Big XII – Oklahoma | Texas Tech
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 | Illinois State | New Mexico | Rice | Utah State
Pac-12 – Arizona | Arizona State | Colorado | Oregon | Utah | Washington
SEC – Arkansas | Mississippi State | Ole Miss
WCC – Gonzaga | Loyola Marymount | San Francisco
While 2011 was a breath of fresh air for a troubled Clemson program, it also showed just how far the Tigers had to go on the pitch to be a contender again in the ACC or even vaguely respectable in the nation’s toughest league. Second-year head coach Eddie Radwanski had made a habit out of beating ACC teams regularly over at UNC Greensboro while building a mid-major juggernaut, but he arguably had more talent with the Spartans than he inherited at Clemson after taking over after the 2010 season. Radwanski had been considered a prime candidate for the job back when Todd Bramble had left for Alabama after the 2007 season, but Clemson instead opted for unproven Virginia assistant Hershey Strosberg.
Three disastrous seasons later, and Clemson was essentially left to rebuild from scratch after Strosberg had driven the program off a cliff. After the successful tenures of Tracey and Ray Leone and later Bramble, Clemson fans had been used to some reasonable success, including an ACC title in 2000 under the Leones. But by the time Radwanski took over, Clemson had gone from fourteen straight NCAA Tournament appearances to being a national laughing stock.
The numbers painted a gruesome picture for the Strosberg reign over Tiger Soccer. 1-28-1 in ACC matches should say enough, but it was so much worse than a mere W-L-T record in league play. There were the repeated rumors of locker room unrest. There were the mass defections from the program after each season of Strosberg’s control. And there was 2010, where Clemson lost to High Point and Coastal Carolina before being maimed in ACC play. After Strosberg was sacked, Clemson’s search took them around the bend with numerous candidates before getting their man with Radwanski.
The new boss probably wasn’t under any illusions about how the new season would likely go, though that probably didn’t make it any easier to swallow. The club, be it from the remnants of Strosberg’s decision making or through last minute scheduling from Radwanski, began the season with some very winnable matches. Clemson would pass their early tests with flying colors, winning five in a row, including beating their former boss, Tracey Leone, and her Northeastern side, 2-1. Reality would catch up to the Tigers in a big and bad way though. After defeat to South Carolina, Clemson suffered a brutal extra time loss to SoCon side Furman, likely the last thing Radwanski wanted right before the start of ACC play.
The Tigers almost pulled a shocker right out of the gate though in the league, coming back from going down 2-0 early to push Miami (FL) to extra time before falling in defeat. There were further close calls against Maryland and NC State, but the gulf in talent between the Tigers and the rest of the league was still very apparent. Seven of the team’s ten losses in ACC play were by multiple goals, and the club went through a drought of four straight without a goal at one point. Nobody said this job was going to be easy, and there can be no short-term fix considering the damage wreaked on the program the past few seasons.
Despite finishing with another 0-fer in the league, you figure there’s going to be a lot of patience from Tiger supporters and that Radwanski, with his track record, is going to get the benefit of the doubt more often than not. At least for a while. Having seen rock bottom for the better part of three seasons, Clemson players, coaches, and supporters will undoubtedly be eager to get on with 2012 and start building on the few positives to come from a very trying debut season for Radwanski.
Weaknesses in defense are only exacerbated by playing in the cutthroat ACC, and Clemson were carved open by their conference rivals in ruthless fashion last season. It wasn’t quite as bad as 2010’s horror show, but the numbers didn’t lie last year, with the Tigers giving up thirty-one goals in ten league games, or more than three goals a game. As stated above, it’s hard to measure Clemson’s progress based on non-conference results given the somewhat stilted nature of their slate before ACC play, but they fared well before the wheels began to come off against South Carolina.
Offensively, Clemson fared better, scoring in all but one of their non-conference games and putting a pair past NCAA Tournament teams Miami (FL) and Florida State in the league. Clemson still looks to lack that transformative figure in attack to lift them to another level though. Maddy Elder, Liska Dobberstein, and Vanessa Laxgang all had their moments last season, but it remains questionable as to whether any of that trio can truly make the “leap” and become an All-ACC calibre player.
Given Radwanski’s dogged recruiting efforts, that superstar will be in orange and purple sooner rather than later. As for this season, the second-year boss will be hoping that last year’s hard lessons will have not gone in vain and that these Tigers can finally lift themselves off the bottom of the league.
It’s safe to say that this unit is going to be in a little bit of flux after the early departure of Lauren Arnold. Once thought of as one of the best goalkeeping prospects in the nation, Arnold ended up being an enormous bust for the Tigers, though you can feel sorry for her in a sense after being forced to play behind a porous backline for so long. The writing was all but on the wall last season when she began to cede time to unheralded understudy Morgan Hert, though she still played the bulk of the minutes. Arnold transferred to South Alabama after the season, leaving Hert as the only returning goalkeeper on the roster.
After three games of action in ACC play as a rookie, Hert started five games in the middle of last season and should be considered a tentative favorite for the starting job this year given her experience. The only cover this year looks to be true freshman Sydney Branson, a prospect out of Raleigh who seems to be more of a long-term project. With no truly outstanding keeper on the roster though, this could be an area of relative weakness for the Tigers this year.
To help ease the pressure on whoever’s in between the pipes, Radwanski will be hoping for much better from his backline, a group which has seen its share of struggles over the past few seasons. The second-year boss has to be hoping that a little continuity is all that’s needed for some improvement, with most of this group returning intact. The major exception is departed senior Ashlynne Bass, who had been marginalized somewhat as a junior before returning with a vengeance last season to be one of just three Tigers to start every game.
Much of the group that remains is young, though the big exception is senior Heather Marik, who’ll likely be the group’s new leader in defense. A starter from day one for the Tigers, Marik has also been ready and willing offensively for the club, scoring a pair of goals each of the last two seasons while also throwing in three assists last season as well. Junior Erica Kim, a member of the Mexican National Team pool, also looks a solid bet for a starting place this season. Kim has been one of the steadiest members of the defense these past two seasons, with twenty-eight starts in her first two years at the club.
Youngsters Savannah Coiner and Stacey Huddleston were thrust into the starting lineup immediately as rookies last year and will hope to make good use of their experience this season. Coiner was one of the club’s top recruits last season and duly looked the part last season, starting fifteen games for the club while learning some harsh lessons on the job. Huddleston was somewhat less heralded but ended up playing an important role as well, starting thirteen games and chipping in with two goals and two assists, totals that could’ve been higher had she not missed three games down the stretch.
As is the case with most units on Clemson, depth could be problematic, with few returnees fit for defensive duties. Radwanski has tipped freshman Annie Studdert, impressive in ECNL action for the San Juan Spirits club, to have an instant impact with hard-nosed play and a propensity for long-ranged free kicks. Having gelled a bit more, this group should improve somewhat, but it still lacks the star power to be a strong ACC defense.
Relatively speaking, this group looks hardest hit by losses for the Tigers, as the club must deal with the departures of seniors Rachel Hurd and Sarah Jacobs. A workhorse in the middle, Jacobs was a mainstay in the starting lineup for much of her Clemson tenure and was usually good for an assist or two a season, though she went pointless last year for the club. Hurd had been a reserve for her first two seasons in Clemson before settling into a starting role the last two seasons, making the most of the minutes last year with four assists, including three in ACC play. Freshman reserve Alissa Pantuosco also departs, though this group isn’t that bad off in overall depth.
The unquestioned leader of the midfield is junior Vanessa Laxgang, a big time get for the Tigers at the time of her recruitment and a player whose immense talent has simmered under the surface so far for Clemson. Four goals as a rookie was a warm-up act for last year, where she netted six, along with two assists in eighteen starts. Laxgang now just needs to do it against top opposition, as all of those goals were against rather modest foes. She still remains one of the club’s top players though and could be in line for a breakout season with more talent around her.
Sophomore Katelyn Reeve bounced in and out of the starting lineup as a rookie last season but seems most likely of the other returnees to feature in the first XI this year. Also in the mix could be junior Hailey Karg, who scored twice in the opening three games last year, as well as reserves Brittany Beaumont and Maggie Murphy, both juniors.
More than likely though, Radwanski may draw upon a talented group of freshman midfielders to plug gaps. Tennessee native Allie Kington is a hard-nosed, mobile midfielder who could make a big impact immediately for the club. As could towering classmate Tina Shakes, an aerial astute player who should solidify the club in the center of midfield or as a center-back potentially. The club also adds Kylie Tawney, a high workrate player who could conceivably play anywhere on the pitch and could make her name as a utility player off the bench if she doesn’t crack the lineup this season. Laxgang provides a nice injection of quality into this unit, but the midfield around her is still very much a work in progress, which could equal some very real growing pains this year.
At the very least, Clemson should be able to score at a decent clip this season with the return of goalmouth predators Maddy Elder and Liska Dobberstein. Pardon the pun, but Elder is one of the club’s elder stateswomen after having been a mainstay in the starting lineup the past three seasons. Elder was already scoring big even as the club struggled mightily in 2009, nabbing ten goals as a rookie. After a bit of a down year in 2010, Elder rebounded with eight goals last season, including both in the win over Northeastern. Elder also chipped in with six assists to help out even when she wasn’t scoring, which was a good thing, because the senior found it rough going in the ACC, scoring just once, against North Carolina State, breaking a ten match scoring drought.
Support up front would help Elder’s chances of firing true, and she looks to have a solid strike partner in sophomore Dobberstein. Tipped as a prospect to watch coming into Clemson, Dobberstein more than lived up to her advance billing on her way to All-ACC Freshman Team honors. Her debut against South Carolina State brought a goal and two assists, and the rookie would score against Florida State and Maryland in ACC play as well. With more experience, the Charlotte native should improve greatly and hasn’t come close to hitting her ceiling yet.
They may have to be prolific, because there’s not much returning punch in reserve. Deena Sherry scored twice against Presbyterian last year as a sophomore but didn’t tally another goal, while sophomore Jennifer Bass was also held without a goal as a rookie. There were high hopes for Icelandic rookie Jona Kristin Hauksdottir, a youth international who had UEFA Women’s Champions League experience with Breidablik, but she bounced in and out of the lineup last year, scoring just once.
The big wild card is junior Tabitha Padgett, who followed Radwanski from UNC Greensboro last season. A stud for the Spartans for two seasons, with eighteen combined goals, Padgett was expected to make a big impact for Clemson last season but missed the entire season through injury. There’s no telling if she can replicate that form in the ACC, but even a fraction of that scoring ability would be huge for the club. Padgett was still sporting a rather sizable knee brace in W-League action over the Summer though, so there’s no telling if she’ll be up to full speed by the start of the season. Without a doubt, this is the Tigers’ strongest unit, but it remains to be seen if it can deliver the goods against ACC defenses.
Clemson should be better this season. With a more settled roster and some decent recruits, the Tigers should at the very least be able to dominate through much of a rather tame non-conference schedule. But how much better will they be in the league? The ACC is still as unforgiving as ever, and the gap in talent Clemson has to close between themselves and the pack is staggering, the byproduct of so many disastrous years. The goalkeeping situation is shaky, while the backline needs to improve in a hurry, with much of the same personnel that struggled. Laxgang’s a nice cornerstone in midfield, but there’s a lot in flux around her. The likes of Elder and Dobberstein have nice scoring potential, but they might not be able to do it consistently against ACC clubs.
In short, Clemson will be odds on for the basement in the ACC again this year. But don’t rule out an upset or two in the league for anyone overlooking the Tigers. And don’t get used to the sight of Clemson at the bottom of the league. The projected recruiting classes Radwanski is bringing in in future seasons should ensure that this is the last season that Clemson gets bullied by their ACC brethren.