Shoot to Thrill – Richmond Striker Becca Wann & Her Teammates Have an NCAA Tournament Spot in Their Sights
ACC – Clemson
Big XII – Iowa State | Oklahoma | TCU | 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 State | Minnesota | Nebraska | Purdue | Wisconsin
Mid-Majors – Central Michigan | Denver | Florida Gulf Coast | Harvard | Illinois State | New Mexico | Rice | Utah State
Pac-12 – Arizona | Arizona State | Colorado | Oregon | Utah | Washington | Washington State
SEC – Arkansas | Mississippi State | Ole Miss | Vanderbilt
WCC – Gonzaga | Loyola Marymount | San Francisco
2011 was a heartbreaking case of so close, yet so far for a Richmond side that finished just one point away from a shock league title and were one of, if not the, last team out of the field of sixty-four and the NCAA Tournament. The Spiders spent their first decade in the Atlantic 10 largely mired in anonymity. It didn’t look like that would be the case after 2002′s star turn which saw the Spiders win the A10 Tournament and then go on to win two games in the NCAA Tournament.
But instead of the start of something special, it was instead the peak of Richmond’s program. The Spiders always seemed to be knocking on the door of becoming a regional mid-major power but failed to put things together into more trophies. Pretty soon, it was evident that Richmond’s window had closed as they sunk deeper into mid-table later in the decade. After a pair of seasons stuck in the bottom half of the table and out of the postseason, odds were that program patriarch Peter Albright was feeling a little pressure to raise the fortunes of the team. Albright’s seat probably got a bit hotter in 2010 after a cold start to the season gave way to another mid-table showing in the league, with Richmond missing out on the postseason despite a fighting finish to the year.
The 2011 season didn’t exactly start out great either for Albright and co. The club drew with minnows Longwood in the opener before being squashed, 6-0, by Virginia two days later. A draw with George Mason was encouraging, though the club then lost two of three, including a damaging 2-0 loss to James Madison. The worm began to turn with the club’s second win of the season though, a 2-0 upset of CAA powerhouse William & Mary. Richmond, with renewed self-belief, won five in a row and eight of nine.
True, the end of the non-conference slate hadn’t been filled with a murderer’s row of opposition, but the club had built up momentum into the start of league play, where after an opening day loss to Duquesne, the Spiders promptly went unbeaten the rest of the way in the regular season, including a win over powerhouse Dayton and a further victory over bubble rivals UMass. Yes, that’s right. Richmond, a club that hadn’t sniffed the Top 100 in the RPI in years, entered the A10 Tournament with a very real chance of making it as an at-large team after finishing second in the league, just behind champions La Salle.
In reality, it likely came down to a semi-final showdown against Dayton. A win probably got the Spiders in. A loss made for some serious sweating before Selection Monday. Despite having beaten the Flyers earlier in the year, Richmond would fall to the eventual A10 Tournament winners, 2-0. Crushingly, Richmond were on the outside looking in when the brackets were revealed. As cruel as it might seem, the opening day draw with Longwood or the league opening defeat to Duquesne may well have turned the tables on Richmond. A win in either could well have seen the Spiders dancing in mid-November. It was a harsh lesson about the thin margin for error at the highest levels of the college game for a program that had impressed so many in their ascent up the A10 in 2011.
The Spiders were in essence a team of contradiction in 2011. On the one hand, Albright’s charges possessed All-American sophomore forward Becca Wann, a powerful and nearly irrepressible force who scored fifteen goals and added six assists for the Spiders in another fantastic season. On the other, Richmond didn’t really achieve all their success through their offense last year. The Spiders’ offense was only fifth in league goals scored in the A10 last year, with eleven in nine games and only totaled twenty-seven overall.
They compensated for that though with the league’s meanest defense, giving up just four goals in those nine A10 matches. When you subtract heavy losses early in the season to powerhouses Virginia and Penn State, the club gave up just eleven goals in their other nineteen contests. The Spiders saved their best for last, pitching five straight clean sheets at the end of the regular season before the A10 Tournament loss to Dayton. With five of the club’s six players that pulled down personal honors from both the league and the NSCAA returning, it’s safe to say that the best might be yet to come from these Spiders. That one departure’s a big one though, as Melissa Pacheco had turned into one of the league’s most reliable keepers. Finding a steady solution in goal might be all that separates these Spiders from a trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Though Richmond doesn’t find itself completely without experience in between the pipes this season, they do still have to replace the excellent Pacheco in goal. After starting for much of her junior and senior seasons, Pacheco would have to wait until a few weeks into the regular season to get into a groove as the club’s starter. Despite the club’s generally strong defense, Pacheco ended up ceding a lot of time to fellow veteran Andrea Young, especially in league play, where Young actually ended up seeing slightly more time in goal. Pacheco’s strong efforts in goal were still enough to see her named All-A10 Second Team though, and she was a reliable option that will be missed by Albright and the Spiders.
Young ended up getting a medical redshirt for her injury shortened 2010 season and returns for the 2012 campaign, which should provide a big boost for Richmond, considering she comes into her final season with thirty-one starts to her name, including seven last season. Young’s more steady than spectacular, but don’t rule out a big final season behind what looks like a fine defense. Fighting for the backup role will be senior Allie Albright, daughter of head coach Peter Albright, and sophomore Lisa Hozey, neither of whom has seen meaningful action over the past two seasons. Despite the loss of the talented Pacheco, there should be little, if any, drop off in goal with the veteran Young returning in 2012.
When they weren’t facing the likes of Virginia and Penn State and their superstar laden offenses, Richmond’s defense was downright dominant last season and a major reason why the Spiders came so close to making the NCAA Tournament. This unit is by far the hardest hit by attrition though, with Richmond having to replace a pair of starters who were in the first XI for each game last season. Liza Koch had shown glimpses of real talent in 2009 but had suffered through abbreviated seasons in 2008 and 2010 and was anything but a sure thing going into 2011. The Louisville native would end up being a pleasant surprise for the Spiders though, holding down a starting spot all season and leading the team with eight assists, including two each against Old Dominion and St. Bonaventure.
Also gone is Lindsay Wicher, who began her career at Santa Clara before transferring back to her home state and becoming a crucial part of the Spiders’ lineup. Wicher would make forty-four starts for the club in three seasons, including twenty starts last season for Albright’s side.
The Spiders should still be in good hands though with some very talented pieces returning to the lineup. The lynchpin is senior Kristin Lescalleet, a three-year starter who looks like becoming one of the league’s very best defenders this season. Capable as a defensive midfielder or holding it down on the backline, Lescalleet helped marshall last season’s crushing defense and should ensure Richmond makes life hard on opposing attacks again this year, with her experience a big asset for the Spiders.
The future looks bright as well with the likes of sophomore Melissa Alvarez Freeman forming the crux of the club’s defense long-term. The Massachusetts native ended up coming in right away and being one of the league’s most impressive young talents, starting sixteen matches at center-back and looking assured beyond her years for the Spiders. Alvarez Freeman looks like blossoming into one of the league’s top defenders and should ensure this group stays near the top of the A10′s defensive charts for a while to come.
The key of course will be filling some of the gaps left by the departed seniors. Senior LeighAnne Baxter is a strong contender for one of the vacant spots after starting eleven matches last year. Baxter was one of the club’s top reserve options for two seasons before while making the occasional spot start and should have enough starting experience to slot into a bigger role relatively seamlessly. Fellow senior Virginia Chandler was sparsely used for two seasons but seemed to have made a breakthrough last season, starting three matches and seeing significant time early but missed the entire second half of the season.
Sophomore Violet Miller was the club’s highest touted recruit going into last season, making a handful of starts and could end up being shifted into the starting lineup this season after being a top reserve last year. The real wild card though could be senior Emily Parisi. Parisi missed all of last season through injury but was a two-year starter before then and could easily win her starting spot back this season. Though Richmond does lose some key personnel, the return of Lescalleet and Alvarez Freeman, along with a good bit of depth, should ensure that the Spiders defense has every chance to shine again this year.
Richmond had a strong midfield last season, and the Spiders could dominate the middle of the park again this season with the vast majority of last season’s personnel set to return for the 2012 campaign. The only expected loss is of Taylor Leaman, who was scarcely used early in her career but made eleven appearances last season with a pair of starts for the club as a senior.
Set to lead the midfield this season is senior Natalie LeClair, who had a breakout season as a junior, ending up on the All-Region Third Team. LeClair had begun her career in fine fashion with four goals and two assists as a rookie but had fallen off a cliff as a sophomore, losing her spot as a full-time starter and finishing pointless. Six goals and four assists last year marked a fine comeback, especially considering she had missed the opening two matches of the season. LeClair will be looking for more to cap off her college career and could be one of the league’s best this season.
Richmond also returns sophomore Ashley Williams, one of the league’s brightest young midfield prospects. Williams came in as a freshman and won a starting spot in short order, cracking the starting lineup fifteen times. She was of limited effect offensively, but there’s still plenty of potential to grow into. Juniors Crystal Koczot and Erin Layne also look like prime contenders to fill starting roles this season for the Spiders. Koczot, like Williams, hasn’t been a big offensive contributor in her two years with the program but has picked up a lot of experience, starting twenty-nine matches in that time, including nineteen last year. Layne is the tallest player on the team at 5’11″ and started seventeen matches last season but also hasn’t been big on the offensive front. The hometown product did net a big goal last season though, the winner against North Florida.
Returning options off the bench include sophomores Meghan Hayden, who played in a handful of matches last year, and Brazilian Drika Bianchin, whose season was cut short by injury. Albright brings in some nice new talent in the form of Region I ODP mainstay Ashley Riefner, who could immediately push for major minutes. This group has a lot of experience and solid depth, but other than LeClair, they lack a little punch offensively.
Wann had a lot to live up to after a freshman season that saw her named A10 Rookie of the Year following ten goals in a shockingly strong debut campaign. The big Virginian is a unique figure in that she not only plays soccer for the Spiders but basketball as well, a fact which has limited her opportunities at youth international level, though she, as of press time, is in the running for a spot on the U.S. U20 World Cup team. Wann, as you might expect, is a big threat in the air, especially against mid-major clubs with smaller defenses.
While the big forward struggled early on against some steep competition, a hat trick against Old Dominion woke up the beast, and Wann reeled off thirteen goals in ten games to fuel Richmond’s great midseason run. She wore down a bit late though, with just two goals in the club’s final seven games, but the Spiders weren’t exactly giving her much support up top at any rate. Wann still finished with seven game winning goals and now has eleven on her career. The junior was held without a shot on goal just twice on the year and not after the sixth game of the season. The odds certainly favored her though, with Wann taking a staggering one hundred six shots. As long as she keeps scoring though, few in Richmond will likely mind.
Who partners Wann up front is a big question, and who replaces her could be a bigger question if she makes the U20 WC squad. The club loses it’s most experienced option, with Emily Dale’s graduation. Dale finished her career with fifty-three starts, including ten last year, though she seemed more comfortable setting goals up, finishing with more career assists (12) than goals (8).
Junior Jensen Smith is one option after thirteen starts in two years, but the third-year player has scored just twice so far and may not be a reliable option in front of goal. Senior Shondel Archer is a very tantalizing option, having scored seven goals as a rookie in 2009. The problem for Archer is she’s scored just once in the two year’s since and made just one start in eleven appearances last season. If Albright can coax some good form out of the former hot prospect, Richmond’s offense could blossom.
Given the club’s dearth of experienced options up front, LeClair and Layne could also see time in the attack for the Spiders. LeClair finished second on the club in shots last season and might have to be pressed into more offensive duties given the club’s otherwise reliance on Wann. Wann’s a great lead gun to have though, and if she can handle the defensive pressure, she should continue to be one of the nation’s top scoring threats.
Some might dismiss the Spiders as a one-trick pony given Wann’s meteoric rise to the fringes of a place on the U.S. U20 World Cup team, but discounting the rest of this Richmond group would be a serious mistake. Albright’s constructed a rugged and deep team that can grind out games when their talisman isn’t scoring. The Spiders were 8-1-0 in one goal games last season which certainly speaks to something good within this group. Richmond likely is fully aware of just how close they came to the NCAA Tournament last season, a knowledge that’s likely to fill them with a whole lot of drive coming into the new season.
Though the club has to replace some starters on the backline and in goal, what’s left is pretty darn good with the likes of Lescalleet and Alvarez Freeman heading up the unit, while the midfield is solid as well. Wann’s quality up front speaks for itself, and if the club can get players like LeClair and some of the other attackers scoring, look out. Much of the attention going into the new A10 season will likely be thrown Dayton and La Salle’s way. Anyone overlooking Richmond could be in for a rude awakening though, and the Spiders have a very real chance at silverware and a spot in the Big Dance this season.