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 – Alabama | Arkansas | Mississippi State | Ole Miss | Vanderbilt
WCC – Gonzaga | Loyola Marymount | San Francisco
BYU did not acclimate to their new conference home as well as expected last season, with the Cougars missing out on the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2004. To be fair, BYU’s league form likely had little to do with their being passed over for an at-large bid by the selection committee. All things considered, the Cougars did well for themselves for a club treading unfamiliar ground for the most part after their move to the WCC from the Mountain West. No, it wasn’t the team’s fourth place finish in the league that proved fatal, it was instead a non-conference campaign that was filled with far too many dubious sides come the end of the year. The likes of Idaho State, Arizona, and Idaho ultimately proved toxic to BYU’s RPI after all was said and done.
The Cougars’ best chances for a big non-conference win went begging, as they lost to Miami (FL) and Oklahoma State, both by a single goal. It was a comedown for a program that had been flying high for so long as the bullies of the Mountain West before 2011. The move to the WCC seemed to work out pretty well for both the Cougars and their new league, with BYU leaving the league they had all but outgrown for the greener pastures of what now looks like one of the most formidable conferences in all the land. For their trouble, the WCC got historically one of the top mid-majors in the country, consistent NCAA Tournament qualifiers, and a program that monopolized much of the silverware in the Mountain West over the past decade.
The Cougars were the Mountain West’s first true dominant side, doing the double four straight seasons from 1999-2002 and reaching the Sweet Sixteen in both 1998 and 2000. Their progress might have continued further had they not run into some great Santa Clara teams those years. Ironically, BYU’s best season would arguably come in a season without a trophy as they made a fantastic run to the Elite Eight in 2003 while giving College Cup schedulers some serious heartburn. It’d be something of an end of an era, with head coach Jennifer Rockwood’s side slipping to the only losing season in program history the year after. It also marked the first time the program missed out on the NCAA Tournament since 1996.
BYU would begin a new streak the next year, but the earlier success in the Big Dance would elude them, and the Cougars would have to wait until 2007 to end their five year trophy drought, lifting the Mountain West Tournament crown. Rockwood would see one of her best ever sides in 2008 finish at #15 in the RPI after lifting both Mountain West trophies but be dumped out cruelly on penalties in the second round of the NCAA Tournament by defending national champs USC. 2009 would bring a second straight league title and another second round appearance in the Big Dance, but BYU were given the semi-impossible task of facing Stanford and were beaten 2-0.
The Cougars entered one final season in the Mountain West looking to defend their league title while also seeking to reclaim their tournament title that they ceded to San Diego State a year before. They went 50/50 in that regard, beating New Mexico for the conference tournament title but only after the Lobos had lifted the league title in a conference campaign that had included beating BYU in the regular season. BYU would not get a kind draw in the NCAA Tournament, facing UCLA in the opening round in a match in Los Angeles for logistical purposes despite the Bruins not being seeded. The Cougars would give UCLA a tough match but couldn’t overcome the Westwood side in a shootout, falling in the first round of the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in six years.
BYU’s first year in their new conference home started out reasonably well, with the club drawing against Washington in Seattle before coming home and destroying heated rivals Utah, 4-0. Rockwood’s side would drop that fateful match to Miami before winning their next three, including a nice win over Cal State Fullerton. A three match winless streak would also prove costly to the RPI come the end of the season, especially a draw at home against Rice and a loss at an uninspiring Oklahoma side. The team would recover on a four match homestand, including beating state rivals Utah State and winning their WCC debut against Portland.
Against the upper crust of the league, BYU would struggle though, losing a close one to Pepperdine before drawing with Santa Clara. With a shaky looking profile, BYU likely needed to sweep their last five matches to be in with a chance of an at-large bid. They would come oh so close, winning four of those matches, mostly in dominating fashion, but again being edged out in the most important contest, against league co-champs San Diego.
Rockwood’s side finished the year heartbreakingly close to an at-large bid, but ultimately, some of the more tepid non-conference opponents on the slate combined with an inability to come through with a statement win proved fatal to their hopes. It was a rare setback for a program at which so much has gone right over the past few decades.
BYU will hope to remedy the non-conference SOS issue this season with the likes of UC Irvine, Utah, Long Beach State, Penn State, and Washington among others on the docket, though a few questionable matchups against the likes of Arizona, Cal Poly, and Utah Valley do remain. Should the Cougars record a few big wins out of the league and finish in the upper half of the WCC, that should be a rather moot point however.
A big season looks entirely possible as well, with the Cougars returning an armada of offense despite the loss of leading scorer Jennie Marshall. Senior Carlee Payne has been a marked woman as of late but has turned provider, with a team leading nine assists last season. Around her is a group of attackers with simmering potential, including the likes of Colette Jepson, Niki Fernandes, and Jaiden Thornock. While all three are waiting for a true breakout season, Fernandes might be the one to watch closest. Injuries to her and departed senior Auna Doria really hurt the club last year, potentially costing them an NCAA Tournament bid.
The club figures to have one of the league’s best defenses given the return of senior superstar Lindsi Lisonbee and the addition of Portland standout Cloee Colohan to the ranks. The goalkeeping situation bears watching though with the graduation of the solid McKenzie Olsen, with returning experience at a minimum.
For the first time in what seems like ages, BYU has questions in goal after the graduation of four-year starter McKinzie Olson. Olson began her career a bit on the shaky side after being chipped by LSU keeper Mo Isom as a rookie in a clip that showed up on SportsCenter but then settled down to become one of the club’s best keepers in recent memory. Olson would rack up her fair share of personal honors in her career, including All-WCC Honorable Mention plaudits last season, which is pretty darn good considering some of the league’s netminders.
Her departure leaves a lot of questions though, with three very untested keepers fighting to win the starting job. Junior Katherine Snyder has the most seniority of the returnees but only just after playing in mop-up duty in two matches in each of her first two seasons. That’s more than either of her competitors can say though. Erica Owens played in two matches in 2009 but has missed the last two seasons, while Hilary Smith redshirted as a rookie last season. With Olson’s loss and inexperienced replacements, this is the obviously the most worrisome part of BYU’s squad this year.
On the whole, BYU’s defense was just a shade off the leaders in the league last year and was very good on the whole, with the Cougars giving up just sixteen goals in nineteen matches. Though the situation in goal bears watching, the new netminder should have a settled backline in front of her with only reserve Megan Fereday departing.
When speaking of BYU and defense, you obviously have to begin with two-time All-American Lindsi Lisonbee. The senior is a 5’10″ dynamo who has scary pace for someone her size, enough to allow her to play centrally or out wide for the Cougars, dominating in any zone of the defense. An obvious threat in the air, Lisonbee has nine goals over the past two seasons and was clutch last year with three game winners. The Park City native will again be one of the nation’s top defenders and has a great shot at becoming BYU’s fourth three-time All-American. The Cougars certainly don’t lack for size in defense, with the shortest of last year’s first choice defense coming in at 5’8″.
Another of the giants in the defense is senior Cami Jensen. Jensen has gradually seen her minutes increase the past three seasons and started fifteen games last year as she made a starting spot her own while also chipping in with a couple of assists. Another senior, Ashley Bazzarone, essentially followed the same career track as Jensen, easing her way into major minutes before starting all of last season and should again reprise her role as a starter this year. The fourth senior starter last season, Dana Oldroyd, recovered from an ACL injury early in her college career to end up as a top reserve in 2010 before settling in as a starter last season and is odds on to continue in the starting lineup again.
As if this club needed any more veteran experience, the club also has senior reserve Stacy Bartholomew, back after being granted a sixth year for medical hardship after three ACL injuries cost her two and a half seasons. Bartholomew started early last season before moving into a key reserve role and is a great option off the bench. As you might expect, Rockwood might be in need of blooding a few new defenders this season to try and cope with the losses coming after this season.
Sophomore Annie Amos saw reserve action in seven games and might be eased into more action as a result. Also keep an eye on rookie Taylor Campbell, a quick and versatile defender who can play in the center or on the flanks who could be a key part of the club’s defense in the future. With four senior starters returning from a stingy group last year and a legit superstar in Lisonbee, this could be one of the best defenses in the nation.
If you want to quibble, BYU’s midfield might be a bit of a worry with what looks like less depth than at other positions, but this group does return a pair of starters while adding an excellent rookie and a great transfer. The club does have to overcome the loss of veteran Lauren Anderson Cosby though. Cosby was a revelation as a rookie in 2008 with five goals and ten assists and would in many ways struggle to live up to that huge season in subsequent years. Cosby was certainly solid though, ending her career as a four-year starter, including cracking the first XI in all but one game last season while adding three assists to the cause. Also gone is reserve Nicole Ernst Jackson, robbing the club of some more depth heading into the new season.
The club will be able to call upon junior Rachel Manning, nicknamed “The Magnet”, for the ball’s tendency to always end up near her, in midfield this season. The energetic Californian has quickly become a fan favorite in Provo with her relentless style, and though she’s not a big threat offensively, Manning’s hustle and hard work goes a long way in keeping both the BYU offense and defense flowing.
Senior Jessica Ringwood is likely to partner her this season after completing her third year as a starter for the club in midfield last year. Ringwood had a breakout year in 2010, winning the MWC Tournament MVP honor after netting the game winner in the final, one of six goals on the season. Ringwood wasn’t that prolific last year, with two goals and three assists, but the veteran has shown scoring ability and is another offensive threat for the club.
Filling the open starting spot will be key for BYU though. Returning depth is iffy, meaning a newcomer could easily fill the void. Michelle Murphy is the reigning Gatorade State Player of the Year for Utah and has blazing pace to go along with finishing ability and playmaking skill and could be another great find for Rockwood. The favorite though might be junior transfer Cloee Colohan, who comes to the club after playing her first two seasons at Portland. Colohan didn’t quite hit the levels of stardom some might have predicted, but she did show some very tantalizing glimpses of her talent and was a key member of those Pilots squads. Able to play as a defender or a midfield destroyer, Colohan looks likelier for the latter role this year with such a settled back four in play. Though some might argue a midfield three with Manning and Colohan is too pragmatic/functional, it should only add to the strong spine of the club defensively. Though the starting group looks solid, depth could be a concern.
While the Cougars lose a combined twenty-three starts from last season’s squad, there’s no shortage of options available to Rockwood as she tries to figure out the best three to throw out in attack this year. The club does lose senior starter Jennie Marshall, who has been a fantastic forward for the club the past two seasons. After some brief sparks in her first two years, Marshall busted out with seven goals as a junior before six goals and four assists last year, including three in the league. Also gone is Auna Doria, who had started nine games early in the year, scoring a few goals, before missing the rest of her final season through injury.
The spearhead of the offense, as it has been the past three years, will be senior Carlee Payne. Payne looked set to become one of the nation’s best forwards after a stunning thirteen goal, ten assist rookie season in 2009 but has since been struggling to some extent with the extra defensive attention. Her goal total was cut in half a year later, but Payne’s assists have kept flowing, with nine last season even as her goals dipped further to just five. If she can rediscover her goalscoring form this year, Payne could well lead BYU to many a win, but even if she can’t get back into double digits, the senior should still be a boon for her teammates with her incisive passing.
One favorite to fill a starting slot alongside her will be fellow senior Colette Jepson. Formerly of UNLV, Jepson showed a quick trigger and no problems acclimating to her new side, scoring four goals and four assists and plenty of upside. Though she might choose to be a bit more selective with her shooting, Jepson has the potential for a big senior season and could well double her goal total from last year.
Junior Niki Fernandes is the likely early favorite after tearing it up in Spring ball and looking lively off the bench last season. Fernandes had endured a long road to BYU, beginning at San Diego State before transferring and sitting out 2010. There’d be challenges last season too, with Fernandes suffering a serious wrist injury against Miami (FL) and missing most of the middle of the season. Healthy again and settled, Fernandes could well be a key figure in the attack this year. The options don’t stop there though. Sophomore Jaiden Thornock came in as a highly touted rookie and was instant offense off the bench, scoring four goals and earning All-WCC Honorable Mention plaudits.
Junior Kyleigh Royall had a pair of goals and started three games up front and could also see time in midfield. Sophomore Kayla Varner was another widely used reserve who could also see more minutes this season for the Cougars. Given the relative lack of size of most of BYU’s attackers, rookie Courtnee Wood, an imposing force standing at 6’0″, offers an interesting change of pace and could be utilized as a target forward right away. This group needs someone to step up and knock in ten goals a season to lead the Cougars’ frontline…unless they can just get everyone firing, which, considering the talent on hand, is certainly a possibility. Whether it’s on the back of a star or death by a thousand cuts, this attack should terrorize many an opponent this year.
I tipped BYU for the WCC title at the first time of asking last season and whiffed, as the Cougars finished fourth and out of the postseason, but Rockwood’s side may have arrived in the league a season too soon. They certainly aren’t going to come into the new season as favorites to lift the crown, but BYU has plenty of talent on the squad this year. The defense is starting four seniors in all likelihood and has nice depth and a great leader in Lisonbee, while Colohan figures to be a great addition to an already formidable midfield. The attack has plenty of weapons and depth and may just be looking for someone to come and be the top shot the club needs as a consistent #1 option in attack.
The one potential bug-a-boo for the Cougars is in goal, and getting solid and consistent play from whoever ends up between the posts might be the difference between a good season and a great one. Don’t discount the hunger the side from Provo is likely to be entering 2012 with either. BYU hadn’t missed out on the NCAA Tournament for a while and will be aching for a chance to set things right. The Cougars are dark horse contenders for a league title and may just be able to win a game or two come the Big Dance in November.