AWK’s 2012 NCAA Soccer Preview – Denver – Pioneers to Banish Postseason Blues?

Kristen Hamilton

Denver Will Hope The Goals Keep Flowing for Kristen Hamilton in the WAC

Preview Index

General | Conference Realignment Breakdown | Final 2012 Recruiting Class Rankings | Early 2013/2014 Recruiting Class Rankings

Big Sky | DI Independents | Great West | SWAC

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 | Iowa | 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

Victims of one of the more divisive selection committee decisions in 2010, Denver’s case last season was more of an open and shut ordeal as the Pioneers again suffered postseason heartbreak in missing the NCAA Tournament. Whereas Denver had been perfect in the league all the way up to their shootout defeat in the Sun Belt Tournament final in 2010, the Pioneers of 2011 had lost twice in the regular season in the league and fell in the semi-finals of last year’s Sun Belt Tournament. With a lack of quality wins on the resume, the Pioneers were unlikely to get the benefit of the doubt. It was a sour way to depart the Sun Belt after having been the league’s dominant force for so many years.

Denver was undeniably the Sun Belt’s flagship program over the past decade, with five league titles and seven Sun Belt Tournament crowns under their belt going into last season. The Pioneers entered 2010 coming off four straight Sun Belt Tournament titles and exited the league with two league titles in the past half decade. Thanks to some treacherous regional draws, Denver has found advancing past the opening round of the NCAA Tournament difficult, with only one appearance in the second round, after a 2006 win against Kentucky in round one. Denver entered 2011 with no shortage of motivation after 2010’s snub, but they also knew that they had to be near perfect in order to warrant at-large bid consideration.

They obliged early, with four straight wins to open up the season, though victories over Colorado College and Nebraska wouldn’t count as much as hoped towards the end of the year. The club would then spurn a golden opportunity against Cal before two more wins, including a win against state rivals Colorado that also wouldn’t be worth much at the end of the year considering the state of the Buffs’ disrepair. With perhaps their last opportunity to hit it big in search of a key non-conference win, Denver fell short once more, falling to Auburn at home, 2-1. The optics certainly didn’t look good heading into league play, meaning Denver was in the position of having to win and win often if they wanted to go dancing.

The Pioneers would do as much early, flexing their offensive muscle in seven straight wins where they scored a total of twenty-seven goals, averaging nearly four goals a game! Particularly impressive was the home weekend where they crushed South Alabama, 7-0, before destroying Troy, 6-0. The club’s title dreams would fade though as they finished up with a 2-2-0 stretch, losing away to title rivals Florida International and North Texas. The last day loss to the Mean Green saw Denver still finish with the most points in the league, but with games having been cancelled due to weather, the Pioneers finished behind UNT in winning percentage, thus ceding their league crown.

Tiebreakers made things even worse, relegating Denver to third in the league in their farewell season from the Sun Belt. Hoping to make up for lost time in the conference tournament, Denver would handle South Alabama before a semi-final match against Florida International. Despite outshooting their opponents 24-5, Denver’s finishing was abject, and FIU emerged with a smash and grab, 3-1 win. It marked the first time in over a decade that Denver had lost twice in a single season to a league opponent (ironically, also against FIU, in 2000).

There was little suspense as to Denver’s NCAA Tournament fate, as the profile just didn’t stand up when compared to bubble rivals’. Though Denver leaves for the WAC as still a program of no small quality, some may be beginning to wonder if they also aren’t a program that suddenly can’t close the deal in the postseason given the evidence of the past two years.

The Pioneers depart the Sun Belt for the WAC this season, but their long-term future is more in the air considering their new league’s tenuous grip on existence right now following more conference reshuffling. Ideally, Denver had seen the move as a way to avoid the fate that befell them in 2010, with, in theory, WAC clubs’ better RPIs decreasing the odds of a Selection Monday snub. However, the rapid fire shuffling may instead leave the Pioneers without a conference home next season. In any event, they may end up stuck in a lesser conference if the WAC goes under after the 2012 season, hardly a fate befitting a club that has been so competitive historically.

Off the pitch worries aside, Denver will try to make their WAC debut a winning one, aiming to break their string of seasons out of the NCAA Tournament. The Pioneers were in resplendent form in the Sun Belt last year, leading the attacking chart with thirty-five goals in eleven league games, fifteen more than their next closest competitors. They also conceded just five goals in the league, proving to be tenacious at both ends of the pitch.

The good news for Denver supporters is that most of the club’s heavy hitters return for 2012. That includes reigning Sun Belt Player of the Year Kristen Hamilton, who only scored sixteen goals and added nine assists last year. Running mate Nicholette DiGiacomo was pretty special in her own right, with eight goals and seven assists. Defensive lynchpin Samantha Harder also returns and showed her offensive side last season with seven assists. In all, nine starters return from last year’s club, meaning this Denver side looks fit to fire again in 2012.

Goalkeepers

There should be few problems in between the pipes in 2012 for the Pioneers with the return of two senior keepers with starting experience. The likely starter is Alaskan senior Lara Campbell, who likely would’ve started the entirety of last season had injuries not disrupted her campaign at various points. Campbell won the starting job as a freshman and was an All-Sun Belt Tournament selection before again impressing as a sophomore. Despite missing a handful of matches, mostly at the beginning of the season, last year, Campbell still fared well and will be looking to sign off by helping the club return to the NCAA Tournament.

Backup Maria Khan has played a handful of matches every season with the club, including ten matches last season, with five starts in lieu of Campbell. The Colorado product had five clean sheets in her appearances last season and is a more than solid understudy for the Pioneers. Adding further depth are junior Amelia Davis and rookie Christina Vargas.

Defenders

Despite the loss of senior Kari Storslett, Hooker finds himself with plentiful options in defense this season. Adept at holding it down in either defense or midfield, Storslett spent much of 2011 in the rearguard for the Pioneers, starting fifteen games after mainly coming off the bench as a junior. Storslett still showed signs of life going forward though, finishing with a career high four assists come the end of the season. Some depth is lost as well, with sophomore Taylor Sims, who started six matches at center-back last season, and freshman Carley Kocel both departing early.

There’s still plenty of quality at Denver’s disposal though. Leading the line this year and for a few more in the future is sophomore Sam Harder, one of the nation’s most promising young center-backs. Though only standing at 5’4″ and going relatively overlooked in a fine recruiting class coming into the year, Harder would shine brightly last season, winning All-Region Second Team honors while starting all but one game. Harder showed her offensive side as well, tying for second on the squad with seven assists and will likely be one of the WAC’s top defenders this year.

Junior Jessy Battelli was another standout last season, starting seventeen matches and earning All-Sun Belt Second Team honors for her efforts. Battelli is a versatile option for Hooker’s side and could also be used in the middle of the park if needed and had three assists going forward last year. Senior Katy Van Lieshout played much of the year in attack after Kaitlin Bast’s concussion and did quite fine for herself with five goals and four assists to add to an impressive career scoring total. But Van Lieshout was an All-Sun Belt First Team defender in 2010, and given the club’s arsenal up front, it’s reasonable to believe she’ll be back to fortifying the backline again this year.

Another versatile option is junior Cassidy Larson who can basically play anywhere on the pitch for the club and who made sixteen starts last season, chipping in with six assists for the Pioneers. Sophomore Paige Diamond was one of the club’s most vaunted recruits last season, making eleven starts and could see an increased role this season in defense for the club. Providing further depth are sophomore right-back Shelby Wesley, classmate Jacey Birtcher, and junior Katie Feltch. The likes of Harder, Battelli, and Van Lieshout could all be in the running for WAC Defensive Player of the Year, and great depth makes this likely to be one of the league’s best defenses.

Midfielders

Arguably the club’s biggest loss comes in midfield, with the departure of All-Sun Belt First Team selection Bria Beardsley. A four-year starter for the club in midfield, Beardsley had won All-Sun Belt Second Team honors for three years running before finally sealing first team honors last year. The Californian wasn’t prolific in front of goal but still managed ten goals and ten assists for her career and was a vital midfield conduit for Denver.

There’s plenty of punch in midfield for the Pioneers though. Junior Nicholette DiGiacomo has gleefully carved up opposing defenses for two seasons and will fancy her chances of doing the same to WAC rearguards this year. An eye-popping fifteen assists as a rookie was enough to catch the attention of many, but DiGiacomo doubled her goalscoring output to eight goals last year in lieu of her assists total dropping to seven. Deadly scoring goals or setting them up, the Golden native should again be one of the region’s most dynamic in midfield.

Who suits up beside her depends largely on how Denver chooses to lineup this year. They used two up front for much of last season, and a repeat will likely see senior Kalie Vaughn in the midfield again. After a steady rookie season, Vaughn has since exploded for eighteen goals and thirteen assists the past two seasons, with five game winning goals in that span. Vaughn hit for eight goals last season, including a devastating six in four games in league play at one points in 2011 and should again be a scoring threat. Larson, a lineup fixture last year, could also see some serious minutes in midfield if not used in defense.

Junior Sara Riazi and sophomore Anna Willis combined for eleven starts last year and will be among those vying for Beardsley’s vacated minutes. Willis is another offensive weapon, with three goals and five assists as a rookie last year. Juniors Stephanie Woo and Shannen Johnson and sophomore Caitlin Higgins also return to add depth. It’s a crowded field (to say the least), and that’s before factoring in the addition of this year’s top freshman, Francesca Garzelloni, who adds even more attacking flair to a midfield full of it. With DiGiacomo pulling the strings and plenty of firepower in reserve alongside her, this unit should be deadly offensively yet again.

Forwards

This group was quite prolific last season, and with only senior reserve Taylor Bailey likely having departed, could be lethal in front of goal once again. Leading the charge will be the reigning Sun Belt Player of the Year, junior Kristen Hamilton. Hamilton had been a big hitter as a rookie with seven goals and eight assists, but few could have expected the outburst coming just one year later. Hamilton scored a pair of goals in five different matches on her way to sixteen total and was held without a point in just five of the club’s twenty-one games. That two of those were the club’s two biggest games of the season, against North Texas in the league and FIU in the Sun Belt Tournament will likely be gnawing on Hamilton and could facilitate and even bigger offensive explosion this season.

To his credit, Hooker seems to recognize Hamilton’s great talent and shaped the club’s formation around his talisman, with the junior more comfortable as a part of a pair up front rather than being one of three forwards. Who joins her up front is the big question this year. Ideally, it’ll be senior Kaitlin Bast, who preceded Hamilton as the Sun Belt Player of the Year in 2010 but who missed all but six matches with a concussion last year. Bast’s numbers really speak for themselves. In her first two seasons, she tallied twenty-six goals and eleven assists and had three of each last year before getting injured. If healthy, Bast and Hamilton figure to light up defenses like a Christmas tree this season and could be one of the nation’s deadliest duos.

Van Lieshout played up front when Bast was hurt last season, while Vaughn could be another potent option if she can be separated from the midfield. Sophomore Nikki Pappalardo was a highly touted rookie coming into Denver last season but was forced out through injury all of last year, while Laura Feehs is a transfer from NAIA side Azusa Pacific and was a Second Team NAIA All-American in 2010 before struggling through injuries last season. They should provide solid depth to a group that could be among mid-major soccer’s deadliest this year.

Outlook

Based on sheer talent, Denver has the ability to win the WAC, perhaps at a canter. For sheer ability and depth, only Utah State can touch them in the league, and Denver has enough firepower to overshadow the Aggies at any rate. But the WAC also doesn’t seem to be a league capable of multiple bids to the NCAA Tournament, meaning Denver will have to do something they haven’t been capable of lately: win a conference tournament. The club’s mental block in the Sun Belt Tournament the past two seasons has been maddening, and the club risks being tagged with the label of a program that can’t close the deal should they fall short again.

Denver should enter the season with a tenacious defense and electric offense though and should again rack up impressive numbers despite the WAC looking a little more competitive than the Sun Belt was. In the end, the only thing that might stop Denver from WAC domination this year might be Denver themselves. If they can conquer their postseason woes, they might just be troublesome foes for someone in the NCAA Tournament.

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