Anina Cicerone Will Hope To Keep WMU Above the MAC Fray This Season
ACC – Clemson
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WCC – Gonzaga | Loyola Marymount | San Francisco
When opportunity knocks in the college soccer world, you’d best answer, and it’s safe to say Western Michigan and recently departed head coach Suzie Grech made the most of her opportunity at the head of the Broncos. The former Spanish international goalkeeper had bounced around as an assistant at numerous programs after a distinguished playing career in Ann Arbor for Michigan but was elevated to interim head coach status after the resignation of Mike Haines a month before the 2009 season.
After a relatively strong period for the program from 2003-2005 that saw the team win the double in 2003, the program had hit the skids in 2006 and 2007 with a pair of three win seasons and last place finishes in the MAC. But the program had bounced back to a fifth place finish in 2008, making Haines’ departure after an April DUI arrest that much more untimely for the Broncos’ program. Grech’s season as interim head coach wasn’t much to shout about in all honestly as the team slid back to eighth place and dropped slightly in the RPI. But the Western Michigan brass apparently saw enough in her to take the interim tag off of her and appoint Grech as the full-time head coach for the Broncos.
She repaid their faith in 2010, delivering the program’s first winning season since 2005 and seeing the program rise over fifty spots in the final RPI en route to the team’s best finish in the MAC since 2005. WMU would make waves in the postseason as well, upsetting Toledo on the way to a spot in the MAC Tournament final for the first time since 2003, where they’d fall to an experienced Central Michigan team.
The Broncos headed into 2011 trying to show that they weren’t just a group of one-hit wonders and put a tough non-conference schedule in front of themselves to test the squad early on. With their first seven away from home, WMU was certainly not taking the easy road, and their results reflected it. The club would beat Tulsa but also took a smattering of close losses to the likes of Marquette, Wright State, and Michigan. The close defeats showed that the club could certainly compete with most sides out there, and WMU was only really shown up once in non-conference play, to Big Ten side Indiana in a 4-1 loss.
The Broncos picked up another nice win before MAC play started by taking down Illinois State in the last match before conference action. Early on though, WMU looked nothing like a title contender, going 3-3-0 in the first half of the league and losing to mid-table sides like Ohio and Buffalo. A win over league powerhouse Central Michigan would change everything though, and Western Michigan used the upset as fuel for five straight clean sheet wins to finish out the season. The streak allowed Grech’s side to climb up to third in the league, just four points off of champs Toledo and six points away from fourth place.
WMU would handle Ball State in the quarterfinals before a rematch with Central Michigan in the semi-finals. Despite their relative lack of pedigree in the postseason, the Broncos would show no fear and emerged triumphant in a nerve rattling match with a golden goal in the second half of extra time. Toledo was waiting in the final, but for the second straight year, Western Michigan came up just a little short. The Broncos were second best on the afternoon but had shown that they were a growing force in the MAC all season long. It’s hard to argue that Grech and Western Michigan have made it the Big Three instead of the Big Two in the MAC having not won a major trophy, but 2011 showed that it might only be a matter of time for these Broncos to lift some silverware.
Or at least that was the plan before the shocking news in June that Grech had vacated her post, accepting a job as an assistant under new Houston coach Chris Pfau, one of Grech’s league rivals the past few seasons at Akron. Suddenly, the air of uncertainty was back at WMU, with the club being forced to scramble for a new head coach just a few months before the start of the 2012 season.
The Broncos actually made a decision reasonably quickly, tabbing Miami (FL) assistant Nate Norman as their new boss. A former draft pick of the MLS’ Chicago Fire, Norman shouldn’t be a stranger to the WMU program after having been an assistant for the club during 2010′s successful run before heading down to Coral Gables. Though success has certainly followed Norman around recently as an assistant, coming into a head coaching job for a program with winning expectations may not be such an easy first top job, even with a familiarity with the program.
Norman won’t be hurting for some nice talent going into the new year. Though the club loses offensive force Stephanie Skowneski after an eight goal, nine assist senior season, the Broncos return senior Anina Cicerone, who enjoyed a breakout season with nine goals to her name. Also back is senior defender Kelsey Baskins, a player with the potential to be one of the best at her position in the league, along with midfielder Rachel Chaney, one of the great hopes for the future for WMU. But the Broncos’ present is littered with numerous questions after Grech’s departure, which is a most unwelcome development considering the growth of the program the past few seasons.
Faced with a little bit of uncertainty going into last season, WMU should be a little more assured in goal this year with the return of junior starter Michelle Watson. After featuring sparsely as a rookie in 2010, Watson won the starting job after the first game of the season and ended up starting all but the opener last year. As far as debuts go, Watson’s first year as the club’s starter went pretty well, with the Cincinnati native keeping twelve clean sheets for the Broncos behind a solid defense. The battle to back her up will be between sophomore Maddie Reed, who started the first game of the season against Marquette but then played just one more half the entire season, and true freshman Kaitlyn Collin.
The Broncos should be in good shape defensively this year with the return of three of four starters from last year’s stellar backline. The lone starting loss is of senior Caitlin Henderson, who impressively started all eighty-two games in her WMU career in the rearguard. Far from being just a bulwark in the back, Henderson proved to be an invaluable asset in assisting the offense as well, with fifteen assists over the past two years, including seven last year. The twenty-one assists in her career put Henderson third all-time in the club’s record book, while she stands along in number of games started. Also gone are towering center-back and midfielder Alison Szczypka, who started two matches last year and thirty-five in her career, as well as the versatile Jackie Drees, who had started five of the first six games of the season before missing the rest of the year.
Leading the way for the returnees this season will be junior center-back Kelsey Baskins, a key part in the club’s twelve shutouts last season. A reserve for much of her freshman season, Baskins has since been unmovable in the starting lineup, winning All-MAC Second Team honors last year. The Novi product can also fill in on the flanks in a pinch and should be one of the league’s best this year. Senior Stefana Ciraulo was a rather shocking mainstay in the starting lineup last season considering she had made just five reserve appearances in two years with the club going into 2011. The full-back would be steady in the lineup though, starting seventeen matches and looks to reprise that role again this year.
Junior full-back Lauren Fearday was another Bronco who had seen sparse minutes coming into 2011 that stepped up in a big way, starting all but two matches for the club. The Ann Arbor native looks likely to continue in her starting role again this year. Filling Henderson’s vacated starting spot is obviously the big question for the Broncos this year. Big, aggressive rookie Lindsey Lee was well touted by Grech after her signing this Spring, and the Regional ODP mainstay looks like one of the favorites to claim a starting spot. Depth throughout the unit looks a little iffy, but this group managed with a similar situation last year and could be one of the league’s best if all the returning pieces stay healthy and on form.
Departed senior Nikolette Rivera wasn’t the biggest in stature, standing at just 5’0″, but she played much bigger than her size and was the heart and soul of this midfield for so long. Rivera leaves as a three-time All-MAC Second Team selection who had started every game in the final three seasons of her college career. By parts combative and threatening going forward, Rivera was a big part of WMU’s revival over the past few seasons and will be hard to replace.
Junior Megan Putnam looks like this unit’s new leader after sliding into the starting lineup full-time last season. Putnam had been one of the club’s top reserves as a rookie in 2010 but only really turned into a lineup fixture last season, chipping in with three assists as she started every match of the season for WMU. Also likely to be in the starting lineup is sophomore Rachel Chaney, who entered her rookie season as a bright prospect and one of the club’s most touted rookies going into 2011. She proved the pundits right with sixteen starts in the midfield and added two goals and an assist for her troubles. The Shelby Township native could yet develop into one of the league’s best in the middle of the park.
Replacing Rivera is going to take some doing with the dearth in other returning starting experience. England’s Nicole Hatcliffe looks most likely of the returners, having featured in sixteen matches as a rookie last season, but the Bury product was somewhat muted last season, with just four shots and zero points to her name. Fellow second-year player Ariana Donahue also saw six matches of action last year and could factor in as well. One to watch from the rookie class is Lacey Zahn, who is brings a defensive bent to the midfield but who could also see time on the backline at any position as well. Rivera’s a big loss, but the continued presence of Chaney and Putnam should ensure this group doesn’t drop off too badly.
The 2010 MAC Offensive Player of The Year, Skowneski had shown great potential as a rookie with five goals but would need until her junior year to start to cash in on that potential, scoring nine goals on her way to one of the league’s top gongs. The departed senior signed off with a fine senior season in which she racked up more assists in one season (9) than she had in the three years before combined (7). Skowneski’s eight goals last season made her the school’s all-time leader in that category, while she ended up second in points in the Broncos’ all-time record book.
The Broncos do appear to be in good hands this year though with the emergence of Cicerone as one of the league’s most dangerous attackers. Having seen her goals total rise from three as a rookie to nine last year, Cicerone topped out at nine last year, with braces against Tulsa and Ball State. She managed five in the league and then the golden goal in the MAC Tournament semi-final upset of Central Michigan that sent WMU to the final. Provided she gets support from around her, Cicerone is a threat to increase her goals tally yet again this year.
Fellow senior Brittney Pavlica is a good bet for that support after being entrenched in a starting spot for the last two seasons for the club,. With nine goals over the past two seasons, it’s safe to say she’s no soft touch in front of goal either, especially when you consider four of those strikes were game winners. Replacing Skowneski is the key. Towering senior Megan Matula looked to be a breakthrough candidate last year after four goals in 2010 but was lost for the season after starting the opener.
Second-year player Diana Dedvukaj ended up as one of the club’s top reserves last year, with three goals and two assists and seems like a prime contender to step up into increased minutes. Another sophomore Aubrey Sudomier, could also be a factor after four starts as a rookie last year. Cicerone and Pavlica look a fine one-two punch up top and mean this group should still be very dangerous depute losing Skowneski.
Given the core of returning talent for Western Michigan, it was hard not to be bullish on the Broncos going into the new year. And then the club was rocked by Grech’s departure. Such a sudden upheaval could unsettle even the best of clubs to a certain degree, and it’s hard to not feel that WMU’s fortunes are much more up in the air given the concern over the sudden shift in coaches this year. Obviously, much depends on how quickly Norman is able to settle with so little time to prepare for the new season. Still, the Broncos are returning a team that’s quite solid across the board, with the likes of Baskins and Cicerone likely to be among the league’s best. A title bid doesn’t look to be in the cards, but this club should be aiming for no worse than the top third of the league and potentially a deep run into the MAC Tournament once again.