ACC – Clemson
Big XII – Oklahoma | Texas Tech
Big East – Cincinnati | DePaul | Pittsburgh | Providence | Rutgers | Seton Hall | South Florida | St. John’s (NY) | Syracuse | Villanova
Big Ten – Indiana | Minnesota | 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 need a scorecard to keep up with who’s coming and going in the Big XII, but one of the few constants over the years has been the consistent underachievement of Iowa State. It’s hard to overlook just how underwhelming the Cyclones have been, the program typically being dead weight towards the bottom of the league. Iowa State barely made a blip on the national radar until 2005, where under Rebecca Hornbacher, the Cyclones finished in a four-way tie for second place in the league, just three points off league champions Texas A&M. It was enough to see Iowa State qualify for their first NCAA Tournament where they would be Portland’s first victim.
As far as relevant history for ISU goes in college soccer, that’s about it in all honesty. Hornbacher was gone after two years of non-descript seasons after 2005, finishing last in the league the year after and in eighth in 2007, even though that final season saw ISU finish a respectable #66 in the final RPI. The Cyclones took a chance on Wendy Dillinger, who had achieved great success with DIII Washington-Saint Louis in six seasons at the helm, hoping the rising coaching star would be the one to lead the program forward. Instead, it’s largely been much of the same for Iowa State through four seasons under Dillinger.
The Cyclones propped up the Big XII table in 2008 and 2009, and few gave the team much hope of a different fate in 2010. It proved to be an entirely forgettable season, which included a 4-0 loss to state rivals Iowa and seven straight losses in the league, which made another season out of the conference tournament inevitable. ISU’s path towards the postseason looked considerably easier in 2011 with the number of teams in the league dropping to nine, meaning all the Cyclones had to do was just avoid finishing on bottom to make it in.
The season started out rather well, with the club going 3-0-1 in their first four. The big result was a 2-0 win at a neutral site over Pac-12 side Washington that raised a few eyebrows. Before that though, a few eyebrows had been raised for wrong reasons, as they club’s draw in that stretch was against a toothless Wisconsin-Green Bay side. Less encouraging was a three match losing streak at the beginning of September. Though it came against good opposition, ISU’s defense looked porous, and a 4-1 loss at Iowa was another humiliation in a series of them against the Hawkeyes.
ISU regained some pride with a three match winning streak before league play started up, including a nice win over Toledo, but league play was another exhibition in ugliness. It was effectively lights out early, with the club showing a blunt edge in front of goal as they lost their first five league games. ISU was never really blown out in that string of losses, but they just couldn’t put together a winning performance. Frustratingly, like 2010, Iowa State saved some of its best for last, winning two of their final three in the league, over Texas Tech and Missouri, which also likely inflated their RPI a bit.
ISU actually gave themselves a chance at the Big XII Tournament with that Missouri win but were eliminated when Oklahoma beat Kansas on the same day. It equaled another last place finish for the hapless Cyclones, and the heat will likely be scorching on Dillinger ahead of her fifth season in Ames.
Patience figures to be dwindling amongst the Cyclones faithful, though Dillinger and her defenders will likely be quick to point out that the club went with a very young starting lineup last year, with just one senior in the group of eleven that made the most starts for the club in 2011. While the youth movement may yet provide gains in the long-term, ISU suffered greatly in the short-term, with the club possessing the league’s worst offense both in the league (six goals in eight games) and overall (twenty-two in nineteen). Though the defense was able to outpace some of the league’s more porous units, they still gave up two goals a game, a sure mark of a team that’s going to struggle to qualify for the postseason.
The hope this year in all likelihood is that the experience and cohesion of most of last year’s key players returning will help drive the club forward, but Iowa State could also do with a little star power in their exploits. Junior Emily Goldstein looked like she could potentially be that player after an impressive freshman season but fell prey to the lack of an outstanding supporting cast surrounding her, though she still led the club with four assists. The Cyclones need more though. Much more. And if they don’t start showing more, Dillinger’s days at the helm of the club could be numbered.
‘Expect the unexpected’ might well have been the credo at this position last season for Iowa State. True freshman Jenna O’Dell was likely tipped by many to end up with the starting job by the end of the season after coming in, arguably, as ISU’s top recruit in last year’s large recruiting class. Instead, O’Dell ended up being the odd player out, starting just a single match, the humiliation against Iowa, and promptly left the team at the end of Spring.
Instead, it was the much less heralded Andrea Swanson who made the bigger impact as a rookie. Swanson would take her chance after the first few weeks of the season and held the starting job for much of the middle part of the campaign before ceding time again late down the stretch. In the end, the starting job ended up right with whom it started at the beginning of the season, junior Maddie Jobe. Despite losing her starting job at one point in the middle of the season to Swanson, Jobe would fight back late in the year and ended up making a dazzling final impression in 2011, making eleven saves in a 1-0 shutout win over Missouri in the finale. Jobe and Swanson will likely be doing battle once more for the starting job, with both seeing major time a real possibility.
While this group definitely needs to show some improvement for ISU to contend in the Big XII, it’s not bound to be easy, especially with the loss of senior talisman Mary Kate McLaughlin. The towering center-back was a starter right from the beginning in Ames and has been the club’s lynchpin in defense for the past four seasons. McLaughlin showed some touch in front of goal last season as well, with a pair of game winning goals. Also gone is Emily Hejlik, who had been a starter for her first three seasons with the club before being stricken by injuries as a senior and missing roughly half the season.
There is certainly no shortage of options available to Dillinger in defense this season. The hulking 6’0″ senior Megan Long has been a spot starter for much of her career but broke through last season, making fifteen starts and could be a crucial pillar in the center of defense for the Cyclones this season. Colorado native Jessica Stewart was thrust into the starting lineup often as a rookie in 2010 and retained her place for much of last season, starting sixteen matches and should be another prime contender for starting minutes this year.
Sophomore Lindsay Frank was voted the club’s Newcomer of the Year last season and hammered down a starting spot late last year and should be one of the first choices in defense again this year. Junior Meredith Skitt is a versatile player capable in midfield or defense but saw most of her minutes in the defense last season while also scoring the winner in the upset against Washington early in the season. Classmate Amanda Woelfel was one of the club’s top rookies in 2009 with four goals and three assists but missed all of 2010 with a stress fracture. Upon her return last year, Woelfel emerged as a stabilizing force in defense, though she could also be used in a more advance role if the club needs offense this year.
Junior Theresa Kucera was a midfield reserve for her first two years with the club but was auditioned in defense in the Spring and could be used on the backline this year as well. Sophomore reserves Maggie Bruckman, Alyssa Williamson, and Ashley Johnson should also be in the mix for more minutes this year. Dillinger has depth to choose from but finding the quality to replace McLaughlin may be a little harder to come by.
The Iowa State midfield looked to be in solid shape going into this season, with most everyone expected to return until the jarring news that sophomore Caitlin Graboski had left the program after the 2011 season. One of the club’s top rookies in 2010, Graboski had scored two game winning goals that season and had started all thirty-eight games of her career through the end of last season. To say her loss could be damaging might be an understatement. Another unexpected departure is Alyssa Elver, a rookie who was a top reserve last year and had a pair of assists for the club.
Goldstein figures to be the club’s star figure again, and the Cyclones will be desperately hoping that the junior can rekindle some of the form that made her one of the league’s top youngsters in 2010. The Californian wasn’t awful last season, but the dip in form after her freshman season was a bit disappointing nonetheless. Classmate Erin Green looks like another set to be a prime candidate for a starting role after twenty-three starts in two seasons. Green hasn’t been prolific in front of goal but did manage to net the game winner against Toledo last season. Skitt and Woelfel saw plenty of starting minutes last season and could also be used in midfield if Dillinger is comfortable with her options in defense.
Junior Margaret Powers and senior Kelsey Calvert were two reserves who saw frequent action off the bench last season and could also push for starting minutes this season for the Cyclones. The club also adds in true freshman Lauren Waggoner, a dynamic rookie capable in midfield or attack who looks like the pick of this year’s recruits for ISU. Goldstein’s a solid building block, especially if she can match her freshman form, but the pieces around her might not add up to a quality midfield in the Big XII.
This group has the potential to at least make a few strides forward, though there’s not a star to be found amongst the frontline. The group’s only expected loss is of senior Amanda Cacciatore, mostly a reserve last season and throughout her career, who had a pair of assists against Loyola (Ill.) in her final year with the club. It seems most likely that Dillinger will once again operate with the duo of Jennifer Dominguez and Brittany Morgan up top. Dominguez was mostly a provider as a rookie, tallying four assists, but turned into the club’s leading goalscorer last year with five tallies. The Texan proved to be dangerous in the league, with three of those five goals coming against Big XII foes and will be looking to do more damage in the league this season.
Morgan, another junior, has nine goals through two seasons, and scored against Washington and Texas A&M last season but also was held without a goal in the final eight last year while only recording a total of two shots on goal during that period. There could be increased mintues for sophomore Kaeli Flaska, who tied for second on the team in goals with four last season despite not starting a single match. Of course, three of those goals came in one match, against Loyola (Ill.), but she still is a threat for increased minutes if she continues to develop.
Goldstein could also theoretically be used in attack in a pinch given her goalscoring history. Sophomore Hayley Womack scored the game winner in her debut against Drake but was held without a goal the rest of the way, though she did get in a smattering of starting experience, cracking the first XI four times. Fellow second-year player Addison Nokels could also vie for more minutes after ten appearances off the bench as a rookie. ISU isn’t bereft of attackers that can find the back of the net, but it remains to be seen if the current talent can hit the target with enough regularity to put the Cyclones in a position to contend.
Iowa State doesn’t have the look of a bad team per se, but they don’t exactly look like a good one either. It might be musical goalkeepers again, while the Cyclones have a rather large task ahead of themselves in replacing the steady McLaughlin in defense. Goldstein’s a fine operator in midfield, but losing Graboski could be a bigger blow than many realize. The Cyclones do have a little punch going forward, but you wonder if it’ll be enough to make Iowa State a consistent winner.
This is a club in desperate need of some stars to help put them over the top, but that star element doesn’t appear to be coming over the horizon any time soon. With eight of nine teams qualifying for the postseason in the Big XII and a woeful looking TCU squad joining the league, ISU’s chances of making it to the conference tournament look as good as its been in recent memory. But taking anything for granted with this program would be a decided mistake.