ACC – Clemson
Big XII – Iowa State | Oklahoma | TCU | 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 – Denver | 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
Back comfortably in the second tier of Pac-12 contenders after last season’s effort, Washington State will be hoping to stay there or even move up this season under new management after former head coach Matt Potter accepted the vacant job at Oklahoma in the offseason. Potter had done well to lift Washington State back up the Pac-12 table after a dismal 2010 season had seen the Cougars fall all the way back to ninth place after being one of the nation’s revelations just a season before. Before Potter took the reigns before the 2003 season, Washington State really wasn’t known for much in Pac-10 soccer circles other than seeing two of their three head coaches in their history move on to Arizona and a rather infamous defeat to Montana in the 2000 NCAA Tournament in the snow in Pullman.
It took a while for Potter to get rolling on the Palouse, a notoriously hard place to recruit to, but by 2007, the team was a formidable foe in the Pac-10, and the Cougars could consider themselves hard done by when they missed out on the 2007 NCAA Tournament as one of the last teams out of the bracket. There’d be no mistake a season later when Washington State did get the benefit of the doubt and made the Big Dance for the first time since 2002 with a team that had almost identical numbers as to the 2007 one.
The next step was to rise above the bubble fray and creep into the top tier of the Pac-10, which the Cougars duly accomplished in 2009. 5-2-2 in league and thirteen wins in the regular season was enough to see Wazzu easily into the field although they were sent across the country to play in Maryland’s regional and were upended by the Terps, 1-0, in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. It was still a sign of massive progress though for the program, but heavy losses to graduation ate the program up heading into 2010, with the Cougars unable to keep pace in one of the toughest leagues in the country.
With a more settled side in 2011 though, the hope was for a more typical year under Potter’s reign and another trip to the NCAA Tournament. Little was learned about these Cougars in the first few weeks of the season, as they went 4-1-0 but against a pretty tame schedule, with the lone defeat coming against potential bubble rivals Portland. The result that began to open a few eyes was a 0-0 draw at a Virginia side that had been slicing teams up left and right at the beginning of the year. The rest of non-conference play wasn’t much to shout about, with some expected wins and tough losses to contenders UCF and Santa Clara.
Wazzu would race out of the gates in the league though, looking like dark horse title contenders halfway in after going 4-1-1. The only loss in that stretch was to eventual national champs Stanford on a late goal in a 1-0 defeat. Despite that winning run and a 0-0 draw against UCLA, the Cougars were still very much on the bubble going into a five match road swing to finish out the regular season. Losing to both of the Oregon schools dropped the Cougars into the danger zone, and beating both Arizona clubs didn’t seem like it would’ve been enough.
WSU looked like they needed to beat Apple Cup rivals Washington and hope for the best. Seattle wasn’t kind to the Cougars though, and they could only scratch out a dull 0-0 draw that left them a nervous wait on Selection Monday. The draws against Virginia and UCLA were enough to carry them through though, and the Cougars were back in the NCAA Tournament. WSU would draw Kentucky in the first round and would play out a scrappy 1-1 draw in Lexington before prevailing on penalties, 4-2, to advance to the second round.
The bracket hadn’t broken kindly for the Cougars though, and Potter’s side ended up facing familiar foe Virginia, who the team had battled to a standstill the first time they had met. There was no such stalemate this time, as Virginia were the superior team by far in the rematch, outshooting WSU, 22-1. The end result was a 3-0 defeat for the Cougars, but not before Washington State had shown some staying power long-term after bouncing back from 2010’s disappointment.
After Potter departed for Norman, Washington State tabbed Auburn assistant Keidane McAlpine as the new man for the hot seat. Before some fine work with the SEC side, McAlpine was in charge at his alma mater, Birmingham-Southern for five seasons, including 2004, when the Panthers won the Big South Tournament. The Panthers’ athletic department would go bust at DI level soon after though, and McAlpine bided his time as Karen Hoppa’s #2 on The Plains since. McAlpine certainly hasn’t wasted any time in assembling a talented backroom staff, coaxing UNLV head coach Jen Klein from Las Vegas, while also hiring away South Carolina goalkeeping coach Mat Cosgriff, who had done some very fine work in Columbia recently.
Perhaps the most interesting viewing on the Palouse this season will be trying to discern if this Cougars team is undergoing any kind of radical identity shift after being so stoically defensive during the later years of Potter’s reign. That defense was plainly brilliant at times last season, shutting down the likes of Virginia (in the regular season) and UCLA, while limiting Stanford to just a single goal. With Australian Rachael Doyle set to return and lead the line again, it’s tempting to believe the Cougars could again be a frustrating team to play against. An offense that, to be blunt, was plodding at times the past few seasons needs more work if WSU is to climb the food chain in the Pac-12.
While the club did finish fourth in the league in scoring in conference games, only two players broke the five goal mark, with sophomore Jocelyn Jeffers leading the club in scoring with seven goals. WSU had trouble breaking down top teams but will hope that another year together can help spur a young offense to life. McAlpine could face a challenging beginning to the season though with midfield starlet Nicole Setterlund and starting goalkeeper Gurveen Clair both contenders to make Canada’s U20 World Cup roster. With the likes of San Diego, Duke, and Santa Clara on the non-conference docket, McAlpine will need every advantage he can get to make a winning start in Pullman this season.
There are few questions as to the club’s #1 this season and for the foreseeable future, with the Canadian Clair likely to all but monopolize the minutes in Pullman this season. A highly thought of goalkeeper at the Canadian youth international level and member of the Canadian WNT side that won the CONCACAF Women’s World Cup Qualifying title in 2010, Clair was a surprise redshirt in many’s eyes in 2010. But the Surrey native made the starting position her own last season, showing signs of the talent that made her such a hot commodity in the first place.
With Clair still in the mix as a possible member of the Canadian U20 World Cup team though, the backup situation in Pullman is as important as ever. First in line looks to be senior Ariana Byrd, who split time in goal in 2010, making nine starts, but was relegated to backup duty last season, making appearances in three matches for the Cougars. Though she’s not Clair, she does have starting experience, which can only help WSU this season if Clair is on international duty. Outside bets are sophomore Matisse Hemingway, who didn’t see action last season, and newcomer Alexis Thode. Clair has the potential to be one of the league’s best keepers…it’s just that WSU might not be able to take advantage of her skills for the first month of the season, which could be problematic.
The Cougar defense obviously has a lot to live up to after last season’s excellent showing, but the return of the vast majority of last year’s unit should raise hopes in Pullman. The lone expected loss is that of graduated senior Ali Fenter, who started every match possible in her Washington State career. A U20 international early in her WSU career, Fenter was one of the club’s steadiest defensive options of the past half-decade and won’t be easily replaced.
The backline should be in good hands though with the return of Doyle, with the Australian already looking like one of the league’s most promising defenders just two years into her collegiate career. An All-Pac-12 Second Team selection a season ago, Doyle showed more of an offensive spark in her sophomore year, with four assists for the Cougars. The other likely sure thing in defense this season for the Cougars is sophomore Beau Bremer, a relatively unheralded member of last year’s recruiting class who ended up being quite the find. Bremer was recruited as an attacker but ended up starring on defense, starting every match as a rookie and should continue to be a standout on the backline this year.
Likely in pole position to fill the other gaps are junior Delaney Zalud and senior Mariah Cameron. Zalud barely played as a rookie in 2010 but rounded into a starter for the club last season, even adding three assists to the Cougar cause. It was probably a season to forget for Cameron, who had started much of her first two seasons and made the 2009 Pac-10 All-Freshman Team but who was limited to just seven starts last season while missing a big chunk of the middle of the season. A healthy return would be a huge boon for McAlpine’s first season in charge. Senior Zoe Jeffers, in her first season after a transfer from Santa Clara, was a trusted option off the bench and will likely fill the same role again this year.
Additionally the club adds freshman Susie White, a ECNL standout for the Real Colorado club and a potential starter in the future for the Cougars. With the vast majority of last season’s stellar defense returning, this group should again have a chance to be one of the best in the league.
Washington State’s most worrying area coming into 2012 looks to be the midfield, where the club has to make up for the loss of a pair of starters in addition to the potential loss of Setterlund for the opening month of the season. The expected loss for the Cougars is of graduated senior Jacquelyn Roth, who wasn’t a constant in the starting lineup in her four seasons at the club but was usually productive when she was on the pitch. 2009 looked to be a breakout year, with seven assists to her name, but Roth wouldn’t hit those heights again, with just one assist in thirteen starts last season.
A more surprising, and potentially more damaging, loss is that of sophomore Eileen Maes, who transferred to Long Beach State unexpectedly. Maes had been one of the club’s best looking midfield prospects over the past two years. Maes had begun her career with a great five goal, three assist season in 2010 and opened up 2011 with a brilliant hat trick against Hawaii. Though she’d score just once more all season, it was the golden goal against Gonzaga, in what turned out to be a must win game for the club.
The departures leave Canadian sophomore Setterlund in the rather unenviable position of carrying the club’s midfield on her back despite entering just her second season of collegiate ball. Regarded as one of Canada’s brightest young stars upon signing with WSU, Setterlund showed just why she was so hyped with a series of assured displays as a rookie, earning All-Region Second Team honors in the process. But with Setterlund all but a lock for Canada’s U20 World Cup squad, WSU will probably have to do without her for the opening weeks of the season, leaving the club a massive void to fill.
A favorite to fill one of the vacancies is senior Shannon McFadden, who was one of the club’s top reserves last season. McFadden started just four games last year but does have extensive starting experience from 2010, when she started fourteen games and chipped in with four assists. The other midfield starting spots are up for grabs in all likelihood. Juniors Kayla Johnson and Katie Turney were heavily used off the bench last season, but neither have been too useful in front of goal thus far in their collegiate careers. Sophomores Mesa Owsley and Korynn Blanksma found themselves in similar straits as rookies last season but may be given extended looks in the starting lineup out of necessity, especially early on. Setterlund should be one of the Pac-12’s best, but this unit still looks like the club’s clear weakness going into the new year.
Given the questionable nature of the club’s supply line in midfield coming into the new year, the pressure on this group may be as great as ever in trying to facilitate their own scoring opportunities. The club should return the unit mostly intact, with the only expected loss being graduated senior Tiara Pittman. A sub for her first two seasons, Pittman cracked the starting lineup early in 2010 before injury halted her progress. The Spokane native would return healthy last season though and ended up making a career high twelve starts, scoring four goals for the club, including three in the Pac-12.
The likely focal point of the offense this season will be senior Brandi Vega, last season’s second leading scorer with six goals and five assists. The performance, which landed her on the All-Region Second Team, more than made up for a dismal sophomore season which had seen Vega score just twice. The vet was excellent in Pac-12 play, scoring in three straight WSU wins at the beginning of October. She won’t be alone though, as the club also returns budding star Jocelyn Jeffers. The sophomore came in highly touted and was a goal machine in the Pac-12 last season, scoring six times and adding three assists to boot. Jeffers’ rookie performance was likely just the tip of the iceberg, and McAlpine will be banking on an equally impressive follow-up in 2012 if WSU are to contend for the postseason.
Junior Micaela Castain looked to be on her way to a strong follow-up to her eight goal rookie season, scoring three goals early in 2011. However, the Cougar forward was lost for the season after the Stanford match, and WSU will be desperate for one of their brightest attacking prospects to be fit and firing this year. Sophomore Bethanie Skelton was another highly hyped rookie last season who found it difficult going but missed a large chunk of the season, likely stunting her growth. A bounce back season isn’t out of the question and would do the club’s depth a lot of good.
Sophomore Jamie Schnieders also saw a smattering of action off the bench last season and should work her way into rotation this year as well. It’s highly doubtful that any superstars are going to come from this group, but McAlpine has what looks to be a solid and effective corps of forwards to work with this year. How they respond if the midfield fails to find its feet and doesn’t provide a supply line is the question that could define WSU’s season.
Well, it could be far worse for McAlpine as he takes over a program that bounced back very well from a disappointing 2010 season with last year’s fourth place finish in the league and NCAA Tournament Second Round appearance. The frontline isn’t necessarily explosive but did a job last season in the Pac-12, while the defense should be solid again, especially when Clair is in between the pipes. But the midfield for the club looks to be a serious liability if and when Setterlund is gone at the U20 World Cup.
While the new boss could certainly fill a gap with one of his excess forwards, experience and production on the whole is thoroughly lacking. In a league with some excellent midfield units, being soft in the center could be a Kiss of Death to the Cougars’ hopes. As it stands though, the club should still have enough to finish in mid-table in the Pac-12 and make it back to the NCAA Tournament, though further progress doesn’t seem too likely in McAlpine’s first season in charge.