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 | Wisconsin
Mid-Majors – Central Michigan | Denver | Florida Gulf Coast | Harvard | Illinois State | New Mexico | Rice | Richmond | UMass | 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
Texas…good lord, where to begin? A great chunk of this year’s postseason was consumed by the drama that engulfed Austin in the wake of the sacking of head coach Chris Petrucelli. To fully contextualize what happened in the Lone Star State this winter, you have to delve a little into the psyche of one of the great underachieving programs of the college soccer world. Of course, standards at Texas are as high as any athletic department in the nation, with Longhorns teams expected to be in the mix for national titles in every sport.
To say the Texas soccer team has been something of an ugly duckling in the usually powerful UT cadre of DI programs would be harsh but apropos. Texas has lagged far behind state rivals Texas A&M in the world of college soccer to this point and has even found itself fighting for headlines against conference rivals such as Oklahoma State. Texas Soccer has seemingly been charging uphill from the beginning of its existence, from coaching hires that haven’t quite worked out to their inhabitance of Mike A. Myers Stadium, a cavernous 20,000 seater that doubles as the university’s track facility and doesn’t exactly scream “atmosphere”.
Texas thought they had captured lightning in a bottle when hiring Dang Pibulvech to lead the Horns as they started their program in the mid-nineties. It looked an astute hire at first considering Pibulvech had put together some fantastic Colorado College teams in the eighties. Of course, it wasn’t the eighties any more, and warning signs should have been evident when Pibulvech managed only twenty-seven wins in three years at Washington before coming to Austin. One winning season in five years is a sure way to get the pink slip as a Longhorns coach, and Pibulvech was out the door after 1998.
The Horns wouldn’t play around with their second managerial appointment, bringing in Petrucelli who had that 1995 national title under his belt and had put together five consecutive twenty win seasons. The ex-Notre Dame coach built the Horns up gradually and brought home the program’s first major trophy in 2001 by winning the league title. That victory was blunted a bit by a first round exit in the NCAA Tournament, showing that the Longhorns still had a long way to go to reach the level of the elite.
It’s safe to say that Texas supporters probably didn’t think they’d still be chasing down the best in the nation a decade later. The Horns have never lifted another league title since that initial 2001 triumph and were early exits in the NCAA Tournament once again in 2002 and 2003. There was a mini-breakthrough in the middle of the decade as Texas first reached the Sweet Sixteen in 2004 and won back-to-back Big XII Tournament titles in 2006 and 2007 while also getting to the Sweet Sixteen in both of those campaigns.
But just when it seemed like Texas might be in a position to challenge Texas A&M for league supremacy, the Longhorns began to fade. 2008 saw Texas slip back to sixth in the league, make an early exit from the Big XII Tournament and fail to advance out of the opening weekend of the Big Dance for the first time since 2005. It would get even worse in 2009, with Texas being decimated by a rash of injuries and ineffective play. The Horns were losing to the likes of TCU, St. Mary’s and New Mexico out of the league while scrambling to make it into the Big XII Tournament in the league. Texas would finish the year at .500 and out of the RPI Top 100.
While many were perturbed about the Longhorns’ sudden slide towards irrelevance, Petrucelli’s job seemed safe for the moment entering into 2010. But it was clear that the former national title winning coach needed to right the ship in a hurry if we wanted to stay employed in Austin. 2010 certainly started out well, but the club would begin to show signs of trouble near the middle of the year as results began to slip. Then came the shocking news that the team’s leading offensive threat, Leah Fortune, had sensationally walked out on the team after a draw with Texas Tech.
Fortune, a well-traveled Brazilian youth international, had apparently seen her playing future down in Brazil instead of Texas and promptly bolted for South America, leaving her team in the lurch with a critical part of the schedule ahead. While Texas rallied, their newfound lack of cutting edge eventually caught up to them, and after finishing fifth in the league, the club slipped to a defeat to Oklahoma in the first round of the Big XII Tournament making for a nervous wait on Selection Monday. Texas did manage to make it in the field, but they were dumped out in embarrassing fashion by an unfancied James Madison side that made them look like a pub team at times in the first round defeat.
The knives began to come out against Petrucelli in the offseason, but the Texas supremo managed to keep his job ahead of what looked like a crucial 2011 season. In retrospect, blowing a 1-0 lead in the final twenty minutes to lose 3-1 to a rather pedestrian Loyola Marymount team was not the best of ways to open up the new season. Texas would spend a large chunk of the rest of the non-conference season doing their best to repair their reputation after that embarrassing capitulation. They succeeded for the most part too, winning six of seven, the only defeat in that span coming against future WCC champs San Diego.
Tellingly though, Texas would only beat one team that finished in the uRPI Top 100 in that stretch, leaving lingering doubts about the club going into the Big XII season. Results were about consistent what what’d you expect for a bubble team, with the team going 3-2-0 in their first five league games, not getting any big wins but not suffering any crushing losses either. A non-conference loss to San Diego State would hurt their at-large bid hopes though, and going winless in their final three league matches didn’t help matters either.
A draw with Oklahoma State in Stillwater would eventually prove crucial though to the Longhorns’ fate. Before Texas could worry about an at-large bid, they had to take care of business in the Big XII Tournament after finishing fifth in the league. Matched up against Texas Tech in the first round in what was essentially an NCAA Tournament elimination game, Texas held their nerve and prevailed 1-0. The Horns would face Oklahoma State in the semi-finals and stymied the Cowgirls for much of the contest once more but would concede late in extra time to fall, 1-0.
Despite appearing to be squarely on the bubble, Texas would squeeze into the field of sixty-four and were drawn against SEC champs South Carolina in the opening round. Texas gave Carolina all they could handle but found themselves unable to recover from conceding early in the first half and saw their season end after a 1-0 defeat.
The axe fell in early December on Petrucelli, and then the madness began in earnest. With near limitless cash to pursue anyone their heart desired, Texas looked set to try and go after a big name appointment to fill the void and revive the laboring program. But to largely incredulous reactions from the college soccer world and many Longhorn supporters, Texas tabbed Tennessee head coach Angela Kelly as the new head of the program.
Much was written about the hiring which tended to polarize opinion amongst onlookers. Critics were unimpressed with Kelly’s middling record recently with the Lady Vols, including an embarrassing NCAA Tournament defeat in 2011 and a general trend of postseason disappointment in Knoxville in recent seasons. Fans more positive about the hire argued that Kelly had nowhere near the resources nor the allure that the University of Texas brand provides out at the “other” UT and that Kelly could excel with the might of the Longhorns’ Athletic Department behind her.
Amidst all the tongue wagging and argument over the latest hire in Austin came a stark reminder about perspective in early February when senior Kylie Doniak was critically injured in a hit-and-run accident by a drunk driver in Austin. Despite a litany of serious injuries, Doniak would survive the incident and has begun the long road to recovery back in California. A world away in the Lone Star State, Doniak’s Texas teammates begin a new odyssey under new leadership. The eyes of Texas and indeed of the college soccer world will be on Kelly as she tries to justify her hiring into one of the most coveted positions in all the land.
Kelly doesn’t quite start from scratch in Austin this season, but she might only be a few steps from that unwanted distinction after an exodus of talent from the Longhorns this offseason. Nine of the fourteen players that started multiple games last season ended up leaving the program before the 2012 season. While some of those were invariably down to graduation, arguably the club’s top three players, goalkeeper Alexa Gaul (Boston College), midfielder Lexi Harris (unknown), and defender Nina Frausing Pedersen (Cal), all beat a hasty retreat not soon after the coaching change.
It’s not a total write-off this season in Austin though. Joint leading scorer Kristin Cummins does return after five goals a season ago, as does fellow senior Hannah Higgins, who led the club with eight assists. Kelly also brings in a fantastic Top-10 calibre recruiting class to Austin this season which should provide an immediate shot in the arm as the Longhorns try to build their talent base back up. But with just six upperclassmen, this club is still very, very young going into 2012, and mighty high expectations that come with the territory in Austin will likely have to be tempered going into a season where growing pains have to be expected.
Losing Gaul, a senior to be, isn’t big in the long-term, but it could loom very large in the short-term this season for the Longhorns. In large part, that’s down to the fact that Texas is losing from their ranks an All-American level goalkeeper with blinding reflexes, a big leg, and great leadership ability. While Texas’ form may have been erratic during her tenure, the Longhorns were in almost every game with her between the pipes.
There’s good and bad news for Texas in goal this season. The good news is that the club managed to sign freshman Abby Smith, the second best goalkeeper in this class in the eyes of many behind UNC signee Bryane Heaberlin. Smith has featured at just about every level in the U.S. youth setup and will likely deputize for Heaberlin in the U20 team at the U20 World Cup in Japan this Fall. And therein lies the problem for Kelly and the Horns. While Smith will likely continue Texas’ long lineage of fantastic keepers, her likely absence for the first month of the season could be a crippling blow.
That in large part is down to the very thin depth behind her. Sophomore Ava Vogel was a very late addition to last year’s roster and ended up playing just twenty-one minutes as a rookie behind Gaul, and the Washington native is almost entirely untested at this level. Walk-on Alejandra Eljuri comes from the university’s powerful club team, but the Cedar Park native is an unknown commodity at DI level. Smith should be a fine addition to the ranks when she returns in September, but things could get very rocky before then, especially given some of the club’s opponents in non-conference play.
Given the change in goal and the uncertainty of the situation at the beginning of the season, Texas’ backline will have to be on top of their game for the team to get off to the quick start it likely needs to defy the odds and return to the NCAA Tournament. With the losses in quality and quantity on the backline though, Kelly doesn’t face an easy task in molding this into a strong group.
Pedersen is the biggest loss, as the Danish youth international had shown her true quality in two seasons in Austin and was cementing her place as one of the league’s best defenders last season despite missing a handful of games through injury. Pedersen was great in defense but no slouch going forward either, with two goals and three assists as a sophomore last year.
Another big loss is captain Lucy Keith, who began her career as a tall, gangly project from a small Texas high school who shifted from midfielder to center-back as a junior. It ended up working a treat, as Keith started every game for the club last year, barely coming off the pitch and proving to be a threat in the air with her size.
The club loses yet another starter with the graduation of Amanda Lisberger, a reserve for much of her career at Texas before 2011 who ended up starting the first eleven games in defense. She’d be lost for the year in late September through injury though but is still another experienced player lost for the Longhorns. Making matters worse is the loss of Leah Payne, one of the club’s top reserves in defense last year.
As you might expect from the above, it’s a bit of a skeleton crew for Texas as far as defensive returnees are concerned. One of the few constants on a defense that struggled with injuries at times last season was sophomore Julie Arnold. One of many highly touted youngsters from last season’s excellent recruiting class, Arnold proved herself to be a quick study, starting every match in defense as a rookie. Even though she’s still just a sophomore, that experience could prove vital as Kelly tries to piece together a rearguard around her.
The only other returnee from last season with solid starting experience is fellow sophomore Whitney Jaynes, another well regarded recruit coming into Austin who ended up starting ten games as a rookie for the club. Jaynes, like Arnold, will have to be one of this very young defense’s leaders this season given her experience from last season. Senior Kara Hoffman and sophomore Cierra Grubs return as well, but both were used sparingly off the bench last season, and a jump to major minutes for either looks unlikely.
With that in mind, Texas will likely be leaning heavily on newcomers to help fortify the club’s rearguard in the short-term. Canadian Emilie Campbell might not come in with as many plaudits as her sister, but she is still a U17 international with every chance of stepping right into the starting lineup for Kelly’s club in 2012. Also in with a chance of making an immediate impact are Brinkley Field, a member of the 2010 USYS National Champion Solar SC club at U16 level, as well as Ali Schmalz, an Illinois native with regional ODP experience. The experience Arnold and Jaynes picked up last season will be invaluable, but this group is still enormously green and could be taught some rough lessons by Texas’ toughest opponents this year.
Relatively speaking, the Texas midfield was generally the most stable part of the club last season and is likely to be again despite the loss of a few players. Sophomore Lexi Harris never really hit the levels of stardom some might have anticipated coming into Austin, but the Plano native was still one of the league’s top midfielders during her two-year stay with the club. After a bit of a muted season offensively to open up her college career, Harris rebounded last season with four goals, third most on the team.
Her loss hurts, and so does the departure of freshman Clarissa Wedemeyer. Signing Wedemeyer ahead of the 2011 season had looked a real coup for the Longhorns, with the U17 international having raked in no end of plaudits in her club career before heading to Austin. Wedemeyer’s rookie season was a bust though, as she missed most of the season through injury and then was only able to ease her way back into action in four starts for the club. Considering she was supposed to be a potential cornerstone for the midfield, her loss is a big one for the Horns to overcome.
A pair of starters do return for Texas in midfield this season though. Senior Kristin Cummins tied for the team lead in goals with five last season, repeating her haul from 2010 and will be looking to close out her Longhorns career as a four-year starter. Cummins’ offensive ability could be big for Texas this season given the questions in attack. Also returning is Brooke Gilbert, a U18 international who ended up starting every match for the Horns last season and earned All-Big XII Newcomer Team honors at the end of the season. Gilbert’s quite the talent and figures to be one of the club’s centerpieces for the foreseeable future as Kelly tries to build a winning midfield in Austin.
It gets dicier from that point on for the Horns though. Houston transfer Sharis Lachappelle is a creative, physical midfielder who happens to be good in the air and showed great potential with Houston as a freshman last season, with three goals and three assists to her name. It’s a big jump in class to the Big XII though, and how quickly she acclimates could be critical for Texas.
Canadian Chantale Campbell joins her sister in coming to the Longhorns this season and figures to play a big role immediately for the club. Campbell has been a veteran of the Canadian U17 team’s recent exploits, including the 2010 U17 World Cup journey and looks another bright prospect being turned out from up north. One of the best Canadian imports to the college ranks this season, Campbell has every chance of winning a starting role right away. Another who could force her way into major minutes early into her collegiate career is freshman Lindsey Meyer. A product of the Dallas Texans club, Meyer has been a late bloomer in ECNL action, impressing recently for the powerhouse club.
Despite some big losses, this group does look better equipped to cope than some of the other units Kelly inherits. Cummins is a solid veteran, while Gilbert’s a great cornerstone for the future. The newcomers look strong as well, meaning the midfield may be stronger than some anticipate in Austin.
Injuries took their toll on this group last year, and attrition figures to do much the same going into the new campaign. Before Doniak’s horrible ordeal after the season, the Californian had inspired on the pitch, beginning the season in some style with five goals and three assists in the club’s first seven matches. A serious knee injury would force Doniak out of action for four games before she battled on bravely with a knee brace, far from full strength but still influential, for the rest of the year.
Injuries also effectively ended the star-crossed collegiate career of Taylor Knaack. Though Knaack didn’t quite find stardom in her one season in Austin, she was still quite effective in the attack for the Longhorns until being cut down in mid-October after a season with three goals and five assists. Another big loss is junior Vanessa Ibewuike, a transfer from Purdue who was a tremendously exciting addition to the club and was a threat for something spectacular every time she touched the ball. Starting thirteen matches and finishing with three goals and five assists, the Plano native could’ve rounded into a big-time threat for the Horns but is another loss that must be coped with by Kelly and co. Making matters worse is the loss of a little more depth with the graduation of Stacey-Ann Smith, a reserve with blazing speed, as evidenced by her also being a member of Texas’ track team.
The surest thing up front this season looks like senior Hannah Higgins, who managed to stay healthy last season and start every match in the frontline for the Horns. Higgins led the club in assists with eight last season, including one in four straight games at one point. Higgins hasn’t shown she’s an explosive scorer though, with just three goals each of the past two seasons, and the veteran wore down noticeably last year, being held without a point in the club’s final eight games.
Scoring depth behind her is problematic to say the least. Junior Gabby Zarnegar probably has the most experience, having started a bit as a freshman before coming off the bench all of last season. Zarnegar was of little effect in front of goal in 2011 though, with just one goal, one assist, and nine shots to her name. Sophomore Allison Smith came into Austin with a fair degree of plaudits but also struggled for form in front of goal last year, with just one goal, though she still has plenty of potential to build on. Junior Taylor Johnson featured little a season after transferring from JUCO Navarro College but may be forced into the rotation out of necessity this season.
More than likely though, the Horns will be looking to reap immediate dividends from prized recruit Kelsey Shimmick. Another member of the powerhouse Dallas Texans club, Shimmick comes to Austin with extensive regional ODP experience and a boatload of potential, meaning starting minutes could be within her grasp early enough. On the whole though, this group appears to lack a distinct cutting edge in front of goal, meaning the Horns could be in for a season of struggle offensively unless a breakout star emerges.
It’s certainly going to be an interesting season in Austin at the very least given the coaching change and the massive upheaval in playing personnel in the offseason. With a few exceptions, Kelly’s first Texas squad is going to be very, very young, especially in goal and in defense, which should pay off down the line in a few years but could make for some heartburn inducing moments in the first year of the new regime. The situation in goal is especially worrisome for the first month of the season, where the club will likely be without the services of Smith.
Going forward, Texas actually looks pretty solid in midfield, even if depth isn’t the best on paper. But the Horns also look like having some serious problems scoring if the forwards coming back can’t make a quantum leap and if Shimmick can’t come in and immediately produce. There’s enough young talent to keep Texas from the basement in the Big XII in all likelihood, but lower-mid table is probably the most the Horns can expect this season, with an NCAA Tournament bid looking like a longshot at best.