Renee Washington & La Salle Will Hope To Keep The Fireworks Going in 2012
ACC – Clemson | NC State
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Big East – Cincinnati | DePaul | Pittsburgh | Providence | Rutgers | Seton Hall | South Florida | St. John’s (NY) | Syracuse | UConn | Villanova
Big Ten – Indiana | Iowa | Michigan | Michigan State | Minnesota | Nebraska | Northwestern | Purdue | Wisconsin
Mid-Majors – Central Michigan | Denver | Florida Gulf Coast | Harvard | Illinois State | New Mexico | Rice | Richmond | Samford | Stephen F. Austin | Toledo | UMass | Utah State | Western Michigan | William & Mary
Pac-12 – Arizona | Arizona State | Cal | Colorado | Oregon | Oregon State | USC | Utah | Washington | Washington State
SEC – Alabama | Arkansas | LSU | Mississippi State | Ole Miss | South Carolina | Vanderbilt
WCC – BYU | Gonzaga | Loyola Marymount | Portland | San Francisco | St. Mary’s (CA)
When you turn a glaring weakness into a pillar of strength, good things usually end up happening. Just ask La Salle, a potent offensive side with a sieve-like defense in 2010. All that seemed to be standing between the Explorers and potential glory was tightening up the defense. They did so and then some in 2011. The Explorers’ rearguard turned into one of the nation’s stingiest, keeping a stunning eleven clean sheets to open up the season. The club would shut thirteen opponents out all season and conceded multiple goals just twice in 2011. It was a sign that head coach Paul Royal’s side was beginning to come of age after close to a decade and a half of futility in Philadelphia.
Entering 2010, the history of the Explorers had been one of underachievement. La Salle had nary a postseason win to their name and only three postseason appearances in their history in the A10. What thin postseason history there was hadn’t been achieved in recent days as La Salle hadn’t qualified for the postseason since 2006. With the Explorers’ RPI having dropped in every season since 2006 to a low of 212 in 2009, it seemed that the ship in Philadelphia might have been sinking. But the Explorers hit back with surprising success, making it back to the postseason with a sixth place finish and then winning their first ever postseason match against Duquesne.
With so many of Royal’s key players being so young, the future looked very bright for the Explorers heading into 2011. The club would begin the season on fire and stayed that way for most of the year. After a draw with Drexel in the second match of the season, the club reeled off nine wins in a row to head into a crunch showdown in A10 play against Dayton. The Explorers would concede for the first time in 2011 in the seventy-fifth minute but didn’t concede the game as they stormed back to win in extra time through a double from Renee Washington.
The winning streak would hit fourteen matches before the club slipped a bit in their final two regular season games, drawing both Rhode Island and Fordham. While it had broken their chance at league perfection, the club still held on to win the title over Richmond by a point and finished the regular season undefeated. Despite not really having a glittering non-conference record, La Salle came into the A10 Tournament with a cushion in the RPI, even in the event of a loss. Good thing too, as the Explorers fell to their first defeat of the year against UMass in the semi-finals.
The opponent for a potential first round giant killing in the NCAA Tournament was ACC side Maryland. The affair in College Park was a contentious one to say the least, and the 5-1 final scoreline to the home side was very harsh on the A10 champions, who went into the half tied at 1-1 and went into the eighty-fourth minute only down by a single goal. It was one of the rare disappointments in a season of brilliance for the Explorers, finally able to lift some silverware and head to the NCAA Tournament to boot. The question now is whether Royal and his charges can prove they aren’t just a pack of one-hit wonders.
With an eye towards making it back to the NCAA Tournament in 2012 and earning a longer stay on the biggest stage, La Salle will aim to prove their staying power this year. The Explorers were generally a side that entered 2011 with a ton of potential but who were also generally flying under the radar in the eyes of all but the sharps. It’s safe to say that Royal’s side won’t be slipping by anybody’s consciousness this season, with the Explorers now themselves a major scalp for clubs in the A10 and otherwise to try and claim.
It might be a challenge for league rivals though considering the club returns its dynamic scoring duo that ripped clubs apart last season. Combining for twenty-seven goals, nine assists, and a pair of All-America Second Team nods, junior Renee Washington and Kelsey Haycook were among the nation’s most potent scoring duos and still have two seasons together to further wreck opposing defenses.
It looks to be a bit more of a challenge on the defensive side of the ball for the Explorers. A10 Defensive Player of the Year Melissa Sanger, a rock in goal last season departs, as does the club’s top defender, Jess Hopton, who also managed to lead the club with six assists last year. The offense should keep La Salle ticking over and in with a chance of beating many clubs, but if Royal can’t remodel the defense, these Explorers might struggle to reach last season’s heights.
It’s a good news, bad news proposition for the Explorers in goal in 2012. The bad news, obviously, is the departure of Sanger, who had been a starter for four seasons for the club. She ended up splitting time in some stretches early on in her Explorers career but appeared to be headed into the 2010 season with forty-two starts under her belt. Injury would keep her on the sidelines for all of that season though, meaning Sanger would return for one final season as a fifth-year senior in 2011.
In a remarkably odd twist of fate, 2010′s starter, Gabrielle Pakhtigian ended up missing all of last season through injury, giving Sanger a relatively unimpeded path to the starting job. Sanger ended up making the most of her final year with the club, playing every minute in goal and being the last line of defense for one of the nation’s stingiest defenses. The end result was thirteen clean sheets, the A10 Defensive Player of the Year award, and All-Region Second Team honors.
Healed from an ACL injury, Pakhtigian looks most likely to claim the starting job again this year for the Explorers. A highly touted rookie coming into the program, Pakhtigian saw a handful of starts as a rookie before taking over full-time as starter in 2010 with Sanger on the shelf. She also finished with the league lead in saves during that rather chaotic season, meaning she’ll be hoping that her side’s defensive renaissance last season carries through to this campaign.
There are no shortage of contenders for the backup role behind Pakhtigian. Massive sophomore Katie Getzinger stands at a towering 6’0″ and comes in as a transfer from UAB after starting seven games for the Blazers as a rookie last year. She’ll battle with sophomore Jessica Wiggins and rookie Kelsey Yaiser for any spare playing time with an eye towards the future. Losing Sanger is obviously a big blow, but with a player of Pakhtigian’s experience and skill able to slide in, any decrease in form should be minimal.
While this group returns with most of its pieces intact for the new season, the one expected loss is a massive one. Hopton had shown plenty of potential in anchoring the La Salle defense for a pair of seasons before really beginning to break out in her junior year, when she nabbed All-A10 First Team honors en route to an excellent season, which also featured a handful of assists. That trend, and Hopton’s generally excellent form would carry over into her final season with the club as she came through with six assists, including five in the opening six games. She also finished with All-Region First Team honors, capping off an excellent four seasons with the Explorers.
Her center-back partner for much of the season, senior Diana Allen, returns to fortify the spine of the La Salle defense this season. After a slow start to her collegiate career, Allen has since become a valuable member of starting unit, cracking the first XI fifteen times last season. Royal will be hoping for a breakout season for the senior, but with no shots last season, don’t expect much in the way of offensive contributions ala Hopton. There should still be some offensive punch from the defense though with the return of juniors Courtney Niemiec and Ashley Chilcoat.
Chilcoat immediately won a starting job as a rookie and held that spot through her sophomore season last year. Seven combined assists through the two seasons shows a willingness to get forward, and the Pennsylvanian should again be a threat for around a handful of assists. It’s much the same case with Niemiec, who may even be more of a threat going forward. Six assists to tie for the team lead in 2010 as a rookie turned some heads, and Niemiec showed a goalscoring touch of sorts last year, finishing with three goals and three assists, though one was from the spot. The added offense may be nice, but the experience both have gained after being tossed in the deep end may be just as valuable.
Sophomore Shannon Dwyer didn’t come into the club last year as one of its most highly regarded recruits but still impressed anyway as a rookie, making ten starts. The Maryland native has plenty of size at 5’9″ and could be a contender to replace Hopton in the lineup. Sophomore Dominique Ponente was one of the club’s top reserves off the bench early in the season, even making three starts, and could be in line for extended minutes this season with more experience under her belt. Fifth-year senior Amanda Komarnicki has plenty of experience as a reserve and should also be in the running for major minutes as she returns from an injury that cost her all of 2011.
Hopton’s loss hurts, but with everyone else looking like returning, there shouldn’t be that much drop off from last season’s dominating group. It’s a group not laden with stars with the graduation of their leader, but there’s still plenty of solid campaigners here, meaning La Salle should be in with a chance at again being near or at the top of the A10′s defensive table.
La Salle’s midfield also returns most of its principles from last season, with the lone major loss being graduated senior Kierstyn Mabey. A solid and experienced campaigner in the middle, Mabey didn’t necessarily light up the score sheet for the Explorers, but her contributions were felt by all nonetheless, to the point that Royal called the New Jersey native “one of the best central midfielders ever to play at La Salle”. Also gone are Erika Markley, an NC State transfer who saw action in ten games off the bench last year, and Paige Troutman, who struggled with injuries throughout her college career and missed all of last season.
Junior Jourdan McVicker, the club’s midfield enforcer, is the likely leader of the group this season. After missing almost all of the second half of 2010, McVicker bounced back strongly last year, starting every match for the Explorers and doing her job efficiently shielding the back four. McVicker even found the time for a little offense as well, with a couple of assists to her name. The New Jersey native can also play on the backline, though uprooting her from her defensive midfield role looks a little unlikely.
Norwegian sophomore Maryam Huseini should provide a little bit of punch to the midfield after an impressive debut season last year. Already coming into the club with many plaudits as a member of Norway’s youth international setup, Huseini showed great glimpses of talent last year, finishing with a pair of goals and five assists despite just starting eight games for the club. Winning A-10 All-Freshman Team honors, Huseini’s upside is immense, and she should be able to win a full-time role in the lineup this season for the Explorers.
Options beyond those two are a little less well defined. Sophomore Jackie Cammaratta missed 2010 and then much of the early weeks of last season but slowly rounded into form as one of the club’s best bench options. The Levittown product netted four assists in league play and could well be one to watch if she gets more minutes this year. Junior Anna Dolhansky looked like a star in the making as a rookie with eight goals and three assists but was brutalized by injuries last season and didn’t play ninety minutes in two appearances. If she can shake the injury bug, she could be a huge addition for a club already brimming with offense. Dolhansky wasn’t the only one plagued by injuries last season amongst this group.
Kerri Aiken had delivered a very promising rookie season in which she started twenty-one games. The big and versatile junior missed all of last season though, and her return would be a big boost for the club in either midfield or defense. Fifth-year senior Erin Brennan had seven goals combined in 2009 and 2010 but was another who suffered a lost season through injuries. Brennan started nine games in 2010, so a move back into the starting lineup if healthy isn’t out of the question. Other contenders for time in the midfield include Washington, Chilcoat, and Niemiec, with the versatile trio giving Royal yet more options this season.
The club also makes a fine addition in rookie Najla Muhammad, a Region I ODP stalwart who could win minutes in midfield right away. A talented group should be bolstered by returnees from injury and newcomers, and despite the loss of Mabey, there’s enough depth and quality here to believe that the Explorers should have one of the league’s best midfields this year.
This group returns its dynamic duo in Washington and Haycook but will have to replace some depth with the loss of Morgan Golden and Dani Allizzo. Capable in either midfield or attack, Golden certainly was building some momentum going into the new season having scored a career high four goals in 2010. Though she started twelve matches, Golden’s offense didn’t keep pace with previous returns, with just one goal for her troubles and only five shots to her name as well. Alizzo was never really a big scorer but did make her only goal of 2011 count, it being the opener and game winner against Xavier in a 5-0 rout. Despite missing much of the second half of the season, she still started four games for the club as a senior.
The onus will be on the returning All-American duo of Washington and Haycook to keep the La Salle offense running smoothly. Washington had made a stunning debut in 2010, finishing with twelve goals and three assists, including five game winners. It had been the third best single season goal total in program history and left her needing a big second season for an appropriate encore. Any thoughts of Washington being a one-hit wonder didn’t last long, as she debuted with two goals against Delaware in 2011 on her way to eleven goals and five assists. Washington’s game winning goal total now stands at eleven through two seasons, and the big junior is already sixth on the club’s all-time goals list despite still having two seasons of eligibility left! Washington certainly wasn’t a flat track bully either, scoring six league goals in seven A10 games at one point.
The only thing that might keep her from obliterating the club’s offensive record book is her teammate, Haycook. While the New Jersey native had come to the club full of potential and plaudits at club level, few could’ve expected her to dominate so thoroughly in her first season at this level. After two scoreless games to open up, Haycook then scored six goals in five games to sound a warning to foes. A hat trick against Temple followed in the league opener, followed by a devastating spell of seven goals in five matches, including a two goal, two assist performance against Xavier. Sixteen goals was enough to earn her A10 Rookie of the Year honors and was the second best single season total in club history. She only figures to get better with age, and the duo with Washington in attack should be one of the nation’s deadliest.
Scarily enough for opponents, La Salle also has punch going forward in reserve. Sophomore Gabriella Carbone was overshadowed by Haycook last year but still managed two goals and five assists and should, at the least, be a great option off the bench as a second-year player. Another sophomore, Emily Fenton, showed some sparks off the bench last season, including a goal and an assist in the 3-0 win against Saint Joseph’s and should be another reliable reserve this season.
Fifth-year senior Leigh Gray is another good option to have in reserve for Royal’s side. After an injury blighted start to her career, she responded with three goals and six assists in 2010. She did end up missing much of the first half of last year but still managed three assists upon her return and could be a valuable contributor if healthy this season. Huseini could also be used in attack in a pinch for the Explorers, who also have some intriguing new blood coming in.
As if the club didn’t have enough weapons to utilize up front, they add in Kelsey Celline, a prime talent from the powerful FC Bucks club. Touted as a threat down the left with great 1v1 ability, Celline could be yet another dangerous weapon in Royal’s arsenal this season. With Washington and Haycook at their disposal, La Salle should light up many a defense this season, likely making this one of the A10′s top attacks again.
It’s safe to say after last season’s wildly successful campaign that the secret is out in Philadelphia. A program whose talent and potential had been simmering for a few seasons hit full blast last season as La Salle perhaps arrived a bit ahead of schedule, rolling to an A10 title. While nobody will be overlooking them this year, all the pieces are there for another run at trophies for these Explorers. While the losses of Sanger and Hopton can’t be discounted, La Salle does have experience at both positions and shouldn’t dip too badly at either. There’s depth all over the pitch, and the scintillating duo of Haycook and Washington should keep opposing coaches up at night trying to figure out a way of slowing the deadly pair.
With games against West Virginia, Washington, and Portland, La Salle will also have a chance to thrust themselves into the national consciousness early on this season. This club should again threaten for an at-large berth, if necessary, to the NCAA Tournament. They might just be good enough to make it a bit of an extended stay this season as well, though next season could be a monster year with most of this season’s squad set to return in 2013.