Auburn Midfielder Ana Cate Will Try To Fire The Tigers to The Top in 2012
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A bedrock of mid-table anonymity for so much of their history as a program, Auburn more than just made up the numbers when it counted most on one glorious week in November in Orange Beach, Alabama. Winning three games in five days, the Tigers claimed only their second major trophy in program history, and their first since winning the league in 2002.
What made the triumph so extraordinary was that this Auburn side had finished seventh in the league. In many ways, it was a fairly typical Auburn season, with the club showing sparks of brilliance, as in the club’s shocking 1-0 win against Duke early in the year, and moments of madness, as could be evidenced by the fact that they finished in the bottom half of the league.
There’s been little in the way of extended greatness on the Plains over the last decade. With the exception of a lone title triumph in 2002, the Tigers have usually been lodged in mid-table in the league, have often been little more than first-round fodder in Orange Beach, and had always been bounced from the Big Dance before the end of the first weekend heading into 2011. Of course, there was something to be said about qualifying for six out of seven possible NCAA Tournaments from 2001-2007 in a league where most of the programs struggle for year-to-year consistency.
But most agreed that head coach Karen Hoppa had scored a major coup with the signing of local product Katy Frierson, widely regarded as one of the top five players in her recruiting class. Players of Frierson’s calibre just didn’t end up at programs like Auburn, and the general feeling was that the addition of the talented Homewood native would by just the thing to spur the Tigers towards an eventual title challenge. 2008 was a roller coaster ride for the Tigers. Frierson was just about as good as advertised, but the team around her went through some severe growing pains The Tigers were quite frankly a little lucky to get an at-large invite to the Big Dance while ludicrously being chosen to host a regional and given a favorable matchup against Belmont in the first round of the tournament.
Instead of taking a step forward in 2009, the Tigers seemed to move laterally, dropping to sixth in the league and needing a four match winning streak including the first round of the SEC Tournament to lock up their fourth straight trip to the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers entered 2010 with supporters wondering if this would finally be the year the Frierson led Auburn side made their quantum leap forward in the SEC standings. The club wasn’t shy about picking up solid wins, with victories over Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Florida State, and Florida dotting their resume. But the Tigers’ league form was less than stellar, and Auburn needed a come from behind victory in the regular season finale just to make it to the postseason. They’d do little of note once there though, being bounced by Georgia in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals before going down meekly to South Florida in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
2011 marked one last chance for Frierson to lead her team to silverware and stamp her place in the pantheon of SEC legends. The year didn’t begin with a bang, as the club sleepwalked through a dismal 4-1 defeat to Wake Forest at home. They’d make up for that by going unbeaten the rest of the way in non-conference action, adding a win at Denver and the aforementioned shock victory over Duke to their resume. The only blip was a 2-2 draw against a woeful Colorado side that became more understandable when you realize that Auburn was missing all of their regular keepers through illness and injury, having to recruit a former player from campus to stand in for the day.
The Tigers looked like title contenders early in SEC action as well after winning their first three and scoring ten goals in those wins. But Auburn would be upset by Mississippi State, 2-0, in their fourth match, triggering a mini-meltdown. The Tigers would blow leads twice in the next game against Florida, losing in extra time, and then lost to South Carolina to extend their losing streak to three matches. The title was history, and though the club swept LSU and Arkansas the following weekend, they finished with just one point from their final three matches, seeing them plunge to seventh in the league.
Few likely gave them much of a chance in Orange Beach. Instead, Auburn would produce one of the best five day runs in the competition’s history. LSU was toppled first on a windy Wednesday, with Hoppa’s Tigers dealing the Bayou Bengals a 3-0 defeat. Then came a 2-0 win over Tennessee in the semi-finals, the Tigers avenging a regular season defeat to UT.
The final would offer a chance at the ultimate redemption, with the opponent being the Florida team that had so broken Auburn’s hearts early in the league season. The Tigers would take a big bite out of their rivals early, with Frierson scoring twice in the first half-hour. UF was reeling but fought back to 2-2 after fifty-four minutes, making some wonder if the Tigers were caving in once more. But in the sixty-fourth minute, Auburn would strike again, Ana Cate finishing off a lovely team move. There would be no more comebacks, and Auburn was able to celebrate an unbelievable week as the sun set on Orange Beach.
The NCAA Tournament gave Auburn a deceivingly tough matchup early, with a confident and hard nosed Utah State team being battered on the stat sheet but staying in it right until the end, with the Tigers ultimately prevailing, 2-1. The chance to reach more unchartered ground would come in the second round against Maryland. On a windy day, it was the ACC side that would emerge triumphant, making a second half goal stand up to nip the Tigers, 1-0.
It was a disappointing end to the season for a club that had shown they could beat just about anyone on their day in 2011. It may not have been the most consistent season when all was said and done, but it was still a memorable one, with the club having been able to send their seniors out with the program’s first SEC Tournament title to their name.
The hard part comes now for Auburn. While the Tigers lose just three starters, two of those starters are Frierson, quite likely the best player in the history of the club, and Julie King, who just won the league’s Co-Defensive Player of the Year award, as well as First Team All-Region honors. Those losses leave massive holes in both the defense and the offense while also leaving the club needing to replace two great leaders as well.
While Frierson’s departure will naturally be the one most focus on, it actually may be the departure of King that is more worrisome for the Tigers. Especially in the short-term. The club also loses senior starter Heather Havron, while Mexican youth internationals Bianca Sierra and Ashley Kotero will be missing for the opening weeks of the season at the U20 World Cup. When you consider that group also gave up a goal and a half in league play last season, there’s reason to believe Hoppa and the Tigers might be sweating a bit defensively in the early weeks of the season.
There’s still firepower going forward though. Auburn returns senior Ana Cate, who had a breakout season, scoring nine goals for the Tigers, while sophomore Tatiana Coleman also will be back after seven goals and eight assists. Given the potential frailty of the defense, Auburn might have to score early and often this season, though how well the attackers cope without the supply line of Frierson’s incisive passing will be worth watching.
Auburn had some serious problems in goal last season, especially towards the beginning of the year. The absence of projected starter Amy Howard after tearing her ACL over the Summer wreaked havoc with the Tigers and likely led to some sleepless nights for the Auburn brass. Redshirt freshman Chandler Hillen ended up as first choice at the beginning of the season but was rudely thumped for four goals by Wake Forest in the season opener. As you might expect with such an inexperienced keeper, life was a roller coaster at times, and the program lurched when she was ill right before the team’s game against Colorado on the road.
With zero healthy goalkeepers, the Tigers were forced to go with a blast from the very distant past, bringing back Aimee Golightly, a redshirt in 2008 who had left the program after that season. All things considered, she didn’t do too badly, making five saves in a 2-2 draw.
Howard would make an astonishing return to health in time for SEC season and played all but a half from there on. As you might expect, she wasn’t quite as mobile as usual, but she brought some experience and stability to the goalkeeping situation. Thought not an elite goalkeeper, Howard’s a well entrenched and experienced starter who should be able to get the job done for Auburn this season. Given the changes in front of her on defense, her organizational skills will be crucial for the overall performance on defense.
With Hillen and Golightly both departing after the season, the real race might be the battle to be Howard’s understudy this season. Also a senior, Caitlin Torie may have a seniority edge, but she’s gotten precious little experience the past three years. Torie saw two games of mop-up duty as a rookie but hasn’t played in the two seasons since. She’ll face a challenge from true freshman Alyse Scott, a Region III ODP mainstay with excellent shot stopping skills. While Scott probably won’t be challenging Howard this year, she could be a part of the club’s future at the position. With Howard likely to be in between the pipes for the full season, this unit should, at the least, be a bit more stable than last season’s effort.
The loss of King, the club’s defensive leader is a big one for the Tigers. The Saint Louis native departs as a four-year starter and ever-present two-way threat for Auburn in both defense and attack. Capable of playing just about anywhere on the backline, King was a ruthless tackler and dangerous presence in the air, especially off of set pieces. She could also hold her own in attack, even being used up top as a target forward at times thanks to her impressive aerial ability. King enjoyed her best season offensively by far last year, finishing with six goals and six assists, including a goal and an assist each in the SEC Tournament semi-final win over Tennessee.
Compounding the worries for Auburn is the subsequent loss of another defensive starter, full-back Heather Havron. Recruited as an attacker, Havron was converted into defense before the 2008 season and promptly became a mainstay for the Tigers, turning into a defensive workhorse. Six assists in 2009 was a small indicator of her talents, which included taking many of the club’s corner kicks in her tenure. Havron was again replete with assists last year, helping herself to a handful, including two in the SEC Tournament, and her loss is another big blow for the club.
Mexican U20 international Bianca Sierra is likely the top returnee to the backline this year, but the junior’s early absence on international duty likely presents more problems for the Tigers. Despite Sierra’s youth international plaudits, she was mostly a reserve as a rookie but then grew into a starting role last year, cracking the first XI in every match and playing nearly every minute for the club as a sophomore. She should be solid upon her return, but holding down the fort until she gets back could be tough.
Senior Mary Nicholson has divided time between playing in defense and midfield in her career but figures to be needed more in the rearguard this year given the club’s defensive losses. After missing all of 2009 through injury, Nicholson has gradually grown into a full-time starting role, starting twenty-one matches last season for the Tigers. Nicholson’s veteran experience will be vital for the defense this year, especially early on when Sierra is absent. Junior Kim Spence, able in either defense or attack, also looks like a potential option in defense after splitting time up front and in back last year. Spence started ten matches for the club last year, and as you might expect, got involved offensively, with four assists, including two in the 3-2 win over Ole Miss in SEC play.
Kotero also has the size to play center-back if need be, though she’ll be missing from the equation for the first few weeks of the season at any rate. Options look sparse after her though, with inexperience rife. Sophomore Ali Elliott can play in either defense or midfield but only made seven reserve appearances last year, never playing more than fourteen minutes for the club.
Towering sophomore Jordan Miller could be an option having played in seventeen matches in 2010, but the Georgia native missed all of last year injured and may need some time to shake the rust off for the Tigers. It might be up to a few newcomers to come in and immediately pull their weight, with the most likely candidate looking to be Kala Faulkner. A Region III ODP selection for the past few seasons, Faulkner’s a marauding full-back who Hoppa and co. will be hoping can get up and down the line to great effect early on. While Sierra’s return should help stabilize the situation to some extent, the losses are too great and the returnees too unproven to believe that this group might not be a liability this season.
Having to replace just one starter is one thing. When that starter is Frierson, well, that’s another thing entirely. Perhaps the highest rated recruit ever signed by the Tigers coming onto The Plains, Frierson more than lived up to the considerable hype, though it took until her senior season for the club to win a major trophy. A true number ten, Frierson’s prescient vision and immaculate passing enabled her to rip defenses apart at will, with the Homewood native combining for twenty-five assists in the past two seasons. She also could strike a ball with no shortage of skill from both dead ball situations and in the run of play. Frierson saved one of her best games for almost last last year, scoring two goals and assisting on a third in the arguably the club’s biggest game in years, the SEC Tournament final against Florida.
Replacing a player of her calibre certainly isn’t going to come easy for the Tigers. Though she probably will have a tough time replacing Frierson’s playmaking ability, senior Ana Cate should at least be able to pick up some of the scoring load for Auburn. Also a full Nicaraguan international, Cate made a big breakthrough as a junior last year after mostly serving as a reserve for two seasons prior. She hit a purple patch of form in the middle of the season, scoring eight of her nine goals in a ten game span, including in four games in a row at one point. A hatful of assists against Arkansas was one highlight, but Cate and Auburn fans will probably remember the game winner against Florida in Orange Beach most. With Frierson gone, Cate’s not just going to be counted on for offense, she’ll be looked to for leadership as well.
Senior workhorse Jessica Rightmer also figures to play a major role in the midfield this season for the Tigers. The Austin native has been a lineup mainstay in each of the past two seasons and barely left the pitch last year while starting every match. She’s not the scoring threat Cate is, but her experience and workrate should serve Auburn well in her senior season. Like Sierra, Kotero entered Auburn as a Mexican youth international but struggled for a foothold early on, playing in just four games as a rookie in 2010. She’d be much more involved last year, starting thirteen matches and netting three assists for the club. Kotero’s far from a sure thing in midfield this season though, as she’ll miss the opening weeks on international duty and might be needed in defense at any rate.
Junior Maddie Barnes figures to be a contender for a full-time starting role after starting sixteen matches over the past few years for the club. That included seven a season ago, though the McDonough native hasn’t exactly been prolific in front of goal in her tenure with the Tigers thus far, netting just twice last year. Also hopeful of a chance at winning a starting role will be senior Jessica Wolfe, who turned into a top reserve after being used sparsely in her first two seasons with the club, and sophomore Tess Patton, one of last year’s top recruits for Auburn. Nicholson could also see time in the midfield for the Tigers, having seen duty there in the past. Hoppa may also be depending on some new blood to boost the Auburn midfield this year.
Sophomore transfer Bryana Gold was one of the state of Georgia’s most highly touted recruits when she signed for Villanova last season but had trouble breaking into the starting lineup with the Wildcats last season. She still has no shortage of potential and could blossom into a fine contributor for the Tigers this season and beyond. Auburn might also look towards freshman Antoinette Bennett, a strong defensive midfielder who has extensive Region III ODP experience and comes from the powerhouse Dallas Texans club. While the likes of Cate and Rightmer should ensure this group doesn’t fall off a cliff, Frierson made this unit so much more than the sum of its parts, a quality that might be lacking this season without the Tiger talisman.
Auburn’s frontline could be the strength of the club this season, with most of last year’s key players set to return. Reserve Lydia Townsend looks to be the only loss, with the senior having seen action off the bench in thirteen games last year while also managing to score against Ole Miss in the league.
Likely spearheading Auburn’s attack this season will be sophomore Tatiana Coleman. Coleman came into the club with a fair amount of hype last season and certainly showed signs of turning into a dangerous weapon for the Tigers. A hat trick against Kennesaw State in her third career game laid down a marker, and Coleman would score three goals and add six assists against league foes despite missing four games with minor injuries in SEC play. The team’s record was 0-3-1 in that span, underlining how important Coleman could be to this offense. The second-year player won’t have Frierson’s supply line to provide her with passes though, and Auburn will be desperate to see her avoid a sophomore slump in 2012.
Likely joining her up front this season is senior Mary Coffed. A lanky, rangy product out of Atlanta, Coffed earned a starting spot in the middle of her freshman season and has held that role ever since. The veteran looks far more comfortable in the role of provider than scorer though, having combined for seventeen assists the past two seasons but only seven goals. She appeared to be changing that notion early last season with three goals in the club’s first six games but then scored just once the rest of the year and only has two league goals in the past two seasons. While Coffed should continue to deliver some quality assists, she might not be the scorer the club needs to pair with Coleman up top.
Spence is also a versatile option able to play in either defense or attack, though she may be of more use in defense this season given the upheaval there this year. Additionally, Barnes could be used in attack as well, though she hasn’t shown much cutting edge thus far. Other options off the bench appear sparse though not without potential. Sophomore Tori Ball was one of the club’s most frequently used options off the bench last season, and the big Mobile native makes a nice target up front. Impressively, Ball scored three goals against league opponents and the other came in the NCAA Tournament against Utah State. Her taking a step forward would go a long way in solidifying Auburn’s offense this year.
Classmate Chelsea Gandy-Cromer was also frequently used off the bench last season but didn’t enjoy nearly as much success in front of goal, netting twice but not after September 23. Another Region III ODP player, true freshman Alexa Allen could also make her mark early on for the Tigers. Allen is a big, powerful forward who should give Auburn more strength up front this season and beyond. Coleman has the potential to turn into a solid SEC forward, but Hoppa will be hoping for a breakthrough or two around her to keep the club from being too one-dimensional, though having the goals of Cate from midfield should help immensely.
It seems odd to say about a team that just won their first major trophy in ages, but this could well be a crossroads season for the Auburn program. Lost in the excitement of the past two seasons which have brought big name upsets and the SEC Tournament title last year is just how often the Tigers have flirted with the NCAA Tournament bubble. In fact, last year was the first time the club had really avoided bubble trouble in roughly half a decade. Considering most of that span also featured the talents of Frierson and King, there has to be a little apprehension going into the new year without two of the best players in club history.
While the midfield looks solid with Cate leading the charge, and Coleman could be a dangerous presence up top, the defense looks wobbly and could be very problematic until Sierra returns from international duty. Getting some veterans to step into the leadership void could be crucial as well after the changes in personnel. Most notably, there doesn’t appear to be too many, if any, chances in non-conference play for this club to save themselves with one massive result if they happen to run into bubble trouble later in the season.
That means the pressure will likely be on for a strong SEC season to lift the club away from a nervous wait on Selection Monday. However, it seems much more likely that Auburn will be occupying mid-table this year, meaning another tense run up to the reveal of the brackets come November.