NCAA – 2017 ACC Preview

Chris’ ACC Projections

1. Florida St
2. North Carolina
3. Duke
4. Virginia
5. Notre Dame
6. Louisville
7. NC State
8. Clemson

9. Syracuse
10. Boston College
11. Wake Forest
12. Virginia Tech
13. Miami (FL)
14. Pittsburgh

For the first time since 2010, Florida State’s season didn’t end in the College Cup. In fact, the Notes’ second round exit in the NCAA Tournament was their earliest exit since 2004. It was an altogether weird year for FSU, as they beat the likes of Texas A&M and UConn in non-conference play but also lost in stunning fashion to South Alabama, one of the very few losses to a mid-major in program history. Then in league play, FSU endured a stretch of just one win in four matches that included a shock draw at Syracuse. A three match win streak that included victories over NC State and Duke put FSU in with a chance of winning the ACC title on the final day of the season, However, the Noles would fall to North Carolina, dropping them into a tie for fourth in the standings. FSU would conjure up some of their postseason magic in the ACC Tournament, beating Duke on penalties, topping Clemson, and then edging past UNC on spot kicks to lift another tournament title. Hopes of repeating that run in the NCAAs were broken by a second round loss to Utah that was hardly a fluke, as the Utes proved more than a match for an off-song FSU side.

Anyone hoping for Florida State to continue to stay out of the College Cup conversation is going to be disappointed. The Seminoles were still incredibly young last season, and they return ten starters from last year’s squad, tied for the most in the ACC. The offense was hit and miss at times last season, with nobody finishing last season with more than seven goals scored. However, that could change in a major way this year, with a ton of attacking potential for these Noles. On the frontline, FSU boasts one of the world’s most promising prospects in the form of Deyna Castellanos. The Venezuelan missed almost half of the season through international commitments, but she likely would have finished with double digit goals had she been with the club all season and remains a talent capable of spectacular things. There are also high hopes for Irish international Megan Connolly, who couldn’t quite match her unreal rookie season, but still scored seven goals as an attacking midfielder and is one of the game’s top midfield prospects.

The underrated Kaycie Tillman, dangerous as a winger, also returns following a three goal, five assist return, and could be set for a breakout season in the FSU attack. Big forward Kristen McFarland also muscled her way into starting minutes and scored a handful of goals in the first half of the season last year and could be a big factor with a little more consistency.

If all of that offensive muscle wasn’t enough, FSU adds a ton of new talent to their attacking corps. Adrienne Richardson is a U.S. U17 international and one of the best forwards in this rookie class. Angeline Daly and Claire Griffiths are two more highly touted prospects who should fortify the midfield. On the international front, FSU adds their customary big names, with few more hyped than Gloriana Villalobos, a Costa Rican international who could follow in Raquel Rodriguez’s footsteps and turn into a DI player of some renown in the midfield. Of equal reputation might be Canadian international Gabby Carle, another midfielder who has seen a burgeoning reputation as another of her nation’s young and promising prospects. It’s less a question of if Florida State has the quality in midfield and attack and more of an issue of the Noles can find the right mix, though they certainly do not lack for options.

While FSU is naturally getting a lot of attention from a wide set of newcomers in the attack, the defense is mostly the same group that took the pitch last season. The one exception is the graduation of Kirsten Crowley, the club’s All-American center-back who continued a long line of fantastic central defenders to have come through Tallahassee over the past decade. Florida State likely won’t be cowed though, as they return another All-American at the other center-back spot in Natalia Kuikka. The only junior to win All-America honors last year, Kuikka is a converted attacker who turned into a brilliant central defender and will again be looked at as a key defender here.

Out wide, Florida State could have two of the best full-backs in the nation. Senior Emma Koivisto is already one of Finland’s brightest prospects and has continued the FSU tradition of having fearless full-backs capable of zipping up and down the line to aid in the attack. Malia Berkely was also an absolute star here as a rookie, one of the best freshmen in America and may be tabbed to answer the pressing question of who starts alongside Kuikka at center-back given her size and skill. The center-back vacancy could also fall to another newcomer, English youth international Anna Patten, part of a golden generation of youngsters reigniting her nation’s fortunes.

FSU will be rock solid in goal as well, returning the nation’s best keeper in senior Cassie Miller and also add great depth with East Carolina’s starter last year Caroline Jeffers and rookie Brooke Bollinger, who reclassified after being one of the top keepers in the 2018 recruiting class.

Florida State looks absolutely loaded with talent going into the 2017 season. They’re deserved favorites to win the ACC and should be on the shortlist of national title contenders if the offense can gel together many talented parts.

A year after a shocking NCAA Tournament exit, North Carolina returned to the promised land, even with a squad that faced injuries and absences during the season and the loss of dependable seniors to graduation before it. The Heels certainly started out well, with a six match unbeaten run that included a win at UCLA. But UNC also faced a challenging period of just one win in five including a stunning 3-0 loss at eventual champions USC. Carolina would turn it around later in ACC play to finish tied for fourth in the league and topped Virginia and Notre Dame in the ACC Tournament before losing a heartbreak on penalties to Florida State in the ACC Tournament final. The defense would clamp down in the NCAA Tournament as they grinded out wins against Liberty, Kansas, and Clemson to put them on the verge of unit another College Cup. The Heels would overcome South Carolina on enemy territory to make it to the final weekend of the season, where West Virginia awaited. UNC fell just a bit short, but had still gone a long way in erasing the postseason nightmare of just one year earlier.

The bar is much higher this season for the Tar Heels. There are injury returns, redshirt returns, and another super recruiting class to raise expectations to the point that UNC should be on the shortlist of national title contenders this year. Not that there aren’t losses to overcome, as the defense and midfield in particular take some hits. In the middle of the park, the club loses key deep midfielder Darcy McFarlane, as well as winger Cameron Castleberry.

Among the returners from last year’s squad, senior Megan Buckingham is among the most intriguing. A winger, Buckingham has teased hints of stardom for three years but showed signs of breaking through last year with four goals and six assists. There will also likely be major minutes for attacking midfielders Annie Kingman, team leader in assists with eight last year, and Dorian Bailey, another year removed from a 2015 ACL tear. There’s big hopes for Joanna Boyles in midfield, coming back from two ACL tears. When Boyles is healthy, she’s been an electrifying presence in the middle of the park with deadly skill on set pieces.

Added to the mix is Emily Fox, a U.S. U20 international expected to make a massive early impact here. Up top, Carolina went without a ten goal scorer last year but probably won’t for a second straight season. Bridgette Andrzejewski was a hit as a rookie here, scoring nine goals and looking like a potential top scoring option the club has been thirsting for. There could be big roles as well for Zoe Redei, who endured an injury interrupted rookie season but looked quality when healthy, and super sub Madison Schultz, who was lethal off the bench. There are plenty of incoming options for UNC as well. Rookies Alea Hyatt, Taylor Otto, and England’s Alessia Russo are all big talents who could get major minutes early.

The return of Jessie Scarpa might be the biggest addition of all though, as she was a revelation as a sophomore with eight goals and eight assists in 2015 before missing last season with the U20 World Cup. Anson Dorrance has almost unlimited options for his front seven (or six), but finding the right mix could be a challenge with so many new and returning pieces.

The defense could be a bigger worry going into the new season. Gone on the backline is the graduated Hanna Gardner, while the Heels suffered another huge blow when Maggie Bill was ruled out for the season. Down two starters, UNC will be hoping for more from junior Julia Ashley, one of the nation’s most underrated defenders and the next in a line of great professional defensive prospects to be churned out in Chapel Hill. Who joins her on the backline is a major question. Otto, as well Maya Worth, who saw action on the frontline last year, could be options on the backline for Dorrance. The arrival of Lotte Wubben-Moy, one of England’s best youth prospects, could be a huge boon if she shows the form of her appearances at international level at U17 and U19 levels. Promising domestic rookie Brooke Bingham could also be pushed into major minutes given the needs on the backline for UNC.

It’s a year of transition in between the pipes as well, as Lindsey Harris graduates following a brilliant senior season in which she stood on her head on more than one occasion to keep the Heels in matches. A program with many a talented keeper over the years, UNC has one this season. As in just one keeper: Samantha Leshnak. The Heels don’t have an established backup, meaning it’s going to be all Leshnak, all the time, for better or for worse given her relative inexperience.

Carolina has plenty of weapons, the envy of most of the nation, and should be able to put together one of the elite attacks in DI with a little luck. But the defense has more questions than answers right now, and though UNC is in the top tier of teams in 2017, it could leave them just short of the big prize.

Injuries are often the first and easiest excuse coaches reach for when a season starts to go haywire. But Duke and their head coach Robbie Church had a legitimate grievance with the injury bug, which ravaged their side in 2016. Rebecca Quinn never got healthy after returning from the Olympics with Canada. Kayla McCoy went down before the halfway point of the season. Taylor Racioppi was lost just a few games after that. It was nigh-incredible that the Blue Devils did as well as they did, beating the likes of Big Ten double winners Minnesota in the non-conference schedule, before going to within a point of an unlikely ACC title. They’d suffer a heartbreaking loss to Clemson to see them fall just short of a share of the title. There’d be no joy in the ACC Tournament either, as Duke bowed out in the quarterfinals to Florida State after penalties. Though some might have believed that the Blue Devils had ran out of gas, they went on to prove that their reputation as serial overachievers in the NCAA Tournament was well deserved. Charlotte and Illinois State fell first, but Northwestern was the first real big test, which was passed with flying colors. Duke would fall just short against West Virginia in the Elite Eight, but considering the challenges faced by the club on the injury front, it had been another stellar season in Durham.

Time heals all wounds, and it’s brought the above injury victims back to full health and put the Blue Devils back amongst the favorites to make it to Orlando and the College Cup. Which isn’t to say that Duke doesn’t have some losses to compensate for, as they do lose three starters from last year’s squad. The biggest losses come in the attack, with the loss of midfielder (and defender) Christina Gibbons looming largest. Gibbons did a little bit of everything in her Duke career, but she was more of an attacking force last year, scoring four goals (mostly from the penalty spot) and leading the team with eight assists en route to All-America honors and ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors. Also departing is Toni Payne, a counter attacking marvel who hit opponents for nine goals and six assists as a senior.

The returning firepower is plentiful. Many eyes will be focused on senior Imani Dorsey, who has upped her scoring total in each of her three seasons with the club and had seven assists to go with her seven goals last year. Last year’s breakout star was rookie Ella Stevens, who came into Durham as one of the nation’s most coveted recruits. She more than lived up to the hype with ten goals to lead the team while also adding six assists. If there’s not a sophomore slump, Stevens is a potential All-American. It’s the returners who could ultimately make or break Duke’s season. Racioppi was being tipped as a potential Hermann Trophy candidate last year after a blazing rookie season. The New Jersey native chose to forego a chance to return to the U20 team for the U20 World Cup and had three goals and five assists through roughly half the season before being lost for the year. If healthy, Racioppi is one of the nation’s best attacking midfielders. Duke also will be counting on McCoy’s return this year to give the club a top level threat on the frontline. McCoy had been brilliant as a rookie and was solid last year before injuring her Achilles’ which is not an easy injury to come back from, meaning a return to peak form isn’t guaranteed.

All of which makes the incoming Blue Devil rookie class that much more important. Church has helped turn Duke into a recruiting juggernaut, and this year is no different. Tess Boade and Gabi Brummett look to continue the program’s long string of having rookies come up big early in their careers, but the player to watch might be Tennessee native Karlie Paschall, long regarded as one of this class’ best overall prospects.

Duke looks solid on defense despite the loss of veteran Lizzy Raben. Raben’s graduation might be offset by the return of Quinn to the lineup. The Canadian international is an elite prospect but has serious red flags on her due to durability concerns exacerbated by the fact that Quinn hasn’t made it through a single college season healthy yet. If she does stay healthy, she can be one of the best defenders in the country, though she could also be used as a defensive midfielder.

There are plenty of other contenders to fill the other backline slots. Schuyler DeBree recovered from an ACL injury in 2015 to start every match last season and could be set for her best year yet a further year removed from that injury. Out wide, Morgan Reid and Chelsea Burns look most likely to start and return with the pair combining for six assists last season. The sleeper might be sophomore Mia Gyau, a heavily tipped player coming into Durham last season who saw time in both midfield and defense and who is an intriguing attacking option at full-back. Added to the mix are rookies Caitlin Cosme and Taylor Mitchell, two more promising prospects who should give Church even more options for his backline.

The goalkeeping situation could bear some watching as well. EJ Proctor would appear to be a safe #1 option going into the season given her showings in goal over the past few years. But the Blue Devils also have Brooke Heinsohn on the roster now, a mountainous 6’1” keeper who is a U.S. U20 international and likely didn’t sign with Duke to play second fiddle to anyone. How Church manages the situation is another tasty subplot going into the new year.

The Blue Devils are again loaded with veteran talent, returning talent, and new talent. They’re easily a top ten team and could be potentially much more if all the pieces fall into place.
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NCAA – 2017 Big East Preview

Chris’ Big East Projections

1. Georgetown
2. DePaul
3. Butler
4. Saint John’s (NY)
5. Marquette
6. Villanova

7. Xavier
8. Providence
9. Seton Hall
10. Creighton

Most believed that Georgetown were going to have a very good season in 2016 with a talented core of returners, including some of the nation’s best players. But few probably believed that that season would extend into the final weekend of the season. That’s perhaps less of an indictment on the Hoyas as it is the modern DI WoSo landscape, which is predominantly tilted towards “Power Five” conference teams. An early season 3-0 loss to Stanford at home didn’t exactly reveal the Hoyas to be hotly tipped for a title challenge either. But they rounded into form as the weeks passed, racking up big wins over Rutgers, Virginia, and West Virginia. Given the Hoyas surge in non-conference play, a Big East title appeared easily attainable. But Georgetown would struggle for consistency and ended up in a shock third place when all was said and done. The Hoyas would put it together in the postseason though, winning three matches to win the Big East Tournament before taking down Saint Francis (PA), Rutgers, Virginia, and finally Santa Clara to advance to their first College Cup. USC would edge them out in the semi-final, but it had still been an unbelievable campaign for a program that has grown exponentially in the past decade.

With the loss of three key starters, it might be hard to replicate that College Cup season, but the Hoyas still have a ton of talent. The biggest of which is senior Rachel Corboz, who has done a more than convincing job of filling her sister Daphne’s shoes with GU, and given last year’s heroics, perhaps eclipsing her legend. Eleven goals and sixteen assists was a stunning return, with Corboz netting at least one goal or assist in six straight postseason matches at one point. At this point, it’s about surrounding Corboz with enough offense to ensure she’s not triple-teamed out of matches.

This is hardly a sure thing, as the club’s two other top scorers others than Corboz graduate, with the twenty-five combined goals of Grace Damaska and Crystal Thomas both gone after each had tremendous senior seasons. The hope has to be that Amanda Carolan, a revelation here with ten goals on just twenty-seven shots, can avoid a sophomore slump and take on more of the scoring responsibility. Others like junior Caitlin Farrell may need to have a big breakthrough for the Hoyas’ offense to not skip a beat.

That turnover on offense might mean an increased emphasis on GU’s defense, which gave up the fewest goals in Big East play last year. This unit also takes a big hit though, as All-American and Big East Tournament Defensive Most Outstanding Player Marina Paul graduates after a typically brilliant season. GU does return a cadre of veterans who could slot in on the backline though, including Drew Topor, Elizabeth Wenger, and Taylor Pak. The Hoyas also add some nice recruits in the form of Lauren Hess and Kelly Ann Livingstone, who could work their way into the lineup quickly. In goal, Georgetown took a risk on Arielle Schechtman, who was unimpressive at UCLA, an watched her blossom into a fine goalkeeper at this level. She should again be a big asset for the Hoyas’ defense which will be in a tiny bit of flux without Paul anchoring it.

The Hoyas probably won’t be able to replicate last year’s College Cup run given some of their losses, but this is still a dangerous team. A Big East title should be within their reach, as could a nice NCAA Tournament run.

If DePaul and the NCAA Tournament selection committee hadn’t become permanent enemies before last year, that might be the case now after another controversial omission of the Blue Devils from the Big Dance. The Blue Demons captured a share of another league title, but the club’s lack of creditable non-conference results would prove fatal in the end, as they would win just one of their first seven. DePaul would win seven of their first eight once league play rolled around, though they ceded important ground in the RPI and a share of the league title by losing on the last day of the regular season to Marquette. The Blue Demons knew that their NCAA Tournament fate might depend on their Big East Tournament performance, which made the shootout defeat in the semi-finals to Georgetown a crushing one. Despite having beaten and technically drawn a Hoyas side that was #7 in the RPI heading into Selection Monday, the Blue Demons were one of the highest profile snubs to miss out on an at-large bid.

Odds are, DePaul is going to come into 2017 fighting mad after last season, and they’ve got a squad that should be able to do some real damage. The Blue Demons have scored goals for fun the past few years and again have a loaded attack despite the loss of Big East Offensive Player of the Year Abby Reed. Reed’s eleven goals and six assists aren’t going to be easy to replace, but the Blue Demons do have their fair share of players that could be capable of picking up that slack.

Reigning league Midfielder of the Year Alexa Ben has twenty goals and twenty-one assists in three seasons and is likely to go out with a bang and could repeat as an All-American with more of the offense likely to go through her this season. Also back is Franny Cerny, who had a breakout season, with nine goals and six assists to her name on fabulous efficiency numbers. Things bottom out a bit after that though, with nobody else who returns having netted more than two goals last year. It might open up a few more opportunities for some newcomers, including highly touted midfielder Mikaela Hoard, the top pick of this class for the Blue Demons.

Defensively, DePaul looks to be in solid shape again, though it also faces a big loss with one of the league’s best defenders in Taylor Schissler graduating after a great senior season. The new leader of the backline is likely to be senior Lucy Edwards, who had a quietly impressive 2016 season, while Avery Hay will also be looking to build on a great rookie campaign. Senior Lauren Frasca is likely to be first choice in goal after taking over as the club’s starter last season.

DePaul are a tick behind Georgetown in my projections, but I do feel there’s enough quality on the roster to warrant a belief they’ll be NCAA Tournament bound this year.
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NCAA – 2017 WCC Preview

Chris’ WCC Projections

1. BYU
2. Pepperdine
3. Santa Clara
4. Loyola Marymount
5. Saint Mary’s (CA)
6. Pacific
7. San Francisco
8. San Diego
9. Portland
10. Gonzaga

The stage was set for BYU in 2016, with almost all of the previous season’s impressive squad returning for the Cougars. BYU entered the season with College Cup dreams and showed why those were realistic ambitions with wins at Penn State, Utah, and Ohio State and over SMU and Long Beach State at home in non-conference play. While BYU would dominate most of the WCC, they did slip up against title rivals Santa Clara and Pepperdine, which resulted in them sharing the league title with the latter. The Cougars would begin their march to the College Cup with wins over UNLV and Oklahoma but fell in the Sweet Sixteen to South Carolina in a close, contentious affair. With West Virginia finally breaking through to the College Cup, it probably leaves BYU with the unwanted mantle of being the best program to have never reached women’s college soccer’s Final Four despite dominating every league they’ve been in and being a national player for ages.

While BYU’s probably never going to totally need a rebuilding season given their traditional strength in depth, there’s no question that the Cougars might need to retool given some of their personnel losses through graduation. Most of those hits take place in the attack, where BYU loses the high powered duo of Ashley Hatch and Michele Vasconcelos, both high NWSL Draft picks, and the former a newly capped USWNT player. They combined for a whopping thirty-five goals and eighteen assists, and their departure, along with losing Elena Medeiros as well leaves a massive gap on the frontline.

The big hope has to be that Nadia Gomes, the third member of BYU’s tremendous frontline trio last year, takes the next step towards superstardom. A lightning quick forward who shined when Hatch missed much of 2015 through injury, Gomes netted six goals and twelve assists last year and will need a big season for BYU to contend again. Where the goals will come from if Gomes is held quiet is a big question, with top reserve Maddie Lyons a contender to step up.

The midfield could also be a bit of a work in progress with Medeiros and fellow standout Paige Hunt Barker graduating. It puts a lot of pressure on senior Bizzy Bowen, the lone returning starter in the middle of the park, to keep the Cougars humming in that area of the pitch while newcomers get settled. One such newcomer is Mikayla Colohan, cousin of club legend Cloee Colohan and a player tipped to be a big factor early here.

Those losses on offense mean BYU might be in the unfamiliar position of being a defense-first side in 2017. This group essentially returns intact, which is a good thing considering they gave up just eleven goals all season last year. The cornerstone of that backline is senior Taylor Isom, an All-American center-back, reigning WCC Defensive Player of the Year, and one of the nation’s best defenders. Opposite her is Danika Bowman, is sophomore who played well beyond her years as a center-back in 2016. Stephanie New and Alyssa Jefferson patrolled the flanks last year, with Jefferson another impressive member of last season’s rookie crop. Newcomer Josie Guinn, is another solid addition and could work her way into the rotation sooner rather than later.

The Cougars should also be fine in goal, with senior Hannah Clark one of the nation’s best. Clark stepped in when Rachel Boaz broke her hand early in 2016 and was a revelation, retaining the starting spot all season and looking excellent in the process.

Despite the drain of offensive talent, this BYU side is still very dangerous, with one of the nation’s best defenses. I don’t think they’ll match last season’s effort, but they have every chance of winning the WCC again and claiming a few more wins in this year’s NCAA Tournament.

A year after their first losing season since 2007, Pepperdine entered 2016 needing a response. The Waves didn’t quite match their amazing sixteen win season of 2014, but they did manage to win the WCC title and earn a return to the NCAA Tournament. Pepperdine managed to pile up wins early in the season that didn’t end up meaning as much as they likely though they would and went through a stretch of just one win in six, though they did manage a good draw against Kansas. After a scoreless draw with Portland to open up the WCC season though, Pepperdine hit a groove and won six in a row to come closer to a championship. A loss to Loyola Marymount put those hopes in danger, but the Waves earned their share of the crown with a win over Pacific in the regular season finale. Pepperdine would threaten to make an NCAA Tournament run, bouncing Cal out on penalties in the opening round but was promptly shocked by NC State in round two, ending a nice season in Malibu.

The Waves look poised to again challenge for honors in the WCC. Though Pepperdine loses four starters, most of the club’s other rivals lose that many or more, and Tim Ward’s side returns some big hitters. However, Pepperdine does have to find a replacement for goalkeeper Hannah Seabert, one of the nation’s best the past few years and another in a long line of great netminders for the Waves. Senior Brielle Preece has seen mop-up duty earlier in her career, but the job looks likely to fall to Zoe Clevely, a former U.S. U18 international.

The backline loses Meghan Schoen but does return many other starters, including Michelle Maemone, Danielle Thomas, and Jamie Van Horn. A year further removed from an injury that cost her 2015, Meagan Harbison is the wild card of the group, while Pepperdine also adds top prospect Erin Sinai to their ranks.

The offense was solid but still lacks the scoring power the club had when Lynn Williams was terrorizing the WCC. Complicating matters is the loss of Rylee Baisden, last year’s leading scorer, though she only netted six goals on sixty-one shots. Realistically, Pepperdine needs more from the three-headed monster of Bri Visalli, Christina Settles, and Hailey Stenberg, who all played a big roll in the offense last year, with Visalli leading the way with five goals. Junior Hailey Harbison is another big X-Factor, a once burgeoning star whose career has been wrecked by injuries. Harbison might also end up on the backline, though with the experience returning there, she might be better served as a winger. Pepperdine also loaded up with promising attackers in their freshman class, with Laura Ishikawa, Calista Reyes, and Brie Welch all tipped to make an impact early.

Pepperdine’s not a perfect squad, they’ve got concerns in between the pipes and in front of goal, but they’re generally solid. I’m not sure they’ll win another WCC title, but Pepperdine still looks like an NCAA Tournament team.

Santa Clara were a bit of an enigma in 2016. They showed their quality on the opening weekend of the season with wins over USC and Cal but then won just one of their next ten matches, though they included four draws in that span. But the light would come on for the Broncos a bit late, as they ended up winning six of their final seven to finish third in the WCC, three points off co-champions BYU and Pepperdine. While most figured Santa Clara might be good for a win or two in the NCAA Tournament, few likely tipped them for a deep run considering a very hard road they were dealt. However, SCU would go on an impressive run, dominating Long Beach State in the first round before shocking the world by upsetting Stanford in Palo Alto in the second round. A win over NC State in the Sweet Sixteen put Santa Clara on the verge of becoming the rare unseeded team to reach the College Cup. They’d bow out to Georgetown though, albeit not before a fantastic run to the final eight of the NCAA Tournament that raised expectations going forward.

There’s some good and some bad for Santa Clara heading into the 2017 season. The Broncos get hit by graduation and attrition, losing six starters from last year’s Elite Eight team, tied for the most in the conference. Particularly problematic are losses to an offense that struggled for scoring form at times, with just one player who netted more than two goals last year returning. Most prominent among the departures is Jordan Jesolva, who netted ten goals and four assists to double anybody else’s scoring totals for SCU, with many of her goals being clutch ones as she enjoyed a wonderful senior season. Add in the loss of the talented midfielder Julie Vass, and SCU’s attack could be a work in progress in 2017.

The lone returner of real note is sophomore Maddy Gonzalez, who is the club’s leading returning scorer with five goals despite starting just about half of the Broncos’ goals. But there’s reason for hope, because Santa Clara has added an armada of new attacking talent. The big hitter amongst the group is Idaho State transfer Maria Sanchez, who sat out last season due to transfer rules, but who looked spectacular playing for Mexico in the U20 World Cup. Also transferring in is attacking midfielder Kelcie Hedge from Washington, who also redshirted last season while playing for the U.S. at the U20 World Cup, and who was once a superstar recruit. SCU has also added a pair of coveted freshmen to the frontline as well, with Julie Doyle and Kelsey Turnbow both having extensive experience in the U.S. youth international setup.

Things should be a bit more stable on defense, where Santa Clara should be one of the best in the WCC. Iceland’s Gudrun Arnardottir was quite the find for head coach Jerry Smith and the Broncos, and all she did last year was win WCC Newcomer of the Year honors and looks like becoming one of the nation’s very best. Also back is senior Kellie Peay, who has quietly been one of the WCC’s best defenders and is a three-year starter for the Broncos. Also added to the mix is another top notch prospect from this class, Arizona native Taylor Culver, who could work her way into the rotation sooner rather than later. Junior Melissa Lowder didn’t completely claim the starting job in goal as her own until about midseason, but she did well for the most part at a program known for its excellent goalkeeping.

Expect Santa Clara to get a lot of hype after last year’s finish, but the Broncos look a functionally different team on paper with all the turnover in personnel. They’re still going to be a dangerous team, but a College Cup run might still be a year away.
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NCAA – Chris’ Crystal Ball: Preseason Top 25

While you wait for my final six previews to drop this weekend…

1. Penn State
2. Stanford
3. Florida State
4. North Carolina
6. Duke
7. West Virginia
8. Northwestern
9. Rutgers
10. Georgetown
11. Texas A&M
12. BYU
13. Virginia
14. Notre Dame
15. NC State
16. Cal
17. Michigan
18. South Carolina
19. USC
20. Utah
21. Florida
22. Pepperdine
23. Colorado
24. Santa Clara
25. Arkansas

Also considered:

Auburn, DePaul, Long Beach St, Loyola Marymount, Northeastern, SMU, Texas Tech, UC Irvine, Vanderbilt

NCAA – 2017 AAC Preview

Note: These projections have been updated to reflect late news that UCF’s Stefanie Sanders is likely to miss the 2017 season through injury.

Chris’ AAC Projections

1. Tulsa
2. SMU
3. UCF
4. Cincinnati
5. Memphis
6. South Florida

7. UConn
8. Houston
9. Temple
10. East Carolina

Patience may be wearing thin at Tulsa, where hungry Golden Hurricane supporters are still waiting for the club’s first postseason win in the AAC as they prepare to enter their fourth year in the conference since moving from Conference USA. Tulsa had few non-conference results that inspired much confidence going into league play last year, but wins in three of their first four league matches renewed some faith in the club. However, just one win in four left the Golden Hurricane needing a result in their last regular season match against South Florida at home to make the AAC Tournament. The result was a 3-2 loss and some serious questions in the offseason with a club that ended last year with its first losing campaign since 2010.

Head coach Kyle Cussen’s window for Tulsa becoming a major player in the AAC likely closes after this season. That’s because Tulsa’s two best players, and, indeed, two of the league’s best players, Rachel Thun-Blankenship and Tana Dake are both seniors and likely starving for some success to seal their legacy at the club. There are few as important as Thun to their clubs’ offense, as she had twelve goals and nine assists last year, equalling having a hand in sixty-two percent of Tulsa’s goals last year. Nobody else here had more than four, which only underlines how important Thun is to the Golden Hurricane’s efforts in front of goal.

Dake has never been a big scorer despite being a high volume shooter but found a way to be very productive last year with seven assists to go along with a pair of goals for Tulsa’s potent attack. Tulsa needs a second source of goals to emerge though, and if it’s not Dake, it might be Anna Williams, who was intriguing as a rookie and netted four goals but who also needs to make the next step.

If the Golden Hurricane don’t keep scoring, they could be sunk in a big way this year, as their defense was positively putrid in 2016, shipping more than two goals a game in the league. There aren’t really any massive additions on defense either, meaning Tulsa might be banking on a big improvement from the returners.

My projections have Tulsa much higher than most I suspect, mostly down to Thun’s brilliance. But the Golden Hurricane also have a real Achilles’ heel on defense and could easily be mired in mid-table as the title chase if things go sour.

Any questions on whether the game had passed SMU’s Chris Petrucelli by were answered definitively last season, as the former Notre Dame and Texas head coach brought the Mustangs their greatest success in ages. It was quite the statement considering Petrucelli had probably been feeling a little heat going into 2016 after little success in his tenure thus far. While the Mustangs won their first two games by a combined 17-0, few took them seriously until perhaps they began league season with two wins on the road against traditional AAC powers South Florida and UCF. A further draw with UConn established SMU as title contenders, though losses to Cincinnati and Memphis eventually relegated the Mustangs to third in the table, which meant no quarterfinal bye in the AAC Tournament. It mattered little, as they overcame UCF on penalties and beat Memphis before running out of gas against UConn in the final. They’d fall to Oklahoma in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, but considering few had expected SMU to get this far, it was still a fantastic year.

Now comes the big test, as expectations ratchet up for the Mustangs. SMU were perilously young last season, making their accomplishments that much more impressive, and they return a league high nine starters this season. SMU weren’t particularly great on either offense or defense but were better than most in the AAC in both categories last year. It could be offense that rules the day for the Mustangs in 2017, as they return most of their top attacking personnel. SMU’s attack was led by a three-headed monster of Claire Oates, Vanessa Valadez, and Allie Thornton, who combined for twenty-nine goals last year. Oates is probably the star of the show, and she scored crucial goals in the club’s final two regular season matches and first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.

Thornton and Valadez both feasted on non-conference competition but need to be a little more consistent and productive against league opponents. Additional depth never hurts, so SMU’s signing of Hannah Allred, one of the state of Texas’ best prospects in this class, should further fortify a promising frontline.

The defense could be going through a small transition, as the club’s best defender, Taylor Barg, graduates after a fine 2016 season. Much of the rest of the defense returns though, including sophomore Jessica Cooley who chipped in with an impressive eight assists in 2016. Junior Catie Brown took over in goal last season and did a creditable job and should again be first choice in between the pipes for SMU.

The Mustangs probably arrived a year early with a young squad last season and look like the real deal in the AAC this year. My projections have them being a bit off of the title, but not to the point that they couldn’t win it anyway and win a few games in the NCAA Tournament while they’re there. Continue reading

NCAA – 2017 Big Ten Preview

Chris’ Big Ten Projections

1. Penn St
2. Michigan
3. Northwestern
4. Rutgers
5. Ohio St
6. Wisconsin
7. Minnesota
8. Nebraska

9. Indiana
10. Maryland
11. Michigan State
12. Iowa
13. Illinois
14. Purdue

Penn State probably knew they were going to take some lumps last season as they tried to defend their national title after a dream 2015. The Nittany Lions not only graduated Raquel Rodriguez but found themselves without a handful of players from that team due to redshirting for the U20 World Cup. Growing pains were evident as PSU still showed their quality when drawing with West Virginia in the season opener but also showed what they had lost with losses to BYU and UCLA. Penn State managed to begin league play with nine straight unbeaten and looked like claiming another league title for themselves but were then shocked in the penultimate fixture of the regular season by Michigan State, though they’d beat Ohio State to claim a share of the title. There wasn’t much joy to be had in the postseason. Rutgers would upset PSU in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal before the Nittany Lions would get clobbered by Virginia in the NCAA Tournament second round, as Erica Dambach’s side made it’s earliest exit since 2013.

The odds of such a similar exit in 2017 are exceedingly small. That’s because Penn State should be on the shortlist of NCAA title contenders given the depth of talent from returners from last year’s squad, returners from the U20 World Cup squad, and a handful of newcomers. The one loss in the attack is a rather big one though, as midfielder Nickolette Driesse graduates following a six assist season pulling the strings of the PSU attack.

However, these Nittany Lions have an absurd amount of firepower at their disposal this season. On the frontline, the cheetah-like Frannie Crouse will be looking to make it four straight seasons with at least ten goals. Last season, Crouse hit for twelve and on much better efficiency numbers than her sophomore season and is one of the top attackers in the nation. She’ll be joined by the enigmatic Megan Schafer, the senior a player who looked like breaking out as a sophomore with thirteen goals but who scored just six last year and was held without a shot on goal twelve times. There’s also the addition of Emma Thomson to the frontline, one of PSU’s fabulous class of rookie additions.

The middle of the park is just as loaded for the Nittany Lions in 2017 despite the loss of Driesse. Most eyes will be on Emily Ogle, a potential top five pick in the NWSL Draft in a few years and a player whose presence was desperately missed last season when she was with the U.S. U20 team. If Ogle’s a complete midfielder, Charlotte Williams is more of a gunner, as she led the team in shots last season but needs to do a more efficient job in front of goal with just six goals on sixty-two shots. German youth international Laura Freigang missed a chunk of time at the U.S. U20 World Cup but still showed a lot of potential in her time here. Veterans Marissa Sheva, Haleigh Echard, and Salina Williford will also return, but they could find starting minutes under threat from rookie phenoms Shea Moyer and Frankie Tagliaferri. Tagliaferri could be this rookie class’ #1 player when all is said and done and could be a major factor this season for PSU despite her youth.

As you might expect, Penn State has an absurdity of riches on defense as well, even with the transfer of rookie Grace Fisk to South Carolina. Opposite of the now open spot at center-back is likely to be Elizabeth Ball, who is a three-year starter and a great bulwark of consistency on the backline given the changes around her. There’s likely not going to be a problem filling that vacancy at center-back though as Kaleigh Riehl returns from international duty at the U20 World Cup and is another potential NWSL Draft first round pick down the line given her quality.

Fifth-year senior Brittany Basinger has perhaps not developed into a superstar as expected but is still a more than solid left-back for Penn State and is the favorite on that flank. Right-back is going to be a very interesting dilemma, as Dambach has Maddie Elliston and Ellie Jean, who both redshirted last season for the U20 World Cup, available with the pair splitting time there in 2015. Last year’s starter, Alina Ortega Jurado surely will fit somewhere, though it may be in a more attacking role, while another of this year’s great recruiting class, Kerry Abello would presumably find some role on the pitch given her talent and versatility as a utility player. Dambach’s biggest problem might be finding a way to keep everyone happy considering she has enough defenders to field two lineups of All-Big Ten contenders.

Goalkeeping might be the biggest question on the club, with Rose Chandler back from international duty but having played in just a handful of matches in three years despite coming into PSU with a ton of hype. There’s no guarantee she’ll be able to force her way into the starting job with last year’s starter Amanda Dennis back after a fine freshman campaign.

Penn State is a juggernaut, and likely an angry one after being unranked in the preseason coaches’ poll. If Dambach can juggle a squad of superstars and keep everyone happy, there’s no reason PSU can’t be the last team standing come December.

Michigan got a little bit of vindication for some NCAA Tournament snubs with a return engagement to the Big Dance in 2016. There were certainly a few questions early when the Wolverines drew in their opener to ACC doormat Pittsburgh, but Michigan promptly reeled off nine wins in their next ten to solidify their status. But Wolverines fans were still probably fearing the worst after a horrific late season swoon where Michigan won just one of six at the end of the regular season, needed penalties to advance beyond Wisconsin in the Big Ten Tournament, and then were taken out by Minnesota in the semi-finals. Thankfully for the sanity of all those involved with the program in Ann Arbor, Michigan drew an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament and seemingly an agreeable matchup with Illinois State in the first round. However, Michigan were the ones left on the mat after the match, as the Wolverines went behind twice to ISU and then fell in a shootout to send them out as upset victims.

The bar has been set a little higher for 2017 though, as the Wolverines bring in one of the most promising recruiting classes in the history of the program under Greg Ryan. In addition to some big time freshmen coming to Ann Arbor, the club also returns veteran Taylor Timko (injury) and Sura Yekka (international duty), meaning this could be a Wolverines team infused with a good bit more talent coming into the new year. The attack will be looking to hum again but does get faced with a pretty big loss in the graduation of Nicky Waldeck, who signed off with eight goals to lead the club last year. It likely means a bigger role for Reilly Martin, who had a huge breakout season for the Wolverines with seven goals and eight assists, building greatly on decent rookie season totals. More will also likely be expected from Ani Sarkisian as a senior, with the New Jersey native attempting to add to the seventeen goals and twenty assists she’s racked up in three years here. Timko missed all of last season but was a big prospect in her first two seasons here, netting seven goals in 2015 and could be a big X-Factor for this attack, though she could slot in at full-back.

The Wolverines also have added some serious weapons through their freshman class. The highlight of which might be Canadian Sarah Stratigakis, who has been front and center with Canada’s youth national teams for years and who is being tipped to make the step up to the full WNT in the not too distant future. Also joining up is Martin’s sister, Alia Martin, a much coveted midfield prospect in her own right, and Nicki Hernandez, who should be a prized super sub at the very least. There’s no shortage of talent here, with Ryan spoilt for choice, especially in comparison to some Big Ten rivals.

Given the hype over the offense both through returning players and newcomers, it gets a little easy to forget that Michigan under Ryan has mostly been known for defense. However, last year, Michigan’s defense buckled more than usual, shipping a little more than a goal a game and was easily the worst defense of any team that finished in the top half of the league. It might be a bit of a rebuilding year on the backline, as the club sees standout center-back Anna Soccorsi and full-backs Madison Lewis and Rosalind Porritt, among others. There is some nice talent coming back though, as Jada Dayne will get the chance to show she’s ready to be the anchor of the backline after starting beside Soccorsi for her rookie season. Returning out wide is senior Rubina Veerakone at left-back, and she’ll probably be joined by Yekka, who returns to the mix after redshirting last year while competing in the U20 World Cup for Canada.

The biggest question might be in goal, as Ryan has become an infamous figure in women’s college soccer circles as a “Captain Hook” figure with his netminders. Such was the case last season when senior Megan Hinz, a two-year starter, was quickly displaced by Sarah Jackson, who ended up starting almost the entire season. They may find their positions under threat from newcomer Hillary Beall though. Beall is a much hyped goalkeeping prospect who could potentially be the U.S.’ starter at the U20 World Cup in 2018 and figures to be the #1 here sooner rather than later.

The Wolverines could be one of the nation’s most interesting teams in 2017 thanks to their star-studded recruiting class. They probably won’t be able to take down Penn State at the top of the league, but they could get much closer than some might think if the rookies hit the ground running.

It hasn’t been quick or easy for Northwestern, but last season saw the Wildcats reach the top of the Big Ten mountain and claim a long desired share of a league title. This was a program that won two games in 2011 and three in 2013 but which has grown by leaps and bounds under Michael Moynihan. The Wildcats became a factor at a national level as they won their first nine matches, though the only RPI Top 50 team they played in that stretch was Marquette. They’d cool off a bit in league play, but the Wildcats’ defense frustrated opponents and allowed them to finish 4-0-2 in their final six, though those last two draws kept them from claiming the league title by themselves. Northwestern would top Nebraska on penalties in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal, but would bow out against their defensive doppelgänger, Rutgers, in the semi-final. Northwestern would smash Kent State in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament before getting past Cinderella story SIU Edwardsville in the second round. Their run would stop in the Sweet Sixteen against Duke, but few could argue that Northwestern isn’t a program with a bright future after last year’s success.

The bar is going to be set pretty high for Northwestern this season. While few probably consider them in the top tier of national title contenders, a lot of factors point towards the Wildcats being a side with the DNA like Rutgers’ College Cup team from a few years ago that dominated with defense. Northwestern gave up just seven goals last season, a ridiculously low number considering they played twenty-three matches. At the heart of Northwestern’s defense is perhaps the nation’s best pairing of center-backs, juniors Hannah Davison and Kayla Sharples. That Davison and Sharples played as two of the nation’s best central defenders despite being just sophomores was incredible, and that they have two more years in Evanston doesn’t seem fair for opposing attacks. Left-back Kassidy Gorman doesn’t quite get the same level of attention as the center-backs but is a stalwart in her own right and provides some nice senior leadership and scoring ability after being joint leading scorer here with six goals.. The club does have to replace right-back Kaitlin Moore, but you trust this program to get it right considering how well the defense has come together in the past few years.

Northwestern is also strong in goal, with All-American senior Lauren Clem back for a final season. Clem plays behind a fantastic backline but is a great keeper on her own merits and is surely on the shortlist of senior NWSL goalkeeping prospects for January’s draft. Northwestern’s defense is likely to be a fortress this season and could be one of the best in the nation.

The attack…is a work in progress. You don’t need many goals when you’re this good on defense, but Northwestern averaged just over a goal a game in the league last year. Nobody here had more than six goals last year, and nobody even netted more than thirty-four shots on the season. While many of the Wildcats’ offensive personnel return, the club does lose a valuable piece in central midfield in Nandi Mehta. Mehta’s graduation means Northwestern is likely to rely heavily on the talented junior Marisa Viggiano. Viggiano led the club with five assists and is easily one of the Big Ten’s best midfielders, but she also may have tried to do too much herself, leading the team in shots but scoring just once on thirty-four attempts.

The hope has to be that Brenna Lovera is the forward the club has been aching for, as she scored six goals to tie for the team lead despite missing twelve games. If Lovera can stay healthy for the whole season, she definitely has potential as a double digit scorer. As you might expect, Northwestern has gone pretty heavy on new blood in the attack. Up top, Mikayla Hampton could see major minutes early, while Kylie Fisher, Made Kennel, and Regan Steigleder have all been tipped for success in the midfield. Again, Northwestern won’t need many goals given their defense, but they still need some, especially in the crunch time of postseason.

The Wildcats figure to be one of the nation’s best defensively, but questions on offense might keep them out of the College Cup discussion. Still, it’d hardly be a shock if they end up in Orlando given the right draw, and they should still be one of the best in the Big Ten.

Rutgers was always going to have trouble following up on 2015’s trip to the College Cup, but they still put up a solid season. A win at UConn was the highlight of a solid non-conference season, while a win over Northwestern helped league play start out in fine fashion. But the Scarlet Knights’ form began to go a little haywire in the second half of the season, with a draw against Illinois seemingly the catalyst for some odd results that culminated with a five match winless streak to close out the regular season and push Rutgers all the way down in to seventh place in the Big Ten table. RU would make a run to the Big Ten Tournament final with wins over Penn State and Northwestern before being downed by Minnesota in the title game. Rutgers wouldn’t really last long in the NCAA Tournament though, trouncing Harvard in the first round but losing to Georgetown for the second time in 2016 to send them out in the second round after a twelve win campaign.

While Rutgers have probably done enough to warrant a permanent space in the upper tier of the Big Ten at this point, they have a challenge ahead of themselves after losing six starters from last year’s squad. For all that the Scarlet Knights lost though, they get one huge addition back to the roster with the return of junior goalkeeper Casey Murphy. Murphy missed all of last season while with the U.S. U20s at the U20 World Cup, and her return this season should give the Scarlet Knights a big advantage in goal as compared to their Big Ten competition. Rutgers have carved out space as a defensive powerhouse during Mike O’Neill’s tenure with the club as head coach, and Murphy should have another solid backline in front of her.

The backline does take a loss though, as full-back Erin Smith, a draft pick of the Houston Dash of the NWSL, departs after another brilliant season marauding up and down the line for the club. The rest of the first choice backline should return intact. Junior Kenie Wright is the relative veteran of the group at left-back and has a couple of years of starting experience here. Considering Rutgers used a rookie center-back pairing of Chantelle Swaby and Amanda Visco last season, they fared well enough, and the pair should only get better with more experience and Murphy organizing behind them. They need to find a right-back replacement for Smith, but this should still be one of the league’s best defenses.

With two of the club’s three leading scorers from last year graduating, the offense is probably more of a concern going into 2017. Madison Tiernan was a shameless gunner with a license to foul anything that moved, but she also saved her best for her senior season, with an eleven goal outburst to easily lead the team. With third leading scorer and super sub Erica Murphy also graduating, it means that the only player that returns with more than three goals scored last year is senior Colby Ciarrocca. Ciarrocca can be a bit of an enigma at times, and her scoring total dropped from nine goals to six, as she netted just one in the club’s final ten matches. With little else back in terms of proven scoring, Ciarrocca really needs a breakout season as a senior for Rutgers. Rookie Amirah Ali is a U.S. U19 international from the powerhouse PDA club and could get every chance to make her mark early here.

The midfield takes some hits as well, with Jennifer Andresen and Tori Prager both graduating. The one returning starter is a big one though, as sophomore Nicole Whitley looks like a star in the making after winning league Freshman of the Year honors last season. Who joins her in midfield is a massive question, with rookie Alexa Ferreira tipped as perhaps the next big star in Piscataway.

This might be a bit of transition year with Rutgers having lost so much in the offseason. But the Scarlet Knights still have a handful of the league’s best and a steady hand in O’Neill leading the club, meaning they could defy expectations again in the Big Ten.

After back-to-back finishes in the RPI Top 30, it might be time for a rebuilding season for an Ohio State side that loses a massive class of seniors to graduation. The Buckeyes opened up 2016 with five straight wins and six wins of seven, but they hit a poor patch of form at a bad time, beginning league play with just one win in five. OSU would recover somewhat to win three of their last six, but it still wasn’t enough for the Buckeyes to crack the top eight and qualify for the Big Ten Tournament, with the club finishing in a tie with Indiana but losing on a head-to-head tiebreaker for the final spot in the conference tourney. There wasn’t really a penalty for not making said tournament though, as OSU not only made the NCAA Tournament but even got to host Dayton in the opening round, a match which they won, 3-2, in a thrilling affair. Reality would intercede in the second round against West Virginia, but Ohio State made it a dramatic match, with WVU needing extra time to put the Buckeyes away.

It’s going to be a tough task to repeat 2016’s performance, with the Buckeyes losing six starters. It’s not just OSU losing any six starters either, as they lose some of the conference’s top talents, including NWSL Draft picks Nichelle Prince and Lindsay Agnew. Prince departs after a five goal and four assist season, which is a bit disappointing at first glance, but the Canadian provided much more to the offense than just box score stats with her workrate. Agnew had a breakout season in front of goal as a senior, with ten goals and eight assists to her name, which meant the Canadian youth international had a hand in over half of OSU’s goals in 2016.

With that in mind, the Buckeyes will be wondering where the goals are going to come from in 2017. The top option could be senior Nikki Walts, OSU’s returning leading shot taker last season, though she still netted just four goals and isn’t an out and out forward. A player who is a forward and is going to need to continue to develop is Sammy Edwards, who is the club’s returning scorer with six goals despite starting just about half of the club’s games last year. A score of newcomers also make their way to Columbus with midfielder Riley Bowers and forward Courtney Walker perhaps most likely to make an immediate impact in the attack.

Naturally, the defense has some major losses to compensate for as well. The rearguard was roughly average last season but does return a key figure in sixth-year senior Morgan Wolcott. Wolcott stayed healthy last season, and her presence was invaluable at the heart of the defense for OSU, though she could also see time on the frontline if the Buckeye attack needs it and the defense can do without her. The Buckeyes definitely take some hits out wide, with Bridget Skinner and Nicole Miyashiro both graduating. Junior Kylie Knight, a utility defender capable of playing wide or central, and sophomore center-back Haley Walker-Robinson look likely to reprise starting roles on the backline this season. The player to watch though might be newcomer Izzy Rodriguez, an elite recruit for this class and a U.S. U20 international who could go a long way in replacing some of the star power lost, albeit on the defense instead of the attack.

In goal, it’s make or break time for junior Devon Kerr, a player with a lot of tools but who hasn’t been able to claim the #1 job for herself in two seasons despite being given every opportunity to do so. With just two true freshmen behind Kerr this season though, OSU almost have to lean on Kerr to put it together.

My projections are pretty high on Ohio State this year despite all that they lost, mostly down to a strong recruiting class. There could be some growing pains, but mid-table and another NCAA Tournament trip looks doable.

How do you replace the irreplaceable? It’s a question Wisconsin’s going to have to confront in 2017 after the graduation of club legend and overall #1 pick in the NWSL Draft, Rose Lavelle. Unfortunately, there really wasn’t a story book ending to Lavelle’s college career, with the Badgers slumping to just nine wins last season, the lowest mark here since 2008. After 2015’s high profile snub, Wisconsin had a point to prove but staggered out of the gates with just one win in six and draws against Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Drake to blot their copy. League play didn’t start out swimmingly either, with the Badgers winning just one of their first four and losing to league strugglers Indiana. The Badgers would go on a bizarre stretch of alternating wins and draws over their final seven, with wins over Minnesota and Rutgers helping the club into fifth in the table. A shootout loss to Michigan in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament likely produced a few nervy moments on Selection Monday, but the Badgers still made the cut. Beating state rivals Marquette in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament was nice, and UW so nearly pulled off an upset against Florida in the next round before bowing out in extra time.

The Badgers lose not just Lavelle but three other starters as well, though UW still has an impressive level of talent. Wisconsin weren’t great in either offense or defense as compared to their Big Ten peers, but they were still roughly above average in that respect in goals scored and conceded in league matches. Lavelle was iconic here, but UW was entirely too dependent on her in the attack, even in a deeper midfield role last season. She took a whopping seventy-three shots but netted just six goals, though that also still made her the club’s top scorer. Also gone is winger Micaela Powers, the club’s assist leader last year with six and third leading scorer with four goals.

The club’s leading returning scorer is junior Emily Borgmann, who netted five goals last year, including three in the league. Senior Sydney McGinnis also could be someone to look at given her finishing second on the team in shots last season, though she only netted a pair of goals. UW is likely going to be looking to youth for offense this season though, with sophomore forward Dani Rhodes and midfielder Allie Winterfield returning after promising but not necessarily prolific rookie seasons. The biggest and best news might be the return of Canadian Victoria Pickett to the lineup after she redshirted last season while on U20 World Cup international duty. Pickett was Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2015 and could be in line for a big season for Wisconsin. The Badgers also add some nice rookies, with U.S. U18 international Lauren Rice joining the frontline, while midfielder Gabby Lawlor could be the playmaker heiress apparent to Lavelle if she lives up to expectations.

With the offense still likely finding its feet without Lavelle, it’s going to be important for Wisconsin to be stout defensively, as they’ve been so so many times in the past under Paula Wilkins. For the Badgers, it all begins in goal with senior Caitlyn Clem, who’s surely on the shortlist of best senior goalkeepers in Division I. Clem had big shoes to fill when Genevieve Richard graduated, but she’s done very well to develop into a top calibre keeper in Madison.

The backline alongside her is looking for someone to step up and turn into a star this year. Wisconsin will be on the lookout for a left-back and a center-back after the graduation of the trio of Holly Heckendorf, Morgan Taylor, and Kylie Schwarz. The Badgers do return sophomore Camryn Biegalski at right-back and Jamie Donohue in the middle, but Wilkins and UW are still going to need some new faces to step up. Michigan native Sammy Kleedtke, a freshman, could be one of those new faces, likely in the middle given her size.

The Badgers were much more than Lavelle, of course, over the past four seasons, and they’ll probably get a chance to show that this season. They probably aren’t going to bother the upper crust of the Big Ten, but anyone expecting them to drop from sight and out of NCAA Tournament contention will probably be disappointed.

Most were tipping Minnesota to have a good 2016 season, but I suspect few believed the Golden Gophers were going to be quite as good as they turned out to be. All Minnesota did was win a share of the Big Ten title and then prove they were the league’s best team by winning the Big Ten Tournament. Wins over Utah and Santa Clara were early statements in non-conference play, and Minnesota would at one point win six of seven in the Big Ten to state their title credentials. A couple of scoreless draws at Michigan and Northwestern prevented the club from claiming the league title all by theirselves, but Stefanie Golan’s club with sweep Indiana, Michigan, and Rutgers aside in the Big Ten Tournament to do the double. Minnesota were surely on the shortlist of sides that were potential College Cup sleepers going into the NCAA Tournament, but a first round matchup against ACC side NC State was harsh and ominous. In the end, Minnesota would be frustrated by the Wolfpack, and fell in a shootout on home turf after a scoreless draw. It was a bitter end to a brilliant season.

That defeat was especially frustrating, as Minnesota had everything seemingly aligned for a run and now has to replace many talented seniors. While the Gophers lose four starters overall, the offense takes the biggest blows. The biggest task ahead of Minnesota may be finding a replacement for forward Simone Kolander, who led the team in scoring with eleven goals and picked up the Big Ten Forward of the Year award for her efforts. The frontline still has some firepower, with senior Sydney Squires the likely focal point. Squires won Big Ten Tournament Offensive Player of the Tournament honors last season as a super sub and could slot into Kolander’s vacated starting spot after scoring eight goals last season. April Bockin is another one to watch on the frontline after netting seven goals despite missing a handful of games, while Julianna Gernes and Kellie McGahn also saw starting minutes at times last season on the frontline.

Another big talent departs from the middle of the park with Josie Stiever’s graduation. Stiever was a two-way stud last year, scoring eight goals and also leading the team with ten assists. Molly Fielder is likely the new leader of the offense after finishing with seven assists and starting every match, while Emily Heslin also started every match in the middle of the park for Minnesota. The Gophers don’t quite have the star power on offense as last season, but they still look dangerous.

The offense has to be dangerous, because the defense takes some major hits as well. The backline will have to do now without Rashida Beal, and All-American, the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year, and one of the fastest center-backs in the nation as a senior. The rest of the starting backline should return intact for Minnesota this season though. Beal’s center-back partner from last year, Tori Burnett returns and may need to lead the group as a senior anchor. Out wide, Maddie Gaffney, another senior, should start again, while left-back Nikki Albrecht might have the most star potential of the group after impressing last season as a rookie, chipping in with three goals and two assists.

Perhaps the biggest question for Minnesota this year is who starts in goal after the graduation of long-time stalwart Tarah Hobbs. Last year’s backup, Mara Dougherty, was also a senior, meaning it’s largely a dive into the unknown for Golan’s Gophers. Maddie Nielsen is a true freshman, while junior Kailee Sharp hasn’t played in her two seasons here thus far. Minnesota probably doesn’t need a keeper to stand on her head all the time to bail out the defense, but they still need a viable option in between the pipes.

This Minnesota side will probably head back into mid-table after losing their top stars from last year. But Golan’s sides almost always overachieve, meaning a run in the Big Ten Tournament or the NCAA Tournament shouldn’t be ruled out.

Nebraska desperately needed a season like 2016 after a couple of disappointing campaigns. The Huskers had pulled one of the most shocking seasons for a major conference team this decade in 2013 when they won a Big Ten double, but a couple of eight win seasons had took some of the air out of the balloon in Lincoln. It didn’t take long for the public to see that Nebraska was a serious force to be reckoned with last year when they beat Marquette at home and then traveled to Provo and shocked BYU on their home turf. A further win over Kansas added to the Huskers’ resume, but their league form was spotty. Nebraska failed to string together back-to-back wins at any point in Big Ten play, though they still racked up enough points to bring home a sixth place finish. Nebraska would die by the penalty in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal against Northwestern but used spot kicks to save face against South Dakota State in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. UCLA overpowered them in the second round, but the Huskers could still take solace in a fine season.

Nebraska loses just four starters this season, but among the departures are some of the best players in the league. The biggest blow comes on offense, where All-American Jaycie Johnson departs after an eleven goal senior season. Johnson wasn’t consistent in front of goal for all of last season, but when she was in a groove, as she was against Ohio State, she was nearly unstoppable. The Huskers also lose midfielder Caroline Flynn, who was never a big presence on the stat sheet but was a versatile player who still stood out as one of the Big Ten’s best midfielders. Scoring is a serious concern for Nebraska, not just with the loss of Johnson in the attack, but also because there just weren’t a lot of sources of goals for Nebraska last season. Senior midfielder Haley Hanson is the only player returning that had more than two goals last year, netting seven last season. Hanson’s not an out-and-out forward though, meaning the Huskers really need to find a true center-forward to rely on. While Nebraska doesn’t really add a top notch forward in this freshman class, they do add junior transfer Faith Carter, who scored seven goals with TCU last season. Her signing could be a masterstroke if she adapts quickly, and Nebraska needs her or someone else to step up and provide some goals.

The Huskers take a big hit on defense as well, with the excellent Sydney Miramontez, now of the NWSL’s FC Kansas City, graduating after another fine season as the rock at the heart of the defense for Nebraska. She often played alongside sister Sinclaire Miramontez at center-back, and the younger Miramontez should now move into the role of defensive leader vacated by her departed sister. The younger Miramontez may have been overshadowed, but she still was quite impressive as a rookie and could develop into one of the league’s elite defenders. Out wide, Nebraska should be solid shape with junior Caroline Buelt and senior Alli Peterson among the favorites to start at full-back after featuring there for much of last season.

Nebraska’s backline has often played in a hyper-aggressive fashion in terms of keeping a high line, which means goalkeepers in Lincoln always need to be on their toes to come out and sweep away. Sophomore Aubrei Corder has ideal size for the position and is a former U.S. U19 international and did well to win the job full-time as a rookie but will be under as much pressure as ever with Sydney Miramontez’s departure from the backline.

Losing the star core of last year’s side is probably going to send the Huskers back down the Big Ten table, though how far is up in the air. My projections see them as a mid-table side who might be able to grasp onto the NCAA Tournament bubble if some of their players have breakout years.

Indiana has been a frustrating program for much of its history, but 2016 was perhaps the zenith of frustration for the Hoosiers’ fanbase. It wasn’t because IU was plainly awful, which, ironically, may have been easier to take. Instead, the Hoosiers mixed spurts of staggering competence such as in wins over Wisconsin and Ohio State or draws against Penn State and Rutgers, with bouts of baffling ineptitude, as in losses to LSU and Western Michigan or a draw with Purdue. As is, the Hoosiers were able to squeeze into the Big Ten Tournament based on the aforementioned win against Ohio State but caused little trouble for Minnesota in the quarterfinal. Getting back to the postseason was great for IU, but the reality is, it was still a third straight losing season for the Hoosiers after Amy Berbary’s fantastic debut in 2013.

Relatively speaking, the Hoosier offense was probably better than their defense based on league performance, so IU will probably try to build on a decent attack this year. However, IU was largely scorer by committee with one big exception, as beyond their leading scorer, nobody else netted more than two goals, though a whopping six players netted a pair. Said leading scorer is junior Mykayla Brown, who went from scoring just once as a freshman to eight goals last year. Brown netted the winner in extra time against Illinois and both goals in the draw with Purdue, meaning you could argue she was the difference between the Big Ten Tournament and missing out. The problem for Indiana is that there’s pretty much nothing else assured on the attack after Brown. Maya Piper and Cassidy Blacha were the most willing shooters among the non-Brown sources of offense, but neither were particularly prolific in front of goal. Sophomore Macy Miller might also be one to watch after a solid rookie season. There’s not much in the way of big time freshmen coming on offense either, so if Brown suffers a downturn in form, the attack could be in trouble.

The Hoosiers gave up more than a goal and a half a game in league play, so IU leaning on their defense to make the postseason looks like a bad idea on paper. The club could also face a leadership void in central defense with the graduation of the club’s best defender, Marissa Borschke, who was a solid anchor for the Hoosiers. Sophomore full-back Meghan Scott may be the one to watch this year, as she led the club in assists last year with seven and may be needed to help the attack again this year. An interesting addition to watch on the backline might be Hungarian youth international Hanna Nemeth, who brings size and experience in international competition to the Hoosiers this season. In goal, sophomore Sarah L’Hommedieu started almost every match last year but showed her youth in establishing a presence and dominating the box. That could put her position under threat from the gem of this recruiting class, Michigan native Bethany Kopel.

The Hoosiers have a couple of solid pieces, but they look far from a complete unit, with a one-dimensional offense and a middling defense. It probably equals a season like 2016, with IU having scrap to make the postseason.

I mentioned in previewing Maryland in 2016 that the club was probably as close to rock bottom as any in the history of a Power Five conference. A protracted coaching search and mass defections from the program meant that former Harvard boss Ray Leone was inheriting a bare bones squad that was adding transfers deep into the offseason just to fill out the numbers. And sadly, there wasn’t a miraculous ending to what looked on paper to be a potentially horrifying season. There was the indignities of results like drawing with Gardner-Webb and losing to Appalachian State. And there was the crushing succession of league defeats, including losing the season finale to Minnesota, 6-0. The Terps didn’t go winless in Big Ten play, beating Illinois early on, but that was realistically the only solace in a lost season in College Park.

Supporters expecting some kind of “worst-to-first” miracle for the Terps in 2017 are likely to be disappointed. Maryland does get to return nine starters, tied for second most in the league, but that may have a marginal impact on the club’s fortunes considering how far behind the pack they were last year. There may be a couple of goals in the Terps in 2017 though. Junior Jarena Harmon was tipped as one to watch after transferring from Pittsburgh and was as good as advertised against smaller opposition, netting eight goals, including a brace against Illinois but also faltered down the stretch. Senior Chelsea Jackson netted nine, including four in the league, so you would figure she has the chance to contribute against any foe. However, the Terps will more than likely be counting on some of their newcomers, with Florida forward Maddison Krstec highly rated, and midfielder Alyssa Poarch the Delaware Gatorade State POTY and a former U17 international for the U.S.

But Maryland was an absolute horror show defensively, and few of the additions to the squad seem to be dedicated to that side of the ball. Cal transfer Zoe Clark is a low-risk gamble for a season, but isn’t likely to revolutionize a defense that gave up almost three goals a game in league play. Leone may have to settle on a starting goalkeeper having played musical chairs last year. Fifth-year senior Rachel Egyed seemed to be in favor over Katelyn Jensen at season’s end though and might have a leg up entering the new season, though it’d hardly be a surprise to see both again this year.

Maryland brings in a ton of new faces, but there’s not a blue-chip prospect that’s going to bring back the glory days overnight from this class. The Terps have a little punch going forward, but an overall lack of strength in depth and major defensive worries mean it’s probably going to be another year before challenge for a postseason spot.

A everlong slumber has seemingly descended upon the Michigan State women’s soccer program, as the Spartans have now missed the postseason in five straight seasons and not graced the NCAA Tournament with their presence since 2009. Last year, the Spartans played an atypically difficult non-conference schedule and actually racked up some big wins, topping Baylor and then going on the road to beat Colorado. League play started out in middling fashion, but the Spartans buckled in early October, losing five straight to all but kill their postseason hopes. The Spartans would stun Penn State and beat Purdue, but it still left them in tenth in the league, three points off the playoff places. The disappointing campaign also marked the Spartans’ first losing season since 2012.

The question now is if longtime head coach Tom Saxton can repay the faith shown in him by a very patient administration and get the Spartans back to Big Ten glory. While it doesn’t exactly look like the Spartans are going to be contending for honors in the league this year, at least getting to the postseason isn’t out of the question. MSU wasn’t great really in any area last season, but the offense is probably further along than the defense going into 2017. Netting a little over a goal a game in the league isn’t great though, and the Spartans’ attack needs to find an extra gear if they’re to return to the postseason. Senior Jamie Cheslik is likely the best hope for goals, scoring five last season as the club’s scorer and having netted eight as a rookie in 2014. Hannah Jones had a hat trick against Maryland last year and could see more chances, while Lexy Warner also might see an increased role in attack. Saxton has also added a pair of impressive rookie midfielders in Gabriala Jodzis and Danielle Stephan, and odds are, both may need to hit the ground running to get this offense firing.

Even if Michigan State does make strides on offense, their defense has to get better in turn. MSU gave up a goal and a half a game in conference play, something that when mixed with a middling attack made postseason qualification almost impossible. The Spartans used a time share in goal last season, splitting minutes between the graduated Kaitlyn Collin and returning senior Savanna Wojtanowski. The latter took over as starter for the second half of the season when Collin suffered a season ending injury and should again be the #1 this year. The backline has some work to do, with full-back Marisa Oleksiak, who netted four goals last year, and center-back Jessica Kjellstrom both graduating. Two other starters, Michaela Kovacs and Madison Duncan, return, while MSU also adds in rookie center-back Devin Jaqua to the likely core of the defense. I don’t think the Spartans will make a miracle run up the table, but if some of the freshmen pay off immediately, they have an outside shot at a Big Ten Tournament berth and perhaps an NCAA at-large bid.

Though Iowa head coach Dave Dilanni came to the club with a glittering reputation from his work a Division II Grand Valley State, his endeavors with the Hawkeyes have borne limited fruit in three seasons. After a very promising fourteen win year in 2014, the Hawkeyes have slid back to mediocrity the past two seasons. A 5-3 loss on opening night last season to Creighton was ominous, even if the club rebounded right away by winning at Missouri. A run of wins against weak non-conference opposition was not an indicator of the struggles to follow, as Iowa lost its first four in the league, getting shut out in each defeat. The Hawkeyes would finish with two wins in their final seven matches, leaving them in an unflattering thirteenth place in the Big Ten at season’s end. Iowa’s not an easy place to win at, but Hawkeye supporters must surely be hoping for an upward trend going into Dilanni’s fourth season.

Unfortunately, a rapid climb up the table does not appear to be in the cards for Iowa this year. It’s difficult to see where a big jump is going to come from, as the Hawkeyes are bringing in neither a great recruiting class or an ace recruit that could turn the tide in an instant. The biggest concern has to be on offense, where despite scoring at a solid clip against non-conference foes, Iowa found themselves shooting blanks in Big Ten matches, with just four goals in eleven league games. There’s not exactly great news going into the new season, as Iowa loses leading scorer Bri Toelle, who netted six goals on fifty-one shots. Where are the goals going to come from this season? There aren’t any clear answers, though second leading scorer Karly Stuenkel probably will get a crack at leading the charge, though she’s more of an attacking midfielder. Rose Ripslinger and Devin Burns also figure to get chances up top. The Hawkeyes appear to have a gem in U.S. U20 international Natalie Winters in central midfield, but she’s not a prolific scorer and figures to get swarmed if Iowa can’t find other players to step up in the attack.

Iowa wasn’t appalling on defense, but they weren’t nearly good enough last season to mask the club’s absent offense. There is the potential to improve this season though. First-choice center-back pairing Morgan Kemerling and Rachele Armand return this season after opening most of last season anchoring the backline. The club will have to make a change at left-back to replace departed senior Amanda Lulek, with Leah Moss and Hannah Drkulec among the contenders. The latter could also feature at right-back for the Hawkeyes. Sophomore Claire Graves got tossed into the fire straight away last season in her rookie campaign in between the pipes. There’s little reason to think she’ll lose her grip on the starting job this year.

It’s tough envisioning a side with so many offensive questions climbing into postseason contention. My projections give them an outside shot at the top eight, but Iowa looks destined for another season of Big Ten struggle.

Now entering the third year of Drew Roff’s tenure at Purdue, it’s clear that progress needs to be made after two tepid years of stewardship thus far. The gloom was palpable right away last year as the Boilermakers lost to Montana on the opening weekend of the season before getting pasted by Baylor a week later. Purdue would win their league opener against fellow strugglers Illinois but then weren’t on a season killing six match losing streak that made the final four matches academic, even if they did improve a bit in a 1-2-1 stretch. The end result was a twelfth place finish in the league table with the club a whopping eight points out of the postseason places. Roff came into West Lafayette with a big reputation after dominating at Illinois State but has found going much harder so far in the Big Ten.

Unfortunately, it’d take a very brave person to pick the Boilermakers to make a sudden move up the Big Ten table this year. The Boilermakers have to deal with some major losses in personnel, in numbers if nothing else. Purdue loses six starters, tied for second most in the league, which means some serious upheaval in the starting lineup. Chief amongst the worries here is who is going to be scoring the goals. Purdue netted just nine goals in eleven league games last year, with nobody scoring more than four on the season. That player, Andrea Petrina, does return, but the next two leading shot takers on the Boilermakers, Erika Arkans and Hannah Leinert are both gone. The wild card for Purdue’s attack is fifth-year senior Maddy Williams, who missed all of last season after being hurt in the Spring. Williams netted twenty-four goals in three years before getting hurt and probably had her best season in 2015, but it’s a lot to ask a player to come in after a year out and carry an offense, meaning Purdue really needs to find more than one source of goals.

Purdue wasn’t exactly a brick wall on defense either, giving up just a shade under two goals a game in the league and keeping just a pair of clean sheets in the Big Ten. Roff juggled defenders constantly, meaning it’s not exactly going to be predictable to pick out how Purdue will line up in the back going into 2017, but center-back Vanessa Korolas and junior full-back Hannah Mussallem are likely in the mix, though the team does have to replace graduated center-back Megan Kaser. Freshman Sarah Clark, the pick from this recruiting class will likely also feature early. Goalkeeping is also a question mark, with last year’s top netminder Jordan Ginther graduating. Erika Yohn has starting experience but figures to be challenged by junior Maddy Olsen and rookie Katie Luce. There are questions everywhere for Purdue, and the answers probably aren’t going to conducive to a comeback season in 2017.

It’s hard to classify Illinois’ 2016 season as anything but a total disaster. It wasn’t just that Illinois suffered their first losing season since 2009. It wasn’t just the eleventh place finish in the Big Ten, leaving the club four points out of the postseason. It was more the fact that after missing the NCAA Tournament for two straight seasons coming into last year and with a veteran squad, the Illini were finally supposed to put it all together. Injuries to talented starters like Kara Marbury and Sarah Warren, sure starters if healthy didn’t help, but Illinois still started seven seniors, a league high. The Illini didn’t beat anybody with a pulse in non-conference play, and their paper tiger status showed in the league, as they failed to win in any of their first five, a string which included home losses to Purdue and Indiana and a galling 3-1 loss at Maryland. A late run of form including a win over Michigan and draw with Wisconsin helped, but it only blunted the overall disappointment of the season just a bit.

Losing seven starters is bad, but losing seven starters from a side that already was short on top line talent for this level could be catastrophic. The problems are many for Illinois, but they desperately need to solve their woes on offense. Illinois once had All-American forward Jannelle Flaws to do their scoring, and they’ve never really recovered from her loss, scoring under a goal a game in the league and overall in 2016. Marbury’s return could be big, as she netted seven in 2015, but Flaws was still around then, so there’s no telling how well the senior will respond to being a top option. But frighteningly, Marbury still tied for the team lead in goals with three despite missing half the season. Perhaps even more disconcerting, only two other returnees scored last season, and they combined for just four goals. Fortunately, a little help might be on the way from this recruiting class. Midfielders Hope Breslin and Madi Wolfbauer both come in with a fair degree of expectation, and Illinois is probably going to need some immediate contributions considering the utter lack of proven scoring returning.

The defense wasn’t brutally bad last year, but it also wasn’t good enough to compensate for the aforementioned attacking woes. Warren’s return from injury should help, while Morgan Maroney and Alicia Barker also will be back after starting most of last season. Whether that’s enough is up for debate, and there’s not a rookie savior likely to emerge, unlike further up the field. And that could be a big issue, as both of last year’s starting keepers, Claire Wheatley and Michelle Denley, are gone. Sophomore Jaelyn Cunningham will likely battle rookies Sami Sample and Elizabeth Cablk for the gloves, but with the lack of experience here, the worries are very real.

It’s easy to be pessimistic about Illinois for 2017. They lose a ton of starters, lack talent as compared to league rivals, and don’t bring in a lights out recruiting class. They could scrape their way into the postseason if the injury returnees and youngsters catch fire, but it seems more likely Illinois will flirt with the Big Ten basement in 2017.

NCAA – 2017 Ivy League Preview

Chris’ Ivy League Projections

1. Princeton
2. Columbia
3. Brown
4. Yale
5. Harvard
6. Dartmouth
7. Penn
8. Cornell

The numbers lied for Princeton in 2016. If you judged Princeton’s season by RPI finish, you would consider last season a rousing success for the Tigers, who finished a heady #33 overall at season’s end. By any other measure, 2016 was a bust for a fancied Tigers side that finished without a win against an RPI Top 75 team and which languished in fifth in the final Ivy League table after winning just one of its final five league matches and just two overall in the conference last season. Thus, it was hardly a shock that the Tigers found themselves out of the NCAA Tournament mix despite their lofty RPI.

A little more humble, Princeton will enter a new season, likely with high expectations again. Scoring wasn’t a problem here last year, but the departure of Tyler Lussi after a ten goal senior season could create some problems. Princeton does still have a big weapon to draw on in the form of junior Mimi Asom, who scored nine goals to follow up a twelve goal rookie campaign. Asom’s talented, without question, but Princeton also needs more sources of goals to take the heat off of her. No other returner netted more than three goals, so there’s some serious concerns if players like Natalie Larkin or Vanessa Gregoire can’t pick up some of the slack. Also keep an eye on sophomore Abby Givens, who didn’t have big numbers but did have three goals and three assists in scattered time.

The Tigers’ offense captured most of the attention, but the defense simply wasn’t good enough for a league title push last year. It’s a situation that might not necessarily get better, as the Tigers lose the best defender from that backline, with Jesse McDonough graduating. It’s not a surprise then that a big emphasis in recruiting was on the backline, with Lucy Rickerson and Julia Simkus both tipped to play a big role as rookies. Canadian Natalie Grossi won the starting job in goal as a rookie and is probably going to fulfill that role here for the next three seasons. The Tigers should have enough to be considered Ivy League favorites, though they certainly aren’t miles above the fray. Finding help for Asom in front of goal and tightening up on defense is key, but if it happens, the Tigers should collect another league crown.

The Wizard of New York almost conjured up another unlikely miracle in 2016 at Columbia. Looking for their first league title since 2006, Tracey Bartholomew’s Columbia overcame a rocky non-conference slate to shock the Ivy League by winning their first four in the conference, including a victory over title favorites Princeton that put them on the doorstep of glory. In the end, the Lions just ran out of steam, going 0-2-1 in their final three, though both losses were on the road and by a single goal. In the end, Columbia finished third but with a whole lot of optimism going forward given their relative youth.

The Lions get ten starters back from last year’s side, and the one starter that departs is goalkeeper Allison Spencer, who split time in the goal. Junior Sophie Whitehouse will likely be the favorite to take the gloves, but she could be challenged by freshman Juliet Allen. As you might expect with a Bartholomew defense, the Lions backline was great last year and returns three All-Conference performers in Natalie Ambrose, Amalya Johnson, and Kerry Mannion. While defense shouldn’t be a problem, the big question is if Columbia can score enough goals to challenge for a title. The leading scorer here last year was Emma Anderson with five, but all but one of her goals came in non-conference play. Other returnees Natalie Nest and Amaris Hemmings have scoring potential, but Bartholomew will probably be looking for a pick me up from newcomers Jordyn Geller and Grace Wall. I’m not sure Columbia has a star to put them over the top, with scoring another concern, but they still look an intriguing pick for a potential title push.
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NCAA – 2017 Sun Belt Projections

Chris’ Sun Belt Projections

1. South Alabama
2. Coastal Carolina
3. Arkansas-Little Rock
4. Troy
5. Texas St
6. Louisiana-Monroe
7. Georgia Southern
8. Arkansas State

9. Appalachian State
10. Georgia State
11. Louisiana-Lafayette

The question for South Alabama going into 2017 is what happens when the magical voyage ends? Or at least threatens to end. Graham Winkworth, who brought home countless pieces of silverware, crushed LSU in the NCAA Tournament in 2015, and beat #1 ranked Florida State in Mobile last year. USA would win another league title last year, but barely, after losing three games in the league. The Jags would come good in winning another Sun Belt Tournament title, but there was no NCAA Tournament triumph in 2016, as Auburn beat them handily in the opening round. Winkworth departed for Arizona State in the offseason, and Carson-Newman’s Richard Moodie was tabbed as his replacement.

Winkworth leaving is one problem, but perhaps the bigger problem is all the talent that left in his wake as well. The biggest loss is of Jemma Purfield, a mid-major wrecking ball who managed to lead the team in goals and assists despite being a full-back. Also gone on defense are reigning Freshman of the Year Alexis Jordan and fellow rookie Jana Loeber, creating a big void on the backline. It will largely be up to returning junior Hannah Godfrey, who was more than solid last year, to lead a new look unit. Fellow Brit Steffi Hardy is also likely to get major minutes, while European newcomers Sonja Reichel (Germany) and Anita Agustsdottir (Iceland) could also factor in. In goal, sophomore Justice Stanford won the starting job early in her rookie season and should be first choice here going forward.

On the other side of the ball, losing Purfield definitely isn’t going to help, but USA still has some firepower to work with. Senior Rio Hardy is the leading returning scorer with eight goals and will likely need to have a career year for the Jags to keep flying. With third leading scorer Ashlynn Jones also gone, the Jags are probably going to need the combo of Danielle Henley and Charde Hannah to step it up after the pair combined for seven goals on a whopping ninety-one shots. Hannah in particular has been an enigma as a collegian, netting twenty goals as a rookie but seeing her scoring decline markedly since, leading up to last year’s four goal season. Moodie’s also kept the international flavor coming in the attack, with Iceland’s Selma Bjorgvinsdottir and England’s Abi Mills joining in midfield. There’s reason to be wary going into 2017 for USA as there’s been a lot of change, but even with all the departures, there’s still enough here to make them league title favorites once more.

So much for the jump from the Big South to the Sun Belt being a big challenge for Coastal Carolina. Some felt that the potential step up in class might catch the Chants out, but they flourished instead. CCU won five of their first six before running out of gas a little bit down the stretch in the Sun Belt. Despite that, the Chants had a chance to win the league title on the final day with a victory but were held to a draw by Louisiana-Lafayette. CCU would get another shot at a trophy in the Sun Belt Tournament final but would fall to league champs South Alabama for the second time in 2016.

The second time might by the charm for Coastal and the Sun Belt though, as they look to have a great shot of continued success this year. They do have to replace five starters from last year’s runner-up squad. The Chants had one of the Sun Belt’s best offenses last year but has to deal with the loss of key forward Amber Adams, who netted five goals and tied for the team lead in assists with four. Swedish senior Daniella Famili was CCU’s leading scorer last year with nine goals and is going to have to pick up some of the scoring burden this year. CCU will also surely be hoping Kayla Christian gets back to her freshman form, when she scored nine goals, and they’ll also likely bank on top recruit Brianna Oliver to hit the ground running as well.

Defensively, Coastal wasn’t the best in the league but still pretty good. They face a challenge in goal though, with senior stalwart Becca Austin graduating. Junior Morgan Divine started a few matches last season and will likely be challenged by rookie Rylee Atteberry for the starting job. I’m probably a little more conservative on the Chants than my projections, but they still look like one of the Sun Belt’s best teams. Continue reading

NCAA – 2017 MAC Preview

Chris’ MAC Projections

1. Kent St
2. Buffalo
3. Ball St
4. Central Michigan
5. Western Michigan
6. Northern Illinois
7. Toledo
8. Bowling Green

9. Miami (OH)
10. Eastern Michigan
11. Ohio
12. Akron

Kent State were second best to Ball State in the MAC table at regular season’s end, but they were second to none when it counted, winning the MAC Tournament to claim an NCAA Tournament berth. KSU dropped their season opener to Ohio State but then reeled off ten wins in a row en route to a thirteen match unbeaten run to put them in a great spot for the MAC title. A loss to Ball State ended those hopes, but with BSU upset in the MAC Tournament quarterfinal, KSU had an easy path to a tournament title which they took with delight. Northwestern clobbered them in the NCAA Tournament, but KSU had still enjoyed a great campaign.

A follow-up will have to be done without some key pieces, including All-American and MAC Offensive Player of the Year Jenna Hellstrom. The Canadian was a dynamo on offense last year, scoring fourteen and assisting on ten more to reveal herself as one of the nation’s best forwards. Another big piece that goes is midfielder Abbie Lawson, who wasn’t a big presence on the stat sheet but still a major talent. Much on offense depends on how Donavan Capehart responds to being the #1 threat, after six goals and four assists last year. There are big things expected though of Canadian newcomer Vital Kats, a long-time member of her nation’s youth international setup who was on the most current U20 World Cup roster for her country. Kats has flown under the radar a bit compared to some bigger Canadian names but could have a huge impact in the MAC.

KSU looks like a side that could win through their defense this year, even with the loss of senior leader Brittany Maisano. Junior Paige Culver is one of the league’s best defenders, while sophomore Sierra Henderson-Muschett could be on her way to joining her in that rarefied air. The Golden Flashes are great in goal as well, with junior Ashleah McDonald impressive last season, while they also add Canadian youth international Faith O’Neal. KSU’s losses shouldn’t be minimized, but they still look like the best side in the MAC by some distance. A league title looks likely for last year’s conference tournament champs.

Shawn Burke produced one of the most memorable debut seasons for a MAC coach imaginable in 2014 at Buffalo and has been trying to match that standard ever since. The Bulls were decent in non-conference play, with their losses coming against bigger clubs, but their league form was fairly erratic in the first half of MAC action. A five match winless streak threatened their postseason hopes, but UB still managed a sixth place finish before being beaten in the MAC Tournament quarterfinal by Central Michigan.

Though 2016 was a bit disappointing, Buffalo does enter the new season with renewed hopes of being one of the league’s top clubs. The Bulls were stout defensively last season and should be again if they can replace their top defender, Angel Hart. Buffalo does return a promising sophomore in Gurjeena Jandu and should again be solid in goal with underrated Canadian senior Laura Dougall manning the gloves. The Bulls were a bit of a paradox on offense, as they had one of the league’s best forwards but little else. Carissima Cutrona netted ten goals for the Bulls or more than half of their total overall, with nobody else on the team netting more than two. The Bulls definitely created chances, with four other players besides Cutrona having over twenty-five shots, but those players also combined for just eight goals, indicating a blunt edge in front of goal. The Bulls look a well-rounded side who might be a dark horse in the MAC if they can find a little more offense to partner with Cutrona.

Ball State have been heroes in the regular season and zeroes in the postseason the past two seasons in the MAC. The Cardinals have won consecutive league titles in 2015 and 2016, only to be knocked out in the opening round of the MAC Tournament on penalties by the #8 seed each time. Last year, Ball State put together a solid non-conference season, capped off by a 1-0 win at Louisville. They’d take command of the MAC with three wins out of the gate and had all but wrapped up the title with an eight game unbeaten run before their lone league loss to Ohio. The shootout loss to Northern Illinois was a sucker punch for a BSU side that had again been dominant in the regular season but still fell some way short of having a resume fit for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Not taking advantage in the postseason the past two years could come back to haunt the Cardinals, as they take some big hits going into 2017. The MAC’s best defense in 2016 loses its two best players, with reigning league Defensive Player of the Year Lorina White graduating, along with fellow stalwart Leah Mattingly. The most promising pieces on the backline now might be very young, as Swiss sophomore Yela Ziswiler tries to build on a nice rookie year, with rookie Ali Martin also likely to see major minutes early here. The Cardinals will likely be banking on senior goalkeeper Alyssa Heintschel, who herself had a very good 2016, to keep things steady on the backline as they find their feet.

It might mean BSU needs to lean more on their offense, which used the “death by a thousand cuts” formula instead of riding one or two big time scorers. Sweden’s Julia Elvbo was as good as advertised with three goals and two assists and should get better with more experience at this level. The leading scorer for BSU (and joint leading shot taker) was Sam Kambol, who was actually a super sub for most of the season and could be a threat for double digits if she sees more minutes. The club does lose midfielder Chay McNitt, but the addition of Nicky Potts, an English youth international, could help ease that departure and add another weapon on offense. BSU should still be one of the MAC’s best, but given all they lost on defense, a three-peat of MAC titles may be difficult. Continue reading

NCAA – 2017 Southern Conference Preview

Chris’ SoCon Projections

1. Samford
2. Furman
3. UNC Greensboro
4. East Tennessee St
5. Wofford
6. Mercer
7. Western Carolina
8. Chattanooga
9. VMI
10. The Citadel

Not many expected SoCon opponents to be able to stand up to the might of a stacked Samford team in 2016, and expectations were not bucked in a dominant title winning season for the Bulldogs. This was a Samford team that played Auburn close in August and beat Baylor and Alabama a few weeks later. Furman would shock the Bulldogs in their second league match, but Samford promptly won their next seven to win the league title and three more matches to claim a double. Samford were perhaps unfortunate to get sent to Florida State in the NCAA Tournament, but despite the defeat, it had still been a fabulous season.

The Bulldogs could be in for a challenging title defense in 2017 though, as they lose a whopping five starters from last year’s squad, including many of the league’s best players. But the fact that that number is five instead of six could be big, as the Bulldogs get Jermaine Seoposenwe for one more season. The South African international had a revelatory season with sixteen goals and six assists, scoring ten in eight games at one stretch in the league season. The problem for Samford is that they could struggle to find anyone else to provide goals with the club’s next three leading scorers, including the brilliant Malcanisha Kelley all graduating. Kelley, Taylor Borman, and SoCon Tournament MVP Anna Allen are all among those gone, leaving a big gap for the Bulldogs to fill. Some unsung heroes like Virginia McNeill, Korrie Sauder, and Taylor Meneide are going to need to step up on offense for Samford to keep rolling.

Samford had the SoCon’s best defense in 2016 as well, but this unit takes hits also, with league Defensive Player of the Year Olivia Cole and Emily Jones both graduating. The hope has to be that the reigning SoCon Freshman of the Year Allie Lourie can avoid a sophomore slump and lead a new look defense. Senior keeper Anna Maddox is a big asset for the Bulldogs though and could be needed much more than in 2016 given the changes on the backline. Samford didn’t look like favorites to retain their title before the news that Seoposenwe was getting an extra year of eligibility, but the South African’s return changes much. There are still worries given the upheaval around her, but the Bulldogs still look to have enough to be title favorites this year.

It was a good but not great season for Furman in 2016. Then again, the bar is higher for the Paladins than most SoCon programs thanks to a winning and successful history. After dominating a pretty weak non-conference slate, Furman won their first three in the league, including beating eventual league champs Samford, but went just 3-3-0 in their final six to limp home in fourth in the table. The Paladins would vanquish UNC Greensboro in the conference tournament quarterfinals before falling to Samford in the semi-final, 2-1.

This year though, the Paladins will likely be aiming much higher, as they appear to have a title contending team on paper. Furman looks like returning nine starters this season and brings back most of the key players from last year’s squad. A big exception though is Carlie Couch, who was joint leading scorer with ten goals last year and who finished with thirty-seven on her career. Fortunately for the Paladins, they still have three other players coming back who netted more than five goals last year. Molly Dwyer netted ten goals, Treva Aycock led the team with eight assists, but the top returnee might be the understated senior midfielder Rachel Shah. Add in highly touted midfield recruit Josie Gillespie, and Furman shouldn’t struggle to score this year.

Furman were about average in the SoCon defensively and should got most of the principals back from last year’s squad, including their top backline member, senior Quinn Lombard. Starting keeper Rose Hull departs, but sophomore Kellsey Weaver got a lot of time last year and should slide right into the #1 role. Furman looks like the SoCon’s best time this year and have a good shot at at least one league trophy in 2017. Continue reading