X-Factor – Christine Exeter Will Again Be One of The Nation’s Best Forwards
ACC – Clemson | Miami (FL) | NC State
Big XII – Iowa State | Kansas | Oklahoma | TCU | Texas | Texas Tech
Big East – Cincinnati | DePaul | Georgetown | Notre Dame | Pittsburgh | Providence | Rutgers | Seton Hall | South Florida | St. John’s (NY) | Syracuse | UConn | Villanova
Big Ten – Indiana | Iowa | Michigan | Michigan State | Minnesota | Nebraska | Northwestern | Ohio State | Purdue | Wisconsin
Mid-Majors – Boston University | Central Michigan | Denver | Florida Gulf Coast | Harvard | Illinois State | La Salle | 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 | Georgia | Kentucky | LSU | Mississippi State | Missouri | Ole Miss | South Carolina | Tennessee | Vanderbilt
WCC – BYU | Gonzaga | Loyola Marymount | Portland | San Diego | San Francisco | St. Mary’s (CA)
The date was September 9. It looked like, for all intents and purposes, that Louisville was cooked. The Cardinals had just been defeated by arch-rival Kentucky, 2-0, and the club stood at 1-4-1 on the season, with the lone win being a perfunctory victory over minnows Eastern Kentucky. What followed was nothing short of amazing, as the Cardinals pulled it together to finish third in the Big East and advanced to the final of the Big East Tournament and to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament.
It had been the best season in school history and one that probably takes head coach Karen Ferguson-Dayes off the hot seat for a long, long time. Making miracles happen on the pitch hasn’t been a rarity for the Louisville boss who has managed to turn around a program that once ranked among the nation’s worst. That’s not hyperbole when you consider the fact that Louisville had a grand total of ONE winning season in their first seventeen seasons of existence, that coming in 1993.
The Cardinals reached college soccer hell from between 1998-2000, a period that saw Louisville win a combined TWO matches in three seasons. The first two seasons of that horrid stretch belonged to the embarrassing tenure of Karla Thompson that was mercifully ended after those two years. The third year, a 1-18-1 campaign was the first season of Ferguson-Dayes’ reign.
Thankfully, it’s gotten much better for Louisville since that rather ignominious first season in charge for the current boss. Ferguson-Dayes won more games each season in her reign before hitting what was a program best twelve wins in 2004, netting the Cardinals fourth place in Conference USA right before they departed for the fierce waters of the Big East. They’d do more than hold their own in their new home, culminating with thirteen wins in 2006 and 2007 and the team’s first and second trips to the NCAA Tournament.
But just as the Cardinals appeared to be one of the nation’s hot teams on the rise, the freight train of momentum ground to a halt. The team slid back towards .500 in 2008 and were well out of the bubble discussion before the nightmare of 2009. That year, Louisville endured a miserable eleven loss season that brought back memories of the bad old days before Ferguson-Dayes came in and brought some respectability to the program. The program needed a rebound season in the worst kind of way and looked to be getting one through much of the first half of 2010, winning their first seven before falling away badly and bowing out in the first round of the Big East Tournament.
Some unexpected losses in the offseason had hit the team as well, only adding to a bit of a tense atmosphere for the club heading into 2011. After the wretched start, Louisville first showed their true potential when they shocked defending national champions Notre Dame in South Bend. The club would go their first four in the league unbeaten before dropping a 1-0 decision to Marquette. It’d be the club’s first and only Big East loss of the season, as they promptly reeled off six straight wins to close out the regular season in third place in the league.
Suddenly, Louisville had gone from down and out to a likely NCAA Tournament team. The ticket was all but punched with a Big East Tournament win over Providence before the club completed an amazing double over Notre Dame in the semi-finals. With a chance at winning only the club’s second major trophy and first as a Big East school, Louisville would come up just short, falling to a West Virginia team rolling on all cylinders at that point.
The Cardinals would then make their mark in the NCAA Tournament, topping a fancied Dayton side in the opening round to pick up the club’s first ever win in the Big Dance. They weren’t done there though, as they used a pair of second half goals to deal Memphis their one and only loss of the season in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Louisville’s Cinderella story would end at Florida State’s hands in the Sweet Sixteen, but the Cardinals hardly did their reputation any harm with a battling performance on the afternoon. Odds are, few of the Louisville faithful will be forgetting 2011′s dream season anytime soon, even if the Cardinals still now have to prove they can contend on a consistent basis.
With eight starters and many of last season’s key contributors returning for 2012, along with what looks like a weakened Big East this year, it’s not of the question that these Cardinals could be contending for a league title. Much will likely depend on the form of attacking talisman Christine Exeter. Though the Cardinals weren’t necessarily one of the league’s top scoring teams in conference play, what they did put in the back of the net often went through Exeter, a Third Team All-American and the Big East Offensive Player of the Year after a blistering fourteen goal season.
Of course, the problem that will undoubtedly have many a Louisville supporter sweating early on, is Exeter’s impending absence for much of the opening weeks of the season on international duty with the Canadian U20 team headed to Japan for the U20 World Cup. Considering the next leading scorer on the club nabbed just four goals, last year, those worries may be founded. The club did make a big addition in the offseason to try to cure those woes by signing junior Charlyn Corral, a Mexican international who also has appearances in three U20 World Cups. If Corral hits the ground running, she could well form a lethal combination with Exeter in time.
Barring any improvement in offense, at least the club can call on last year’s solid defense, which returns mostly intact. That group includes All-Region Second Team performer Chelsea Hunter and two other backline starters, along with goalkeeper Chloe Kiefer, meaning the Cardinals should again be a very stingy unit this year.
After the shock transfer of once top recruit Taylor Vancil following the 2010 season, Louisville looked to be in a bit of a spot of bother with precious little returning experience between the pipes. Chloe Kiefer hadn’t seen action since her true freshman year in 2008 when she had started eight games for the club but was essentially thrust back into the starting mix for Louisville. She hardly showed any rust, ending up playing every minute and keeping nine clean sheets as one of the nation’s most pleasant goalkeeping surprises. While there were a few questions as to whether she’d be back for another season, the Wisconsin native does return for a fifth and final year with the club and should again be one of the Big East’s premier goalkeepers.
Some much needed depth arrives via this year’s recruiting class. The one to watch in all likelihood is Harlee Leineek, another prized prospect out of the powerful PDA club. With great athleticism and command of her area, Leineek has plenty of potential and has also been a member of a previous id2 National Camp in 2010. The odds of her winning the starting job right away may not be great, but she’s good cover and should be in the running for the starting spot in the future.
The odds of Louisville finishing with one of the Big East’s top defenses are pretty good, with three of four starters from last year returning to a unit that put up solid numbers last year. The lone loss is of towering Kaitie McDonald, who finished her career after starting eighteen games a season ago. The departed senior made a fine comeback from injury after being limited to just one game in 2010, with her most memorable contributions coming in the postseason with a goal and an assist against Notre Dame and a goal against Dayton, with both of those strikes being game winners.
Hunter is the leading light for the Cardinals’ returnees on defense. The Michigan native was a revelation on defense last season after having missed all of 2010 through injury. Hunter ended up starting every game for the Cardinals as a sophomore on her way to a plaudit filled season. Fellow junior Rachel Melhado also figures to be a strong figure on the backline this season for Louisville. Unlike some of the other Cardinal defenders these past few years, Melhado’s stayed healthy thus far in her Louisville career and was another who started every match last season for the club. Melhado likely won’t be doing the same this year though, as the Canadian looks likely to land a spot on the U20 World Cup squad, ruling her out of the opening weeks of the season.
Senior Courtney Holtz is the last likely sure thing on defense this year and comes into the 2012 season as a three-year starter who’ll likely make it four after her senior year. Though she hasn’t quite found the offensive flourishes that permeated her freshman year, Holtz has been a mainstay in the defense, and her senior leadership should be vital this year for Louisville.
A fair amount of returning reserves will battle for the remaining minutes along with a few newcomers. Sophomore Devyn Ciotti is another big body who made a nice splash on her debut last season, scoring against Eastern Kentucky, while also adding three assists on the year. Ciotti made a handful of starts while also being a top defensive reserve and should fancy her chances of seeing more minutes this year.
Juniors Megan Berberich and Katie Walz could also see an influx of more minutes this year. Berberich has the versatility to play in either defense or attack and made two starts last year, while Walz was one of the club’s top defensive reserves and had the Cardinals’ game winning goal against Butler in extra time. Added to the mix is rookie Jenna Andersen, a tenacious defender with regional ODP experience who isn’t afraid of making runs from the back either. With a strong veteran core returning including Hunter and Melhado, this should be one of the league’s best defenses. There might be a hiccup or two early when Melhado is on international duty though.
The Cardinals lose just one starter from last season, but it’s a big one, as hometown product Jennifer Jones graduates. Jones fought her way into the starting lineup for Louisville as a sophomore and scarcely looked back for the next three seasons. Her three goals in 2010 were a bit misleading, as they all came from the penalty spot, but that certainly wasn’t the case last year in a fine three goal, five assist campaign as a senior. Jones gained momentum as the seasons turned, with two goals and four assists in a eight game span from early October to early November.
The midfield returnees are highlighted by the presence of Canadian junior Angelika Uremovich. A former Canadian U17 international, Uremovich has turned into a mainstay in the middle of the park after missing her first season at Louisville through injury. Nine goals and six assists combined show her potency in front of goal, and she saved her last one for an important time, with it being the second UL goal against Dayton in the NCAA Tournament, effectively icing the game. With Exeter missing time early in 2012, Uremovich’s goals could be crucial for the club.
Also likely to be key for the Cardinals in midfield is sophomore Erin Yenney, who made a big impact as a rookie last year. Yenney ended up starting every match for UL as a rookie and scored a memorable goal when she netted the match’s only strike against Notre Dame in mid-September’s victory over the Irish. Yenney finished with two goals and three assists and could well turn into one of the league’s best.
Canadian junior Nicole Mitchell also looks primed to reprise her role as a starter for the club. A former U17 international with Canada, Mitchell has settled nicely into a defensive midfield role with the Cardinals over the past two seasons. With forty-one starts in two seasons, Mitchell looks destined to be one of the club’s upperclassman leaders in her final two seasons in Louisville. A prime contender to move into the starting lineup in a full-time capacity is sophomore Kim Sharo. Sharo made a handful of starts as a rookie and was more than effective in her key reserve role, with a pair of game winning goals against Villanova and Memphis, the latter in the NCAA Tournament.
Classmate Sydney Blomquist only saw fleeting action as a rookie last year but could also be in the mix for more minutes this season. Louisville will also undoubtedly be hoping for a healthy season from Canadian U20 international Julie Casselman. Casselman had started nine games as a rookie in 2010 but ended up missing all of last season. Even if she’s not back to starting form right away, she provides some needed depth in this unit. With the likes of Uremovich and Yenney in tow, this looks like one of the Big East’s strongest midfield units.
X marked the spot often last season, as Christine Exeter took the Big East by storm in her sophomore season. Exeter had already been a fine addition to the club after 2010′s Big East Rookie of the Year season, with the Canadian scoring seven goals in her debut campaign with the Cardinals. Last year blew expectations out of the water though, as Exeter exploded for fourteen goals on her way to league Offensive Player of the Year honors and Third Team All-America plaudits. The Canadian actually had begun the season ice cold, with just one goal in the team’s first eight games before scoring an amazing thirteen goals in the club’s next twelve goals, including seven in a four game span in Big East play. Exeter should again be one of the nation’s most dangerous strikers, but Louisville will have to wait until after the U20 World Cup to make use of her talents.
Surviving that early season period could be one of the keys to Louisville’s season. The loss of starting forward Jordan Pawlik can’t help though. Pawlik struck for three goals and four assists last season to finish as the club’s fourth leading point scorer but transferred to Purdue in the offseason.
There are multiple options to try and fill the scoring gap though. Another Canadian, sophomore Zakiya McIntosh, came in as a well versed member of the nation’s U17 side but was hardly potent in front of goal last year, scoring just once, though it came against Memphis in the NCAA Tournament. She was a key reserve last year but will likely be given every chance to win a starting job early this season. Senior Emily Cardell suffered through a miserable, injury hit season last year and was limited to just four games. Scoring potential is certainly there though, as she netted five times in 2010, including a hat trick against Marquette. Healthy and on form, Cardell could be one to watch this season.
Sophomore Casey Whitfield could also be in the mix after many appearances off the bench last season, though she also struggled in front of goal, not tallying but still managing a few assists. Ferguson-Dayes is obviously hoping that Corral is the team’s ace in the hole this year. A full Mexican international who competed with her side in the 2011 Women’s World Cup in Germany, Corral was nicknamed “Prodigy Girl” after her quick ascent in the Mexican youth international ranks. How any of that translates to the college game remains to be seen, but she could well be a shrewd signing if she acclimates quickly.
Regional ODP team member Irene Young also joins up as a highly touted prospect for the Cardinals. With relatively few proven scoring options beyond Exeter, the strong target forward could well win major minutes early if she impresses in camp. When she’s with the club, Exeter should again be a very dangerous threat to opposing defenses. Finding some other consistent scorers to help relieve the burden could be the key though to Louisville making extended progress in the postseason this season though.
The nature of the Big East this season is such that the list of title contenders is a short one, one that Louisville happens to find themselves on after last season’s revelation. The offense, though a bit reliant on Exeter for goals, still looks a force to be reckoned with, especially if Corral can come in and make an immediate impact. An experienced and talented defense returns most of last season’s starting unit intact as well, which should mean another stifling season for opposing attacks.
Much may ultimately depend on how well the team deals with the likely absences of Exeter and Melhado due to international duty for the first month or so of the season. Despite having to cope without the above duo, much of the non-conference schedule looks cushy, with the rivalry match against Kentucky likely to prove most difficult early on. If all the pieces get pulling in the same direction come league play, there’s no reason why Louisville can’t win the league this year, though they do get tough draws against Notre Dame and Marquette on the road. Despite that, they’re still threats for silverware and have a chance at matching last season’s Sweet Sixteen run, though advancing further may be a stretch.