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 | Samford | UMass | Utah State | Western Michigan
Pac-12 – Arizona | Arizona State | Colorado | Oregon | Utah | Washington | Washington State
SEC – Arkansas | Mississippi State | Ole Miss | Vanderbilt
WCC – Gonzaga | Loyola Marymount | San Francisco
Evanston likely felt nothing like heaven at the end of an uncomfortable 2011 season for Northwestern soccer. After a horrific season, the Wildcats were all but forced to part ways with a club legend in her playing days, as it was clearly time for Stephanie Foster, once the school’s all-time leading scorer, to depart. Ironically, Foster’s Wildcats were perhaps known most in 2011 for their blunt edge in front of goal, scoring just thirteen times in nineteen matches while scoring just five goals in the league. It’s hard to not get the feeling that this program should be doing much better right now. Besides the excellent academic profile, Northwestern soccer enjoys one of the greatest views in college soccer at majestic Lakeside Field.
The soccer hasn’t matched the scenery recently though. The brief glory years of the program under Marcia McDermott in the late nineties where the team reached the Elite Eight in one of their two NCAA Tournament Appearances have long since receded, leaving a team desperately searching for a foothold in the Big Ten. The McDermott reign flamed out spectacularly after that high water mark, and her replacement in 2001, Jenny Haigh, was unable to drive the Wildcats to more than one winning season in five years at the helm. With Northwestern treading water, the Wildcats turned to Foster, who left Northwestern as the team’s all-time scoring leader (she’s since been overtaken by Kelsey Hans).
After a tough acclimation period in her first season, Foster did well to lead Northwestern towards the edge of the NCAA Tournament bubble in 2007 with the team’s first winning season since 2004. The season after, Northwestern climbed to a fifth place tie in the league, also the team’s best league finish since 2004. The program has been on a backwards slide since though, dropping to seventh in the league and back to a losing record in 2009. 2010 brought the team’s shocking win over UCLA early in the season, but the momentum would fizzle out in the end, the club sliding to eighth in the league, well out of the NCAA Tournament picture.
The new season began with it raining goals at the wrong end of the pitch, with Northwestern conceding sixteen in their first six matches, all defeats. Granted, five of those losses came by just a single goal, but losses for a Big Ten program to clubs like Cincinnati, St. Mary’s (CA), and Illinois State are devastating, no matter the manner. The team got into the win column finally with a 3-0 pasting of minnows Loyola (Ill.) but found themselves sliding down the slippery slope to the league basement not soon after. The club lost its first three Big Ten matches by multiple goals and would lose their first five overall before beating Michigan in Ann Arbor. It’d be the team’s only Big Ten win of the year and just one of two overall.
The Wildcats would finish out the season dead last in the league but ludicrously earned a place in the Big Ten Tournament as hosts. They wouldn’t pull off a miracle, being beaten soundly by Penn State in the quarterfinals. Foster had to go, and go she did soon after the season. The choice of replacement was a surprise to many. A good surprise.
Michael Moynihan had built a mid-major juggernaut at Wisconsin-Milwaukee and probably reasoned that it was as good a time as any to go considering the program likely had hit its ceiling after the four-year goalscoring rampage of Sarah Hagen. The Panthers couldn’t get past the second round of the NCAA Tournament though, and with all due respect to Moynihan’s former employers, the upside in Evanston is just a wee bit higher.
How Moynihan might wish he had a couple of Hagen’s ilk this season. Or perhaps many of the Panthers’ stars at his disposal on a Northwestern club that looked painfully toothless in front of goal last year. The Wildcats were the worst team in the league in front of goal with just five scored in the league, but the defense wasn’t exactly helpful to their cause either. Northwestern gave up over two goals a game both overall and in Big Ten play, with the league’s second worst defense, better than only Indiana at the end of the season.
Evanston needs a major remodeling job, so it’s perhaps a very good thing that the Wildcats’ recruiting has been so strong as of late. The last class Foster officially signed brought some impressive results last season, even in lost season, with half the starting lineup at times being manned by rookies. There are more young, talented prospects on their way in this season, and considering last season’s results, the newcomers should have every chance to shine right away in 2012.
Northwestern should at least be in good shape between the pipes for 2012 and beyond with the return of sophomore Anna Cassell. A U17 youth international coming into Evanston and a very highly touted prospect, Cassell was expected to win the starting job straight away and obliged, starting he club’s first eleven games. It was a trial by fire in large part though, and Cassell ended up being spared the barrage for four of the club’s league games.
Canadian junior Sam Hatfield stepped in for the rookie, starting four matches after sitting out all of her freshman season. She seems to be a clear second choice though, albeit one that the club is likely happy got some starting experience last season. If she gets some support from her backline, Cassell could grow into one of the league’s best. The new coaching staff will be hoping that her confidence hasn’t been damaged though by a season that saw her finish with a GAA above 2.00.
A defense which was victimized early and often by opponents last season has a chance to take a nice step forward this season with most of the core returning, along with the infusion of some prime rookie talent. The club does lose fifth-year senior Alison Schneeman, who broke into the starting lineup in 2010 as a junior and held down a starting role again last season, starting fourteen games for the Wildcats. Depth players Nicole Duller, a one-time Big Ten All-Freshman selection, and Sarah Sroka, who saw eleven games of action after barely playing for two seasons, also depart.
Northwestern supporters shouldn’t fret though, because the club does return a trio of starters. The veteran presence of the group is senior Briana Westlund, a former Big Ten All-Freshman Team honoree in 2009 who has held things down in the middle for three seasons, making fifty-five starts for the club. She’ll be expected to help guide along a group that still has a lot of youth on it. Junior Nicole Jewell was ever-present last season, the only player to start every match in 2011, also leading the club in minutes. Jewell was named to the Big Ten All-Tournament Team last season and should also be right in the starting mix for the next two years.
Jackie Alyinovich was one of the more unheralded rookies in Northwestern’s 2011 class but instead came in and started eighteen matches last season and could be a diamond in the rough for the Wildcats. Sophomore KK Barr returns to add depth after seeing time in eight games with two starts last year.
The club makes some big freshman additions, with the highlight likely being Albertson Fury product Margo McGinty, a current member of the U.S. U-18 national team pool and a star in ECNL play that could be a lynchpin for years to come. Natalie Cikos, another Albertson Fury member also happens to be a member of the full Croatian National Team and will look to put her international experience to use on Northwestern’s backline as well. Finally, the team adds Jennifer Korn, whose NSA Premier club won the 2011 USYS National Title in the U17 age group. With a potent mix of experience and promising talent, this group could make some significant strides forward this year.
Much as is the case with the defense, the midfield returns mostly intact, with the exception of having to replace one starter. Jill Dunn might not be easy to replace though, the Naperville native having been a three-year starter who enjoyed a bumper 2010 when she scored a pair of goals and added three assists. She’d start sixteen games and knock in two more goals as a senior, and her experience will be difficult to replace.
Even more so when you consider that the veteran of the returning group is junior Julie Sierks, and her likely teammates in midfield are almost assuredly going to be sophomores and/or freshmen. Sierks had four assists as a rookie, raising hopes for her second season in Evanston. Though she did end up starting fourteen games as a sophomore, she managed just a single point, with an assist against St. Mary’s (CA) in early September. Stat sheet contributions will be secondary this year to experience though, as she tries to marshall a young midfield.
A trio of sophomores will be looking to retain their starting places this season. Sami Schrakamp made an immediate impact with three assists in sixteen starts to lead the team, though she didn’t log one after mid-September. Georgia Waddle was arguably the most heralded of the midfield recruits and locked down a starting role for most of the year as well, being in the first XI twelve times and still has plenty of upside to grow into. Finally, Niki Sebo returns after seventeen starts as a freshman, with the Downers Grove product having logged the equalizer in the draw with Wisconsin as a rookie. After missing all of last season, senior Meredith Finsand could also return to add some depth to the midfield.
The returnees aren’t guaranteed anything though, because two more talented freshmen join the midfield battle for Northwestern. Suzanne Malherbe and Nandi Mehta starred in ECNL play for Arsenal FC and Stars of Massachusetts respectively and will fancy their chances at major minutes right off the bat. This group is packed with young, promising talent that could form a very solid Big Ten midfield when all is said and done. Now it’s just a matter of developing all that talent post haste for Moynihan.
Perhaps the biggest concern for the Wildcats, other than generally how young the team is, is where the goals are going to come from. Northwestern found itself woefully outgunned most of the time last season. The Wildcats also lose a starter and some depth from their cache of attackers, so with recruiting seemingly focused elsewhere this season, it’ll mostly be the same cast of characters trying to kickstart the attack into life this year. Emily Langston departs after a career that spanned sixty-three starts for the club, though she was not terribly prolific. Langston did however score in back-to-back games against Cincinnati and Dayton as a senior, though the goals dried up soon after. Reserves Caroline Dagley and Katie Doyle also depart, meaning this group could be hurting a bit for depth.
Without a doubt, the leading contender for goals going into the new year will be junior Kate Allen, who scored six goals as a rookie, including three game winners, and was a Big Ten All-Freshman Team selection. Allen would nearly match that total with five last year, including two against St. Mary’s (CA), which was a minor miracle considering the lack of support she got from her attacking teammates. Junior Bo Podkopacz is the likeliest of the other returnees to break into the lineup after being a top reserve for two seasons. Podkopacz has only scored one time in two seasons thus far, so she’s far from a sure bet in front of goal.
There were very high hopes when junior Natalie Lagunas, a Mexican U20 international, came to the program before the 2010 season, with the hope being that she’d help fuel the attack. Instead, she’s failed to produce on the pitch, with five shots and one goal in two seasons, having also played in just six games off the bench last year. She’ll be in a battle with sophomore Katie Landgrebe, who saw minutes in fifteen games last year, for major minutes in the attack. Allen’s not a bad weapon to have, but she’s not going to be able to carry an entire offense on her shoulders. That could spell trouble if Moynihan can’t find another source for goals this year.
Nothing short of soccer royalty at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Moynihan probably wasn’t going to leave unless the perfect opportunity arose. While Northwestern and ‘perfect’ usually don’t end up in the same sentence in a soccer context, you get the sense there’s a whole lot of untapped potential waiting to be brought to the surface by the right coach. The past two recruiting classes in particular have nothing but upside, and Moynihan will fancy his odds of making something happen results-wise over the next few seasons if he can develop that talent.
The learning curve in a league like the Big Ten is steep though, meaning this group is likely to take some hard knocks this year while the youngsters learn. In particular, the lack of firepower besides Allen is worrisome, but the potential around her means this club might just leap up and surprise a team or two in the league this year. The top seven and a spot in the postseason might have to wait until 2013 however.