Salgado, an All-SWAC First Team performer a season ago. Salgado played sporadically as a junior in 2010 but grew into an important role for the club as a senior, finishing with a goal and an assist. Some of the youngsters in midfield last season showed a little offensive punch, which is a good thing considering how hard it was for this group to score goals at times last season. Specifically, Chavon Douglas and Katrina Moore both scored two goals as rookies, with each nabbing a game winner last year.

Up front, the club loses senior duo Kayla Power and Ashley Carter, but the departures won’t cut as deep as some of the other field player losses when you consider that the pair combined for zero goals and zero assists last season. The team’s go-to option up front in 2012 looks to be diminutive sophomore Emily Sauer, who scored three goals as a rookie to lead the team last year, though none of her strikes went down as match winners.

While it was refreshing to see Alcorn State show some signs of life last season after so many wretched seasons, upward growth this year looks to be a tough ask. Losing the team’s best two players from a squad that had serious trouble scoring goals doesn’t seem like a recipe for success, especially given the lack of overall depth on the roster and the absence of known reinforcements at this time. If some of the young offensive players can keep progressing and hit the back of the net a few more times and the defense holds up, the Lady Braves might approach last season’s mid-table finish. That’s a lot of ‘ifs’ though, and a step back looks more likely come the end of 2012.

Four seasons into the reign of Missisippi Valley State head coach Sonia Curvelo, the Devilettes have carved out something of a niche for themselves as SWAC Tournament masters after a pair of appearances in the title game the past two seasons. A Portugese international who has also played in the Spanish Super League, with three W-League teams, and also having coached in Canada, Curvelo also just happens to be one of MVSU’s best players in their history with a small cache of personal honors and a SWAC winner’s medal in 2005 to her name.

Curvelo was a part of some of former coach Dean Joseph’s best squads, and the Devilettes racked up five straight seasons of ten wins or more and made it to a pair of NCAA Tournaments after winning SWAC Tournament titles in 2005 and 2007. The cultured Curvelo found life a little difficult for the Devilettes in her first season in charge in 2009 trying to fill the lengthy shoes of program patriarch Joseph Improvement was made in 2010, Curvelo leading MVSU to seven wins and an appearance in the SWAC Tournament final.

As has often been the case in recent seasons, MVSU was hardly impressive in non-conference play, taking their fair share of poundings from superior opposition, though they were only really truly outclassed by Southeastern Louisiana and managed scoreless draws against minnows South Carolina State and Central Arkansas. Once SWAC play arrived, Curvelo’s team started to hit their grove, winning six of their first seven to establish themselves as the best of the rest in a league dominated by Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Jackson State.

The Devilettes would back into the conference tournament though after being hammered by Jackson State, 5-0, and then dropping a result in surprising fashion against Alcorn State. The wobbles would continue in the conference tournament, as MVSU could only manage 1-1 draws in the first two rounds but emerged unscathed in shootouts against Texas Southern and Prairie View A&M to reach their second straight final. There was hope that an upset might be on the cards considering Curvelo’s side had played Arkansas-Pine Bluff closely in the regular season, but UAPB left no doubt in the rematch, thumping MVSU, 3-0.

Despite the disappointment in the final, the future looks bright for the Devilettes. That’s because there’s a nice cache of young talent that featured for MVSU last season. In fact, this group that did so well to reach the SWAC Tournament final last year may return mostly intact, with just one senior on MVSU’s 2011 squad. To get to the next level though, the Devilettes definitely need some depth to fill out the roster. They’ve got just one dedicated goalkeeper on the roster, with field player Kristin Swanson doubling as a backup (though she did keep a clean sheet against Central Arkansas, making fifteen saves). The club only saw fourteen players take the pitch last season, and though Curvelo made the most of what she had, she surely needs more to put in a title challenge.

The frontline could be an area of real strength for the Devilettes come 2012 with some of the league’s most intriguing attacking talent at their disposal. The one to watch is sophomore Josee Primeau, another in a long line of productive Canadian imports plying their trade in the SWAC. Capable of playing just about anywhere on the pitch and with good size for this level, Primeau made quite the impression as a rookie last year, scoring eight goals to lead the club by a mile, including braces against three SWAC opponents.

Junior Shanesse Spratt figures to be a primary strike partner this year for Primeau. Spratt doesn’t shoot or score that often, but when she does, she makes them count. She’s scored four goals in the past two seasons, but all of them have been match winners, including three in SWAC play last year. The midfield is a little more blue collar, with the best offensive option likely sophomore Hailey Beekman, a Nevada native who started eighteen matches as a rookie and led the team with three assists.

Texas native Bianca Vigliante will lead the defense as a junior after impressing mightily as a sophomore in 2011. Vigliante’s been a constant in the lineup since stepping onto campus and will be called upon again to lead by example on the backline. She couldn’t quite match her three assist haul from 2010, but her defense was still quite fine for the Devilettes last year. The only departing senior looks to be Canadian utility player Cassandra Russo, who finished the year second on the team in shots and tied for second in goals with three, including the equalizer against Prairie View A&M in the SWAC Tournament semi-finals last season. Depth is a question though, so avoiding injuries will be key for this group.

In goal, like many of the clubs so low on the DI totem pole, Mississippi Valley State makes do with what the have, and in this case, it’s just one dedicated goalkeeper in the form of Canadian junior Shelby Willcocks. Willcocks has been ever-present in between the pipes the past two seasons and has held her own despite facing what must seem like a ceaseless barrage of shots. Her numbers improved across the board in 2011, which might be down to having a second season of experience in goal or perhaps playing in front of a better backline.

It’s all about the numbers. If Mississippi Valley State could add another five or so players just to add depth and enable them to compensate for injuries, you’d consider them a sneaky dark horse for a title run in the SWAC. If they don’t, they’ll be walking a razor’s edge, with serious problems just a muscle pull away. Primeau looks like a budding talent in the SWAC, while Vigliante is dependable leading the defense. It’s difficult to predict silverware in the future of a team that’s so thin in numbers on the ground, but Curvelo seems to get the most out of her charges, meaning MVSU isn’t a team to sleep on in the SWAC come October and November.

It was another case of non-conference pain leading to SWAC gain for Prairie View A&M, who blossomed once again in conference play after some dreadful results to begin the year. After losing their opening three matches by a combined score of 14-0, the Lady Panthers would at least keep it close against sides like Northwestern State and McNeese State. A win out of the league wouldn’t be coming though, and Prairie View were likely very happy to see foes their own size once SWAC play rolled around.

It was all a bit difficult for the Lady Panthers at the start of league play though, the team losing five of six and drawing the other match against Texas Southern. Needing a big final few weeks to assure themselves of the postseason, they responded with three straight wins to close out the regular season. Essentially playing with house money, the Lady Panthers then shocked the SWAC establishment with a 2-1 win over league power Jackson State in the opening round of the SWAC Tournament. A potential postseason miracle run looked possible in the semi-final against a modest Mississippi Valley State team, but the Lady Panthers were cruelly shot down in a shootout after a 1-1 draw.

Head coach Abe Garcia, entering into his fifth season has made some positive strides since taking charge of the Lady Panthers before the 2008 season. Garcia’s first year in charge was a trying time with a 3-16-2 record, but the second season was a big step forward which included a shock victory at North Texas, the program’s biggest win in years and likely one of the biggest in program history. That season also saw PVA&M get to the SWAC Tournament final where they fell to Mississippi Valley State in a close match.

The big strides led some to believe that the Lady Panthers had a shot at a league title in 2010, but signs of real life weren’t evident until SWAC play rolled around. 2010 was a bit of a wash in the end though, the Lady Panthers’ SWAC form making up for an awful non-conference run before a disappointing exit in the SWAC Tournament quarterfinal.

Last year, their league form suffered, but they managed a slightly better postseason performance. The question now though is whether Garcia and his charges can take another step forward and challenge the league elite for silverware.

Dubbing the Lady Panthers one of the elite of the SWAC is probably a stretch, but it’s not like A&M doesn’t have a big chance to move up the ladder in the league in 2012. That’s primarily because the club is set to return ten starters from a season ago with the departed seniors mostly being bit players for the program. In a league where chopping and changing is all too prevalent, that continuity could be huge going forward for the club. There’s quite the smattering of offensive talent on the club as well, perhaps enough to take it out of mid-table in the goals scored chart and closer to the top of the league. Defensively, A&M were middle of the road, but the continuity can’t hurt matters for 2012.

The big reason for Lady Panthers to be optimistic for the season going forward is the team’s frontline, which looks capable of giving SWAC defenses some problems in 2012. Front and center is senior Yosselyn Aguilar, the league’s Newcomer of the Year back in 2009. She wasn’t able to match 2010’s nine goal haul, but Aguilar still managed five goals last season, including three in two games against league power Jackson State, with two coming in the club’s SWAC Tournament upset over the club.

Partnering her up front will be All-SWAC First Team performer Angie Guillory. Guillory was a revelation last season with four goals and three assists despite missing a good chunk of the season with a high ankle sprain. Guillory scored those four goals and one of her assists in the club’s final five matches and was a major reason for the club’s late revival.

In midfield, senior Katherine Sheppard, figures to be the team’s leader there in her final year with the club. The Venezuela native doesn’t offer much offensively but is a steady hand who started every match for the club last year and was named to the SWAC All-Tournament in 2011. The rest of the unit is workmanlike, with a smattering of experience at this level.

By far the biggest worry on the Lady Panthers squad this year has to be in between the pipes, where experience is somewhat lacking. With no experienced depth to speak of last season, Bianca Garza was thrown right into the fire as a rookie and made to sink or swim. Backup Griselda Chavarria didn’t see action last season, meaning Garza will likely be the last line of defense again.

In front of her, Prairie View is dominated by their legion of Texans on the roster, but the team’s defensive leader is Colorado Springs native Carly Detter. Detter’s only a sophomore but proved herself to be the club’s anchor at the back, starting eighteen matches as a freshman and winning All-SWAC Second Team honors at the end of the season. She’s got great size for this level and looks like an important building block for the future. The rest of the unit has nice experience but will have to be on top of their game to protect a still green goalkeeper.

While they probably don’t have enough in the tank to challenge Jackson State and Arkansas-Pine Bluff for league superiority, you wouldn’t put it past this Prairie View team to be in the running to be the best of the rest in the SWAC. Aguilar and Guillory are a legit duo up front in this league and could help fire the club up the table. Plenty of experience returns to the fore, and the club adds even more firepower from the incoming freshmen. The defense is a bit young, especially in goal, but Detter’s not a bad piece to build around on the backline. They might not be due for silverware, but Garcia appears to be moving the club in the right direction, and they should be aiming for mid-table at the very least in the SWAC.

The glory days seem to be well and truly over for Alabama A&M. The Bulldogs, not long ago, were more than a token SWAC punching bag. For two glorious years in 2006 and 2007, A&M were over .500 and more than a match for most of the mid-majors in America, finishing in the middle 100s in the RPI. The team also brought home the 2007 SWAC Tournament title and became the first SWAC club to score in the NCAA Tournament when they put one past Georgia in the first round of the Big Dance.

It’s been a steep decline since then, dropping to a woeful 2-16-0 in 2009 and most recently a brutal 1-14-1 season last year. While A&M likely would’ve hoped to avoid a repeat of 2010’s amazingly bad non-conference season that saw them obliterated at practically every turn, there was a sickening sense of deja vu at the beginning of 2011. After losing to Miami (OH), 15-0, in the 2010 opener, the Bulldogs were beaten, 14-0, by Austin Peay in the 2011 opener. Things wouldn’t get better with three losses by eight goals or more in their next four matches. A&M wouldn’t score until game seven of the season, a 2-1 loss against Chattanooga.

A draw against Alcorn State was encouraging in their second SWAC game, but the losses kept piling up in league action, with the team’s sole victory coming against Grambling in the middle of October. Needing a win against Alabama State to keep their postseason dream alive, the Bulldogs were edged, 1-0, on home turf, consigning them to last in their division of the SWAC and out of the postseason, marking a new low for the once proud program. Considering some of the program’s past successes, the sudden transformation into cellar dwellers must be a little hard to take for head coach Frank Davies.

Dead last. That’s where Alabama A&M’s offense ranked last season in overall goals scored with just four the whole season. Keep in mind, this is a club that also finished with the nation’s second worst defense as far as goals conceded, so it’s probably a minor miracle that the Bulldogs didn’t finish at the very bottom of the RPI in 2011. With little in the way of reinforcements coming in, Davies is going to have to try and squeeze more production out of a very limited group. With three “official” rosters on the team’s website, it’s also hard to tell just who’ll be suiting up for A&M as well, making prognostications even more difficult.

A team that struggled to score goals has to replace it’s most likely scorer with the graduation of Celeste Roberts. Roberts was a capable finisher in front of goal as a junior with six goals and three assists in 2010, but her goal tally dried out last year, with just a solitary strike to her name. She still led the team in shots though, indicating that despite the slump, she still leaves a void to fill in the offense. The midfield also gets crushed by graduation, with junior Jana’ Slay leading a rather nondescript bunch to try and inject some life into the attack.

Defensively, the Bulldogs weren’t exactly flush with talent last season, and things don’t get any better this year with the loss of some experienced campaigners. Brittany Joseph looks like the biggest loss, with the Californian having started fourteen games last year and having scored the winner in the only victory of the year over Grambling. For the most part, the returnees have only seen a smattering of action, with the club really lacking a veteran anchor that’s so desperately needed. At least the club has a little continuity in goal, with Ghanaian keeper Linda Aboagye set to continue on despite being shelled last season.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Alabama A&M’s star has burned out in a major way after their ascent to respectability and relative success half a decade ago. The Bulldogs were for all intents and purposes the worst team in America last year despite the RPI’s disagreement. Not scoring and not being able to keep goals out is a deadly combination as you might expect, and A&M doesn’t seem to have done much to remedy the situation in the offseason. Given the printed roster’s general state of disrepair, it’s difficult to get a grip on who is and isn’t on this team’s roster for 2012, but unless there’s been a major renovation, it’s difficult to see much improvement for the Bulldogs this year. They’re good bets for the basement of the SWAC and perhaps all of Division I.

After a somewhat more respectable 2010, Alabama State fell back into their old pattern of dismal seasons with an abject 2011. Having won six matches after seasons of two, zero, one, and zero wins, the hope was that the Hornets could continue their flight up the SWAC table in 2011. Instead, ASU finished the season with seventeen losses, three of them to non-DI opponents, and just two wins, with only one of those against a DI foe.

It was another less than encouraging season for a program whose struggled all too often over the past decade. When Jodie Smith took control in Montgomery prior to the 2007 season, it looked to be a good match, with the struggling Hornets gaining a coach with extensive DI experience. Smith had had some great success at Georgia State a while back, winning eighteen games with the Panthers in 1997 before a move to in-state rivals Mercer that was somewhat less successful. Though Smith spoke of there being talent within the Hornets upon taking over, it certainly didn’t reflect it on the pitch as ASU found wins near impossible to come by. 2009 was a low point for the program as they went 0-16-0 and lost eight games by at least eleven goals including a horrifying 17-1 loss to South Carolina State.

Any sense that 2010’s progress might carry over wasn’t on display in non-conference play, as the club lost all seven of their non-conference matches against DI opposition by multiple goals, the worst beating coming at the hands of Wofford in a 7-0 drubbing. The results got more respectable as league play began, but it was still hard to ignore the fact that ASU lost their first three SWAC matches.

A shock draw with league heavyweight Jackson State looked to give Smith’s side a lifeline, and they followed it up with a win over Alabama A&M a few weeks later. Four points may not have sounded like much in the league table, but that win over the state rival Bulldogs was enough to send ASU to the SWAC Tournament. There, their fitful season would end decisively at the hands of league champs Arkansas-Pine Bluff, capping off another dreary year for the Hornets.

Much of Alabama State’s struggles boiled down to a lack of goals last season. In 2010, Monique Sylvester and Danielle Miller, while not terribly prolific, still were good for five goals apiece that helped keep the offense respectable. But with both having graduated ahead of 2011, the Hornets never really replaced them and ended up with one of the worst offenses in the league. The defense, while not watertight, was at least respectable for ASU, meaning a little bit more punch going forward could go a long way in making the Hornets more competitive.

The player to watch for the Hornets in 2012 could be senior Californian midfielder Lenna Lamas. Lamas showed an immediate spark in her first season with the club in 2010, being named to the SWAC All-Tournament team and scoring four times as a rookie. Last season saw her continue at a decent pace, with three goals and three assists, including a huge one against league power Jackson State in the club’s shock draw against JSU. With so few other proven options, the pressure will be on her shoulders again to lead the offense. There were high hopes for sophomore Kyla Neale coming into ASU as one of the club’s top recruits ever. She certainly showed her potential in scoring the club’s only goal in the loss to South Alabama but was overall more miss than hit as a rookie.

Defensively, the leader looks to be senior Jordan Creel, a veteran of forty starts, including all but one match last year. Most of the starters from last season’s defense look set to return, but the club lacks depth in the rearguard and in goal though, where the only option is highly touted Kylee Hathaway, a sophomore, who is the only dedicated keeper on the roster. The defense certainly has experience and potential, especially in goal with Hathaway entering her second season between the pipes.

But the offense looks frightfully frail, with Lamas the only player to have scored more than two goals last season and relatively few reinforcements coming in to bolster the ranks. If she can’t take the team upon her back and/or Neale doesn’t grow into her potential this year, ASU will likely be spinning its wheels once again. If the Hornets can find some goals, they could perhaps end up in mid-table in the league and win a match in the postseason. That looks unlikely though, meaning ASU is probably in for another season of struggle.

The sudden downturn in fortunes at Grambling continued in painful fashion last year as the Lady Tigers officially hit rock bottom with a dead last finish in the RPI. A stunning end in the SWAC Tournament Semi-Finals in 2009 ended a fine season, also Tamura-Crawley Marigny’s last in charge of the club, and was the first sign of trouble for the Lady Tigers who struggled through a fitful first season under Marcia Oliveira in 2010.

Standards at Grambling over the years haven’t been as low as at some other SWAC destinations. Matt Okoh had led the team to sixteen wins in 2004, while the coach Oliveira had replaced, Marigny had delivered three winning seasons in four years and a trip to the NCAA Tournament in 2006. Oliveira hasn’t exactly had a sparkling coaching career thus far with just fifty-four wins as compared to one hundred sixty-five losses in four destinations. The Brazilian was most recently coming off a two year stint at South Dakota as they eased into the life as a DI program but with little to show in the way of results on the pitch.

After 2010’s disappointing effort, the pressure was on the Lady Tigers to at least be a little more competitive in the SWAC if not get back to their former selves that had been challengers in the upper half of the conference. But the first weekend of the 2011 season was telling for the Lady Tigers, who lost to Lamar, 7-0, and North Texas, 11-0. Grambling, like many of their SWAC brethren, would get thumped in almost all of their non-conference matches, pulling an 0-fer and keeping it within a single goal just two times.

There seemed to be some hope over the horizon in league play when the team kept it close against league favorites Arkansas-Pine Bluff, losing 2-1 at home. It proved to be fleeting though, as the program would win just once in their SWAC travails, beating Alabama State by a single goal. Unfortunately for the Lady Tigers, that game didn’t count towards the SWAC standings with Alabama State being an out-of-division opponent, and Grambling finished on bottom of their division, losing three of their last four by multiple goals and missing out on the SWAC Tournament.

The good news for Grambling is that quite literally, there’s nowhere to go but up for the club after finishing dead last in the RPI. The bad news is that there are a whole lot of problems that need to be fixed for this club to progress up the table. While the offense wasn’t terrible by SWAC standards, the defense was an absolute horror show, giving up twenty-three goals against league opponents. No other SWAC side gave up more than fourteen. If the Lady Tigers can’t stop that flow of goals being conceded, another season of struggle awaits.

With only one (beleaguered) keeper, Jordan Taylor, on the roster and many of the same defenders on the roster, one wonders how much the club can improve from last year’s galling display. There’s certainly no small degree of international flair at the Lady Tigers’ disposal, with Antiguan Devita Edwards, Brazilian Isadora Selbach, Trinidad and Tobago’s Tiana Bateau, and Barbados’ Alyssa Yard on the side. The first two are just sophomores and could be key to the club’s future, while Bateau showed a bit of an offensive spark last season with two goals to lead the team and can also play in midfield.

The player to watch for the Lady Tigers in the middle of the park is likely senior Sierra Arndt, who should be the team’s top scoring threat. After leading the club in goals in 2010 with four, Arndt was second on the club last season…which isn’t saying much considering she only scored once. Arndt was the club’s leader in shots by a mile last season though, so she may well be called upon up front for the Lady Tigers.

The good news is most of Grambling’s squad looks set to return for 2012 barring any defections. The bad news is that squad wasn’t very good last year, to put it mildly. The club will have to hope that more experience and some contributions from whoever gets added to the team before preseason can help lead them forward. Truthfully, with the gap between the bottom of the SWAC and mid-table of the league being so fine, it might not take much for Grambling to haul itself out of the dregs. But this is a club who has to plug up a lot of holes in defense while finding a consistent goalscorer if they’re going to go anywhere this year. They might get off bottom this season, but anything more than a cursory postseason appearance looks unlikely.

Projected Order of Finish

* = Projected NCAA Tournament Auto Bid Winner

East

*1. Mississippi Valley State
2. Jackson State
3. Alabama State
4. Alcorn State

5. Alabama A&M

West

1. Prairie View A&M
2. Arkansas-Pine Bluff
3. Southern
4. Texas Southern

5. Grambling

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