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 | UConn | 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 | Vanderbilt
WCC – Gonzaga | Loyola Marymount | San Francisco
Oh, the difference a few seasons can make in the world of college soccer. Michigan State looked to be sitting pretty after a breakout season in 2008. The Spartans were riding a big wave of momentum with what looked like one of the best young forwards in college soccer in Laura Heyboer and a promising young goalkeeper in Jill Flietstra. Three seasons later and some are probably wondering what the hell happened in East Lansing after Heyboer and Flietstra missed the NCAA Tournament the past two seasons despite both finishing excellent collegiate careers. 2009 saw the team plagued by injuries and inconsistency, and the Spartans were most definitely one of the last teams in the sixty-four team field for the NCAA Tournament.
That tournament was played without Heyboer who had suffered a brutal double leg break against Minnesota at the end of October in the middle of her sophomore season. Admirably, the Spartans rallied to win two of three after the injury, finishing sixth in the league and just making it to the Big Dance where they would fall to Santa Clara in extra time. It was just another entry into a roller coaster of a program history that’s seen the Spartans bounce up and down the league under the reign of Tom Saxton, who’s been in charge of the program since 1991.
Sparty looked to be a big time threat when the Big Ten started soccer as a league in 1994, with MSU winning the first Big Ten title. Instead, the side from East Lansing promptly went into a deep funk, enduring five straight losing seasons, including a 3-17-0 year in 1996. To their credit, the Michigan State brass were extremely patient with Saxton and were duly rewarded in 2002 as the Spartans earned their first NCAA Tournament berth. It’s been a little hit or miss since then, as after that appearance and before Heyboer’s arrival, MSU only managed to make it to one Big Dance in five tries but did reach the second round that season.
Afterward, a couple of under .500 seasons likely had some wondering if time was running down on Saxton’s tenure. But Heyboer’s arrival in 2008 brought the happiness back to East Lansing. At least for a little while. The Spartans entered 2010 hoping for the health of Heyboer and a shot at the program’s third straight trip to the NCAA Tournament. Heyboer was good but not great for much of the year, and the club’s non-conference schedule had them in bubble trouble come the league campaign. After a fine start to Big Ten season, MSU buckled underneath the weight of a tough finishing kick and slid to seventh in the league after failing to win any of their final five matches. Without a win over an uRPI Top 80 team, the Spartans had little chance of making the NCAA Tournament.
Having missed out on the Big Dance for the first time since 2007, the Spartans entered 2011 hoping to give Heyboer, Flietstra, and the other seniors one last chance to shine on the big stage. In another titanic showdown against Milwaukee and Hagen in the season opener, MSU would fall behind early and find themselves unable to come all the way back in a thrilling 3-2 defeat. The club would then make light work of their next seven opponents, ripping through one of the weakest non-conference slates for a major side in the country. The last match of that non-conference campaign was a warning sign though, as MSU were nearly shocked by upstarts Detroit before winning on a Heyboer goal in extra time.
The league season started out well with three wins in four, but the club would drop their next two to all but eliminate their slim title hopes. Now needing to make hay for a possible at-large berth, MSU finished the regular season strong, with four wins in five, including what looked like a valuable bubble win over Ohio State. Still, MSU were right on the cut line, and with their awful NCRPI, they likely needed some positive results in the Big Ten Tournament after finishing third in the league.
The opening round was a mixed bag, with MSU moving on, but only after penalties after a scoreless draw with Iowa, the tie doing little to help their RPI. Illinois in the semi-finals was likely a do or die game, with MSU probably punching their NCAA Tournament ticket with a win and going home for the Winter with a loss. The match was tense as you’d expect, with Michigan State holding their own until the second minute of extra time, as Illinois finally found a way past Flietstra in goal. A nervous wait turned to heartbreak on Selection Monday for Saxton’s side.
In the end, MSU’s profile had just been too light when compared to fellow bubble teams. It may sound harsh, but the Spartans probably have nobody to blame but themselves for the snub. There’s no way a team finishing in third in the Big Ten should be out of the NCAA Tournament, but the Spartans’ non-conference schedule was so weak, it destroyed their profile on the whole.
This season, even third may not be enough if the Big Ten isn’t one of the strongest leagues in the nation, because Michigan State’s non-conference schedule is again woeful on paper. The club doesn’t play a single major conference team, plays away from East Lansing just twice, and leaves the state of Michigan just once out of conference. For whatever reason, the Spartans’ glaring problem with putting together a reputable non-conference profile doesn’t look like being fixed this season, meaning MSU might need a massive season in the league to break their NCAA Tournament duck.
The problem is the club gets crushed by graduation, with the aforementioned Heyboer and Flietstra only the tip of the iceberg for Saxton’s side. A whopping eleven seniors graduate from last year’s side, including five starters. The losses of Heyboer and Flietstra will weigh heaviest on MSU though. Heyboer was brilliant as a senior, scoring eighteen goals, and was involved with twenty-seven of the club’s thirty-eight on the year. Flietstra was the last line on a defense which gave up less than a goal a game on the whole and was tied for second best in the league in Big Ten goals allowed with just nine in eleven league matches. Replacing both, and in a hurry, will be vital for MSU’s postseason dreams.
MSU faces an uphill battle in rebuilding many units this season, but special attention will have to be paid to the goalkeeping situation, where Flietstra leaves a gaping hole after her graduation. Flietstra took over the starting job late into her rookie year and held it for almost the rest of her career, only being derailed in brief stretches by injury. Criminally underrated by many, Flietstra earned All-Region Second Team honors in 2010 despite missing a chunk of the year through a broken finger and was a steady and efficient keeper for the Spartans throughout her college career and leaves very big shoes (and gloves) to fill for Saxton and co.
The experience edge for the possible replacements goes to junior Courtney Clem, though just. Clem didn’t play a minute as a rookie but ended up starting three matches in September last season, winning all three, though she wasn’t called upon to make that many saves in two and let in three goals against Detroit. The other returnee is Gabrielle Garuder, a sophomore who didn’t see action last season and is likely a longshot at best for the role. Hotshot rookie Nicole Pond, one of this class’ top goalkeeping prospects, has been a mainstay on the Region I ODP team for nearly half a decade and has already been touted as a star of the future by Saxton, meaning she could well win the starting job right off the bat. Replacing Flietstra is no easy feat though, and MSU could see some growing pains from this unit.
The Spartans’ rearguard was effective enough last season, and compared to other units in the field, gets off rather lightly with graduation attrition. The lone expected loss is of graduated senior Katelin Chaklos. The left-back began her career in the starting lineup for the Spartans, winning Big Ten All-Freshman Team honors and seldom looking back from there. Chaklos wasn’t especially prolific in front of goal or with assists, but her mountains of experience don’t figure to be easily replaced right away.
Leading this group this season figures to be junior center-back Annie Steinlage, who entrenched herself as one of the league’s best defenders after a rookie season spent mainly in midfield. A highly touted recruit out of high school, Steinlage has more than lived up to the hype and will be an important veteran leader for a squad going through some serious changes this year. Senior Kelsey Kassab is her likely partner in the center of defense this season after starting twenty last season for the club. Kassab was mostly a reserve for her first two seasons with the club before blossoming into a full-time starter last season and should improve further with the increased starting experience.
Junior Kelsey Mullen is the likely starter at right-back and has been a lineup fixture for two seasons for the Spartans in both midfield and defense. The rearguard was her domain for most of last season, and the third-year player is decent in front of goal as well, with a goal and two assists to her name in 2011. Senior Desiree Aber could potentially spell her at right-back after being one of the club’s top reserves last year, including making four starts on the season, though her offensive ability is limited.
The real question is who fills Chaklos’ vacant spot at left-back. The early favorite has to be rookie Alexandra Gjonaj, a former U.S. U15 international and one of this year’s top recruits at MSU. An offensive minded full-back who can also play a little in midfield, Gjonaj could find an immediate home in the starting lineup. Center-back Caitlyn Riley, impressive in ECNL action for the Stars of Massachusetts club, could also be a key to the future for the Spartans and should serve as critical depth in the short-term. Though Chaklos does need to be replaced, this group looks like the strength of this year’s club.
Saxton has a serious task on his hand this season as he tries to carve a working midfield out of a group that loses three starters from last year’s unit and returns minimal experience. A three-year starter who made a big impact in 2009 with six assists, Peterson was the club’s third option in attack last year and continued her assisting ways with four in five games at one point. A goal in three of the club’s final four league games ended up being huge for the Spartans, and Peterson’s clutch contributions will be missed.
Fellow departed senior Megan Pines had been one of the club’s top reserves early in her MSU career and had led the club in assists in 2010 with five. The Troy native started fifteen games as a senior but couldn’t match the previous season’s assist pace, with just three to her name in 2011. Also gone is Mikki Dennis, a reserve for most of her career in East Lansing who stepped up into a starting role last season and who ended up scoring the game winner against Northwestern in the regular season finale.
With the returning ranks looking a bit bare, Saxton will likely be leaning heavily on returning senior Jordan Mueller, winner of All-Big Ten Second Team honors last season. After a solid start to her college career, Mueller began to blossom last season, and though she wasn’t a factor offensively, the midfielder was a crucial conduit for the club in the middle of the park. Given the club’s losses this season, her experience will be crucial for MSU’s hopes in midfield. There are plenty of questions behind her.
Sophomore Megan Marsack was arguably the club’s top recruit last season, but the former U17 international couldn’t break into the starting lineup and was of limited effect going forward. More will be expected, and given her raw talent, a breakthrough into the starting lineup is certainly possible. Senior Chelsea Peterson has seen sporadic action the past few seasons as well but could see an increase of minutes this year. More than likely though, Michigan State will be reliant on some newcomers to come in and immediately make a big impact. Keep an eye on Sarah Kovan, a freshman whose skill and versatility could see her earn major minutes right away. Still, the loss of three starters leaves a lot of question marks for this group to answer.
The onus is obviously on the club replacing Heyboer, who might be the greatest Spartan of them all. Heyboer proceeded to shatter every offensive record in the club’s history and finished her career as the fourth-leading scorer in the history of the Big Ten and one of only five players to be named All-Big Ten First Team in four seasons. After a bit of a down year in 2010, Heyboer left no doubt last season, with eighteen goals and nine assists, including hat tricks against Duquesne and Detroit, in addition to seven goals and four assists in the league. Also departing is Sarah Stern, a one-time starter who slid into a key reserve role after a serious knee injury early in her MSU career.
The task of picking up the slack from Heyboer will likely fall upon the shoulders of the club’s other scoring dynamo of recent times, senior Olivia Stander. Stander certainly showed some flashes as a rookie but really opened some eyes with eight goals in 2010. The hits would keep on coming last season, with Stander upping her total to eleven goals scored while more than doubling her assists count with nine helpers, including at least one in six straight games in the middle of the season. While that looks nice on paper, one only has to notice that Stander scored just twice in the league to be a little wary. It remains to be seen if the senior can keep up her scoring pace without Heyboer to take some of the heat off, though she has shown she knows where the back of the net is over the past two seasons.
Options behind Stander look sparse. Paige Wester entered East Lansing with some acclaim last year and managed eleven starts but didn’t score a goal, though she did add four assists for the club. She’ll likely get a long look at filling a starting role full-time, though her strike rate has to go up. Senior Kori Reinhart has seen a smattering of reserve action in three seasons but has made a limited impact in front of goal, though she could get more opportunities this season.
Sophomores Alexandra Heffron and Lisa Vogel were two more of MSU’s vaunted 2011 recruiting class that featured mainly off the bench last season and will be hoping for a bigger impact with more opportunities likely to fall their way this season. Given the club’s dearth of proven scorers, some of the newcomers could feature early as well. Stander’s shown she can score goals, but whether she can be the big-time scorer the club needs this year is up for debate.
Given the Spartans’ rather timid non-conference slate, they’d better do a whale of a job in league play if they want to break their string of seasons without a trip to the NCAA Tournament. But judging MSU at first glance, matching their third place finish in the league from last season doesn’t look too likely. There are questions all over the pitch, from replacing the invaluable Flietstra in goal, to rebuilding a midfield hurt by graduation, to finding someone to compensate for the lost goals of Heyboer.
Squad depth is a big question, with a highly touted recruiting class from last season mostly being non-factors last season, raising more questions as to how big an impact another group of highly touted recruits this season might have. While the Spartans will undoubtedly want to wipe away the sour taste of last season’s denouement, this might be a team that struggles to make it into the Big Ten Tournament. At any rate, their best hope for an NCAA Tournament berth looks like winning the league’s auto bid come November.