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 | Michigan State | 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
A program that had barely shown signs of life for the longest time in the Big Ten suddenly awakened in a big way last year as Iowa rumbled to thirteen wins, tied for the most in program history along with the club’s 1999 season. How big was Iowa’s season? It was also the first time the club had had a winning season since 2002 and the first time they had had a non-losing season since 2007. It’s been a long, hard time of it for the Hawkeyes for much of their DI existence. Program matriarch Stephanie Gabbert looked to have the program headed in the right direction after guiding Iowa to a third place finish in the Big Ten in 1999.
It’s a shame then that Gabbert promptly humiliated Iowa by ditching the Hawkeyes to take charge of deadly rivals Iowa State after that season. A couple of seasons under her replacement, Wendy Logan, saw the Hawkeyes slip into mid-table, but that was positively outstanding compared to what has befallen Iowa since. Carla Baker’s four year stint at the head of the table for Iowa was an unmitigated disaster, quite possibly one of the worst hires ever by a BCS school in college soccer history. After a ninth place finish in her first season, Baker proceeded to oversee three last place finishes, with the team only winning one Big Ten match in those three seasons and nine wins overall in Baker’s final three years.
The Hawkeye brass mercifully pulled the plug after the 2005 season, bringing in Ron Rainey in her place. Rainey had led Ball State to some success in the MAC but found that success tough to replicate in the Big Ten heading into the 2011 season. Rainey was able to get Iowa off the bottom of the league after just one season in charge but found further progress much more difficult. In fact, the Hawkeyes sunk back to the bottom of the table in 2009, with things not getting much better in the league in 2010 as Iowa was rock bottom once more. There had been some positive signs in 2010, such as a win over a good Central Michigan team and a 4-0 victory over rivals Iowa State, but few could have thought that Rainey wasn’t facing a make or break season heading into 2011.
Again, non-conference action was promising on paper as the Hawkeyes rolled to a perfect mark of 8-0-0, but the slate wasn’t exactly filled with a murderer’s row. Iowa only played two teams that finished in the final uRPI Top 100, with neither finishing in the Top 75, while also playing six clubs who finished below the two hundred mark. It only took one league game to open some eyes though, as Iowa came out and drew Illinois in the opener. It’d be part of a 2-1-2 start in the league that not only had the club thinking postseason but perhaps even the NCAA Tournament.
The question was how Iowa was going to deal with the pressure of a late season charge when so many past seasons had provided nothing but dead rubber late. They initially didn’t look to be taking it too well, losing three of four at one point, though that one win was a big one, on the road against bubble battlers Ohio State. Needing wins to solidify their spot in the Big Ten Tournament, Iowa won their final two regular season matches against Northwestern and Wisconsin to finish sixth in the league.
Given the Hawkeyes’ awful NCRPI, they were always going to have to make a run in the Big Ten Tournament, starting with a quarterfinal win over Michigan State. In a tight game, neither side was able to find a goal, and the two sides moved on to penalties, where the Spartans were able to reign supreme. It marked the end of the Hawkeyes season but not the renewed optimism in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes’ brass’ patience with Rainey seems to have paid off, and Iowa now finds itself a credible threat in the Big Ten for the first time in a long time.
A formula of returning experience being infused with a very successful rookie class led to a season of great improvement for Iowa last year, and Rainey will be hoping to build on last season’s breakthrough this year. He does have a little bit of rebuilding on his hands though, with the club losing four starters from last year’s surprise package. The biggest of those losses by far is defender Morgan Showalter, who ended up shattering the club’s all-time assist record by the end of her Iowa career last year, finishing with twenty-seven after another nine assist outburst.
The cupboard looks far from dry though, with attacking revelation Cloe Lacasse set to terrorize defenses yet again after a stunning twelve goal debut last season. The Canadian sophomore is far from the only attacking threat on this team either, with five players having at least five goals last year, with all returning for 2012.
Iowa was much improved going the other way as well, as the Hawkeyes set a school record for fewest goals conceded in a season with just seventeen. Sophomore Caitlin Brown was a key component of the improvement and is another piece of Iowa’s bright future. Written off by most before last season, Iowa will be overlooked by no one this year, and it will be most interesting to see how they hold up under increased scrutiny.
Most concerning for Rainey in all likelihood is the loss of senior Emily Moran from the starting spot in goal. After putting in a Big Ten All-Freshman Team season while splitting time in 2008, Moran made the job her own one season later and all but monopolized the minutes for the Hawkeyes in goal. Kept busy often in her Iowa career by a porous defense, Moran was probably as happy as anybody at the improvement in front of her last year. The vastly experienced keeper won’t be easy to replace, especially with the options this season being so inexperienced.
Sophomore Kiley Beck is the lone returning keeper and saw the briefest of action in two games last season as a rookie. That means the goalkeeping battle could be wide open, with Hannah Clark and Meg Goodson holding out hopes of winning the job as true freshmen this year. This area looks like Iowa’s clear weakness going into the season.
The Hawkeyes can at least take a little comfort in the knowledge that most of their first choice defense should return intact for the new season. Iowa does have to find a replacement for Showalter though, who slotted into the defense after spending much of her career in midfield for the club. The move certainly didn’t end up hurting her offensively though, with those team leading nine assists proof enough that Showalter was still a big threat going forward. Also gone is Sarah Langlas, a versatile player also capable in midfield, who ended up being one of the club’s top reserves off the bench last year.
The centerpiece of this year’s defense could be an important cornerstone of the club’s immediate future in Brown, who enjoyed a great rookie year for the Hawkeyes. One of Iowa’s most highly touted recruits coming into 2011, Brown wasted no time in justifying her plaudits at youth level by starting every game and earning All-Big Ten Freshman Team honors. Brown figures to have some experienced returnees alongside her as well. Senior Katherine Lewis began her Iowa career as one of the club’s key reserves but has grown into a full-time starting role over the course of the past two seasons. Lewis also showed a spark going forward, with a couple of assists early in the season for the Hawkeyes.
Brown may have captured most of the plaudits in her rookie year, but the club also got a strong contribution from fellow sophomore Melanie Pickert last season. Pickert started every match as a rookie and should continue to be an important anchor for the club again this season. The question is who replaces Showalter in the starting defense, and there seem to be few clear answers.
The likes of Jade Grimm, Stefani Campbell, Gabrielle Ainsworth, Anne Marie Thomas, Alex Melin, and Dana Dalrymple are all listed as defenders in part but may be needed further up the field. Thomas played off the bench in defense last season but was tried in a defensive midfielder role in the Spring but could be a natural candidate to fill in on the backline if need be. Replacing Showalter aside, this group still looks solid and cohesive for the most part and should at least be above average in the Big Ten.
It’s glass half-full, glass half-empty for Iowa in midfield this season. Rainey has plenty of choices to fill the unit out, but the club still faces some losses nonetheless. Rachel Blakesley ended her career in Iowa City as a four-year starter capable of playing as a center-back or in a defensive role in the midfield. Blakesley was never a star, but her experience will not be easy to replace. Also gone is Alyssa Cosnek, capable in midfield or up front, and a solid goal getter for the club over the past four seasons. Cosnek had turned many a head as a rookie with a whopping nine goals but entered 2011 having seen her goal total dip in the two following seasons. She wouldn’t score at all last season, having to settle for three assists, though she did start seventeen matches for the club.
Junior Alex Melin figures to be this group’s leader in 2012 after two impressive seasons to start her career at Iowa. Melin won a starting spot for the Hawkeyes as a rookie, scoring three goals, and built on that performance last season. Five goals, including two game winners, was an impressive haul, and Melin should be in amongst the goals again this year.
Likely joining Melin in midfield will be classmate Leah DeMoss, another dangerous offensive weapon for the club. DeMoss had already showed her skills as a rookie with five goals and three assists while mostly serving as a reserve. Last season though was another step forward, with DeMoss scoring eight times, including three game winning goals for the club. The St. Charles native could be one of the league’s top midfielders this season and could also approach ten goals if the offense is clicking.
Senior Jade Grimm looked to be on her way to stardom after two solid seasons for the club in 2009 and 2010, including a four goal, four assist campaign as a sophomore. But Grimm would be more marginalized last season, losing her place as a full-time starter, cracking the first XI just eleven times. She could be moved back into defense, but the veteran needs a bounce back year if Iowa are likely to succeed. Another strong contender for a starting spot is fellow senior Dana Dalrymple. Dalrymple may not have started more than half the club’s games, but the Cincinnati native was more than a little effective when she was on the pitch, hammering home five goals, including crucial game winners in the league against Michigan State and Northwestern.
Senior Gabrielle Ainsworth looks most likely of last year’s reserves to step into a starting role after starting every match as a sophomore but sliding back to a key role off the bench last season. Classmate Allie Adam has been another key reserve in her two years with the club and may be in line for an increase in minutes as well. Sophomores Katie Nasenbenny, who has struggled with knee injuries in two seasons thus far despite scoring five goals in eleven games in 2011, and Anne Marie Thomas could also feature heavily, though the latter might be moved back into defense this year after playing there as a rookie.
Also keep an eye on rookie Sarah Mazur, a Region II ODP selection who could be in line for major minutes early this year. Though the club does lose a couple of battle tested vets, there are options galore, though some of those options may end up in other units as needed.
It really all comes down to Lacasse up front for the Hawkeyes this season. The Canadian entered Iowa City as a relative unknown but ended the season as one of the country’s top freshman attacking prospects after a dazzling twelve goal, six assist season. Lacasse was truly a class apart early on, taking advantage of a weak non-conference schedule to score nine goals in the club’s first seven games, including a goal in five straight at one point. Form would be a little more fitful in the league, with a eight game scoring drought broken by a two goal, one assist performance in the win over Northwestern.
She still has a few wrinkles to iron out, but Lacasse still looks like being a potential star, to the point that she was called up to a Canadian U20 camp over the Summer. While she might be considered a dark horse for a spot on the U20 World Cup team this Fall, her absence would likely cause some nervousness in Iowa City.
Considering the lack of experienced options returning, DeMoss would likely be the first option used up top should Lacasse get the call from the Canadian U20 team. Among the returning subs are senior Stefani Campbell, also an option in defense, and juniors Ashley Catrell, who has five goals in two seasons, and Jess Yagla.
Rainey will also be looking for Lacasse-like rookie contributions from highly touted newcomers Brooke Backes and Lana Bonekemper. Backes enters Iowa City as the reigning Gatorade State Player of the Year from Indiana and as a high school phenom who has been lauded for her 1v1 ability and skill at threatening down the flanks. Bonekemper has shown well for Ohio Elite at ECNL competition and has been praised for her off the ball work by Rainey. If Lacasse is putting them in at a consistent clip, this unit should again be dangerous in the Big Ten, though secondary options don’t look totally set in stone.
The Hawkeyes upset the odds to have quite the season last year, getting just the right mix of rookie talent and veteran experience to gatecrash the postseason unexpectedly. Consistency’s a whole different order of business altogether though, and a true measure of Iowa’s growth as a program might come this year with higher expectations attached to the club. With a good many of Iowa’s best players not seniors this season, the Hawkeyes best days are still likely ahead of them in some respects.
Despite a few losses in personnel, there’s enough in the core group to believe that Iowa will have a great shot at repeating last year’s trip to the Big Ten Tournament. If the Hawkeyes can settle their situation in goal soon enough, they might just have a puncher’s chance at making it to the NCAA Tournament as well.