Kelly Conheeney Will Look to Drive Virginia Tech Up The ACC Table in 2012
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Whether it was a case of 2011′s Virginia Tech side being late bloomers or merely battle tested from their wars in the ACC, the Hokies delivered a big boost to first-year head coach Charles “Chugger” Adair with a postseason run to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament. It wasn’t just VT making that run but how they made it that rang loudest in the eyes of many. The Hokies first knocked off a West Virginia side that had done the double in the Big East and had looked as impressive as any in the nation heading into the NCAA Tournament. Tech would follow it up with an impressive 3-1 win over Texas A&M, a side coming off a Big XII Tournament triumph and who had looked like a wrecking ball just a week earlier against LSU.
The wins in the Big Dance were clear evidence that Adair was the right man for the job after the former Hokie assistant had taken over for Kelly Cagle following the 2010 season. Cagle had taken a program once mired in mediocrity and transformed it into a team capable of contending with anybody in the exceedingly tough ACC. The departed VT boss took over in 2003 with quite the task on her hands, trying to bring some competitiveness to a program that hadn’t had a winning season in their decade of existence while being non-factors in stints in the A10 and Big East.
The new coach’s effect on the program was near immediate, as after a lame duck season in the Big East, Virginia Tech made a shockingly effective start in the ACC. Despite some absurdly lopsided defeats to the top of the league (including conceding nine to Duke and eight to Virginia in the ACC Tournament), the Hokies still managed to earn the first ever bid to the NCAA Tournament in program history. It’d be much harder in the following years though as Virginia Tech struggled to maintain its foothold in the years following.
After three seasons that saw the Hokies combine for five conference wins and that also saw VT fail to make it back to the postseason, the heat was beginning to rise on Cagle in Blacksburg. Cagle would answer those critics by driving her Hokies on a fantastic three year run. 2008 resulted in a winning season, a trip to the ACC Tournament final, and a return to the NCAA Tournament. 2009 would be better still for Virginia Tech, as the Hokies reached dizzying new heights. Cagle’s squad would rise to fourth in the league on the back of wins over Virginia, North Carolina, and Wake Forest among others in conference play. The Hokies would then dominate the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament before falling to Portland in the Sweet Sixteen.
The breakthrough season raised expectations for Virginia Tech going into 2010 after three straight seasons in the NCAA Tournament. The question was whether the Hokies could push on and perhaps challenge for a league title while on the quest for a fourth straight NCAA Tournament appearance. It wasn’t quite that glamorous for the Hokies though, as the club struggled a bit in non-conference play before coming on late. Despite some big wins against Maryland and Boston College in the league, Virginia Tech only just snuck into the ACC Tournament after finishing eighth in the league, mostly due to a poor stretch of the season that saw the club take just one point in twelve during a four game swing.
VT was bounced early from the ACC Tournament but still made it to their fourth straight NCAA Tournament. Dayton would hammer VT in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament though, payback for a Hokie win over UD in the same competition a season earlier. Cagle resigned for family reasons soon after, with Adair ascending to the throne shortly after that.
It looked a solid hire, with no need to rock the boat, but some big losses meant that the new boss would have to be on his game right off the bat to keep his side competitive in the ACC. Opening your head coaching run with six straight wins is certainly one way to make a great impression, and Virginia Tech’s offense was purring during that stretch with nineteen goals in those six matches. Still, The non-conference RPI wasn’t that hot, as VT’s opponents were hardly top notch. The club would slip just once before ACC play started, in a thrilling 4-3 loss to Nebraska.
The lack of quality wins on the docket made it necessary to get it going in the league though, but VT wasn’t off to the races in the ACC immediately, with an 0-3-1 start. The one draw was a big one though, as the club played Wake Forest to a 0-0 stalemate in Winston-Salem. Three wins over the league’s bottom three teams helped consolidate the Hokies’ grip on eighth in the league, while a win against North Carolina in the penultimate match of the regular season all but sealed ACC Tournament and NCAA Tournament spots.
A 1-0 loss to Duke in the opening round of the conference tournament would be a setback soon forgotten as Virginia Tech notched two NCAA Tournament wins on their belt. But a third round matchup against state rivals Virginia was about the worst thing the Hokies could’ve hoped for. The Cavs had VT’s number in an absolute way having beaten the Hokies, 4-0, in Charlottesville in the regular season. It was the exact same scoreline at the same venue in the Sweet Sixteen, as you got the sense that it was just a matchup that UVA was going to win ten times out of ten this season. Nobody would begrudge the Hokies that one failing in 2011 though. Despite breaking in a new head coach and some lineup shuffling, Virginia Tech had still impressed in a cutthroat league and appears to be well positioned in the ACC going forward.
That the Hokies made the run they did into the Sweet Sixteen was something of a shock, not just because of the opposition they beat or the club’s eighth place finish in the conference, but also because VT’s raw numbers in league play weren’t that great. The defense was middle of the road but still miles away from the ACC’s top performers, but the offense lagged behind the Hokies’ rivals in the league. Nine goals in ten games was hardly encouraging, even though Adair’s side was able to turn it on a bit out of the league. The good news is that Virginia Tech returns the club’s three leading scorers, including All-Region Second Team performer Kelly Conheeney, arguably the greatest Hokie of all-time after just three seasons. A match winner in every sense of the word, Conheeney already is on top of the club’s game winning goal chart after seven more strikes last season and is as important to her side as any player in the country.
She and the rest of her offensive teammates may have to turn on the goalscoring early and often this year considering the club faces the unenviable situation of seeing starting goalkeeper Dayle Colpitts away on international duty in the early weeks of the season. With backup Anna Romeiser also having left, Adair has to chose from a sophomore who has nine total minutes of DI experience and a true freshman until Colpitts gets back. If there’s any saving grace, it’s that the non-conference schedule is lenient in the opening weeks, with the exception being a crunch clash against Richmond on opening weekend that could be a key result down the stretch for both clubs.
Down the line, Virginia Tech should be fine with Colpitts in goal, but there could be some hairy moments early with the Canadian in Japan at the U20 World Cup. A highly touted rookie coming into Blacksburg and mainstay in the Canadian youth international setup, Colpitts started every match as a rookie and continued her progress last season with nineteen more starts for the Hokies. Still a bit rough around the edges, Colpitts nonetheless still has enormous upside and will likely shatter all of Virginia Tech’s goalkeeping records by the end of her collegiate career.
With her out of the frame early on though, Virginia Tech may have to scramble to fill her boots. The loss of Romeiser in goal really couldn’t have come at a worse time for the club. After missing all of two seasons through injury, Romeiser deputized as the club’s main backup last year, starting four games in non-conference play. The starting experience would’ve helped out greatly considering the two options other than Colpitts on the roster this year are highly inexperienced.
Sophomore Kimberley Anderson transferred from USC Upstate before the 2011 season but saw a scant nine minutes last season, meaning it’ll likely be a toss-up between her and true freshman Caroline Kelly, largely an unknown commodity coming into Blacksburg. While Tech should flourish in goal upon Colpitts’ return, there may be a lot of anxiety until she does given the lack of experience amongst the backups.
Given the club’s goalkeeping situation early on, it’s probably a good thing that the club returns three of four defensive starters from last year’s squad. The lone starting loss is a rather sizable one though, as Brittany Michels departs as the program’s all-time leader in games played. Michels was a lock on the starting back four for her last three seasons with the club, and though she didn’t score often, her goals were often timely, striking against the likes of Duke and Boston College throughout her Hokie career. Reserve Katie Kooiman, who saw time in a handful of games early in the season, also departs.
The returning starters are quite the experienced crew, with all three coming into 2012 as seniors. Fifth-year senior Amanda Gerhard is the elder stateswoman, having redshirted in 2008, while only growing into a full-time starter last season. She looks to be an unshakable member of the starting lineup now though and should be even better with an additional season of starting experience. Julia Goldsworthy won a starting role towards the end of her rookie season in 2009 and has been an ever-present member of the starting defense ever since. The Pennsylvania native even showed a bit of an offensive touch early last season, scoring a pair of goals against High Point as a junior.
The last returning starter is Kelsey Mitchell, arguably the steadiest defender for Virginia Tech these past few years. Mitchell has started every game possible thus far in her Virginia Tech career and has shown no reluctance in getting forward as well, with eight combined assists over the past two years. The returning starting core is nice, but the club’s success on this unit may depend on finding a replacement for Michels.
Fortunately, Adair has a lot of options. Few pack a ton of experience though, with sophomore Danielle King having seen the most game action having played fourteen games as a rookie last year. Junior Taylor Antolino and sophomore Jodie Zelenky are other options, but both combined for one start and fourteen appearances last year, likely raising some worries about the depth’s lack of experience.
The answer though might land with freshman Courtney Stutts, a Region III ODP team member. Already enrolled at Virginia Tech in the Spring, she should be reasonably settled by season’s start and could slot in at either center-back or as a defensive midfielder this year. Though there’s a starter to replace, returning three seniors to an above average unit bodes pretty well for VT this season, though depth on the whole is a bit lacking.
Experience and skill return by the bushel for Virginia Tech this season, though the club still has to replace starter Brittany Popko. Never a real offensive force for the Hokies, Popko was still a big, physical presence who forced her way into the starting lineup full-time as a junior. She’d start every game last season and scored just once but did make it a big goal, netting against Texas A&M in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Also gone is reserve Rachel Beaumont, who had her senior season cut short by injury after six appearances last year.
The focal point of the offense will be Conheeney, who returns for her senior season having already made her mark on the Virginia Tech record book. Conheeney has already taken control of the top spot on the program’s points and game winning goals chart despite having played just three seasons with the club. She’s the first 20-20 player for the Hokies and needs just four goals and ten assists to finish on top of those career categories this season. The U23 international led the club with twelve goals last season and opened up the new year with points in five straight games, including three braces. Her blistering pace would slow a bit in the face of the withering ACC defenses she faced, but Conheeney was money down the stretch with goals against North Carolina and then West Virginia and Texas A&M in the NCAA Tournament. She’s one of the most dangerous midfielders in the country and is likely to make defenses sweat in bunches again this year.
She’ll have talented teammates in midfield to work with. Classmate Anne Lumpkin was limited in minutes and appearances early in her career but had a breakout season last year, starting eleven matches and appearing in every game. She showed some offensive talent as well, coming home with three goals and four assists despite not logging a point in two previous years. Further growth could lead to a big season for the veteran. A pair of sophomores also saw major starting minutes as rookies and should be right in the starting mix again this year.
Kelsey Loupee came into Blacksburg with some big plaudits last year and proved to be an astute signing, taking some of the creative burden off Conheeney’s shoulders. She started nineteen games and dished out seven assists in a sparkling rookie season, though just one of those was in the league. With another year to adapt to the ACC, she should be even better in 2012. Classmate Katie Yensen also came in highly regarded and lived up to many expectations, starting fourteen games. She wasn’t quite the offensive producer Loupee was, but the year of starting experience should do her a world of good going forward.
The one to watch though could be true freshman Ashley Meier. Just missing out on a spot on the U.S. U20 World Cup team after a late charge, Meier is likely one of the best players ever signed by Virginia Tech and has superstar potential. The plaudits at youth and high school levels run a mile wide for Meier, who has the versatility to play as a physical center midfielder, as a center-back, or even as a target forward up front. She’s likely to see serious minutes, even if she doesn’t win a spot in the first XI right away and could be a contender for ACC Freshman of the Year. This group is the club’s strength by far and looks to have a great blend of experience and youth. Conheeney should be spectacular once again and has plenty of weapons around her in midfield, meaning this unit should be one of the league’s best.
Conheeney handled much of the scoring load last year, but Adair and the Hokies will surely be hoping that some of the frontline can up their game to relieve some of the scoring pressure on their midfield talisman. The group will have to do without one of last year’s starters though, as senior Katie Cramp graduates. Somewhat sparsely used as a reserve early in her career, Cramp began seeing more time as an upperclassman, culminating with her starting every game for the club last year. She wasn’t exactly prolific in front of goal but did still end up scoring three times, including nailing the winner against Clemson. Another departure is freshman Victoria Parkinson, a well regarded Canadian U20 international who was a major bust in her only season with the club, putting just one shot on goal in eleven reserve appearances.
Junior Jazmine Reeves looks likely to lead the line up front this year after a solid sophomore season. Reeves had burst onto the scene as a rookie in 2010 with a handful of goals, netting her ACC All-Freshman Team honors and raising expectations for her sophomore season on a club needing a top notch striker. Her goal tally stayed the same, but she turned into a strong provider, with a whopping nine assists, including seven in early non-conference play. Reeves’ goals were timely ones though, with four coming in the league, including a strike in three straight ACC games in October.
Likely to ascend into a starting role this season is junior Shannon Mayrose, a dramatic success story last year after missing all of two seasons through injury. Despite not starting a single game, Mayrose proved to be a revelation, with the burly striker finishing second on the team with nine goals, including a four game scoring streak near the beginning of the season. Healthy problems seemingly behind her now, Mayrose could be a vital part of the present and future for the Hokies.
Proven depth could be an area of contention with these Hokies though, with limited options behind the likely starters. Ashley Manning scored three goals as a rookie in 2010 but netted just once last season while functioning strictly as a reserve. Classmate Katie DeTuro has also been a frequently used reserve over the past few seasons but has also struggled to put the ball into the net. She scored against North Carolina and LSU as a rookie, but went without a point last year, only putting one shot on goal all season.
It could create an opportunity for some newcomers, including Australian rookie Sarah Roger. Though something of an unknown commodity, expect Roger, and maybe some of the other rookies, to get every chance to work their way into major minutes early. It’s been more graft than craft here in recent seasons, but the combo of Reeves and Mayrose has the potential to make things happen. Depth though does appear to be a concern in the short-term.
The notion of Virginia Tech being the little ACC school that could, overachieving in a conference full of predators, likely got a stark revision last season with the exemplary NCAA Tournament performances that saw them down much more fancied West Virginia and Texas A&M sides. The question now is whether these Hokies can evolve into a program that’s more than mid-table contenders in the ACC capable of a shock or two come the Big Dance. It’s hard to understate what an addition of a player like Meier could do for the club in the long-term, a real statement of intent that VT could be right in the mix for youth international calibre players.
This year, the Hokies have a bona fide star in Conheeney and a lot of talented scrappers to back her up. While the losses to attrition are manageable, the club still has some serious worries early with Colpitts gone for international duty. You might worry about the depth of the cutting edge in front of goal up front as well, though there should still be enough in the tank to handle most of the challenges early. As it stands, this Virginia Tech club should put in a similar performance to last year’s unit, meaning mid-table in the ACC and potentially a few wins in the NCAA Tournament, with sunnier days still ahead in the future.