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 | USC | Utah | Washington | Washington State
SEC – Alabama | Arkansas | Mississippi State | Ole Miss | Vanderbilt
WCC – BYU | Gonzaga | Loyola Marymount | San Francisco
Measuring progress of a program in the topsy turvy world of college soccer usually isn’t easy. It may have never been harder than with last season’s North Carolina State program which divided opinion all the way up to and through Selection Monday. The Wolfpack rose markedly in the RPI in head coach Steve Springthorpe’s third season in charge, but much of that may have been down to just how amazing the rest of the ACC was, pumping up NC State’s numbers.
Still, some argued that the Wolfpack, well within range in the RPI for an at-large selection, deserved a spot based on their computer numbers, draws with Maryland and Miami (FL), and a stellar non-conference record. Others scoffed at the notion of a tenth place team in an eleven team league that had won just one league match making it into the NCAA Tournament. The cynics also pointed to the fact that the club’s only true quality win had been against LSU in August. In the end, NC State was left out of the field, but it was a thoroughly unusual situation for the Selection Committee, with the Wolfpack probably being closer to a spot in the field than most would’ve cared to acknowledge.
While missing out likely stung Wolfpack supporters, at least it gave them something to talk about after a long, painful decline for a program that had been used to consistent appearances deep into the NCAA Tournament before the turn of the millennium and even a spot in the College Cup final against North Carolina in 1988. Almost all of that success came under legendary coach Larry Gross, and it’s been a rocky drop towards the ACC basement since then. In truth, the rot began at the end of the reign of Gross’ successor, Alvin Corneal, and has continued unabated for the most part. Corneal departed after the 1997 season but not before a rather dubious streak for the Wolfpack started, namely the fact that NC State hasn’t had a winning ACC season since 1995, when the league was much more compact.
The North Carolina State brass were very patient with Corneal’s replacement, perhaps too patient. Laura Kerrigan got eleven seasons in Raleigh and never won more than ten matches with the Wolfpack. Two straight seasons of double digit losses and winless ACC campaigns in 2007 and 2008 finally convinced the higher ups to bring out the broom, and in came Springthorpe from Fresno State. In truth, it wasn’t exactly the flashiest hire and may have just served to show how far the Wolfpack had fallen in the world. Springthorpe had had a solid but unspectacular run with the Bulldogs in the WAC, and there was some skepticism at whether he was the right man to turn the Wolfpack around.
Regardless, Springthorpe had a hell of a task in front of him as he tried to get NC State competitive in a ruthlessly difficult league. Realistically, the Wolfpack exceeded expectations in Springthorpe’s first season in charge. Despite a few wobbles, the club was generally more competitive and even shocked Virginia in the league opener. 2010 had been a bit of a step backwards though, as the club only beat hapless Clemson in the league and failed to really make much of an impression out of conference.
While nobody was expecting a miracle in 2011, Springthorpe still needed to show that the club was making discernible progress on the long climb towards ACC respectability. The season started out well, with four straight wins, including solid triumphs over Navy and LSU. Penn State provided a reality check in a 3-1 defeat, but the club rebounded to beat Colorado College two days later and were on a three match winning streak ahead of league play. Things looked bleak after two defeats to open up ACC season, but the club showed incredible fight to draw on the road in back-to-back matches against Maryland and Miami (FL).
A quality win just wasn’t coming though, as the club’s offense couldn’t break down the stiff ACC defenses, and, again, NC State would finish the season with just a solitary ACC win, against Clemson. It’s not like Springthorpe’s side were being pulverized though. Five of their seven league losses were by a single goal, and they were only truly shown up once, in the opener against North Carolina. Given that evidence, it’s clear that there is progress being made in Raleigh after so many bleak seasons. But the next step, winning ACC games consistently, is a massive one and certainly not easy in such a brutally competitive league.
It won’t be easy in the sense that the Wolfpack have some rebuilding to do this year after the graduation of many a senior starter from last year. Some non-senior starters as well. The club was rocked by the news that Stephanie Bronson, who had come into the program with some fanfare, transferred to UNC Wilmington over the offseason. It’s bad enough that one of the club’s potential future stars leaves, but she was also their joint leading scorer with six goals last season. Everyone else who scored more than two goals is gone also, leaving a club that couldn’t score with regularity in the league last season with a real shortage in offensive weapons going into the new year.
In all, the club loses a whopping seven of thirteen players who started ten games or more for the Wolfpack last season. With so much offense being lost, NC State may have to park the bus at times this year to stand a chance against their high powered rivals in the league. The defense wasn’t great last year, but it was passable, even giving up fewer ACC goals than ACC Tournament champs Florida State! With so many losses though in personnel, it could be an even bumpier ride this season in Raleigh.
The problems begin in goal for the Wolfpack, where the club must find a replacement for departed senior starter Kim Kern. Kern would immediately earn a share of the playing time for NC State upon entering college, starting nine matches as a rookie before winning the job full-time as a sophomore. The hometown product held that spot for the rest of her career and even got to display her rocket leg against Virginia as a junior, scoring a fifty-yard free kick against the Cavs.
In her wake, there is very little in the way of returning experience. The incumbent is sophomore Victoria Hopkins, who redshirted as a rookie in 2010 before seeing a very sparse amount of mop-up duty last year, just a little over twenty minutes combined in three appearances to be precise. Her only competition on the roster appears to be true freshman Madison Shaw, a hometown product from Raleigh but one that comes into the program relatively unheralded for this level. Needless to say, the lack of experience within this group this year is concerning for the Wolfpack.
As if the worries in goal weren’t enough for NC State to deal with, the Wolfpack also have to replace a pair of starters on the backline. Paige Dugal began her career with the club as an attacking option and scored twelve goals in her first two seasons in Raleigh, including eight as a sophomore. Switched to the backline before her junior season, Dugal ended up starting every game in defense for her final two seasons with the club, finishing second in minutes on the club last year. Given the Wolfpack’s offensive woes though, one wonders if not keeping Dugal up front was a rash decision.
Also gone is fifth-year senior Alex Berger, who had been a three-year starter heading into 2010 but would be injured in preseason, missing the entire campaign. She’d make a successful return last season though, starting every match and even showing a bit of an offensive side, burying four spot kicks en route to a five goal campaign, with four of those goals going down as match winners.
Leading the charge this season will be Randi Soldat, a junior who is in effect the veteran head on a very young group. Soldat came in immediately as a rookie and started every game, finishing second in minutes on the Wolfpack in 2010 and was equally involved as a sophomore, starting every game for the club again. A likely linemate in defense this season is sophomore Shelli Spamer, an ACC All-Freshman Team selection last season. One of the best of a fine looking crop of recruits last season, Spamer turned out to be quite the find for the Wolfpack, starting every match as a rookie. Spamer was the club’s set piece specialist last year, and her dead ball proficiency helped her rack up two goals and four assists. The Pennsylvanian looks like one of the club’s best hopes for the future and could turn into a fine ACC defender.
There are questions beyond that duo though. Claudel Pilon had started every game as a rookie but suffered a serious knee injury at the end of that season and missed all of last year. Pilon should be ready for the new season, but it remains to be seen how long it’ll take to shake the rust off and whether she can reach the level of play she was at before the injury. Other depth is spotty at best, and Springthrope is likely to have to lean on some rookies to fill gaps.
In that respect, Virginian Dayna Tomayko looks like NC State’s best bet to make an immediate impact. Arguably the club’s top recruit this year, Tomayko has shined at ECNL level for FC Virginia in the past and is a versatile competitor as well. Used more of as an attacker at club level, Springthorpe has indicated he sees her more as a full-back at this level to try and add some verve into NC State’s exploits going forward. Spamer’s a fine building block, but a lack of experience and depth means this group overall could struggle.
The midfield also doesn’t escape the attrition this season, losing a pair of players who combined for twenty-one starts last season. Kristina Argiroff, a former walk-on who barely played her first two seasons, ended up turning into quite the fine player in her final two seasons with the club, combining for nine goals and five assists. That included four strikes last season, and her offense will be missed considering how little of it returns for the Wolfpack this year. Also gone is utility player Jordan Edwards, who saw time in both defense and midfield in her Wolfpack career. Edwards started eleven games last season and ended up with the vital game winning goal against Colorado College early in the season.
The returnees for the Wolfpack in this group are, again, rather youthful. Junior Ariela Schreibeis looks to be the leader after starting eighteen matches last season as a sophomore. Schreibeis was a spot starter as a rookie and upped her minutes last season, though she was mostly a non-factor on offense for the Wolfpack. Also returning is former U18 international Julia Sandridge, who could be one of the club’s most promising prospects going forward. Sandridge wasted no time in making an impact as a rookie, starting thirteen games and scoring two goals with three assists as well. The Winston-Salem native still has plenty of upside, and her emergence will likely be critical to any rise up the ACC hierarchy NC State hopes for these next few years.
Also returning with starting experience is sophomore Reilly Brown, who redshirted at Georgia before transferring before the 2011 season. Brown ended up making eleven starts last season and could end up being a decent find for Springthorpe as she continues to develop. NC State also returns some tenured reserves hoping to make a move into the starting lineup. Kaley Shlaes is no strange to the starting lineup, having made ten starts as a rookie but was used exclusively off the bench last season in eleven matches. Longer shots still are junior Lauren Woodson and sophomore Morgan Phipps, who saw reserve action in five games last season. Sandridge could be an emerging talent for the Wolfpack, but this group is still rather thin on depth and lacks experience on the whole.
The biggest questions though have to be in attack, where the Wolfpack look to be rather toothless. The loss of Bronson, who had been one of the club’s top recruits heading into last season, is a particular hammer blow for a club desperately in need of youngsters that can score. Bronson certainly did that for NC State last year with a team leading six goals. That strike total included goals against North Carolina and Wake Forest, and though she struggled down the stretch, her upside and potential would’ve been a godsend considering some of the uncertainty left in her wake.
Adding to the woes is the subsequent loss of the other player with six goals last season, Tanya Cain. Beginning as a super sub with the Wolfpack, Cain held down a starting spot for the club for the last three seasons and was a steady scorer, with four goals each in 2009 and 2010 before breaking out for six last season. Cain was on fire early last year, with four goals in the club’s first six matches but then cooled down significantly the rest of the way and only scored one goal in the league, against last placed Clemson.
Returning options look limited at first glance. Junior Meagan Proper has overcome an injury hit start to become a frequent starter for the club, with twenty-two starts in two seasons. Her production in front of goal has left something to be desired though, with the Garner native having not recorded a goal in her college career to this point. Sophomores Jessica Baity and Cheyenne Spade both came to Raleigh with a fair amount of plaudits from their club days, but neither could really crack the starting lineup last year. Spade scored the club’s goal against Miami (FL) but didn’t make an impact offensively otherwise, while Baity didn’t record a single point. Both got good experience off the bench though and could be in line for increased minutes this year.
Junior Karri Owens will also be hoping for more opportunities another season removed from a serious knee injury that ended her rookie season prematurely. The return of Jennie Krauser from injury could be a huge boost for the Wolfpack this season. Krauser looked like a potential budding star for NC State as a rookie in 2010 with five goals and four assists and was expected to lead the line going into 2011 but missed the entire season through injury. A fit and firing Krauser would be massive for NC State considering how unsettled the rest of the offense looks, but there’s no guarantee as to how effective she’ll be right off the bat coming off a serious injury.
Krauser may end up partnering up top with one of the club’s many promising rookies. Shannon Colligan is a big target forward type that may be counted on to spearhead the attack early in her NC State career after an impressive few years at club level that included stints on the Region I ODP team. She won’t be alone as a rookie on the frontline though. Brittany Stanko also comes with Region I ODP plaudits and has pace to burn up front for the Wolfpack. Springthorpe has also praised Stanko’s versatility, which makes her even more of an asset considering the multiple needs across the pitch for NC State.
Finally, Caroline Gentry is another big forward at 5’9″ that the coaches should be intimately familiar with considering she’s been playing in the club’s backyard in Raleigh for some time now and was a member of the powerhouse CASL club for over a decade. A healthy Krauser would help NC State out immeasurably, but there’s little proven behind her. Some of the rookies might have a chance at making an early impact, but the ACC is merciless, so this group may still struggle for goals this year.
After a nicely sized step forward last year for NC State, 2012 might be a step back for the club, which sees much of its depth chipped away by graduation and transfers. There are losses to make up for all over the field, which is hardly a great omen considering the dog-eat-dog nature of the ACC. The club does have some fine building blocks for the future like impressive sophomores Sandridge and Spamer, but the Wolfpack need much, much more to be a contender in the nation’s toughest league. The defense looks like being a bit more fragile with half the backline departing and the need to break in a new goalkeeper.
It’s worse going forward, with almost all of the club’s outlets for offense gone, with much depending on the health of Krauser and just how fast some of the rookies can make an impact. Matching last season’s RPI finish could be very, very tough, and the Wolfpack are serious contenders for the basement in the ACC this year, though the additions of Syracuse and Pittsburgh next season should give them some semblance of hope in not being league whipping boys for long.