ACC – Clemson
Big XII – Iowa State | Oklahoma | TCU | Texas | 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
One time masters of the OVC, Samford ascended to the role of top dogs in the Southern Conference after doing the double last season. Todd Yelton’s Bulldogs have scarcely skipped a beat following the conference move and proved themselves to be a class apart last season after laying waste to their SoCon rivals in impressive fashion. Yelton’s hard nosed, defensively stout team has long been a mid-major force in the region and can lay claim to usually being more than a match for the state’s two more well known schools in Auburn and Alabama.
Samford began to dominate the Ohio Valley Conference as soon as they moved over from the Atlantic Sun after the 2002 season, winning the league title at the first time of asking and racking up four straight league championships from 2003-2006. 2005 was a high point for the Bulldogs as they did the double in the OVC before advancing to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in their first appearance in the Big Dance after a shootout win over SEC side Vanderbilt. Samford would struggle a bit in the postseason though as the 2005 OVC Tournament was the team’s only postseason trophy, with the Bulldogs not able to get to the NCAA Tournament in any season besides 2005 in that four year title run.
However, Samford bucked the trend of recent history by claiming an at-large bid to the Big Dance in 2007, an almost unheard of feat in a conference as small as the OVC. The Bulldogs would hit the ground running in their new league in 2008, putting together third place and second place finishes in their first two seasons in the SoCon but still failing to maintain peak form in the postseason, falling in the SoCon Tournament semi-finals in both seasons. 2009 held an especially frustrating end to the Bulldogs’ season as they had only lost one game all season and had beaten eventual league champs UNC Greensboro on the road.
A few draws too many though had left Samford on the wrong side of the bubble come season’s end and ensured that the Bulldogs would have to wait until 2010 to try and pick up the program’s first NCAA Tournament bid as a member of the Southern Conference. 13-6-3 would be pretty good for most mid-majors, but Samford would have to settle for being the best of the rest in the SoCon once again as UNC Greensboro proved to be a world apart from the rest of the conference in 2010, beating Samford twice en route to the double. The Bulldogs might have gotten some burn from the selection committee for the NCAA Tournament had they delivered in some key non-conference games, but Samford came up frustratingly short in all their major tests before SoCon play.
With Greensboro entering 2011 in a bit of upheaval, it looked like Samford would have their best chance at lifting a major trophy for the first time in half a decade. The beginning of the new season was suspiciously frustrating for Yelton’s side though, as after an opening day win over Belmont, Samford won just one of their next seven matches. The club saw its slim at-large bid hopes extinguished before league play started as they were unable to topple SEC sides Alabama, Auburn, and Vanderbilt while also falling at the hands of Memphis. Drawing the league opener to Elon only compounded worries in Birmingham as the club looked to be in a slump.
A win over title rivals UNC Greensboro was all that was needed to kickstart the season though. It was the first win of a ten match unbeaten streak through the end of the regular season that saw Samford storm to the title on the back of seven straight wins to close out the SoCon season. It was more efficient than explosive, but Samford had still crushed their conference rivals with a suffocating defense en route to winning the title by a staggering seven points. It would’ve gone for naught had Samford not emerged from the SoCon Tournament victorious though. They certainly didn’t take the easy path though, huffing and puffing past Western Carolina in the opening round before getting a late, late winner in the semi-finals against Furman with less than two minutes to play in extra time.
Samford would need late drama again to lift the SoCon Tournament title, scoring the final’s only goal against College of Charleston in the eighty-eighth minute of play. They may have finished the season on a roll, but Samford got no favors from the selection committee, being tossed to the lions in the first round of the Big Dance against Florida State. Despite an unbelievable display of goalkeeping from Alyssa Whitehead, the Seminoles were scarcely troubled and flexed their muscle in a 2-0 win. But with the double in hand, it’s still safe to say that Samford enjoyed a very successful 2011 campaign. Now the challenge is staying on top of the league while figuring out a way to challenge some of the bigger guns regionally that the Bulldogs have struggled to upset in recent years.
Any doubts over the Bulldogs’ bite in defense got answered emphatically last year as Samford were their usually stingy selves, conceding less than a goal a game throughout. While Samford were far from the best club in the SoCon going forward, they were without peer in defense. Consider that the Bulldogs gave up just five goals in eleven league goals. That’s half that of the second stingiest side, UNC Greensboro, who gave up ten goals in the same eleven games. It was made more impressive by the club going into last season having had to replace two of the club’s best defenders.
While Samford has tended to reload in defense in recent seasons, it could be more difficult this year after the graduation of senior keeper Alyssa Whitehead. A 6’3″ colossus in goal, Whitehead was a major force for Samford and now plies her trade professionally in Europe. Throughout the rest of the squad, it’s a good news, bad news situation, with the club returning eight of eleven starters. The problem is besides Whitehead, one of the other losses is Sarah Wilkinson, who just happened to be the club’s leading scorer by some distance last season, notching eight goals, twice as many as any of her teammates. While Samford’s historically tenacious defense should give them a chance to keep winning trophies, it could be a much harder road if Wilkinson’s offense isn’t replaced.
Whitehead entered the program as a rough around the edges project and exited as a club legend, dominating for the better part of four years in Birmingham. The Mississippi native was, as you might expect, a force in the air with a strong kicking game to boot. Finishing out her career with her second All-SoCon First Team honor, Whitehead now plies her trade for Umea Sodra in Sweden.
Replacing such a force in goal is an unenviable task, but Yelton will have three keepers to choose from to fill the void this season. Sophomore Julia Wright has the smallest of advantages in experience, with just a little more than nine minutes of action last season in an easy win over Wofford. The other returning goalkeeper is sophomore Melissa Montgomery, who did not see action last season. The favorite for the starting job might just be a rookie though. Jessica Perry was named to the USYS National Championship Best XI in 2011 for St. Louis Scott Gallagher, and obviously a player with such high plaudits will be in the mix for big minutes right away. No matter who steps in, it doesn’t figure to be easy to replace such a figurehead like Whitehead overnight.
The traditionally defense first Samford squad should be in good hands again this year, with the entire formidable starting rearguard from last year set to return intact. Senior Sabbath McKiernan-Allen looks like the group’s leading light this year, one season removed from a star turn that saw her named All-SoCon First Team. A budding prospect after an impressive rookie season, McKiernan-Allen would be cut down by injury in 2010, striking a severe blow against Samford’s hopes that year. The Indianapolis native would be unfazed last year though, turning into one of the league’s best defenders and leading the rearguard while barely leaving the pitch all season.
The veteran should have a talented cast to work with this year as well. Fellow senior Adrianne Mancino broke into the starting lineup full-time as a sophomore and has featured ever since, starting all but one match last season. Mancino is also a formidable threat going forward, scoring three goals and adding three assists last year. Those goals were certainly clutch, as all three went down as game winners for the Bulldogs last season. Junior Mary Grabowsky was a sparsely used reserve as a rookie but ended up stepping into the starting lineup more often than not last year with seventeen starts as a sophomore. Towering sophomore Katie Danehy was thrown into the fire as a rookie and ended up doing quite nicely for herself, starting every match and finishing third on the club in total minutes played.
Options in depth aren’t well defined. Sophomore Lindsey Hansen made three starts as a rookie last year and came off the bench in most of Samford’s other games, but other reserve spots are likely to be filled by a new crop of rookies. Though depth doesn’t look to be the best, Samford still returns their entire starting backline from the league’s best unit last year and has a great chance of being on top of the defensive charts in the SoCon again this year.
While the Bulldogs do return a bulk of their starting experience from last season, they do have to replace a pair of experienced campaigners from last year’s double winning side. After missing three seasons due to ACL injuries, Lindsay Matern was able to stay healthy for her junior and senior seasons and became a solid contributor for Samford. Last season, Matern would end up starting thirteen games for the club in the middle of the park and chipped in with a few goals, including the winner against Chattanooga in the league. Another plagued by injuries in her collegiate career was departed senior Shannon Weathington, who missed much of two seasons before rebounding last year to be one of the club’s top reserves while also taking the field for four starts.
Junior Michelle Moll looks to be the headliner amongst the returnees this season. The Indiana native made a name for herself as a rookie with All-SoCon Tournament Team honors before impressing greatly in sixteen starts last season en route to All-SoCon First Team honors. Moll would finish second on the team in scoring despite missing the club’s first two games, ending up with four goals, including the crucial game winner against league rivals UNC Greensboro. Yelton and the Bulldogs will also be hoping for more from sophomore Joy Grove, the club’s top recruit last season, who didn’t disappoint as a rookie. Grove won SoCon All-Freshman Team honors while starting fifteen matches and logging three goals and two assists on the season in a fine debut campaign.
Canadian attacking midfielder Shanika Thomas was an instant fixture in the starting lineup as a rookie in 2010 and retained that role last year, starting every match for the club. A tireless workhorse, Thomas was outstanding in the SoCon Tournament, earning Most Outstanding Player designation for her performances during Samford’s triumph in claiming the league’s auto bid. Norway’s Trine Taule looked like a potential star after her freshman season, which featured a nine goal outburst and All-Freshman Team honors at the end of the year. Taule would start twenty games last year and logged plenty of minutes but saw her goals total dip to just two, though she did lead the club with five assists. Taule is also capable up front, where she might be deployed this year given the questions in front of goal.
Helping to fortify the ranks will be a pair of big conference transfers. Ariane Lukens comes to Birmingham from South Carolina, where she was one of the SEC champions’ top reserves, racking up two goals and two assists as a rookie. Lukens will probably be used in a defensive midfield role though, being counted on to keep possession and be dangerous on set pieces. Junior Jordan Johnson, from Florida State, also joins up and will be counted on to inject a little verve into the midfield going forward. Despite the loss of a few experienced campaigners, there’s still plenty of quality on hand, meaning this will again be one of the league’s top units.
Replacing Wilkinson could be a bit of a bear considering that the Texan was far and away the club’s top scorer last season. The gritty poacher leaves the Bulldogs after finishing her career with back-to-back All-SoCon First Team nods and those eight goals last season. Wilkinson was generally much better early last year than late, with five goals in the club’s first ten before just three in her final twelve, but the veteran made two of those late goals game winners, and leaves with twelve career game winning goals. Further eating into the club’s depth is the loss of sophomore reserve Katie Proud, who was one of the team’s top forward options off the bench last year.
Of the returnees, senior Kaley Blanton returns with the most experience. A one-time defender who was switched to the frontline when injuries struck in 2010, Blanton has stuck up front, starting seven matches last season and coming off the bench in most others. The veteran only scored once though in 2011, and it remains to be seen how she’ll respond if chosen to lead the line. A likely candidate to join her up front is sophomore Brittany Hoffman, who won SoCon All-Freshman Team honors last year despite starting just nine matches. She made the most of that time though, adding two goals and three assists to the cause, successfully completing a comeback after her injury marred 2010 season.
Sophomore Amanda Abbott scored the game winner against Belmont last season as Samford christened their new stadium and finished with three goals while mostly coming off the bench as a rookie and should also get auditioned for a starting spot up front this season. While Taule could also be asked to help fill the scoring need up front, many eyes might be on rookie McKenzie Thomas, who is one of the club’s top recruits this season. An energetic and powerful forward, Thomas could easily find herself in the starting lineup given the lack of proven top options up top. This unit has potential but still looks like one of the clear weak points of the Bulldogs coming into the new campaign.
Fresh off their most successful season in some time, Samford will be equally hungry to keep the trophies rolling into Birmingham this season. While the loss of Whitehead is a big blow, the Bulldogs generally do quite well for themselves with goalkeepers and do return their backline intact from last season, so any drop off from the defense will likely be minimal. While the backline and midfield look quite stout, there are questions over whether the club has enough firepower going forward. The club isn’t really flush with returning goalscorers after Wilkinson’s departure though, meaning Yelton and co. will be under pressure to find offense quickly if Samford are to retain their SoCon crowns.
The Bulldogs weren’t a terribly deep team last season either, using just seventeen players extensively. They should be a little more comfortable this year with numbers but will have to avoid the injury bug. Still, this is a program that wins and keeps on winning, and you sense that it’s going to take a Herculean effort to knock them off their perch in the league this season.