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 | New Mexico | Rice
Pac-12 – Arizona | Arizona State | Colorado | Oregon | Utah | Washington
SEC – Arkansas | Mississippi State | Ole Miss
WCC – Gonzaga | Loyola Marymount | San Francisco
Held trophyless in 2010 after three straight league titles and a double in 2009, Illinois State roared back into the spotlight with another all-conquering double in 2011. Redbirds head coach Drew Roff had achieved stunning success in his first three seasons at the helm, bringing home three straight league titles to emerge as one of the hottest mid-major coaches in the country. But it took until 2009 for ISU to close the deal and do the double though, returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 2003 double winning campaign. The hope coming into 2010 was that the Redbirds would push on and complete a grand slam of titles while getting to the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year, but it was an atypically down season for ISU, with a third place finish in the league followed by an exit on penalties in the conference tournament semi-finals.
Wanting to prove that 2010’s dip in form was a one-off, ISU opened up the new season in stuttering form, splitting their first six matches. The Redbirds walloped some overmatched foes but showed truer form when they played the likes of Boston University and Minnesota very close. ISU also managed to claim scalps from two bigger conference schools, toppling DePaul and Northwestern. After the non-conference season, Roff’s side had shown a marked propensity for an explosive offense (multiple goals in seven of nine games) but also a fragile defense at times. There wasn’t much of an indicator of what was to come in league play early on, as the Redbirds split their opening two matches.
But the fireworks would begin in earnest in a unbelievable October surge. The club would score a combined twenty goals in five matches while conceding just four in return. The last two for ISU were the most telling. First, the club shocked fancied Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the club’s final non-conference game of the regular season, toppling the Panthers by a 3-1 margin. Yet even THAT wasn’t the most impressive result of the month. Roff’s bunch would go on in their next match, a de facto MVC title decider, and bludgeon Creighton to the tune of an 8-1 mauling. Illinois State’s staggering offensive pace continued in the MVC Tournament, with the Redbirds first putting six past Evansville in the semi-finals before avenging their only league loss of the year, destroying Missouri State, 5-0.
Odds were, there weren’t too many teams that fancied facing these double winners come the NCAA Tournament. One that was though ended up getting that first round matchup, as Milwaukee came calling some twenty days after their last meeting in Normal. This rematch was up in Milwaukee though, and whether it was the Panthers’ home advantage, ISU’s inexperience on this big a stage, or just a team on a revenge mission, Roff’s Redbirds fell hard. Milwaukee were up within four minutes and tacked on two more late to roll to a dominant win, though ISU also created some chances that went uncapitalized upon.
The vanquished visitors needn’t have hung their heads though. It had still been a season to remember, with two more trophies won in thrilling style as Roff continued to add to a burgeoning reputation as a coach to watch for the future. His team certainly bears following as well, as based on some of 2011’s evidence, the Redbirds could soon find themselves among the mid-major elite, alongside the likes of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
If you believe that a club that had won three straight league titles a short while ago had any element of surprise left to their name, such illusions were likely erased given some of ISU’s thunderous performances down the stretch last year. The key now is to continue to build on that season and live up to increased expectations. With clubs like Illinois, Florida Gulf Coast, and Wisconsin on the slate, the Redbirds certainly aren’t stacking the deck in their favor in non-conference play either. Then again, there really isn’t a need to stack the deck when you’ve got a player like sophomore Rachel Tejada on the roster.
The college soccer world likely should have realized something special was happening after five games when Tejada had scored eight goals, including a hat trick in the win over DePaul. And she kept scoring. Finishing with twenty-one goals in nineteen games, Tejada failed to score in just five of ISU’s contests, and the only clubs to hold her without a shot on target were Minnesota and Wisconsin-Milwaukee in their NCAA Tournament meeting. If she stays healthy and on form, Tejada could go down as one of the greatest MVC players in league history.
For the Cardinals to make a run in the postseason though, they’ll have to find a suitable replacement for departed senior Natalie McCabe. The Canadian didn’t get much of the limelight with Tejada’s exploits last season but was the MVC Defensive Player of the Year and a fine asset for ISU in defense. Their firepower should make them MVC favorites, but without a sturdy defense, the Cardinals can only go so far come November.
With some of the changes going down in the backline, ISU’s going to need stellar play between the pipes if they’re to challenge for honors in 2012. Fortunately for Roff and co., the Redbirds have two experienced keepers to call upon, including MVC All-Freshman Team selection Aryn Newsom, last season’s first choice. Twin sister of midfielder Allie Newsom, Aryn Newsom won the starting job in camp and established herself as the team’s starter full-time near the midpoint of the season after sharing time with Mara Kremenovic early on.
A Serbian international by way of Toronto, Kremenovic won the starting job in 2010 after transferring from Cape Breton University in Canada before the season. Kremenovic would impress for the Redbirds, earning MVC All-Tournament Team honors in the process. She’d lose her grip on the starting job early in 2011 though and was relegated to full-time backup by the time league play rolled around last season. Having two experienced and capable options certainly can’t hurt ISU’s cause this season, and Roff will be expecting more solid play with the backline bound to experience some wobbles early on this year with the losses taken.
By far, the most concerning are of the pitch for Illinois State this season is the backline, where the club must replace half of their first choice back four. Obviously, the biggest loss is center-back McCabe, who excelled in a shutdown role in central defense, aiming to silence the opposition’s top player. A four-year starter and two-time All-MVC First Team selection, McCabe leaves behind a big legacy and will not be easily replaced in defense for the Redbirds. Also departing is left-back Alex Howell, who turned into a lock in the starting lineup her final two years for the club and was versatile enough to play up front if the club needed an offensive spark.
The club loses a couple of depth players as well, as dependable full-back reserve Afton Delvecchio departs after being one of the club’s top options off the bench the past three years, while Elise Olson transferred to Wisconsin-Green Bay after the season.
There’s some experience returning for the Redbirds but not as much as they’d like in all likelihood. The surest option is senior center-back Kristin Cooley, an All-MVC Second Team selection and three-year starter for the club. Not just a plodding central defender, Cooley has been a threat offensively as well, with eight career assists over three season, also adding a pair of goals last season as well. Her leadership will undoubtedly be what’s most valued this year though, with question marks around her. Right-back Gabbi McArtor was a pleasant surprise last season as a rookie, serving as an option off the bench before holding down a starting spot for the last ten games, winning MVC All-Freshman Team honors as well. McArtor looks a big part of the club’s future and will have to be a big part of the present as well with the losses.
The player she displaced, Heather Sterling, had started the first seven games of the season but struggled with a leg injury the rest of the way. Given the needs of ISU on defense, Sterling could still end up in the starting lineup, though on the right or left is the big question with McArtor unlikely to budge from the first XI. Junior Allie Newsom is a former MVC All-Freshman Team member and was a top reserve last season and could easily find herself back in the starting lineup this season while also covering for the midfield.
Sophomore Mia Patrevito was also one of the club’s top options off the bench as a rookie last season, scoring the game winner over Drake in league play, and could be called upon to make a bigger impact this year, with more minutes potentially in the cards. Senior Sarah Carlson was seldom used in her first two years here but made thirteen appearances off the bench and could be in line for more action as well. Given ISU’s success with newcomers historically, don’t be surprised if a new face or two makes their presence known in defense early either. This looks like the biggest potential trouble area for the Redbirds, but if they solve it, they could be in store for big success.
With the Redbirds opting for a 4-2-3-1 that crammed some of their auxiliary forwards into the midfield, ISU had plenty of firepower backing Tejada up last season. This group isn’t without its losses though, with the Redbirds being forced to replace departed senior Jessica Carlson, who was the club’s offensive juggernaut before Tejada came to town. After a modest freshman season, Carlson burst onto the scene in 2009 with eleven goals and earned MVC Tournament MVP honors in the process. While 2010 was a little bit of a step back, 2011 was another revelatory year, as Carlson turned into a playmaker in chief, setting up ten goals, a new school record both in a single season and in a career while also finishing second in school history in points, goals, and game winning goals.
The three-time All-MVC First Team selection is obviously a massive player to replace for the club, and replacing most of her production could be seen as a success. Also gone is Mary Sahm, a spot starter for the club for most of her tenure at ISU who started the final eight games in the middle of the park last year and was good for a goal or two each year at the club.
The leader of the unit this season figures to be Anna Stinson, who had a breakout season of her own last year for the Redbirds. After a promising season in 2010 that was curtailed a bit by injury, Stinson came up big in ISU’s title winning season last year, starting every match and adding five goals and nine assists to the Redbirds’ cause. Some highlights included two goals against Indiana State in the league and a pair of assists in the MVC Tournament final romp against Missouri State. Stinson could well be in position to break Carlson’s single season assists record this year and showed herself to be handy in front of goal as well.
Classmate Kyla Cross also brings the firepower after a fantastic sophomore season which ended with MVC Tournament MVP honors. Cross would explode down the stretch, with assists in six of seven games at the close of the regular season before scoring two goals in each of the club’s MVC Tournament wins. She has the potential to be yet another deadly weapon in front of goal for ISU this season. Senior Rachel Bostick’s achievements seem a little more modest in comparison to the above, but she still has three years of starting experience and has eleven goals in those three years, including game winners in two MVC matches last season.
Sophomore Aimee Wronski could be one to benefit from the vacancies in the midfield from graduation after an impressive rookie season that saw her start eleven games and score two goals and add two assists. Junior Mackenzie Staton provides more depth after twenty-seven appearances off the bench in two seasons, though her offensive impact has been limited. Losing a player like Carlson should never be taken for granted, but ISU looks to be in a position to cope just fine, with experience and potency in equal measure.
Illinois State’s meal ticket this season will again be the explosive Tejada, who came into the club as a virtual unknown but looked to be on a path to potential stardom by the end of last season. It was always going to take a lot for someone to usurp Carlson as the club’s leading attacker, but it’s safe to say it was mission accomplished for Tejada after last season’s twenty-one goal, nine assist out burst, with the rookie having a hand in thirty of the club’s fifty-six goals. Tejada avoiding a sophomore slump is likely to be crucial for ISU to continue to progress, though twenty goal scorers don’t exactly fall off of cliffs generally.
With just the single striker up front, minutes will likely be sparse with Tejada in the fold. Reserve Katrina Jakobsze is the only major departure and was a utility player capable of playing just about anywhere on the pitch during her ISU career. Spelling Tejada in the lineup could be senior Kelly Rosenthal, a sub for her first three seasons here and not necessarily a prolific one, along with sophomore Keri Kujawa, who came off the bench in sixteen games as a rookie with two assists.
More than likely though, Roff will probably look towards Cross or Wronski to fill any long-term needs up front in lieu of Tejada if something unexpected and unfortunate happens. Don’t count out a rookie or two also making some noise. If the Redbirds have shown us anything over the past half decade, it’s that they know how to unearth young offensive talent.
Attack, attack, attack. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the modus operandi of this Illinois State team this season. And why should it be any different? Tejada proved herself to be a top class predator against modest competition last season and showed signs of being more at times as a rookie as well. Despite the loss of Carlson, it’s not like she doesn’t have solid backup either, with the likes of Cross and Stinson able to knock them in with regularity as well. Defensively, the club has some questions to answer, losing half the starting backline from a year ago, including the excellent McCabe. The unit has talent, it’s just a matter of gelling all those pieces together into a strong back four by the business end of the season.
The Redbirds’ offense should continue to excite and makes ISU clear favorites in the MVC this season. If Roff, whose coaching star continues to rise, can find the right solution defensively, then his side could well make life miserable for some opponent in the NCAA Tournament as well.