Jaelene Hinkle & Texas Tech Hope To Finally Reach the NCAA Tournament in 2012
Big XII – Oklahoma
Big East – Cincinnati | DePaul | Pittsburgh | Rutgers | Seton Hall | South Florida | St. John’s (NY) | Syracuse | Villanova
Big Ten – Indiana | Nebraska | Purdue
Mid-Majors – Florida Gulf Coast | Illinois State | New Mexico | Rice | Utah State
Pac-12 – Arizona | Arizona State | Colorado | Oregon | Utah | Washington
SEC – Arkansas | Mississippi State | Ole Miss
WCC – Gonzaga | Loyola Marymount | San Francisco
Texas Tech head coach Tom Stone probably expected a long, tough fight to get the Red Raiders into a position of being national contenders, but even his patience may be starting to be tested in Lubbock. In 2007, Stone walked into a program that had been bereft of success in a notoriously difficult place to recruit to. Few could have anticipated the horrors to come when program matriarch Diane Nicholls guided the program to three winning seasons in her reign in Lubbock, ending in a fourth place finish in the league in the first year of organized Big XII soccer.
But the reign of her successor, Felix Oscam, descended from initial disappointment as the Red Raiders sunk to being a mediocre side, to outright farce as Texas Tech turned into one of the worst teams in the country. That last sentence was not hyperbole. TT pulled an 0-fer in the league in both 2001 and 2002, going 0-10-0 in the league. Forget beating Big XII teams, Texas Tech couldn’t beat much of anybody in the early part of the decade, winning a combined sixteen matches between 2000-2004. By the time Oscam’s embarrassing tenure had come to a close, the Red Raiders were little more than a national punchline in the college soccer world.
Having dealt with similar seemingly impossible odds with Mississippi State, Neil McGuire was drafted in to try and restore some pride to Texas Tech. The first season was a painful one, a 1-18 year that may never be matched by a major conference program again. 2006 bore much more palatable fruit for the Red Raiders who managed to get off the bottom of the league for the first time since 2000, winning seven matches in the process, the most for the program since 1999. But just as McGuire seemed to be gaining traction in Lubbock, he bolted for the vacant Cal job, leaving the Red Raiders in the lurch once more.
Seemingly sick of their eternal status as Big XII basement dwellers, Texas Tech went for a home run hire. And most surprisingly of all, they got it, stunning the college soccer establishment by hiring former coach of the WUSA’s Atlanta Beat, Tom Stone. A fixture around the women’s game for years in different roles, Stone came to Lubbock with lofty expectations and likely a considerable price tag despite never having been a head coach at the college level. Progress could be seen immediately in the Big XII standings as Texas Tech rocketed up to fifth in the league in Stone’s first season in charge earning their first postseason trip since 1999.
But despite making it back to the postseason in each year since, the Red Raiders have found progress tough. Stone’s side sank back down into the bottom half of the league and had to sweat qualification for the postseason multiple times, with the Red Raiders only being saved by some vagaries in the Big XII rule book about tiebreakers in 2009. Tech fans could take solace in 2009 being the team’s first non-losing season in over a decade, but there was still hopes that progress could come a little faster to the eager Red Raider fans.
Tech started out quickly in 2010, generally looking more than comfortable in beating teams they should have in non-conference play. The Red Raiders’ early league form was poor and a brief recovery wasn’t good enough to get the program above seventh in the league after the club lost their final two league matches. Despite this, Tech still had a ghost of a chance at the NCAA Tournament if they could beat league runners up Oklahoma State. But for the second time that season, TTU would be beaten by two goals by the Cowgirls, leaving them on the outside looking in as far as the NCAA Tournament was concerned. At the end of the day, the Red Raiders had had their first winning season since 1996 but were still waiting for that elusive first NCAA Tournament appearance.
With many key pieces returning and some top-flight talent coming to Lubbock, 2011 looked to be the year when it could have all possibly come together for Tech. The club looked strong defensively in their first four matches, conceding just one goal, though that was in a 1-0 loss to Ole Miss, in a match that would weigh down Tech’s profile down the road. In a big test, the Red Raiders would be outclassed by Florida in Gainesville before falling to Hofstra back at home. It’d be the club’s last defeat in almost a month, as Stone’s side went on a seven match unbeaten streak, including wins over Toledo and Missouri and a draw against Baylor, though another draw, against Arizona, was not what was needed.
The Red Raiders’ late form would betray them again though, as they ended up losing four of their final five matches in the league, dropping them to fourth, well off the leading lights of the conference. Despite beating Texas in those final weeks, the club’s RPI had also plummeted, meaning they’d likely need to go on a major run in the Big XII Tournament to stand a chance at making the Big Dance. Instead, it’d be Texas that kept their NCAA Tournament hopes alive, dispatching the Red Raiders in the opening round of the Big XII Tournament, 1-0.
While Tech had given a fairly decent account of themselves in the league, the club had taken a step backwards as far as the RPI was concerned and never really figured in the at-large picture at the end of the day. That had to be more than a little frustrating for a program that had looked to finally be on the verge of a breakthrough coming into 2011.
While Red Raider supporters are undoubtedly happy to not be a punchline any more, the club’s inability to finally break through and reach the NCAA Tournament has to be growing a bit tiresome at this point. Stone and his staff have been bringing in no end of talented recruits to try and push the program to the promise land, but they’ve been stuck spinning their wheels in roughly the same part of the RPI for a while now. The Red Raiders looked like having a deadly offense last season with the return of Jessica Fuston and Dawn Ward to the picture, but only Fuston lived up to her end of the bargain, scoring eight goals, while Ward struggled to crack the starting lineup, netting just twice. Goals as a whole were hard to come by, with the club scoring just twenty-seven overall, second worst in the Big XII, while also netting just seven in conference games, also second worst in the league.
Whether that task will get any easier this season is up for debate, as the club loses the services of attacking midfield dynamo Taylor Lytle, who struggled with injuries throughout her career but was a force to be reckoned with when healthy. Fuston and Ward both return though and will be looking to rekindle their attacking drive again this year. The Red Raiders were above average defensively last season, no doubt helped by the addition of potential star Jaelene Hinkle to the ranks. Those ranks are boosted once again by another strong recruiting class, with the hopes that Stone and co. finally have the right mix to send the Red Raiders to the Big Dance.
The Red Raiders may be sporting five goalkeepers on the provisional 2012 roster, but there’s a clear leader in the race for the starting role in New Zealand junior Victoria Esson. Esson ended up being something of a surprising signing given the amount of keepers TTU had coming into 2011 but quickly proved her worth in goal for the Red Raiders. The former New Zealand youth international established herself as the club’s #1 at the beginning of the campaign and ended up starting all but three games as a rookie for the club. She impressed throughout, earning Big XII All-Freshman Team honors at the end of the season and looks to be a rising star for the Red Raiders.
It’s all intrigue behind her though, as backup Gabby Kaufman transferred to Arizona after the season, leaving four contenders for the understudy role this season. Junior Erin Wikelius had split time in goal for her first two seasons with the club but missed all of last season with a back injury. Wikelius would seem to be the natural option as the club’s primary backup but has to prove she’s healthy enough for the role.
Also in the frame for the backup role are Alexis Braziel, a senior who saw forty-five minutes of action a season after a transfer from UAB, and sophomore Cassie Garcia, who didn’t see action last year. Stone also makes a promising addition in true freshman Lauren Watson, a prospect from the vaunted Challenge SC club in Texas who’s quick off her line and has no small degree of upside for the future. Esson’s a talented keeper who should be one of the league’s best, and there’s plenty of depth behind her, making this unit one of relative strength for TTU this season.
The infusion of young talent in Lubbock last season had vivid effects on the backline, as the Red Raiders put together a solid defensive performance throughout. The good news is that the unit returns most of its starting core, with the notable exception being veteran stalwart Casey McCall. McCall was as solid as they come for the Red Raiders for four seasons, leading the club in minutes as a rookie, a trend she’d continue to set for the rest of her TTU career. McCall showed something of an offensive outburst over her final two seasons with the club as well, scoring three goals in her junior and senior seasons, including goals in back-to-back contests against Kansas and Texas last season.
The defense looks to be in good hands though with the return of sophomore left-back Jaelene Hinkle. A U20 international coming into Lubbock, Hinkle was the crown jewel of last season’s recruiting class and more than lived up to the hype, becoming a solid starting defender while also threatening to break forward and aid the attack. An All-Region Third Team selection, Hinkle tied for the team lead in assists with three last year, and there’s no reason why she can’t continue to develop into one of the nation’s top defenders.
Fellow sophomore Bridgett Jenkins was mostly seen as an afterthought in the Red Raiders’ 2011 recruiting class but ended up being a pleasant surprise for TTU, starting eighteen games, and looks to have a bright future for the club as a member of the starting lineup. A third sophomore, Taylor Narvaiz, also looks like a cornerstone for the future after featuring extensively as a rookie as well. Narvaiz, initially recruited as an attacker, showcased her versatility by slotting into the defense seamlessly in the course of making sixteen starts last year. Narvaiz has the size and strength to dominate at the college level and should be even better this season with a year of college experienced under her belt.
Given that three likely starters on the backline are sophomores, filling the breach left by McCall could be one of Stone’s most important decisions this year. Senior Morgan Johnson could be in pole position, as she brings two seasons of starting experience to the club after featuring in the first XI for much of her first two years with the Red Raiders. Johnson was relegated to the bench for most of last year but still made three starts and is a tested option for Stone to rely on.
In a similar vein, senior Haley Fowler could also be a contender for the vacated starting spot after starting for much of her first two seasons in Lubbock. Fowler was lost for the season after just five games though last year and will be looking to bounce back in her final season with the red Raiders. An outside bet for increased minutes is sophomore Cheyenne Diggs, who featured intermittently in six matches as a rookie last year. This group fared incredibly well last season considering three of the starters were rookies. That portends well for the present and future as long as McCall is sufficiently replaced in the starting lineup, with this group having the potential to be one of the league’s best.
Losing Lytle from the midfield is a big blow, as the New Mexico native was the program’s only truly top class player these past few seasons and really should have had an even better career had she not suffered the wrath of injuries for the longest time in Lubbock. After missing the 2007 season with a knee injury, Lytle would make a huge impact in her first two seasons playing with the club, with five goals and eight assists as a rookie before four goals and eleven assists as a sophomore, breaking the club’s single season assist record.
2010 would be a washout mostly though, as injuries ate into her production, though she still managed four goals and five assists. Lytle would stay off the training table last year, starting every game and leading the team in shots, but her production faded noticeably, with just one goal and three assists to her name. Somewhat puzzlingly, Lytle was still named an All-Region Second Team selection, though she continues to impress at U23 level for the U.S.
Complicating matters is the subsequent loss of Madison Terry, who unexpectedly was the club’s second leading scorer last season with four goals, highlighted by a two goal, one assist performance in the club’s shocking 5-0 win over Arizona State. Terry was a reserve for much of two seasons but ended up starting twenty-four games in her final two years with the club.
No shortage of options awaits Stone though as he tries to replace those two key cogs of the team’s midfield. Former U.S. U18 international Tiffani Smith won’t likely be able to replace much of the lost scoring, but the steady midfielder has three years of starting experience, including eighteen games last season, and is still good for an a goal and an assist or two each season. Junior Hayley Haagsma is also likely to feature in the starting lineup after making the first XI in every game last season. Haagsma was having a fine season as a rookie in 2010 before being struck down with a knee injury after eight games. She’d recover to feature prominently last season and should continue to improve another year removed from that serious injury.
Classmate Mallory Yacullo is one contender to step up into a full-time starting role after seven starts a season ago. Yacullo showed real signs of promise as a rookie, with three assists in ten starts but ended up missing a big chunk of games in the middle of last season, so Stone will be hoping for a full season out of the junior this year. Another junior, Sarah Ellison, had been one of the club’s big sparks offensively in the midfield with seven goals and five assists in two years despite starting just sixteen games in that span. Ellison would again fill a super sub role, with fifteen appearances and just four starts, but the offense dried up, with the junior scoring just once. If she can rediscover her offensive touch, she could be a big asset for a midfield looking for scorers.
Junior Jessica Disabella was an instant hit in 2010, joining the starting lineup early on and dishing out six assists in a fabulous rookie campaign. She’d come back down to Earth a little bit last season, mostly functioning as a reserve but still managed three goals and two assists, including one of each in a 2-0 win against Oklahoma. Disabella’s a strong contender for a starting spot thanks to her capabilities going forward in the attack for the club. Other returnees in contention include junior Conner Williams, who started every match as a rookie and had four goals and six assists but missed all of 2010 and was a bit player last year, and sophomore Erin Inman, who was a top reserve as a rookie but was limited offensively.
As if all of the above didn’t add up to enough depth, the Red Raiders add a new cache of rookies to further fortify the ranks. Alli Murphy has been a fast riser as of late in ECNL play with the D’Feeters club and combines great playmaking ability with a howitzer of a shot that naturally makes her dangerous on set pieces. Murphy could be just what the doctor ordered to free up the forwards while giving the midfield a little offensive punch. Also likely to see extensive time as a rookie is Caity Heap, a member of a generation of Sting Dallas players that have raked in trophies at ECNL and USYS level. Heap is capable in midfield or attack and has been praised by Stone for her winning mentality. Adding a little balance defensively to the midfield is Hannah Devine, another ECNL standout and club teammate of Murphy who is powerful in the air and a proven leader at club level.
Losing Lytle’s obviously a killer blow, but the Red Raiders at least have plenty of options to choose from, including a diverse and talented set of recruits. That should ensure the unit’s solid enough, but replacing Lytle’s attacking thrust could be difficult at first.
This unit might end up making or breaking the Red Raiders’ 2012 season as they push on towards an NCAA Tournament bid. With the defense looking stout, it’ll likely all be about putting the ball in the back of the net for TTU who will be hoping for increased production up front to compensate for the loss of Lytle’s disruptive presence in the midfield.
Fuston certainly had a big task in living up to the expectations that had been raised by he wonderful debut season in 2010. The Cedar Park native had won the Big XII Rookie of the Year award after an eleven goal campaign that had set Lubbock alight. Fuston would struggle early last year, not scoring for nearly a month, with her first goal coming in the club’s eighth game. She’d make it look a little easier after that, finishing with eight goals. Only three would come in the league though, and given that the support around her stumbled as well, it’s not hard to see how the Red Raiders’ offense sputtered so badly at times.
Ward herself was a freshman phenom back in 2009, ripping up opposing defenses to the tune of thirteen goals and looking like a potential superstar for the club. Ward has largely disappointed since though, with her goals total dipping to just four in 2010 before last season’s limp two goal effort, with both strikes coming against Toledo. She managed only four shots on goal in league play and was used mostly as a reserve through the season. Indeed, she may have fallen down the pecking order a bit in favor of sophomore Paige Strahan, who started eleven matches last season, but ended up with as many red cards as she did goals, struggling to make an impact despite extended minutes.
Considering this club’s success with freshman forwards as of late, you might do well to keep a close eye on rookie Janine Beckie, who could the club’s next freshman superstar. A member of the U.S. U18 setup and the reigning Gatorade Player of the Year from talent rich Colorado, Beckie has been an integral member of the Real Colorado club and could yet be one of the best attacking talents Stone has recruited to Texas Tech. That’ll likely be a relief to the ears of Fuston who desperately needs some consistent support up front if TTU are to contend this year.
It’s not like the script has shifted significantly for Texas Tech this offseason. Tom Stone’s brought in another excellent recruiting class, likely one of the best in program history, piling on to some other highly billed players already on the roster. The club’s inability to get over the hump and into the NCAA Tournament the past few seasons though has to be creating a little impatience in Lubbock though, despite the club being right near the bottom of the barrel before Stone took over.
There’s a ton of raw upside waiting to to blossom with the Red Raiders though, and the fact that most of the club’s top talent still has two or more years of eligibility left means that this Texas Tech program might not truly have their breakout season until 2013 or beyond. This year though, the Red Raiders have the potential to hit upper-mid table in the Big XII with a possibility of making a Big XII Tournament run if the young talent gels in time. Finally making that long desired NCAA Tournament is a realistic ambition as well for Stone’s charges.