Natalie Norris Will Try To Seal A Legacy As One of The WAC’s All-Time Great Defenders This Season
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
Pac-12 – Arizona | Arizona State | Colorado | Oregon | Utah | Washington
SEC – Arkansas | Mississippi State | Ole Miss
WCC – Gonzaga | Loyola Marymount | San Francisco
Sometimes a change of scenery is all it takes for a program to get headed on the right direction. Just ask Utah State, Big West no-hopers who suddenly turned into contenders once the program switched conferences to the WAC in 2005. Of course, you could also give a lot of deserved credit to head coach Heather Cairns, who has done a fine job in building the Aggies into the WAC’s flagship program ahead of the current membership shuffle. How good have Cairns’ Utah State teams been in the WAC? In the seven seasons the Aggies have played in the league, they’ve racked up three league titles and have been three times runners-up.
Heading into 2011 though, the postseason had proven to be Utah State’s Achilles’ heel, with the club coming up short again and again in the WAC Tournament, keeping it from taking that final step towards the NCAA Tournament. Often, it had been Fresno State that shattered Aggie dreams, including in 2008 when Utah State had gone perfect in the league, only to lose in extra time to the Bulldogs. Fresno had proven to be USU’s nemesis again in 2010, topping the Aggies in the semi-finals of the WAC Tournament after Utah State had won a share of the league title once again.
Cairns’ side entered 2011 with lofty ambitions again, namely finally breaking their postseason hex and earning their first berth to the NCAA Tournament. The Aggies would start off the year on a flyer, winning their first eight matches, with the first seven of those victories coming by a single goal. While there was a fair share of regional minnows, the Aggies also topped mid-major stalwarts Cal State Fullerton, Rice, and Colorado College in the process, as well as a big win over in-state rivals Utah. Suddenly, Utah State had the looks of a team that could potentially challenge for an at-large bid to the Big Dance.
A match at an equally unbeaten Oklahoma State side loomed large as one of the biggest matches in program history. Except that Utah State perhaps was caught looking ahead a little bit and was beaten by Tulsa on the first half of that road weekend. To add insult to injury, Aggies talisman Kendra Pemberton was sent off late in the loss, and her presence was missed against OSU as the Cowgirls powered past the Aggies.
It was part of a midseason tailspin that saw the Aggies go winless in five, their at-large bid hopes effectively going down the tubes. Cairns’ side got their groove back at an opportune time though, winning five in a row in the league to put themselves on the brink of another title. To lift the crown, USU just had to avoid defeat against rivals Fresno State in the regular season finale. It was a tense affair at times, but the Aggies held on for a scoreless draw, retaining the WAC title by two points in the process.
The true test of course was the postseason, where Utah State had faltered so many times in the past. They would need a second half goal to polish off Idaho in the semi-finals, earning a shot at more silverware against Fresno State. On the whole, Utah State were probably second best and put just a single shot on goal. It was the shot that counted most in the final though, as Jade Tarver fired herself and Utah State into the history books with the only goal of the match as USU completed a long awaited double.
The Aggies were an intriguing dark horse in the NCAA Tournament and appeared to have been given a decent matchup against SEC Tournament champs Auburn. The step up in class proved to be too great for USU though, and the 2-1 scoreline for Auburn in the end perhaps flattered the Aggies a bit on the evening.
But it had still been a fantastically successful season for Utah State, and the relief was likely palpable in Logan at the club finally having broken their postseason hex. At the same time, you also get the sense that this Aggies club hasn’t quite hit their ceiling yet and may well make a bigger impact on the national stage as a mid-major of improving repute as the trophies keep rolling in.
Based on goals scored and goals conceded, Utah State had the league’s best offense and defense last season, sitting on top of both categories come the end of the season. Repeating that feat isn’t going to be easy though, as the Aggies have some rebuilding to do after incurring some losses of some their best talent going into 2012.
First and foremost is finding a replacement for the offense of Shantel Flanary, the reigning WAC Offensive Player of the Year. With ten goals and six assists, Flanary was involved in nearly half of Utah State’s goals last year and was economical with her shot selection, needing just fifty-eight shots to hit double digits. First choice keeper Molli Merrill also departs after another sterling season, along with defensive stalwart Summer Tillotson and midfield general Chandra Salmon-Christensen, all being All-WAC selections last season.
Cairns’ Aggies aren’t entering 2012 completely devoid of weapons though. USU should still pack a capable defense thanks to the presence of Natalie Norris, two-time WAC Defensive Player of the Year and one of the best defenders in recent league history. The Aggies aren’t going to be totally toothless going forward either. the presence of junior midfielder Kendra Pemberton, who is as comfortable scoring goals as she is setting them up should ensure that. Their postseason jinx finally broken, these Aggies might well be ready to string together some more NCAA Tournament appearances after so many years of coming so close.
Merrill, who joins the club’s backroom staff as an undergraduate assistant this season, casts a rather large shadow as departs the club’s playing roster this season. After serving as a backup for her freshman season, Merrill enjoyed three fabulous seasons in between the posts for USU, earning All-WAC Tournament Team honors twice, while also winning All-WAC First Team plaudits during last season’s double triumph. Merrill leaves as the club’s career leader in shutouts and as one of the club’s best players in recent years.
Who steps into the starting role this season is anybody’s guess, with four contenders for the vacated spot. The tentative favorite might be senior Ashlyn Mulford, who was the club’s backup last season, though she only got action in two games in mop-up duty. She started a few games in 2010 and still has a slight advantage in experience over her rivals. Sopohmore Kassidi Nudd didn’t see action last year and will be battling rookies Jeannie Woller and Natalie Stoven for minutes. Woller in particular is worth watching as one of the club’s top recruits this season, with Cairns praising her organization and leadership skills. The Aggies have plenty of options, but whether any of them can step right in and replace Merrill effectively is a big question.
Given the uncertain situation in goal, Utah State will likely be thankful for the majority of their starting defense from 2011 returning. The very notable exception is graduated senior Summer Tillotson, a four-year starter for the club who notched All-WAC First Team honors last season as she started every match for the club in her final season with the Aggies. Tillotson also showed her skills going the other way, finishing third on the team with five assists. The only other expected loss is Julia Flores, a transfer from San Diego State who started two of the club’s first four games but didn’t play after late August.
The return of Norris to the ranks for her senior season immediately makes this group one of the WAC’s most formidable though. Norris has been a key fixture in the starting lineup since she stepped foot on campus and has scarcely put a foot wrong in her time in Logan. Norris will be aiming for her third straight WAC Defensive Player of the Year nod and isn’t so bad offensively either after scoring four times last season, including three match winners.
The future should be in good hands as well, with Utah State returning last season’s WAC Freshman of the Year in the form of Taryn Rose. Another who ended up being thrown into the deep end right from the start, Rose started every match as a rookie and looks like another astute find from Cairns and co. and should again be one of the league’s standout defenders.
Versatile Jessica Hoskin, comfortable at home in either attack or defense also seems likely to reprise a role in defense after starting every match for the club as a sophomore last season. Filling Tillotson’s vacated spot could be challenging though. The lone reserve returning with real experience is senior Kami Montgomery, who only featured in five matches off the bench last year. The answer might actually come from another Tillotson, Summer’s younger sister Jackie, who transfers from UNLV. The younger Tillotson started eight matches for UNLV last season and could end being a real coup for USU down the road. That problem aside, the return of Norris and Rose should make this one of the league’s best units.
As with most of the other units for Utah State, the midfield will take some reorganizing after the notable loss of veteran Chandra Salmon-Christensen. One of the most decorated players in program history, Salmon-Christensen just missed out on being a four-time All-WAC First Team honoree last season but still brought home Second Team honors for her trouble. Never a presence offensively, Salmon-Christensen still was a titan in midfield for the club and leaves a massive vacuum of talent and experience in her wake. Also cutting into the club’s depth is the early losses of Kersey Davis and Chelsie Sperry, two of the club’s top reserves in midfield last year.
Leading Utah State in the midfield this season will be junior Kendra Pemberton, already well on her way to becoming a star for the Aggies. In the lineup for most of 2010 as a rookie, Pemberton broke through in a big way with seven goals and nine assists as a sophomore en route to All-WAC First Team honors. Pemberton was on fire in the league, recording at least one point in every match but the regular season finale against Fresno State and also scored against Auburn in the NCAA Tournament. Given the club’s losses offensively, Pemberton might be leaned on even more for offense this year.
Classmate Jennifer Flynn looks likely to join her in the starting midfield after making the step up into the first XI last year following a rookie season spent mostly as a reserve. Flynn also showed an offensive spark to her game last year, hitting for five goals and three assists, including two goals against Idaho in a 3-0 win. Sophomore Lexie Morgan is the other returning starter to the midfield after starting nineteen games as a rookie and chipping in with two goals and an assist. Morgan also showed a willingness to do the dirty work, as a team leading four yellow cards can attest to.
Filling the open starting slot figures to be a thankless task, but USU does have a fair number of options to fall back on. VCU transfer Shay Haddow missed much of the first half of the season but was a key reserve down the stretch, while Brooke Larsen started three matches and featured off the bench through much of her rookie year. Junior Alyssa Curtis played in ten games as a rookie before missing all of last season and could also bounce back into the lineup this year.
A trio of newcomers also look set to push for major minutes this season. Freshman Maris Hamblin is one of the team’s top recruits this season and possesses both bite and attacking intent and should be a fine box-to-box midfielder for the club over the next few years. St. Mary’s (CA) transfer Tessa Nicolaides played in twenty-five matches in two seasons for the Gaels and has the size to be a valuable physical presence in the middle for Cairns’ group this year. JUCO transfer Robin Hansen also joins up from Iowa Western CC and was a two-year starter capable of a handful of goals at that level and could also push for minutes this year. Salmon-Christensen is a big loss, but the club does still have a star in the unit in Pemberton and pretty good depth as well, meaning this group shouldn’t drop off much, if at all.
It’s all about replacing the goals of Flanary for Utah State this season. The former WAC Freshman of the Year and two-time WAC Offensive Player of the Year finished her career as the club’s all-time leader in assists and points, breaking the latter record with the assist on the only goal in the club’s WAC Tournament final win over Fresno State. Flanary’s ten goals as a senior tied a career best for her and was a fine way to sign off in a great career for USU. Also bidding farewell is senior Marissa Sanchez, who was a starter in seventeen matches as a junior but who only saw action in eleven games with two starts, missing much of the early and late portions of the 2011 campaign.
Junior Mari Miyashiro has started much of the first two seasons of her collegiate career in Logan but has struggled to make a big impression in front of goal, netting just three times last year, including only once in the league. That output has to rise considerably for Aggie success this year, with the Hawaiian likely to lead the line. Also competing for starting minutes will be sophomores Lauren Roundy and Jade Tarver, who both saw extensive time off the bench last year. Their offensive impact was limited though, with Roundy going pointless, and Tarver hitting for just two goals and two assists, though the second of those goals was the winner against Fresno State in the WAC Tournament final.
USU will also be hoping for the return of junior Libby Lundquist, who was a top reserve as a rookie but who missed all of last season. While the Aggies have a good track record of producing great scorers, the lack of proven production and to a slighter degree, depth, is a concern heading into 2012.
The Aggies finally fully cashed in on their immense potential last season by winning both league and conference tournament while also giving a decent showing in the NCAA Tournament against Auburn. It’s hard to claim that USU’s current window for trophies has closed with players the likes of Norris and Pemberton still on the roster, but the club still takes some massive hits through graduation.
In particular, there are strong worries in goal, where Merrill’s loss figures to be hard to overcome, and up front, where the club will desperately be looking for someone to step in and replace the lost goals of Flanary. The good news is that the club still looks pretty strong in both defense and midfield, and that should be good enough to see them in with at least a chance at retaining one or both of their WAC trophies. Just don’t expect it to be very easy on either front in all likelihood.