Rising Star Riley Houle Will Hope To Lead A UConn Charge Back Into the Postseason
ACC – Clemson
Big XII – Iowa State | Oklahoma | Texas Tech
Big East – Cincinnati | DePaul | Pittsburgh | Providence | Rutgers | Seton Hall | South Florida | St. John’s (NY) | Syracuse | Villanova
Big Ten – Indiana | Minnesota | Nebraska | Purdue
Mid-Majors – Florida Gulf Coast | Harvard | Illinois State | New Mexico | Rice | Utah State
Pac-12 – Arizona | Arizona State | Colorado | Oregon | Utah | Washington
SEC – Arkansas | Mississippi State | Ole Miss | Vanderbilt
WCC – Gonzaga | Loyola Marymount | San Francisco
Once among the royalty of the college soccer world, UConn finds itself grasping for an identity in the rapidly evolving DI landscape. A season after just making it into the NCAA Tournament, the Huskies suffered a shocking drop in form, nearly tumbling out of the RPI Top 100. Worse still was the nauseating denouement to the 2011 campaign that saw the Huskies miss out on the postseason entirely for the first time in the history of the program. Legendary head coach Len Tsantiris has now been at the helm for over three decades, before there was even collegiate soccer under NCAA auspices.
The Huskies were frequent visitors to the latter stages of the NCAA Tournament in the first decade of college soccer under the NCAA banner, reaching four College Cups and a pair of finals. But the Huskies just couldn’t get over the hump and finally topple North Carolina from their perch. As the decade turned, UConn were still a very dangerous team indeed, making nine Elite Eights, a pair of College Cups, and another final in 1997, although they would come up short yet again. The new millennium brought more depth at the college level and new challenges as Notre Dame began to flex its muscle as well in the Big East.
The first half of the decade was still met with great success as the Huskies made the Elite Eight in 2002 before making it back to one last final in 2003 and dealing with another unsuccessful title game. The team could still be proud to count a whole cache of silverware in its trophy cabinet, including a boatload of Big East trophies, but the absence of the national title the program was so desperately wanting to be the crown jewel gnawed at UConn. And then in the middle of the decade, UConn’s dominance began to wane. The Huskies were upset in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by Boston University in 2005, the first time the program had not won a match in the NCAA Tournament since 1992.
The next two years were marked by first round exits in the Big East Tournament, but there was a mini-revival in 2007 when the club rode all the way to the Elite Eight before being felled in extra time by Florida State. In retrospect, it might have been the last dying gasps of dominance from the once mighty UConn empire. 2008 was a nightmare season that saw the Huskies slip into a fight to get to .500 and make themselves eligible for the at-large pool. That bid failed, but the Huskies made a miracle run to the Big East Tournament final where they ran into a juggernaut of a Notre Dame team. Despite a brave fight, the Huskies would fall and their consecutive NCAA Tournament streak would be snapped at twenty-six.
Tsantiris likely kept the calls that he was past it at bay for another season with a decent rebound season. UConn just made it into the postseason with a fifth place finish in the division and lost their first round game in the Big East Tournament before making amends by winning a match in the NCAA Tournament. 2010 was a season of wild, inconsistent swings though, with the club losing to unfancied Siena but somehow rebounding to beat eventual national champs Notre Dame in South Bend in the Big East Tournament. That shock win was one of the main reasons the Huskies made it two straight NCAA Tournaments, and UConn entered 2011 hoping to make it three straight trips to the Big Dance.
The new year started auspiciously though, the Huskies losing at home to Northeastern. The confounding inconsistency would show up again a few weeks later, this time to UConn’s benefit as they stunned a Wake Forest team in Winston-Salem after the Demon Deacons had looked unstoppable early on. UConn’s form would continue to lurch in different directions, with a win over Boston University followed by a loss to Harvard. Coming into Big East play, there was the overwhelming sense that this Huskies team could beat just about anyone but also be toppled by just about anyone.
After a win over Syracuse in the league opener came an ugly run of form that saw the club go winless in their next four, capped off by a 3-0 defeat to Notre Dame, obviously seeking revenge for the 2010 Big East Tournament. The Huskies would revive their hopes of the postseason with three wins in their next four, though they came against some of the worst sides in the league. A defeat against West Virginia in the penultimate game of the regular season heaped the pressure on UConn as they headed to Providence for the regular season finale.
They came into hostile territory knowing they needed just a point to qualify for the Big East Tournament but also knowing their opponents were wildly motivated to win and end an unbelievable stretch of futility in trying to make it to the postseason. UConn looked to be in the clear after taking the lead early in the second half and taking that advantage into the final ten minutes. But it’d all go horribly wrong for the Huskies, as they saw Providence equalize in the eighty-first minute before the home side found a stunning winner just thirty-eight seconds from time. UConn were out. Out of the postseason for the first time in program history. And perhaps out of the national consciousness as a top tier program in modern college soccer.
Though few at UConn are likely prone to admit it, last season may have been something of a rebuilding season, with the club having to replace some heavy hitters across the board. On one hand, the Huskies used to not do rebuilding seasons. On the other hand, that was a long time ago, and a step back to take a step forward may have ultimately been necessary for UConn. There’s certainly room for improvement on both sides of the ball in Storrs this season. The defense looked solid in non-conference play, giving up just six goals in six matches, but things gradually deteriorated in Big East play, as that mark crept towards a goal and half conceded.
The offense wasn’t exactly vibrant either, as UConn averaged exactly a goal a game in the league, which was a main culprit in their non-qualification for the postseason. That situation does look a little more likely to be solved this season though. Leading scorer Danielle Schulmann, a temperamental and fiery forward, returns for a final season after collecting seven goals and a red card last season. Also back is sophomore Riley Houle, who came into Storrs with a fair degree of hype and lived up to it in most part, looking every bit like a player who’ll run the show in midfield for the next three years. The Huskies continue to bring in nice talent every year, but in large part, this is still a program looking for the next star to take them back into the upper reaches of the Big East.
While the Huskies do have a few other starting losses to occupy themselves with, the one that could ultimately cut deepest is in between the pipes, as they try and cope with the graduation of Jessica Dulski. After barely seeing the field as a freshman in 2008, Dulski quickly won the starting job as a sophomore and maintained a solid grip on it throughout the rest of her career. That included last year, when Dulski played every single minute in goal in her senior campaign.
As you might expect, Dulski’s departure leaves a vacuum of experience in goal for the Huskies. Junior Leigh-Ann Jaggon, a former Jamaican U20 international, is the elder stateswoman in name only, as she hasn’t seen the field for a minute in two seasons so far. True freshman Jess Montrose was a member of Everton Ladies’ youth setup and is just one of three rookies vying for the job. The other freshmen in the mix are Monica Dahlgren and Allison Saucier, creating a logjam in the battle for the gloves. Regardless of who emerges triumphant, going from a veteran like Dulski to a player with no collegiate minutes could take a toll on the defense as a whole.
UConn’s best laid plans in defense lasted all of about seven minutes last season, which was approximately how long highly touted rookie Gabby Cuevas lasted before blowing out her knee in the opener. Cuevas came into Storr’s as a U17 international and one of the crown jewels of a strong Husky recruiting class. While she looks to be back in health for this season, Cuevas’ absence last season forced a rethink, with Danielle Dakin, tipped to feature in midfield in 2011, moving back to right-back for the rest of the season. Dakin returns in 2012 for her senior season, and the three-year should again feature in the starting lineup, though it remains to be seen if she’ll make the transition to midfield or line up in the back again.
The biggest concern may be finding a replacement for departed starting center-back Courtney Wilkinson-Maitland. One of the steadiest members of the back four over the past four years, the Canadian started fifteen games as a senior and even added a couple assists to the cause last year. Her partner in central defense last season, Karen Gurnon, returns for her fifth and final year in Storrs after starting for three seasons with the club. A versatile workhorse, Gurnon has shown she’s capable either in the middle or out wide, and should go where she’s needed this season for the Huskies.
Sophomore Gianna Roma wasn’t as highly heralded as some of the club’s other rookies last year but ended up doing a fine job at left-back anyway, starting fourteen matches in her freshman season and should be a prime contender to reprise her role in the first XI again this year. Senior Georgina Giddings is a English U23 international and has been one of the club’s top reserves for three seasons and should again provide cover in either defense or midfield.
Sophomore Gabrielle Charno, who played in twelve games off the bench last year should also provide depth. Experience and depth shouldn’t be a problem with this unit, provided that Cuevas is healthy and ready to go again. If they can find a proper replacement in central defense beside Gurnon, this could be one of the league’s better units.
UConn can take heart in the fact that their midfield from last season returns mostly intact for the 2012 campaign. The centerpiece of course is Houle, who immediately won a starting place in the team and finished as the club’s third leading scorer last year with three goals. She also missed the final game of the season against Providence, and it’s very possible that her absence cost the club a spot in the postseason. The All-Big East Third Team selection should again rule the roost in the middle of the park and has every chance of developing into one of the nation’s best midfielders.
Junior Devin Prendergast began her UConn career as a spot starter but moved into the starting lineup full-time last season and ended up as the club’s second leading scorer with four goals. Three of those were in the first five of the season though, and she struggled to find form in front of goal down the stretch. Likely to join the above pair in the starting lineup is another junior, Jennifer Skogerboe, who was one of just three Huskies to start every game last season. More of a defensive presence in midfield than the other two, Skogerboe nonetheless remains a very important component in the middle of the park for UConn.
There’s a decent amount of depth in reserve, even with the loss of Samantha Kelley, a towering utility player who ended up seeing action in thirteen games last season. Senior Hillary Lackman saw a decent amount of time off the bench last year and even scored the winner against Colgate in August, while sophomore Lindsey Watkins was one of the club’s top reserves as a rookie and also made a pair of starts last year. Finnish senior Linda Ruutu could also end up back in midfield after starting there last season but being moved into the attack after Julie Hubbard’s injury. Houle’s a fine centerpiece to build a midfield around, and this group should be one of the more solid units in the league if they can stay healthy.
Of the units in the field for UConn, the attack looks hardest hit, with the loss of starting center-forward Jessica Shufelt and the subsequent departure of a couple of the club’s reserves. Shufelt was the notoriously inconsistent, occasionally brilliant spearhead of UConn’s offense last season and was looking to go out with a bang after six goals in an excellent junior season. Instead, it was a campaign of anti-climax, as Shufelt was bottled up for most of the season, scoring just twice, including only one goal in league play, in the finale against Providence. Both Cory Bildstein and Alexandra Garufi saw sparse action for much of their careers in Storrs but still cut into the club’s depth with their departures.
Likely to lead the line this season is fifth-year senior Danielle Schulmann. Temperamental and well traveled in equal measure, Schulmann’s on her third club, having previously played with Maryland and Seton Hall. After having to sit out 2010, Schulmann showed there wasn’t much rust to knock off with seven goals, including five in the league, to lead the club in scoring. Schulmann would go cold late though, not scoring in the final five for the club, which ended up severely damaging their postseason hopes.
The question is what will she have around her in support. Ruutu ended up playing most of last season in attack after Hubbard’s early season injury but may move back to midfield. The Espoo native certainly showed a goalscoring touch as a rookie in 2009 with eight goals but has struggled in front of goal since, scoring just a pair last season. Hubbard showed some real potential in the attack in the handful of games she saw action in before tearing her ACL and being forced to take a medical redshirt. If she’s healthy, she seems like a near lock to see major minutes in the attack for the Huskies.
UConn does add a couple of quality attacking recruits to the mix to try and liven up the offense as well. Trinidad & Tobago youth international Liana Hinds comes from the vaunted SoccerPlus Connecticut club and has been a hit at ECNL action in recent years and could also provide an instant injection of offense into the midfield as well. Also coming into Storrs is Samantha McGuire, described by Tsantiris as “explosive” and another player who could make an immediate impact in the attack for the Huskies. Schulmann has the potential to be a ten goal scorer for UConn, but it remains to be seen if she’ll get sufficient support to make this a top-notch unit in the Big East.
UConn looks like a club in a solid position going into the 2012 season with manageable losses for the most part and what looks like a solid squad full of returnees and intriguing new talent. Houle looks like she has star potential in the midfield and leads an experienced unit which should be the strength of the squad, though the club could also sparkle on offense if Schulmann gets some help up front. The backline isn’t star laden but should be solid, especially if Cuevas can make a successful return from injury.
The Huskies do look like having a rather gaping Achilles’ heel though, right in between the posts. The lack of any experience whatsoever in goal could cost the club dearly down the line in the always tight race for the postseason in the Big East. But even if the club struggles in goal, there should still be enough for a spot in the conference tournament and even a run for a spot in the NCAA Tournament.