ACC – Clemson
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
You might question how anyone could consider a season that ended with a record of 8-9-4 a storybook year, but you also have to take into account the history of the team that finished with that record in 2011. Providence has long been the equivalent of Siberia as far as college soccer is concerned. Consider that the Friars’ 2010 campaign was the program’s first winning season since 1993. In between those winning seasons, Providence has gone through six coaches if you count McGirr, a brutal indicator of the instability in Providence over the past few decades.
Bizarrely enough, despite their prolonged losing history, Providence does have a major trophy to their name, the 1993 Big East Tournament title. Oddly enough, this was before the league ran a round robin to determine a league champion, so Providence claimed their title by beating Boston College and UConn to claim their only major honor. Unfortunately, the Friars had the bad luck of having the coach of that side, Nicole Crepeau, bolt for Colorado College right after that fateful season.
Since, it’s been a revolving door of futility in the hot seat in Rhode Island. Coaches have come and they certainly have gone, with none of the three coaches after Crepeau having lasted more than two seasons as head coach. Tracy Kerr had a much longer reign at six seasons, but was ultimately undone by an inability to end Providence’s long postseason drought. Villanova assistant Jim McGirr inherited a mess and did little to show he was the right man to get the ball rolling in Providence through three seasons, with twelve combined wins.
The heat was probably beginning to rise on the coach after a miserable 2007 that saw the Friars go 3-14-1, the team’s worst season since 1998. But over the next few seasons, Providence finally began to emerge from the carnage of the past, finally getting back to .500 in 2009. McGirr and his team entered 2010 hoping to build on that 2009 season and possibly make a run at the postseason for the first time in ages. They would get above .500 and rise a handful of spots in the RPI but ultimately fell a few points short of their postseason goal, meaning 2011 was a potential make or break season for McGirr in the hot seat.
Odds on Providence breaking their long postseason duck likely lengthened considerably after an opening day draw with minnows Bryant, a program still in its DI infancy. Further draws with Davidson and Charlotte likely had the knives out in Providence, and the club managed to win just one of its first seven matches. A victory over MAAC double winners Marist was a much needed confidence boost heading into league play, where the Friars managed to win two of their first three. A four match losing streak was postseason poison though, especially considering one of those losses came to DePaul, themselves struggling mightily.
With four matches to go in the regular season, odds were that the Friars were going to need a Great Escape to finally get back to the Big East Tournament. Two of three had them in with a chance heading into the finale against UConn, also looking to qualify for the postseason with a last day win. The Huskies put McGirr’s side down in the fifty-ninth minute, and it began to look like Providence’s season would end in tears again. There’d be tears of a different kind after a final ten minutes that will surely live on in Providence lore for years to come. Junior Laura DiClemente equalized in the eighty-first minute to restore hope before doing the honors herself thirty-eight seconds from the end of regulation from twenty yards.
The hurt was over, and Providence was back in the postseason. They’d show they weren’t just there for the ride either, beating Rutgers in the opening round of the tournament to advance into the quarterfinals. Louisville would stop them in their tracks there, but nobody could deny Providence their plaudits. The Friars may have dipped in the RPI quite a bit, but they’d probably trade that gladly for the knowledge that they’ve finally cast their postseason ghosts aside. McGirr got a well deserved vote of confidence after the season as well, his contract being extended through the 2013 season, perhaps finally stopping the coaching carousel that has often hung over Providence.
Providence’s trip to the postseason was all the more remarkable last season when you consider they lost no fewer than seven starters from 2010’s squad, an inordinate number of losses for any team, much less a group that had struggled historically, to overcome. That situation is better this season, though not by much, as the club losses four starters, and another senior who started seven games last season. Gone is the second leading scorer Taylor Bartini…and the third leading scorer, Courtney Collins…and the team’s starting goalkeeper, Caitlin Walker. It’s perhaps a good thing then that DiClemente, the club’s leading scorer last season with nine goals, including the two vital ones against UConn on the last day of the regular season, received a fifth year of eligibility from the NCAA and will return to lead the line in 2012.
But losing all that offense is going to leave Providence in dire straits going forward if DiClemente isn’t firing, as the club was one of the league’s worst offensively last year, not managing a goal a game in league play. Going the other way is another story, as Providence conceded just a goal a game, good enough to be tied for fourth best offense in the Big East last year. Thankfully for McGirr, that group returns its defensive rock, Jenna Roncarati, who might have to carry a lot of the load leadership-wise and beyond given the upheaval on the roster.
Some of Providence’s many selection problems this season reside in between the pipes, as the Friars lose experienced keeper Walker, who started every game for the club last season. Walker had only been a part-time starter for three seasons up to 2011 but did enough to all but monopolize the minutes last season, which may have led to a stable situation in goal but also leads to a dearth of experience following Walker’s graduation this season. Jessica Goudreault is the lone returnee in goal on the roster but is a rookie in all but a formal sense, having just seen mop-up duties in one match as a freshman last season. She’ll battle rookie Megan Sweeney, a prospect out of Florida for the starting job, but the utter and complete lack of experience in goal has to be seriously concerning for McGirr this year.
Providence’s rearguard is unquestionably the club’s strength this season, and it’ll have to be a standout group considering all the losses the club sees elsewhere. The unit is led by the excellent Roncarati, returning for her senior season after three years that have built her reputation as one of the top defenders in the Big East. Roncarati didn’t really show it last season, but she has a deft touch in front of goal at times as well, having scored three goals in 2010.
She should be leading a fairly settled group around her this year. Junior Kerry Ann O’Connor was called into the Irish national team after her freshman season and continued to impress last year, starting eleven games for the Friars. Classmate Alyssa Martino made an instant impression as a rookie in 2010, starting roughly half the club’s games before moving into the lineup full-time last season and looks like another strong defender at the back for McGirr’s side this year. Likely filling out the starting lineup in defense is sophomore Alexia Shea, who was highly tipped to make an immediate impact coming into campus last season and ended up starting sixteen games as a rookie.
The club adds in another fine prospect this year with the addition of Allison Mills, whose stock has been surging for the Stars of Massachusetts club after impressive displays in ECNL competition. Depth otherwise is unspectacular, with other newcomers also likely to see substantial minutes. That means the pressure will be on the first unit to stay healthy and on form, but if they do, this could be one of the league’s top defensive groups.
Collins’ loss will certainly be felt offensively. The four-year starter for Providence was never prolific but was always good for two or three goals a season, including last year, when she had three goals, including a brace against Holy Cross. Compounding matters is the subsequent losses of Kendra McMullan, a Northern Irish international who didn’t play after early September after making seven starts early, and Emily Castle, a top reserve for three years before starting every match last season.
Providence isn’t as bad off depth-wise as they are in other areas of the squad, but there’s still major reshuffling to be done. Sophomore Allison Walton came in as a hotshot recruit out of Maine last season and made herself a mainstay in the starting lineup with eighteen starts, though her offensive impact, just two assists, was perhaps less than expected. Senior Mary Vercollone provides a lot of the desperately needed veteran experience, having been a spot starter for two years before starting fifteen games a season ago. Vercollone can provide occasional offense as well, having scored three goals while adding two assists last season.
Juniors Melina Toman and Jacquelyn Desrosiers were non-entities as rookies but came back to combine for fourteen starts last year and could again play a significant role in the rebuilt midfield, though Desrosiers might also end up covering in defense, with Toman deputizing up front. Joining them in providing some depth to the midfield is classmate Renee Altimari, who saw action in ten games off the bench in 2011, along with some of the rookies. Depth is satisfactory here, but this group lost a lot last year and could take a step back given all those departures.
This unit could give McGirr a headache or two this season, because the club was fairly light on strikers before and are even lighter this year following the losses of Bartini and Cynthia Warman. Bartini’s emergence as a scoring option had been something of a shock considering she had not tallied a point and had just one shot in 2010’s disappointing campaign. Bartini would more than make amends last year though, with five goals, including the game winner in the Big East Tournament game against Rutgers. Warman was a transfer from Boston University who ended up starting seven games a season ago, though she didn’t show much of a cutting edge in front of goal, netting just once, though it was the game winner against Marist in early September.
The return of DiClemente is huge though for a squad that at times did not show much cutting edge in front of goal. The Blue Bell native was scarcely used in two seasons and was very much the definition of a late bloomer, exploding for nine goals as a junior. Critically, six of those were in Big East play, and the Friars were thankful for every one, most especially her last two against UConn. She could easily approach double digits this season and will be critical to Providence’s postseason hopes.
Besides Toman and DiClemente, there are no other forward returnees though. It’s not exactly an ideal situation and one that will have McGirr either converting players from other positions or leaning on newcomers to fill the void. Of the latter kind, Catherine Zimmerman looks most likely to make an immediate impression, having done well for New Jersey powerhouse club PDA in ECNL action last year. Scorpions SC forward Kathryn Hiller has also made a late push in ECNL action and could also be in the mix for immediate minutes as well. Throwing all your eggs into one basket is hardly reassuring though, and this group could struggle if DiClemente isn’t firing true.
Providence’s miraculous run to the postseason was one of the Big East’s best stories last season. It’s a good thing that McGirr finally took the club into the Big East Tournament, because a repeat looks awfully uncertain heading into the new year. The club gets battered by graduation, cutting deeply into a program that wasn’t exactly flush with depth to begin with. There are major questions in goal and on the attack, with no experience in the former and one-dimensionality in the latter. Providence’s one saving grace might be their backline, which could well be one of the league’s best this year. That might not be enough to get this club back to the postseason though, and a place in this year’s Big East Tournament is far from guaranteed for the Friars.