AWK’s 2012 NCAA Soccer Preview – Central Michigan – Return to Form in Mount Pleasant?

Bailey Brandon

Bailey Brandon Leads Another Strong Defense for CMU in 2012

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 | 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 | Washington State
SEC – Arkansas | Mississippi State | Ole Miss | Vanderbilt
WCC – Gonzaga | Loyola Marymount | San Francisco

For the first time in a few seasons, Central Michigan will enter a new campaign not defending a piece of MAC silverware. The Chippewas went through a coaching change in between 2010 and 2011 with relative smooth sailing, with 2011 being another winning year with its fair share of giant killing, but the club also saw both pieces of MAC silverware land in the hands of league arch-rivals Toledo. So for the first time in a while, CMU will enter the new season as the hunter instead of the hunted, which hasn’t happened too often in Mount Pleasant as of late. Head coach Neil Stafford ascended to the throne with big shoes to fill after Tom Anagnost’s two and a half seasons in charge were an unmitigated success.

Anagnost had taken over abruptly after a lurid saga brought down former head coach Tony DiTucci in the middle of the 2008 season. Anagnost was a smashing success, driving CMU to giddy new heights in his relatively brief time with the club. However, Anagnost used his great success as a springboard to a bigger job, leaving for the vacant Miami (FL) job at the end of last season, and again bringing a small measure of uncertainty to the hot seat at CMU. What seems like eons ago, former head coach Mark Salisbury usually had CMU finishing in respectable positions in the MAC table after building the program from the ground up but could never get the program over the hump by winning a trophy that would have taken the Chippewas to the next level.

DiTucci didn’t fare much better after Salisbury made a lateral move to Idaho State and perhaps even set the program back on the field, with Central Michigan finishing tenth in the league in his last full season in charge. With the Chippewas rolling along in 2008, the program was rocked by the sudden departure of DiTucci after allegations of inappropriate conduct that would eventually lead to a settlement of a sexual harassment lawsuit between two former players and the university. In the midst of that chaos, Anagnost, was named interim head coach and led the team to a second place finish in the league, borderline miraculous considering the circumstances.

It was hardly a shock when Anagnost was promoted to the head job full-time and more than repaid the faith shown in him in his first full season in charge in 2009. The Chippewas romped to the MAC title, winning the league by a whopping seven points and maintaining an unbelievable thirteen clean sheets in a row before winning the conference tournament with three more shutouts. The best would be yet to come though as CMU shocked Purdue in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, beating the Boilermakers by two clear goals.

After that amazing season, CMU came into 2010 with sky high expectations, with many wondering if this team could possibly go one better and advance to the Sweet Sixteen. Non-conference play was a bit of a letdown though, with CMU not showing much giant killing potential in some of their defeats. League play was another matter, with the Chippewas rolling along and winning a share of their second straight league title. CMU would do the double and send Anagnost out a winner, while in the process leaving Stafford with big expectations to live up to.

The new boss made a winning start to his head coaching career at CMU with three straight wins to begin the season before a hard fought extra time loss to Kentucky. The club would bounce right back two days later with an impressive win over Big East contenders Louisville. There’d be further impressive performances in non-conference play with a draw against Michigan and a win against Wisconsin. CMU entered league play very much in the frame for a possible at-large bid if they kept up their scorching form.

Two draws in their first three MAC games hurt those chances though, with the team struggling to score against Akron and Buffalo. The club would win three in a row to put themselves in a good spot for the title before being upset by rising contender Western Michigan. After an easy win against Northern Illinois, CMU came through in a must win game for their title hopes, topping Toledo, 1-0, to keep themselves in the race. But despite two wins in their last regular season matches, the club would see the title go south to Ohio after Toledo held their nerve.

Akron would be dealt with in the opening round of the MAC Tournament, but bogey side Western Michigan beat CMU for the second time in 2011, scoring in the middle of the second half of extra time to end the Chippewas’ season. CMU had been in the mix for one of the last at-large berths but were probably missing just one or two more results going their way in the end. It had still been a fine season, especially for a first-year boss, but the spoiled fans in Mount Pleasant probably won’t be thrilled with too many more years without a trophy.

Stafford was on the receiving end of a big vote of confidence from his superiors come the offseason, with the CMU boss extending his contact through the 2015 season. It was a move that, if nothing else, should promote an air of stability around Mount Pleasant that should at least help with the club’s recruiting efforts. 2011 was something of a season of contrast for the Chippewas in comparison to the year that had come before Central Michigan had blown opponents away with a dynamic offense in 2010 but let their defense do the talking one season later.

CMU’s offense wasn’t bad per se, but their defense was overwhelming in 2011. Stafford’s side kept an absurd thirteen clean sheets in twenty-one games and put together shutout strings of five and four games at different points in the season. Kentucky was the one and only side to score multiple goals on CMU all season, while the club gave up a ridiculous two goals in league play and just nine on the entire season.

Matching that pace this season doesn’t figure to be easy without Liesel Toth though. The graduated defender is the reigning MAC Defensive Player of the Year and a legitimate candidate to be named CMU’s greatest player ever after three All-MAC First Team and three All-Region selections. Despite that loss, the Chippewas still pack plenty of talent and are again contenders for MAC silverware in 2012.

Goalkeepers

Both of last season’s goalkeepers return for CMU in 2012, meaning the Chippewas should be in good hands once more this year. First choice looks to be senior Stefanie Turner, a towering 6’0″ netminder who was eased into the job with solid minutes behind club legend Shay Mannino for two seasons before taking over as the club’s starter last season. Turner would split some time all throughout the season but was almost always in goal for the club during the Chippewas’ most critical matches, especially down the stretch.

Understudy Grace Labrecque kept up with CMU’s tradition of blooding young goalkeepers early, seeing roughly a third of the minutes in goal for the club as a rookie last season. The Battle Creek native got her chance as a starter in wins against Big East clubs Louisville and Pittsburgh and then featured at least for a half against many of the team’s MAC opponents. She was rewarded with All-MAC Freshman Team honors after the season, and though Labrecque doesn’t seem likely to displace Turner as the club’s starter, you can count on her getting more experience this season before she takes over as starter next year. This looks like the MAC’s best goalkeeping corps, with the potential to be one of the nation’s best as well.

Defenders

To say this group has a lot to live up to after last season’s crushing performance is an understatement. Central Michigan’s task certainly doesn’t get any easier following the loss of the superb Toth from their ranks. In addition to the long, long line of awards Toth picked up during her glittering career, she also started eighty-seven matches in four seasons for the club. With eight goals and seven assists in her career, including five game winning strikes, it’s safe to say the New York native knew where the goal was as well. Also departing is Bethany Allport, who struggled with injuries at times during her career, including last season, but still managed fourteen starts for CMU’s record setting defense last year.

Joining Toth in the club legend sphere after this season could be senior Bailey Brandon, the likely leader of this year’s rearguard. Brandon could’ve hardly asked for a better start to her collegiate career, winning the 2009 MAC Freshman of the Year award after some dominating displays in defense, combined with five assists to boot. She’s scarcely let up since then, with a couple of seasons on the All-MAC First Team and is surely a favorite for MAC Defender of the Year honors this season.

Fellow senior Katie Slaughter looks likely to join her on the starting backline this season. Another former MAC All-Freshman Team selection in 2009, Slaughter has been a mainstay in the starting lineup the past two seasons and provides yet more veteran leadership to this strong group. Another favorite for a starting role is junior Estee Outcalt, a MAC All-Freshman Team selection in 2010 who made nine starts last season and actually ended up tied for second on the team in goals with three. In a program known for its excellent defenders, Outcalt may just become the club’s next big thing in defense.

Filling the remaining starting spot could be challenging for Stafford and co. Sophomore Morgan Wilcoxon, capable up front or in defense, was one of the club’s top reserves last season and would seemingly be one of those first in line to fill that gap. Junior Meghan Caldwell is another possibility after seeing time in fifteen games off the bench in 2010, but the Columbus native did not play last season and might need to shake the rust off.

Then again, Stafford may well opt for youth again, with freshman Michelle Brownlee looking a good bet for big minutes early on in her collegiate career this season. It’s going to be practically impossible for this group to match last year’s staggering performance, but there’s still plenty of talent here, headlined by the excellent Brandon, meaning CMU should again have one of the league’s top defenses.

Midfielders

CMU’s midfield returns almost intact for the new season, but the one starter lost is a big one for the Chippewas. Claire Horton, like teammate Toth, started ever possible match for the club in her four years in Mount Pleasant and was superb in all four of her seasons with the club, perhaps saving the best for last in 2011, with two goals and five assists to go with All-Region Third Team honors. Horton spent much of her career as a defender but proved to be equally valuable last season in the midfield. Also gone is Haley Burtraw, one of the club’s reserves in midfield last season as a redshirt freshman.

Canadian senior Ashley Mejilla is the likely spearhead of the midfield this season after a fantastic junior campaign. Mejilla equaled her 2010 goal total with five strikes, including four game winners, while adding three assists to earn All-MAC First Team honors. Considering the club’s problems scoring goals at times last season, Mejilla’s offense could be priceless again this year. Also almost assured of a starting spot is junior Kaely Schlosser, who was another young star for the club as a rookie in 2010, with MAC All-Freshman Team and All-MAC Tournament Team honors to her name. Schlosser’s offense didn’t quite live up to her debut season last year, with the Grand Rapids product not scoring, but she’s still a solid starter with plenty of experience who could also deputize up front.

Senior Autumn Hawkins is another likely to feature in midfield this season despite struggling with injury last season. Hawkins started nine games early in the season and was leading the team with three goals but would miss the second half of the year. She’s another in a long line of former MAC All-Freshman Team selections, so the potential for a strong year is there. Tammy Long, a defensive type midfielder also began to come into her own late in the season last year, starting the last eight games of the season and could also be in line for major minutes. Adding depth are junior Tory Kinniard, one of the club’s top reserves for the past two seasons in a defensive midfield role, and sophomore Emily Cooksey, who scored in her first start against Evansville last season.

Freshmen always seem to find their way into CMU’s lineup, and it could be no different this season, with the likes of Christen Chiesa and Julia Wood among the most likely new Chippewas to feature in midfield this year. Despite losing Horton, this group still looks pretty strong, with Mejilla on course to another season as one of the league’s best in all likelihood.

Forwards

It’s not like CMU were awful on offense last season, finishing third in the MAC in league goals, but the Chippewas were still some ways behind the likes of Toledo and Western Michigan in the goals chart come season’s end. The club’s leading scorer ended up being Mejilla, with five goals, and considering she’s a midfielder, that’s a spot of worry for Stafford and co. Adding to the concerns is the loss of Chelsi Abbott to graduation. The Canadian youth international was looking like a star in the making after five goals in 2009 as a sophomore but then only combined for five more goals over the next two seasons, though she was a mainstay in the starting lineup for those two campaigns.

Likely to start up front this season is junior Jennifer Gassman, who broke into the starting lineup last year after playing much of her rookie year as one of CMU’s top forward options off the bench. Gassman would score three goals for the second straight year last season, also nabbing All-MAC Tournament Team honors come the end of the year. The Carmel native has been solid so far, but it remains to be seen if she can capably lead the line for CMU.

Much likely depends on the health of senior Laura Twidle. The Canadian was injured for almost all of last season, starting just twice and playing in just six games. This was a serious problem considering Twidle had been both an All-MAC First Team and All-MAC Tournament Team selection in 2010. Twidle combined for fifteen goals in her first two seasons and her loss last year was massive for the offense. A healthy and on form Twidle could mean trophies for Stafford’s club.

Also in the mix are seniors Samantha Brenz, who came back two make a few starts last year after redshirting in 2010, and Charlese McLemore, who scored the winning goal in the MAC Tournament final in 2010 but was used sparingly last season. Canadian junior Nicole Samuel was a MAC All-Freshman Team member in 2010 after four goals as a rookie but was another limited by injury last season, playing in just eight games with zero points to her name. She’ll join sophomore Laura Gosse in the battle for minutes, as the Canadian had three goals in her debut season last season, coming mostly off the bench. Much depends on Twidle. If she can rebound this season, Central Michigan could be one of the league’s top offensive teams. If not, the Chippewas will likely be in the middle of the pack again.

Outlook

Stafford enjoyed a good debut season with Central Michigan last year, but trophies are the name of the game in Mount Pleasant after the last half-decade of success, meaning the pressure will be on the second-year boss to deliver silverware to the club after missing on both fronts last year. Though the club loses two of the league’s best players in Toth and Horton, there’s still plenty of talent returning to the Chippewas in 2012. The defense probably isn’t going to be as dominant as 2011’s suffocating unit, but led by Brandon and the two-headed monster in goal, they should still be among the league’s best.

The offense is a little more concerning, as there weren’t any real top-notch strikers last season with Twidle being injured for much of the year. If she’s healthy, CMU becomes a whole different animal. With the likes of West Virginia, Penn State, Dayton, Marquette, and Texas A&M on the schedule, Stafford certainly isn’t taking it easy on his troops heading into MAC play this year. But that just means CMU will be battle tested come league play, and you wouldn’t write them off in pulling an upset against a more highly regarded opponent either. In any case, this CMU team looks pretty strong and will compete for silverware on both fronts again in the MAC this year.

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