AWK’s 2012 NCAA Soccer Preview – Alabama – Rising Tide

Molly Atherton

Alabama's Molly Atherton Hopes To Be Pulling The Strings for An NCAA Tournament Team in 2012

Preview Index

General | Conference Realignment Breakdown | Final 2012 Recruiting Class Rankings | Early 2013/2014 Recruiting Class Rankings | Coaching Changes

Big Sky | DI Independents | Great West | SWAC

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 | Northwestern | 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

There are goals and games that change programs, and Alabama was privy to both last season. While the Crimson Tide’s 2011 season will likely not soon be forgotten on the Capstone, Ashley Willis’ eighty-eighth minute winner against heated rivals Auburn may well go down as the most important goal in the history of Alabama soccer to this point. You have to rewind a bit to realize just how big of a monkey the Tide threw off their back with that golazo from Willis. Head coach Todd Bramble inherited a team that had largely been forgotten about in the SEC after the eccentric Don Staley had turned the Tide into a reputable team in the formative years of the league as a soccer conference.

But when the rest of the SEC caught up and started moving forward, Alabama spun its wheels until a change was made in 2008 with Bramble coming in from Clemson. Most thought it a curious move, perhaps even a lateral one career-wise for the ex-Tiger boss, but in any event, the shakeup at the top had an immediate effect as Alabama qualified for its first SEC Tournament since 2004 in Bramble’s first year at the helm. But second season hit hard in 2009 with Bama sliding back to a 6-11-1 mark and out of the SEC Tournament once again.

2010 brought one of the cruelest ends to a team’s season in the history of the SEC, or perhaps any conference for that matter. The Crimson Tide were one of a gaggle of SEC teams clawing for one of the last spots in the SEC Tournament on a wild and chaotic final day of the regular season. The permutations were endless, but the Crimson Tide badly needed a win at deadly rivals Auburn, a team that had Bama’s number over recent years. That a win could possibly knock the Tigers out of the SEC Tournament picture only made things sweeter for Bramble’s side.

The Tide looked to be on their way to a shock win as well after an early first half goal held up deep into the second half despite an unyielding wave of pressure from the home side. But with less than a minute to play, Alabama was called for a foul, letting Tiger superstar Katy Frierson step up and drive in a free kick that was headed in, equalizing and stunning the Crimson Tide faithful. The Tigers would score in the first half of extra time to bring Bama’s season to a crushing end. That it had come to such an end had partially been the Tide’s fault, as they had lost their last six in the league after starting so brightly in league play.

Bad fortune or no, Bramble and co. likely were beginning to feel the pressure to get the Tide back in the postseason entering into 2011. There’d be tentative signs of improvement early on in non-conference play, with Alabama beating the likes of Samford and San Diego State. The club would also bring in a respectable draw with New Mexico, while losing by just a goal against Memphis in Tuscaloosa. Bramble’s side hadn’t truly recorded any big wins heading into SEC play, but they had done enough to hang around on the edge of the at-large bid discussion. Of course, they also knew that if they didn’t make it to Orange Beach and the SEC Tournament, that those NCAA Tournament dreams would go unfulfilled.

The opening weeks of the league were a disaster though, as after an opening night win over Vanderbilt, the club went winless in their next five. It wasn’t just the losing, but the manner of the losses. Alabama lost to Kentucky, Ole Miss, South Carolina, and Florida by three goals each. They weren’t out of the postseason race, but the Tide were sinking fast heading into the second half of the league season. And then things changed. After a home split against Arkansas (win) and LSU (loss), the Crimson Tide would upset Tennessee before going on the road and scratching out a hard fought draw against Georgia.

Quite improbably, Alabama was in control of its SEC Tournament fate heading into the final day of the regular season. In one of the wildest Iron Bowls of Soccer in derby history, Alabama would outshoot Auburn 20-8 in the first half but only go into the break with a 1-0 lead. Auburn would wake up and begin to press, but after Alabama went up 2-0, few gave the visitors much of a chance at a comeback. But Auburn would claw one back with fourteen minutes to go before winning and converting a penalty to equalize. It was all looking horribly familiar for Alabama with just a few minutes left to play in normal time. Then, Willis popped up with THAT goal, a goal that will live in Alabama lore forever.

The Tide claimed the eighth and final spot in the SEC Tournament and were also looking good for a shock NCAA Tournament bid, capitalizing on Auburn’s lofty RPI being added to their profile after the upset. Few gave Alabama much of a chance against South Carolina in Orange Beach considering the league champs had destroyed them in Columbia earlier in the year. But Alabama had come to fight and drew first blood in the thirtieth minute through Molly Atherton. Try as they might, Carolina couldn’t find a way past Justine Bernier, who made seven huge stops for the clean sheet, preserving one of the biggest upsets in the history of the SEC Tournament.

Alabama looked to be on their way to another potential shock in the semi-finals, scoring first against Florida. But the Gators scored forty seconds later and then ran Alabama ragged in the second half en route to a 2-1 win that probably flattered the Tide somewhat. Still, Alabama were likely headed back to Tuscaloosa with their heads held high, knowing they had not only made a little history that week, but that they also were undoubtedly NCAA Tournament bound for the first time since 1998.

The Crimson Tide would go blow for blow against a Miami (FL) team also returning to the Big Dance for the first time in while in an exciting game in Coral Gables. Bramble’s side would take the lead twice but be unable to hold onto it, as the Canes equalized twice. Miami (FL) would be the ones delivering the knockout blow though, scoring in the second half of extra time to advance to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. It was the end of a dramatic and thrilling season for a Crimson Tide side that now looks to be on the up after so many years of struggle. Likely under pressure no more in Tuscaloosa, Bramble may just turn out to be the city’s soccer savior.

With last season’s dramatic late season turnaround though comes higher expectations coming into the new season. With a taste of the postseason, including the NCAA Tournament, now etched into the program’s history, bouncing back out of the SEC Tournament is precisely what Alabama does not want to see happen. Bramble and his staff have some work to do however after the club takes four hits through graduation in the offseason.

Adding to the uncertainty is the fact that the club’s losses are concentrated in very specific areas, with the Tide losing their starting goalkeeper, Canadian standout Justine Bernier, along with three of their four starting defenders! On the other hand, Alabama’s defense in the league was second worst in SEC matches, as they gave up more than two goals a game in the league. That included shipping four to Kentucky, South Carolina, and Florida, while giving up multiple goals in eight of their eleven league matches!

That considered, perhaps a rebuild isn’t the worst thing in the world for Bama. Reasons for optimism? The goalkeeping spot shouldn’t take too big of a dip with USC transfer and U20 international Shelby Church poised to take over. Texas transfer Sophie Campise also joins up in defense and should help speed up the renovation. Things look much more promising going forward, with young stars in the making like Molly Atherton, Theresa Diederich and Pia Rijsdijk joining up with fresh new blood like Merel Van Dongen and Abby Lutzenkirchen.

The Tide were middle of the road offensively last season but that was with a lot of young players still finding their feet, meaning a big step forward is possible. One thing’s for sure: That offense will likely have to be scoring if Alabama are to make a repeat trip to the postseason considering some of the questions on defense.

Goalkeepers

It’s all change in between the pipes for Alabama this season, as the club sees all of last season’s netminders depart in lieu of a pair of new challengers for the throne. That throne was occupied for much of the past half decade by Canadian Justine Bernier, who leaves the Capstone as the career leader in many goalkeeping categories for the Tide. Bernier, a Canadian youth international, was a two-time All-SEC Second Team and one-time All-SEC First Team honoree who made no end of vital saves for the club during their postseason run last season. Last season’s backup, Shanna Brooks, who started five matches in two seasons, also departs, meaning Bramble will be choosing from two brand new goalkeepers this season.

In pole position for the starting job this season is junior Shelby Church, who comes to the club after starting for much of the past two seasons at USC. Church’s reputation grew to the point that she snared a U.S. U20 camp invite at one point but fell out of favor towards the end of last season and opted for a new start with the Tide. The junior is far from a finished product but should at least provide some stability in goal if she acclimates quickly to her new surroundings.

While Church may be the present for the Tide, newcomer Emily Rusk could end up being the future. An outstanding performer in ECNL action for Charlotte SA the past few years, Rusk could end up developing into a fine SEC keeper in time for Alabama. At the very least, she should be a solid backup for a Tide team that looks in good shape between the pipes despite losing all of last year’s keepers.

Defenders

Without a doubt, the biggest worry for Alabama this season is reconstructing a backline that loses three of its four starters from last season. As stated above though, it’s not like the Crimson Tide were a steely bunch on defense last year, with the opposite quite true in all honesty. That alone should provide some hope going into the new season, but Bramble has to know that integrating so many new pieces into the starting lineup could be challenging.

First choice center-backs KK Duffy and Veronica Wolfkeil depart, leaving the team in search of solutions right down the middle this year. Duffy had begun her career at Clemson, where she had been recruited by Bramble and had been a mainstay with the Tigers but abandoned that sinking ship before the 2010 season. Duffy would continue to be a rock at the back for her new club, starting every game in central defense last year while even chipping in with a few assists in the process.

Her partner for most of the year, Wolfkeil, did a little bit of everything in Tuscaloosa, beginning her career as a forward before moving into defense, where she also played full-back for the club. Wolfkeil was a mainstay in the middle last year though, starting eighteen matches for the Tide one season after mainly serving as a spot starter. When Wolfkeil was out of the lineup, the middle was usually manned by Duffy and Carly Mygrants, another departing senior. After missing all of 2009 through injury, Mygrants gradually worked her way back into the starting lineup as a junior before regaining her place as an unshakable member of the backline last season. When Mygrants wasn’t filling in in the middle, she was operating as the club’s right-back, though her offensive impact was minimal.

The lone returning link to last season’s starting defense is senior left-back Ashley Willis. Considering the relative inexperience of her fellow defenders, Willis’ three years of starting experience on the Capstone could be a godsend for Bramble and co. this season. Willis has started every match possible for the Crimson Tide thus far in her collegiate career and will look to do the same as a senior. The Colorado native has plenty of punch going forward as well, finishing with three goals and four assists last season, though she’ll likely be most remembered for the winner against Auburn in the regular season finale.

Who joins her in the backline this year is anybody’s guess. Fellow senior Megan Petersen was a key reserve and valuable spot starter for her first two seasons with the club but played in just six matches with one start at center-back last season but could be pushed back into duty. KK Duffy’s sister Meghan, who transferred from Clemson before 2010 also, is a full-back who played sparsely last season, as did fellow senior Katie Woolbright.

All that uncertainty means that Texas transfer Sophie Campise is likely to feature right away as a junior this year. A two-year starter for the Longhorns, Campise is a tenacious leader who can play in defense or midfield. Given the Tide’s needs in defense though, it’d be a shock to see her line up anywhere but in the backline. While there’s really only room to go up statistically after last season’s horror show in the league, the loss of three starters makes anything more than incremental gains a longshot for Bama this season.

Midfielders

The strength of this season’s Alabama team could be in midfield, where the Tide look as good as any club in the SEC. The unit returns mostly intact ahead of the new season, only needing to replace departed senior Shannon Lathrop. A dependable player in midfield who was always good for a handful of starts each season in Tuscaloosa, Lathrop departs after being one of the club’s top reserves last year who also made four starts.

The heartbeat of the unit this season figures to be junior Molly Atherton, who has quickly set herself apart as one of the league’s most promising midfielders. An SEC All-Freshman Team selection in 2010 when she thrust herself right into the starting lineup, Atherton retained that place and upped her offensive production to four goals and two assists, including three strikes against SEC foes and three game winning goals. Atherton figures to be at the center of the Tide’s charge again this year and will be a crucial figure once more.

Another bright young prospect is Theresa Diederich, who followed in Atherton’s footsteps by winning SEC All-Freshman Team honors last season after a sterling rookie campaign. Diederich would go down as the team’s leading scorer, with seven goals, though that number was inflated by going a perfect 4-for-4 on penalty kicks last season. Perhaps more valuable than her scoring is her versatility, as Diederich played some up front and on the backline as a rookie as well, and given the club’s defensive losses, could end up in defense again.

Veteran leadership will likely be provided by returning starters Kaitlyn Smith and Josie Rix, both seniors. Smith is another three-year starter who has displayed great versatility, and for the first time in her collegiate career last season, showed a bit of an offensive spark, with two goals and two assists to her name. After an injury blighted 2010 season, Rix came back and started sixteen games as a junior, functioning as the club’s midfield destroyer and should add needed balance to the midfield this season as well.

The above by itself would make Alabama’s midfield quite formidable, but the club adds even more to it’s ranks this season. Rookie Abby Lutzenkirchen comes to the Capstone as a U20 international and was seen as a major get for the Crimson Tide from the powerhouse NASA club in Georgia. Lutzenkirchen looks like a potential cornerstone for the club’s future and should be in line for solid minutes right away as well.

Adding international flair to the Tide’s ranks is Holland U19 captain Merel van Dongen. A club teammate of the club’s Dutch forward Pia Rijsdijk, van Dongen plied her trade at ADO Den Haag in Holland and has fifty-three caps at youth international level for the Orange. How quickly she acclimates to the college game will be key, but van Dongen has massive upside and could well be one of the most important signings in club history should she pan out. This group is a great blend of youth, experience, and balance and is by far the strongest unit on this club going into 2012.

Forwards

Like the midfield, Alabama returns almost all of its frontline intact, with the sole expected loss to be freshman reserve Kara Fasano. Spearheading Alabama’s offense in all likelihood will be Rijsdijk, a late addition to the Crimson Tide’s ranks last season that turned out to be an inspired one, with the Dutch U19 international impressing as a rookie, earning All-Region Third Team honors. Five goals and four assists was a fine first year total, with most of the damage being done against SEC foes. Rijsdijk was a high volume shooter though, with seventy-eight shots on the year, so the Tide will be hoping for improved efficiency as she heads into her sophomore season.

Also in line for a starting spot up front is junior Kendall Khanna, who saw seventeen starts on the right wing and saw her offensive numbers surge dramatically from her freshman campaign. Five goals and five assists was a good return, with Khanna scoring against Auburn in the regular season finale and Miami (FL) in the NCAA Tournament, showing a big game mentality that will do the Tide some good in the coming season.

Likely vying for the final spot up top in the 4-3-3 will be sophomore Laura Lee Smith and senior Lindsey Sillers. Smith looked like another freshman star in the making early on, with three goals in the club’s first two games but was then knocked out for a month with a broken collarbone in the middle of the season. She wasn’t the same after, but did score in the NCAA Tournament against Miami (FL) and will be hoping a full, healthy season leads to even more goals. Sillers, primarily a reserve for two seasons, ended up making eight starts last year and tallied a goal and two assists. The Birmingham native can play on either the right or left flank, helping her cause for major minutes this year.

Depth shouldn’t be an issue either with the return of juniors Kylee Brown and Ariel Armijo and sophomore Janea Simpson to help fortify the legion of reserves. Alabama at this point may not have their ten goal plus a season bellcow up front they need to contend for a title, but they’ve got multiple solid options, also with the knowledge that one of those options might be able to develop into the top notch striker the club needs as soon as this season.

Outlook

The bar was raised significantly in Tuscaloosa last season after the club’s late season charge in 2011. Said charge was quite the turnaround, considering heading into the final weeks of the SEC season, it looked like the Tide were on their way to another disappointing season. Now, postseason qualification looks to be the bare minimum that’s acceptable for Bramble’s squad, as taking a step back after such a leap forward has to be considered anathema to a program hungry for success.

Going forward Alabama looks to be quite lively this year. There aren’t any superstars or household names, but there’s plenty of young talent on the verge of breaking out, with a spot in the top half of the SEC attacking table certainly within grasp. Defensively, it could be another story. Getting Church to help solidify the goalkeeping situation looks to be quite the coup, but the backline in front of her could be shaky.

Lower-mid table and a return to the SEC Tournament should be achievable, with the club likely to inhabit the bubble for the NCAA Tournament. That may seem like a lateral step, but consolidation should also leave the club well poised for a potentially big step forward in 2013 when the defense is more settled and the attack is more experienced.

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