Alyssa Diggs & Missouri Hope for A Return to the NCAA Tournament in 2012
ACC – Clemson | NC State
Big XII – Iowa State | Kansas | Oklahoma | TCU | Texas | Texas Tech
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 | 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 | LSU | Mississippi State | Ole Miss | South Carolina | Vanderbilt
WCC – BYU | Gonzaga | Loyola Marymount | Portland | San Francisco | St. Mary’s (CA)
It’s all gone a bit sour for Missouri as of late. Over the past two seasons, the Tigers have looked like a club unable to recover from one of the more high profile snubs by the NCAA Tournament selection committee in recent memory. Despite winning the Big XII’s regular season title in 2009, Mizzou paid the price for too many dubious losses on their resume and the general mediocrity of the Big XII that season. The snub succeeded in sparking a wide range of debate as to whether head coach Bryan Blitz’s team had truly been wronged or whether they had just fallen afoul of the given selection criteria.
The stunning end to 2009 and the two forgettable years since have put the brakes on a freight train of momentum that had been gathering in Columbia. For much of their existence, Missouri’s legacy has been that of a program perpetually stuck in the middle of the road. They were usually good enough to avoid being sucked down into the nether regions of the Big XII but rarely bothered the big guns at the top of the league. On occasion, the Tigers managed to make it all the way to the Big XII Tournament final but always came up just a little short.
Going into 2007, Mizzou had only reached two NCAA Tournaments, only won one match in said tournament, and were without a major piece of silverware to their name. Some also had to be wondering if the program under Blitz, who had been the only head coach in Columbia since the program’s inception, was at its sell by date, as the Tigers had fallen to eighth in the league in 2005 and then tied for dead last the season after. Clearly the pressure was on for a turnaround. The Tigers were able to deliver, finishing third in the league and reaching the second round of the NCAA Tournament en route to a Top 40 finish in the final RPI.
With momentum in their corner, Missouri pushed on the following season, finishing third in the league again, only two points off the title but this time, the Tigers saved their best for the postseason, winning the Big XII Tournament to bring home the program’s first major trophy. It had to be slightly disappointing that the Tigers couldn’t get out of the first weekend of the Big Dance in 2008, but a Top 20 finish in the RPI was proof positive that Missouri had enjoyed a fine season. As evidenced above though, 2009 was as bittersweet a campaign as any major school has endured in recent memory. The first league title in program history had been nice, but the painful snub from the NCAA Tournament field may very well have left deep psychological scars on the program.
You wouldn’t have begrudged Mizzou if they entered 2010 with a chip on their shoulders after the end of the previous season. Their redemption mission ran into early trouble though as a monstrous early non-conference schedule threatened to devour the program. The Tigers’ defense was offensive all season long and results suffered under the weight of Missouri’s inability to stop anyone. A late fade saw Missouri finish fifth in the league and exit early in the Big XII Tournament, condemning the club to their worst season in ages as the Tigers won their fewest matches in a season since 1997.
Mizzou came into the new season with a pathological need to succeed in order to show the college soccer world that the end of 2009 hadn’t rendered them a spent force, especially with a move to the SEC looming. After losing a close one in the opener against San Diego, the Tigers went on a roll, winning their next seven matches. Noticeably though, the vast majority of those wins weren’t coming against strong teams, with only the victory over Ohio State standing out at the end of the season. It’s not the Tigers’ fault that Purdue and Arizona State weren’t all that great though, and Missouri handled what was in front of them with aplomb.
They would get a good chance to show how good they were against a good team late in non-conference play against Florida but were downed by their future conference rivals by two goals. The Tigers looked to be well positioned for a decent go of it in the league, but Big XII play instead turned out to be a nightmare. Mizzou would lose four of their first five matches, not just putting their NCAA Tournament hopes in severe jeopardy, but their postseason hopes as well. The Tigers’ saving grace may have been the one win during that torrid stretch, a stunning 1-0 victory over league heavyweights Texas A&M.
The Tigers looked to have gotten it back together late in the league season with wins over Oklahoma and Kansas, but a shock defeat at home to Iowa State on the last day of the season saw them fall to sixth in the final league table. The loss left them needing a big run in San Antonio to even get a whiff of an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers would be denied a win in the opening round of the Big XII Tournament but kept themselves afloat with a shootout win over Baylor. It set up a rematch against Texas A&M that was a must win if the Tigers wanted their season to continue.
But lightning wasn’t striking twice for Missouri, and the Aggies hammered them to avenge their regular season defeat. In the end, the Tigers finished well out of consideration for an at-large bid and were out of the Big Dance for a third straight season. Given the dismal league finish, some might be wondering about the direction of the program in Columbia as the club moves to the SEC ahead of 2012.
2011 was always likely going to be a season of ups and downs though thanks to some roster churn from the previous season and a large corps of newcomers that needed time to settle at the college level. It could in the end be a case of short-term pain leading to long-term gain for the Tigers. Missouri brought in a rather talented recruiting class before last season, and the hope is that some of those newcomers will eventually grow into stars for the club. The Tigers have already missed on one of those young guns though, as highly touted goalkeeper Caroline Stanley was unable to win the starting job as a rookie last year and transferred to USC in the offseason.
The club’s two other heavy hitters from that freshman class, Abi Raymer and Kaysie Clark, won starting jobs right off the bat though, starting every match as rookies for the club while combining for five goals and nine assists. Two of the Tigers other standouts, Alyssa Diggs and Dominique Richardson, also return, meaning Missouri gets just about all of its most talented players back for their SEC debut. In all, the club looks like returning nine starters from last year’s squad, meaning this group should be cohesive, if nothing else, going into 2012. While cohesion and upside might be nice, this program needs to start making it back to the NCAA tournament sooner rather than later after three years in the wilderness.
It’s safe to say that the apple cart was upset in a major way last year in Columbia after sophomore McKenzie Sauerwein ended the season as the club’s undisputed starter in goal. Sauerwein was likely considered a longshot to see starting minutes come the beginning of 2011 after the club had added Stanley, who had featured for the U.S. at practically every youth international age group, including the U20 team in early 2011.
Sauerwein and Stanley would alternate halves for much of the first month of the season, but the former ended up playing every minute after the sixth game of the season. It was a rather large shock to the punditocracy, as Sauerwein had redshirted in 2010 and had likely been considered a backup going into last season. But the North Richland Hills native vanquished her rival in the end and stands clearly on top of the depth chart going into the new season.
In need of a new backup for the new season, the club added walk-on Mariah McClain to their ranks, and the new understudy was able to get her feet wet with some action in the Spring. The former Mizzou club team standout figures to battle freshman Shelby Sonnefeldt for understudy duties. Sauerwein remains a young product in goal but one with plenty of potential to grow into in the next three seasons.
Setting out in a 3-4-3 system, Missouri has historically played on the ragged edge defensively with just three defenders in an increasingly rare formation at the college level. It didn’t exactly work so well in 2010 when the club gave up forty-four goals in nineteen matches, but the Tigers improved by leaps and bounds last season, conceding nearly twenty fewer goals, though they were still very much a middle of the road defense in the Big XII. Sheer continuity might have helped the Tiger turnaround last season, as the club essentially used the same back three through the entire campaign.
They don’t appear to have that same luxury this season though, as the club must replace graduated center-back Mallory Stipetich. Stipetich had made a big splash as a rookie with four goals and had won a full-time starting spot a year later before bouncing in and out of the first team in 2010. She’d retain her starting spot full-time last season though and could be tough to replace given the relative dearth of starting experience from prospective replacements.
At least the team can still count on the return of a pair of seniors who joined Stipetich on the starting backline last year. Allison Hu was a transfer from Saint Louis who the staff had high hopes for immediately, and she more than lived up to those hopes last season. The transition to the higher level of the Big XII was made to look seamless by the Saint Charles native, and Hu should again be a critical part of the Mizzou defense this year.
Likely joining her is classmate Jessica Greer, who recorded four goals as a rookie super sub before joining the defense as a full-time starter a season later. Greer’s offense since hasn’t quite matched her rookie season, but her two plus years of starting experience could be key as the club tries to break in a replacement for Stipetich.
Senior Kelsey Mulcahy is likely one of the Tigers who’ll get the first shot at replacing Stipetich, having been one of the club’s top subs the past two years after barely playing as a rookie in 2009. Fellow vet Sarah Thune is another likely option after starting five games as a redshirt freshman in 2010 and nabbing a pair of goals in the bargain before sliding back into a reserve role last year. Sophomores Sydnie Green and Brittany Conley also saw brief action off the bench last season and could be in the frame for increased minutes. In a three-back system, you better have three capable defenders, and Missouri’s season could depend on them finding an able replacement for the steady and departed Stipetich.
The midfield for the Tigers should return intact for the most part, but the club must find a replacement for starter Kelsey Blincow. Blincow looked to be on her way to stardom for the Tigers after a 2009 season that saw her land on the All-Big XII First Team, but the next seasons brought a more modest return for Mizzou and the Texan. After mainly featuring as a spot starter in 2010, Blincow returned to the starting lineup for most of 2011 and made the most of her opportunity with four goals and three assists, including a trio of game winning goals from the club, though two strikes were from the penalty spot.
What does return though is a very talented core group for Blitz to build around. Junior Dominique Richardson was a highly coveted recruit out of high school and has gone some way in justifying that hype so far in Columbia. Richardson hit for three goals and three assists as a rookie in 2010 before another sterling season last year, where she led the club in scoring with six goals, including one in three games in a row during the first month of the season. A All-Region Third Team selection, Richardson figures to be the fulcrum of the midfield’s attacking efforts once again and could approach another handful of goals in 2012.
U20 international Kaysie Clark also had a rookie season to remember last year, cementing a place in the starting lineup and leading the team with five assists. Clark did much of her damage in the league and should continue to develop into one of the SEC’s best midfielders this season for the Tigers. Senior Haley Krentz hasn’t captured as much of the headlines as her midfield partners, but the veteran made eighteen starts last season and has usually been good for a goal or two each season with the club. With the midfield around her still young for the most part, Krentz’s leadership could be invaluable for the Tigers in 2012.
Options to fill the departed Blincow’s starting spot appear to be a bit limited though. Sophomore Taylor Grant looks the pick of the returnees, having come off the bench in most of the club’s games last season while also scoring four goals on the year, though most were early in the campaign. With a paucity in returning options, Blitz might turn to some of his rookie class this year. The highlight of which looks to be Loudell Crumpler, a Texan who has been lauded for her decision making and heading ability. With two potential stars in Richardson and Clark, this looks to be the strength of the Missouri team this year.
Missouri’s gameplan depends on goals streaming in en masse, and it’s arguable as to whether the Tigers succeeded in that respect last season. In large part, Mizzou’s offense was above average but hardly the dynamo it has been in their title winning seasons. When you take away penalties, top scorer was junior Danielle Nottingham, with just five goals, a top scorer total that’s not likely to cut it if the Tigers are to break their NCAA Tournament duck.
The good news though is that this unit should return almost intact, with the biggest loss being that of graduated senior Kendra Collins. Collins bounced in and out of the starting lineup during her four-year tenure with the club but still ended up scoring a few goals each season and ended up with eight for her career after netting three times last season. Also departing are Alison Walsh, who started the opener but played no further part last season, and freshman reserve Catherine Birch.
Most of the key cogs should return to the starting lineup for the Tigers this season though. Junior Alyssa Diggs won a starting spot right away as a rookie and continued to blossom last season, winning All-Big XII First Team honors as a sophomore. Though she hasn’t totally had a breakout season in front of goal yet, Diggs certainly showed some flashes last season with four goals and four assists. She only managed a single assist against league foes though, and Blitz will be hoping for more production against SEC opponents this year.
Classmate Danielle Nottingham saw most of her action in the midfield as a highly touted rookie, scoring three goals and four assists, but moved into more of an attacking role last season. Nottingham showed her potency up front last season, with five goals, including one in three straight games in October for the Tigers.
The likely last of the starting trio up top for Missouri this season is Canadian sophomore Abi Raymer. A vastly experienced member of Canada’s 2010 U17 World Cup squad, Raymer was another of last season’s top recruits and wasted no time in stamping out a place for herself in the starting lineup. The Canadian started every match last season and chipped in with three goals and four assists, including the winner against Arizona State early in the season. More is likely to come from the second-year player who could also see time in midfield for the club this year.
They’ll likely have to provide the fireworks, because the punch in reserve is iffy. Senior Taiwo Adeshigbin was a scoring force at JUCO level but struggled to find her footing for the Tigers last season, not recording a single point for the club. Junior Brooke Williams could be a contender for more minutes after two goals last season following a transfer from Missouri State. The real one to watch though might be true freshman Jessica Herrman, a whippet quick rookie who has shown well recently for KCFC in ECNL play. If she gets off to a fast start, she could see major minutes right away for the club. This group certainly has some competent strikers, it’s just a matter of one stepping up to be the big-time scorer the club really needs.
Is this the season that Missouri gets its groove back? The Tigers have been treading water in the Big XII the past few seasons and may welcome the opportunity to grab what amounts to almost a fresh start in the SEC. There’s no small measure of raw talent on this club, and returning nine starters to the fold also bodes well for the Tigers. There are a fair share of good players on the roster, but Missouri may still be waiting for that truly great player to lift them back to their title winning form of old.
If someone does emerge into that role this season, the Tigers could make a comfortable start of life in the SEC, settling into mid-table. At bare minimum though, there’s enough here to expect nothing less than a return to the NCAA Tournament for this season to be considered a success.