ACC – Clemson
Big XII – Iowa State | 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 | Harvard | 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
These days in Nashville, it’s difficult not to look at Vanderbilt’s soccer program as something of a sinking ship, a relic of an era long gone by. The Commodores were a terror in the early days of the SEC under Ken McDonald, doing the double in consecutive seasons in 1993 and 1994 while also qualifying for five straight NCAA Tournaments and reaching the second round of the competition in four of those tournaments. But once the machines in Knoxville and Gainesville started rolling, and Tennessee and Florida started duopolizing the SEC silverware, Vanderbilt began to slowly dip into the mire.
Ronnie Woodard took control before the 2001 season and slowly got the Commodores competitive in the SEC again. After the ignominy of not qualifying for the SEC Tournament in 2002, Vanderbilt quickly rose into the upper echelons of mid-table, peaking with a brilliant 16-3-3 season in 2005. But Woodard couldn’t guide her side into the SEC elite, as the Dores couldn’t rise above fourth place in the league and failed to reach the SEC Tournament finals in either 2005 or 2006, the two times in the decade that Vandy reached the NCAA Tournament. Success on the biggest stage evaded the Commodores though as Woodard’s side went down on penalties in the first round on both occasions.
Instead of building towards bigger and better things after those two successful seasons, the bottom promptly dropped out in Nashville. Vandy promptly failed to qualify for the next two SEC Tournaments, bottoming out in 2007 with a 6-10-3 effort. 2009 was a vast improvement for the Dores though as they fought their way back into the NCAA Tournament and into at-large bid contention before being struck down by LSU in the first round of the SEC Tournament to end those hopes. With an experienced and talented squad coming back for 2010, hopes were high in Nashville, but Vandy instead went 8-10-2 and finished eighth in the league.
With Woodard set to enter the 2011 campaign almost assuredly on one of the hottest seats in D1, the long-time boss suddenly retired from her post with just days to go before preseason commenced. With no time to realistically search for a replacement, Vanderbilt promoted Derek Greene to the role of interim head coach. Greene had been a #2 at a couple of stops in the SEC but was untested in the hot seat and didn’t inherit an easy situation, with the club racked by graduation and the defection of Canadian international Chelsea Stewart to UCLA.
Despite the turmoil at the beginning of 2011, Greene and the Dores did quite well for themselves early on. Despite being upset by Missouri State at home, the club still managed to win five of their first six, including knocking off two teams that would finish in the uRPI Top 100 in Western Kentucky and College of Charleston. Though the club was handled by their toughest challenge in non-conference play, Memphis, they rebounded with another solid win against Samford. It hadn’t been against a tremendous slate of foes, but Vandy could still approach league play with something approaching conference optimism.
But drawing four straight on the road to open up league play wasn’t exactly conducive to success, and the Dores all but flatlined right out of the gate in the SEC, losing all four opening matches by multiple goals and not even scoring a goal for their troubles. There was brief hope of a comeback when the club beat LSU and Arkansas on the same weekend, but it was a false dawn, as Vandy ended the season by losing their final five matches. The end result was an eleventh place finish in the league, with seven of the team’s nine conference losses coming by multiple goals.
Despite the ghastly reading the SEC table must have made at the end of the year, Greene had done enough to convince the higher-ups to give him the job on a full-time basis, and the interim tag came off his job title at the end of the season. But if last year proved anything, it’s that the Dores have a long, long way to go to become relevant in the upper reaches of the SEC again.
It’s hard to fault Greene too much for last season’s struggles though, since the Commodores were ravaged by graduation and defections over the offseason, leaving Vandy young and unproven for the most part. The Dores looked especially impotent in front of goal coming into the new season, having lost a gigantic chunk of their scoring from the previous season. And so it was hardly a shock when the Nashville side hardly pulled up any trees going forward, with the team not managing a goal a game and only scoring seven goals in the league, second worst in the SEC.
Nobody managed more than five goals a game, and with that player, Candace West, graduating, it’s not a guarantee that the situation is going to improve appreciably this season. Defensively, Vandy wasn’t exactly in great straits either, looking solid in non-conference play but then giving up two goals a game come SEC season. If there’s any slight saving grace for Vanderbilt, it’s that the club’s recruiting efforts have been solid, with midfielder Cherrelle Jarrett the most impressive of a handful of youngsters who were blooded with serious minutes last season.
Another solid batch of rookies this season make their way to Nashville, meaning the Commodores look to be setting their stall out with youth. That might provide gains in the long-term, but impatient Vanderbilt supporters might have to live with some more growing pains this season in the meantime.
Vanderbilt’s goalkeeping situation last season was something of a mess, with three goalkeepers seeing major starting minutes after injuries took a toll. Sophomore Alexa Levick began the season as the team’s starter a season after redshirting in 2010 but was knocked out of the lineup with a concussion in early September against South Florida. She’d return against Florida nearly a month later but only played a game and a third before sitting out the rest of the season.
Classmate Brittanie Barbero would step in to take her place initially but then herself went down in the middle of September, though she’d come back to see time in four of the club’s final five games. It meant a rather shocking return to action for junior Jessica Amlaw, who had been the club’s reserve keeper in 2009 but hadn’t even been on the team at the beginning of the season. Though she showed signs of rust at times, Amlaw held up reasonably well in ten matches with the club, including eight in the league. Amlaw departs this season though, meaning Levick and Barbero look bound to fight it out for the starting spot all over again, though you suspect the former has the edge if she’s healthy. Depth likely won’t be an issue this season, as the club adds true freshman Shannon Morrish to the mix.
This group was already behind the eight-ball early when junior Claire Romaine, an SEC All-Freshman Team pick in 2010 who had led the club in minutes played as a rookie, was ruled out for the rest of season through injuries after just four appearances off the bench early in the year. Given the loss of arguably the club’s best defender, it was certainly understandable that the club slumped in defense for most of the season.
While many of last year’s top defenders return, the club does lose a pair of players who combined for fourteen starts last year. Elizabeth Lillie, an option in attack and defense, spend much of her time in the rearguard last season at center-back, and made eight starts after featuring mostly as a reserve during her career. Lillie showed her attacking chops against Arkansas in the league, with the winning goal and an assist as well. Bridget Lohmuller had broken through as a starter in 2010 and looked to be on her way towards being an integral part of the defense early last year as well but then struggled with injuries, only returning for a brief cameo on Senior Night.
Senior CJ Rhoades is the likely anchor of the backline this season after completing her third year in the starting lineup for the Dores. Rhoades had been a midfielder for her first two years in Nashville but slid back into a center-back role last season. She also scored twice last season, including one goal from the penalty spot. Junior left-back Kate Goldin looks like the team’s other sure thing in defense after eighteen starts a season ago. Goldin overcame some early hardship in her collegiate career after missing all of 2008 through injury and has settled in as a consistent operator in defense.
Sophomore Taylor Richardson was one of many highly touted prospects to come into Nashville last season and wasted no time in establishing herself in the first team with thirteen starts. Richardson would miss four of the club’s last seven though and will be hoping for a full season of action in her second year here. Senior Amanda Essay made a solid recovery last season after missing almost all of 2010 with a serious injury, seeing time in all but one game while starting nine more. Juniors Kendra Hendrix, who saw time at right-back, and Grace Stumb flitted in and out of the lineup last season but still combined for nine starts and should battle for major minutes again.
The club also adds a promising freshman in the form of Keegan Thimons, who played center-back for CFC United and showed well in recent ECNL action. Thimons has great size and speed and could play anywhere on the backline for the club and has even been touted as a potential defensive midfielder for the Dores this season. It might take a while still for this group to gel, but getting a healthy Romaine back would play a big part in tightening up the defense this season.
Greene and co. have work to do in midfield with the loss of a pair of last season’s starters from the middle of the park. Mercurial attacker Candace West split time in between playing out wide in midfield and up top as a senior last season but still ended up leading the team in scoring with five goals. Just two of those came in the league though, and West went through a horrible mid-season slump that saw her score just once in twelve games. West may have been more potential than production in the end, but she was still the club’s most dangerous attacker last season and should be missed. Also gone is Emily Grant, a more defensive type midfielder who had been a reserve for most of her Vanderbilt career before stepping into the starting lineup full-time last season as just one of three Commodores to start every match.
The centerpiece of this season’s midfield looks to be Jarrett, who was recruited as a defender, a highly touted one at that, who was a home run in her first season in Nashville. The combative Georgia native turned herself into an indispensable member of the midfield, starting all but one match, scoring a pair of goals, and pulling down SEC All-Freshman Team honors at the end of the year. The key is going to be finding high calibre players to surround her with. Abby Carr, injured at Florida State earlier in her career, came in and started ten games as a sophomore here last season, both in midfield and attack, but showed little of the offensive spark that made her a highly coveted player earlier in her career, not scoring a goal despite finishing third on the team in shots.
Jack of all trades Duggan Hahn could see more time here with the improved depth up front, while Rhoades could be potentially moved into a defensive midfield role here if the backline can cope without her. Junior Megan Schneir and sophomore Kirsten Evans were exclusively used off the bench last season and will be hoping for more minutes as well.
Vandy’s best hope at putting together a strong midfield though may come with the addition of some promising rookies. Andie Lakin has the looks of a playmaker who’s also unafraid of running at defenses with the ball of her feet and has been a member of the Region I ODP team for over half a decade. Jamie Kator is another distributor type who has the added bonus of being able to play up front or anywhere on the backline as well.
Finally, Erin Myers played as a forward at club level but could be used anywhere on the pitch, with Greene hinting at playing her in a defensive midfield role to help compensate for the loss of Grant, though more of in a deep-lying playmaker role than an out-and-out destroyer. There’s a lot of young and promising talent here, but all that upside is going to have to learn in an unforgiving league, and this unit could take some lumps this year.
Whether anybody on this team can score with any consistency appears to be the $64,000 question for Vanderbilt this season. West, as stated above, was the team’s leading scorer last season and generally their most dangerous attacker, even though she played in midfield as well. Her loss immediately diminishes the club’s firepower, while Lillie’s loss also robs the team of some depth.
Senior Dana Schwartz is the leading returning starter, though I’m not sure that’s saying much considering she scored just three times on the season. More of a slash player that an out-and-out forward, Schwartz seems like a player that can be counted on for a few goals a season, and indeed scored game winners against College of Charleston and Samford last year, but depending on her for more than that could be troublesome. Sophomore Gena Inbusch was a relative unknown coming into Nashville, but that didn’t stop her from starting fourteen matches and scoring two goals, including the golden goal against LSU to snap a four game losing streak. Her size (5’10”) makes her a potential spearhead for the club’s offense.
Fellow second-year player Ashley Oswald came in more highly regarded, with multiple years of ODP experience, but is still looking for her first goal with the club despite making thirteen starts a year ago. Carr and Hahn are also among the candidates for starting minutes here. Upperclassmen reserves Sarah Hook and Emily Bush also return to Nashville and will be battling for time as well after featuring exclusively off the bench last year.
As in other positions, there’s new talent to work with as well. Colombian U20 international Lina Granados may be the club’s top recruit this season, with Greene raving about her workrate and 1v1 skill already. Also joining up is Cheyna Williams a physical presence who can serve as a target player to hold the ball up or go out wide to run at full-backs down the flank. The two highly touted newcomers should be given every chance to shine on a club still short on proven firepower.
Most probably didn’t expect much from the Commodores last season given the late coaching change and the large number of losses in personnel suffered after the 2010 season. Any illusions over how far Vandy had to go to become a contender again in the SEC were likely dispelled quickly in league play, with the young Commodores looking truly outgunned by their league rivals. Compared to some of the other strugglers in the league though, Vanderbilt hasn’t been recruiting that badly and players like Jarrett last season bore immediate fruit.
The incoming class looks equally if not more accomplished than last year’s and should provide even more hope for the Commodore faithful. But with only modest talent returning in many areas and a plethora of youngsters everywhere, this Vandy team still has a long way to go to gel into a team that can push for a top half finish. Without someone to hammer in goals in the high scoring SEC, they may struggle to make it to the postseason this year as well.