Chris’ Big Sky Projections
1. Eastern Washington
2. Northern Colorado
4. Portland State
6. Southern Utah
7. Weber State
8. Northern Arizona
9. Sacramento State
10. North Dakota
11. Idaho State
In short order, Chad Bodnar has turned Eastern Washington into a lean, mean Big Sky Conference contending machine. No longer one of the worst programs in DI, EWU is now a promising side on the rise. However, few probably gave the Eagles much of a chance of rising high going into last year’s Big Sky Tournament after a fifth place league finish. But EWU laughed last, beating Montana and Idaho before toppling Northern Arizona on penalties in the final to earn an NCAA Tournament bid. The key now is using last year’s dream finish as an impetus to further glory.
The Eagles look to be in great shape going into the new season, especially on offense. They return senior forward Chloe Williams, fresh off a fifteen goal season, league Offensive Player of the Year award, and a call-up to U.S. U23 camp. She should run riot against Big Sky defenses, and a twenty goal season isn’t out of the question. Also back is five goal midfielder Jenny Chaves, and solid contributors Aimie Inthoulay and Delaney Romero. Former Montana Gatorade State Player of the Year Brittany Delridge also joins up, meaning EWU should have no shortage of weapons this year.
EWU could tighten things up in the back though. They were about average in the league on the defensive end of things, but returning senior M’kenna Hayes is one of the league’s best defenders, while recruit Nia McFerrin could see major minutes early given her potential. The biggest question is in goal, with senior Mallory Taylor graduating and returnees Hadley Bezon and Emily Busselman of limited experience. Despite that concern, EWU still looks the best side in the Big Sky by some distance and will be favored to win at least one trophy this year.
2015 was always going to be a tough act to follow for Northern Colorado, after their dream run to the NCAA Tournament, but the Bears suffered a hangover from that superb season, needing a win on the last day of the season against North Dakota to just make the postseason. They didn’t last long, bowing out in the Big Sky Tournament quarterfinal to Northern Arizona. A year on, UNC will be hoping to ascend back to the top of the mountain in the Big Sky and should have one of the league’s better squads entering into the new campaign.
Having just seven starters back is one of the league’s lower figures, but they do return some tantalizing quality. The headline grabber in the bunch is junior midfielder Mariel Gutierrez, one of the best players you’ve probably never heard of. Gutierrez was the straw that stirred the drink for the offense last year, netting ten goals to lead UNC and having a hand in nearly half of all of the team’s goals. Senior Brooke Braden is a fine second option, but it’s clear that UNC’s fortunes will rise and fall with their offensive talisman’s.
There’s probably more of a worry on defense, where the Bears have to make do without one of the league’s best defenders, as Madeline Chase graduates. Senior netminder Madeline Burdick is a solid one, and she’ll have to be to keep UNC’s defense humming along. I’m not sure if the Bears will challenge for a title this year, but there’s still enough quality here for a very good finish in the league.