Marissa Diggs Anchors A Tough UCF Defense in 2012
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Given the memorable NCAA Tournament run UCF went on to close out 2011, it’s a little easy to forget just how pedestrian their regular season was. Well, pedestrian by their lofty standards. UCF still qualified for another NCAA Tournament comfortably and has almost lifted themselves above mid-major status such has been their extended success at DI level. But before they had shocked Florida in Gainesville and knocked out North Carolina on penalties, UCF had also come away with zero trophies from their Conference USA exploits.
That hadn’t happened since 2008, but the trophy drought wasn’t quite the entire story. UCF’s fourth place finish wasn’t just its worst finish in C-USA play but also its worst finish in any league season ever. It was also the first time UCF hadn’t won a C-USA Tournament game since 2006. And through it all, this is still a club that managed to beat San Diego, Penn State, Washington State, and Florida in a single season, while also upending North Carolina after a penalty shootout. At the end of the day, you could argue that 2011 was another season in a Golden Age under their longest tenured coach in their history, Amanda Cromwell.
The Golden Knights’ success started far before Cromwell took the reigns though, as UCF was a contender from the very start in the NCAA era, actually a finalist in the first NCAA sanctioned finals in 1982. Under Jim Rudy, the Golden Knights also reached the Elite Eight in 1984 and got back to the College Cup once more in 1987, Rudy’s last season before leaving for UMass. After five years of future Georgia head coach Bill Barker brought two more NCAA Tournament appearances, Karen Hoppa, current head coach at Auburn took over as the program began life in the Atlantic Sun. A long string of trophies followed, with the club bringing home three league titles and four A-Sun Tournament titles in Hoppa’s six year reign, though the club could only manage one appearance in the NCAA Tournament, in Hoppa’s final season in 1998.
In stepped former U.S. international and University of Virginia playing legend Amanda Cromwell. Despite splitting time between WUSA playing duties and coaching the Golden Knights, Cromwell still found the time and energy to lead UCF to four A-Sun Tournament titles and continued Hoppa’s streak of league title triumphs to three in 1999. Though the Golden Knights were dethroned in 2000, Cromwell brought three more league titles back to Orlando in the years following. Perhaps most importantly of all, Cromwell got UCF into a position of being consistent qualifiers for the NCAA Tournament, getting to the second round in 1999 before beginning a new four year streak of qualification from 2001-2004 that saw UCF get to the second round again during the final year of that four season stretch.
After forever being the big fish in the small pond in the A-Sun, Central Florida finally moved to a bigger conference in 2005, as Conference USA came beckoning. The Golden Knights would make it look easy in the league in their first season, winning the league title but seeing postseason success elude them for the first time in a long while as they failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2000. 2006 was a trophyless season, and UCF ended up out of the Big Dance again, leading some to wonder if the conference move had cut into the Golden Knights ability to be perennial NCAA Tournament challengers. It was the last year critics asked those questions as Cromwell’s spurred her side on to become Conference USA’s flagship program.
The Golden Knights entered 2011 having won three league titles in four seasons and having advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in each of the past four campaigns. Recent history dictated that big clubs would be on upset alert when UCF came calling, with the Golden Knights having topped Duke and Florida State in 2009, along with South Florida and Arizona State in 2010. The Golden Knights came into the new year hungry for success after having won the league again in 2010 but also having come up short again in the C-USA Tournament against arch-rivals Memphis. UCF had also been very hard done by in the NCAA Tournament, being sent to Los Angeles despite being seeded and losing in the second round of the competition to hosts UCLA.
Cromwell’s troops opened up the new year by sending a message with a 5-1 dismantling of state rivals South Florida before playing Wake Forest very hard in a 1-0 defeat. After a wild 4-4 draw with San Diego State, the club would go on a great run, beating eventual WCC champs San Diego, eventual Big Ten champs Penn State, and NCAA Tournament qualifiers Washington State in succession. A draw with Florida Gulf Coast in the final non-conference match was a bit of a hiccup but gave no indications to the troubles ahead in league play.
The opener was lost against SMU, and the club would go on to draw consecutive games against Colorado College and Marshall days later. Wins over East Carolina and Rice kept title hopes alive briefly, but a draw against Houston was the death knell for UCF’s reign on top of the league, with the final insult coming a week later as the club suffered a second half meltdown against rivals Memphis, losing 3-0 at home. The opening round defeat to East Carolina in the C-USA Tournament was another stomach punch, with some wondering if the reeling Golden Knights were ripe for an upset in the NCAA Tournament.
They would be of course but not in the way many likely anticipated. A solid win over Florida International in round one was followed by a passionate derby victory against Florida. The Golden Knights led early and often, taking the lead in the sixth minute and scarcely looking back, sealing the win with their third goal in the seventy-second minute before hanging on for the 3-2 victory. UCF’s odds of making further progress looked slim though with North Carolina being the next opponent for the Golden Knights.
UNC had looked like a juggernaut reborn through two rounds, but UCF almost always plays better when the odds are steepest against them, and so it was again. A tense and cagey game was turned on its head by a goal in the seventy-second minute for UCF, and North Carolina went into full scramble mode for an equalizer. They’d get it with a little more than five minutes to play, but UCF didn’t fold, holding Carolina without a shot through the two halves of extra time. The shootout would surely become the stuff of legend in Orlando as 5’3″ Brazilian goalkeeper Aline Reis made a diving save on the Heels’ sixth attempt, sending UCF into rapturous celebrations.
It was potentially a program changing result and one that had the college soccer world buzzing. The party would end abruptly the next weekend in the Elite Eight against Wake Forest, the Demon Deacons likely using their familiarity with the Golden Knights from their early 2011 clash to their advantage in a 3-0 win. Not that that’s likely to be remembered all that much in hindsight. UCF’s amazing weekend in Gainesville will likely take center stage in the Golden Knight history books when recounting 2011. The last chapter in UCF’s Conference USA history will be written in 2012, with the program having agreed a move to the Big East effective the 2013 season. It only seems appropriate given the program’s growth over the past half-decade that they’ll soon be getting a bigger pond to ply their trade in.
Following up 2011′s stunning run through the NCAA Tournament figures to be a tall order, so UCF will probably want to focus on regaining their standing in Conference USA first. The Golden Knights’ penultimate season in the league wasn’t really one to remember, as UCF finished a surprising fourth, some ten points off runaway winners Memphis. Couple in the club’s early exit in the Conference USA Tournament, and it’s easy to say that the club’s performance against league opponents was disappointing.
While the defense usually held fast, it was the offense that sputtered at times, with UCF just nudging themselves past the goal a game mark in the league. The good news for the Golden Knights is that both of last year’s leading scorers, seniors Nicolette Radovcic and Tishia Jewell, return and are certainly capable of better. Their supply line might need some tinkering with though, as the club loses starting midfielders Katie Jackson and Stacie Hubbard.
The biggest worries though are likely to be in goal, where the club loses last year’s NCAA Tournament heroine Reis. The returning options are largely untested, meaning it’s probably a good thing that the club returns last year’s starting defense intact. The Golden Knights also have added youth internationals Sophie Howard and Lena Petermann from Germany, along with Mexico’s Nayeli Rangel to the ranks which should only heighten interest and expectation for the blossoming UCF program.
Pity the phalanx of goalkeepers tasked with replacing the unforgettable Reis, who wrote herself into UCF legend last season. After sitting out as a true freshman, Reis made waves in 2008, winning Second Team All-American honors as a redshirt freshman, a stunning accomplishment. A fearless figure in goal despite standing at just 5’3″, Reis was a tremendous shot stopper with a command of her penalty area much better than many of her peers standing much taller than her. The fiery Brazilian all but embodied the fighting spirit UCF goes to battle with and will be a very hard figure to replace in Orlando.
Cromwell has options galore but precious little experience to fall back on with those options. Last year’s backup, junior Lianne Maldonado would probably have to be considered an early favorite despite playing just sixteen minutes in her first season with the club last year. Maldonado transferred from Maryland, where she was also stuck on the depth chart for the Terps. A U17 international, Maldonado certainly has potential but will definitely be facing competition from all angles.
Redshirt freshman Connie Organ comes from the powerful Concorde Fire club in Georgia and saw time with the W-League’s Atlanta Silverbacks this Summer and looks like the most likely challenge for the starting spot. Fellow redshirt freshmen Diana Manis and Jessica Varitek are longer shots but will still be looking to make their mark. No matter who wins the job, UCF’s new starter will have giant shoes to fill going into the new season.
Given the need in replacing Reis in goal, UCF will be happy to welcome back their entire starting backline from last season, as well as a key reserve, while bringing in a highly touted newcomer. The only expected loss is that of sophomore Justine Quick, who logged time in fourteen games as a reserve last year. The leader of the unit is one of the region’s best in junior Marissa Diggs. Well regarded coming into UCF, Diggs has proven to be a quick study with the Golden Knights, turning into a defensive stalwart in her two years with the program thus far. Starting every match at center-back and leading the team in minutes last year, Diggs also netted a pair of goals on her way to All-Region First Team honors.
Last year’s partner in the middle of defense was junior Ashley Nicol, who also started every game for the Knights as a sophomore. She picked up right where she left off after a solid rookie season and almost never came off the field for UCF last year. Nicol is also a capable grinder in midfield, which could be useful considering the losses there. Cromwell’s side will be able to boast one of the league’s young up-and-comers on the flank in sophomore left-back Carleigh Williams. Despite not being one of UCF’s most touted recruits coming into last year, Williams ended up being quite the find, starting twenty matches and being named to the CUSA All-Freshman Team. Williams should continue to grow and could round into one of the league’s best in time.
Likely manning the other flank is German senior Bianca Joswiak, a U20 international for her country and never one to shy away from bombing up the wing in support of the attack. Joswiak has been a mainstay for the club these past three years and has shown simmering offensive potential at times, netting three goals and eight assists in 2010. She came good with four goals and three assists last year as well and remains a very dangerous threat in front of goal or around it for the Knights. English junior Sokhara Goodall provides great cover in both defense and midfield having started fifteen games as a rookie before seeing her minutes dip a little last year. Goodall still started every NCAA Tournament game for the club and should be a great reserve option at the very least this year.
More depth arrives in the form of German U20 international Sophie Howard, a fantastic addition for UCF. Howard, who holds German and British passports, was the MVP of the recent German U19 DFB Tournament and could be a star in central defense for the Golden Knights. Her rapid rise means she’ll be away with her nation at the U20 World Cup though, meaning UCF will have to do without her for the first month or so of the season. Even without her for a few weeks, UCF’s defense still looks rock solid and should be one of the best in C-USA this season.
Other than the goalkeeping situation, UCF’s biggest worry going into the new campaign is likely to come from the midfield, where replacing a pair of starters will be paramount. Mainly used as a defensive midfielder for much of her tenure in Orlando, Hubbard broke out offensively last year, recording five goals and four assists. That was more goals than she had scored in the previous three years combined for UCF. It was enough to earn her All-Region Second Team honors, and the two assists she logged in the win over Florida in the NCAA Tournament triumph will leave her remembered fondly by UCF supporters.
Jackson had mostly been a key player off the bench in midfield for the Golden Knights her first two years with the club before a breakthrough in her junior year. Six goals and seven assists, including three game winners raised hopes significantly for the Satellite Beach native going into 2011. The offense dried up in a big way, but Jackson was still a constant presence in midfield, starting twenty-four matches. The duo’s veteran leadership will likely be missed more than anything else for UCF this year. Depth takes a bit of a hit as well, with the club losing top reserve Emily Grider, who scored a pair of goals as a redshirt freshman. Grider follows former UCF assistant Colby Hale to Arkansas following the 2011 season.
The leader of the unit in 2012 is likely to be senior Andrea Rodrigues. A full international for Portugal, Rodrigues had been a reserve for the club up until last season, where she stuck in the starting lineup for nineteen starts. Rodrigues hasn’t been a huge contributor in front of goal but did have three assists last season and could be in line for more opportunities in the starting lineup this year. Likely joining her in the starting lineup will be sophomore Madison Barney, a highly touted recruit coming into Orlando last year who started twenty-one games as a rookie. Barney’s finest hour would be deeply ironic, with the freshman scoring her only goal of the season against Florida, where sister McKenzie plays, in the NCAA Tournament.
Offensive punch in the midfield could come from junior Kristina Trujic, who’s started nine games in both of her two seasons with the club so far. Seven combined goals and six combined assists show she’s got some degree of offensive potential, though it’s last season’s goal against North Carolina which will likely last longest in the memories of UCF supporters. Other returnees fighting for more minutes include junior Marleigh Howard, who hadn’t played in two seasons but made sixteen appearances last season for the club, and classmate Katy Ling, a Brit who had two goals and three assists as a rookie in 2010 and is equally capable of playing up front for UCF. Cromwell will also be hoping for a return to health for redshirt freshman Megan Fish, who was one of the club’s more highly touted recruits last season but was incapacitated after just a pair of games.
The ranks are also boosted by some intriguing newcomers. Tyler Law joins up after a season spent at Tennessee and at 5’11″ could add some physical heft to the midfield for the Golden Knights. Many will be eagerly anticipating the debut of Mexican freshman Nayeli Rangel though. A big addition by the ever continental UCF brass, Rangel has already been capped by the full Mexican WNT and will be captaining her country’s U20 side at the upcoming U20 World Cup. That means she’ll miss out on the opening weeks of the season, but with the maturity that goes with being so involved in an international setup, Rangel should acclimate quickly. Despite the loss of a pair of starters, this group still has a solid base to work with and could be a unit to watch once Rangel joins the team in September.
UCF’s frontline was more steady than spectacular last season, but with almost everyone returning this season, they’ve got a chance to improve on last year’s showing. The only expected loss is freshman Dara Spital, who made seven appearances and two starts as a rookie last season but didn’t score a goal for the club.
The Golden Knights will likely turn first to senior Tishia Jewell in their quest for goals this season. Jewell has developed rapidly since her stint as a spot starter as a rookie, breaking out to win CUSA Offensive Player of the Year honors in 2010 with ten goals and twelve assists to her name, including six and eight in the league. With expectations and opposing pressure sky high for the new year, Jewell saw her numbers dip a bit, though she still managed seven goals and ten assists, including two of each in the opener against South Florida. It was enough to earn her Third Team All-America honors, and Jewell should again be one of the league’s most dangerous forwards.
Her partner in crime up top is likely to be classmate Nicolette Radovcic, a steady scorer for her three seasons in Orlando. After a red hot finish to the 2010 season, Radovcic would enjoy her best season yet at DI level, starting all but one game and leading the club with eight goals. Radovcic reeled in three game winning goals, including the winner against Florida in the NCAA Tournament while also scoring two goals against Penn State earlier in the year. She’s got a thing for scoring against the big clubs and will look to keep that run going this year for UCF.
Cromwell has plenty of options to choose from in reserve as well. Sophomores Kayla Darden and Jennifer Martin were among the club’s most valuable subs in 2011, seeing time in almost every match and even making the odd start. Neither was especially prolific in front of goal, but both add valuable depth to the frontline. Also returning is Alex Piercy, who saw ten games of action last year and could contribute in either midfield or up front.
As is the case in other areas though, UCF adds in another international heavy hitter in the form of Lena Petermann, a star at U17 level who put together a stunning twenty-five goals in twenty-five games at that level. She might take some time to acclimate to the college game, but she’s got tremendous upside and could turn into a future star for the Golden Knights. Neither Jewell nor Radovcic are likely to be amongst the goal leaders in DI, but both are very capable and even more so in tandem. Their experience and history of timely goals should serve them well this season, and with reasonable depth to spare, this unit looks to be in fine shape.
While breaking in a new starting goalkeeper significantly reduces their odds of a repeat visit to the Elite Eight this year, UCF still looks like a dangerous club. The team’s strong defense returns intact and should go some way in offering up some protection for the team’s new starting netminder. The midfield deals with some losses, but there’s some solid returnees along with depth and interesting newcomers. The frontline is solid and full of options and could be explosive if Petermann pans out quickly.
We’re unlikely to get a true feel for UCF’s upside early on though, since Rangel and Howard won’t join up with the team until the middle of the non-conference season. Cromwell will be desperate to get her side to not play down to the level of the competition, a disturbing trend last year that resulted in multiple stumbles in the league. UCF also rose to the occasion against the big guns though, playing some of their best ball when the odds were stacked against them. That means the likes of Florida State, Miami, Georgia, and Boston College, some of UCF’s non-conference opponents this season, should be on notice for the upset minded Golden Knights.
Beyond non-conference play, UCF has a pretty good chance at going out of CUSA as champions considering Memphis faces many of the same challenges with graduation and international duty as they do. They play the Tigers in Memphis in the opening fixture of league play though, meaning UCF will have to be up for it from the get go if they want to get a leg up in the race for a league title.