Systemized League Projection
*1. Long Beach State – 29
*2. Cal Poly – 27
3. UC Irvine – 26
4. Hawaii – 25
5. Cal State Fullerton – 18
6. UC Riverside – 18
7. UC Davis – 17
8. UC Santa Barbara – 14
9. Cal State Northridge – 8
* = Projected NCAA Tournament Qualifier
Long Beach State had been one of the nation’s best mid-major success stories over the past half decade, culminating with a run to the Elite Eight in 2011. But the Beach had an atypically poor season in 2013, finishing just a game over .500 and seventh in the table to miss out on the postseason. Big West rivals may have enjoyed it, but they’ll probably be wishing that form held over to this year, as LBSU looks like having a big bounce back year in 2014. Mauricio Ingrassia’s side returns ten starters, including defensive leader Taylor Nelson, who helped helm a rearguard that gave up just over a goal a game in all competitions. A lack of firepower ultimately did LBSU in last season though, as Nadia Link’s absence was keenly felt. Mimi Rangel’s presence was keenly felt, with the rookie scoring five goals and four assists last year. She and Elizabeth Lyons will try to provide more goals for the club, while reinforcements in the form of Ashley Gonzales and JUCO transfer Vania Robles could also feature. Continuity, talent, and an excellent coach could equal an NCAA Tournament return for the Beach. There are plenty of chances for RPI boosting wins on the non-conference slate, meaning LBSU may just need to finish at .500 and do reasonably well in the league to go dancing. They have the talent to just win it and erase any doubts.
This being the Big West, LBSU’s road to the title isn’t exactly going to be smooth. At the top of the queue is a Cal Poly side that had a breakout season last year behind the goals of Elise Krieghoff. Krieghoff was an absolute terror with twenty-one goals in 2013, including scoring goals in seven of eight league matches! She had some trouble against top non-conference defenses, but her quality should be enough to boost the Mustangs towards another title challenge. The question is whether the defense can hold up after the graduation of Cristina Farrington, who became an unlikely star after being a spot starter before 2013. With the likes of Pepperdine, Cal, and Oklahoma State on the docket, Poly has a good chance of an upset and being in the at-large mix as well.
UC Irvine’s title chase will be bolstered by being the league’s most consistently competitive program and having the best recruiting class in the Big West. They’ll need some of those newcomers to be immediately successful, as the club loses top two players Natalia Ledezma and Zoya Farzaneh. Ledezma’s six goals will not be easy to replace, but leading scorer Laura McGrail does return. Rookie Elizabeth Hutchison and JUCO Division III Player of the Year and Mexico U20 international Claudia Lopez could well be the scoring punch the club needs. It’s a little dicier on defense where Irvine has to replace Farzaneh and Jordan Bruce among others. Andrea Menson and Shauna Salcido are among the new defenders and will be needed immediately for UCI in defense. Keeping it tight in the back will be a challenge, but head coach Scott Juniper is one of the shrewdest recruiters at this level, and aggressive scheduling should ensure they have every chance at an at-large bid to the Big Dance.
My ranking system has Hawaii as potential shock title challengers after some struggles in recent seasons under Michelle Nagamine. The Rainbow Wahine were a point away from qualifying for the Big West Tournament last season and are in a good spot to move up this year. Eight returning starters bodes well compared to many of their rivals, as does the return of much of their top talent. Everything in attack runs through senior Tiana Fujimoto. She scored ten goals. The rest of the team scored eight. Nagamine really needs sisters Kama and Krystal Pascua to provide more of an offensive punch, while rookie Kiani Halushka is another top prospect from The Islands staying home. The defense is combative to a fault sometimes but still conceded just over a goal a game last year. Chelsea Miyake must be replaced, but the club still can count on Lidia Battaglia to lead the rearguard. There are some big names coming to Hawaii in non-conference play, meaning the Rainbow Wahine will have a chance to claim a scalp or two before Big West play. Their title ambitions may be hurt by playing most of the contenders away but should still be a good bet for the postseason.
Cal State Fullerton barely qualified for the Big West Tournament but won two shootouts to go to the NCAA Tournament. They lose six starters though, including the only two players who netted more than two goals last season. Goalkeeper Lindsey Maricic and defender Kellie Bohner are big losses, but the club does return ace defender Morgan Batcheller and fellow back Jazzmin Mancilla, so the league’s best D may not fall off too much. Continued offensive questions make a postseason return dicey though. Joining them in that battle are a UC Riverside side that shocked many by qualifying for the Big West Tournament with a very young side. With head coach Nat Gonzalez signed to a long-term contract, there is stability here and experience with all eleven starters set to return. The surprise factor is gone though, so UCR may struggle to reach last year’s heights unless star forward Tyler Cunningham increases her output. Former Pepperdine #2 Twila Kaufman is the new head coach at UC Davis and has to deal with six starters departing. A goal shy club will hope Sienna Drizin and Lexi Poppoff can score with more regularity, though newcomers Sydney Burger and Dana Fujikuni may need to chip in from midfield. Like most Big West defenses, UCD was stingy last year but has to overcome the loss of defensive star Mary Beth Mazurek.
UC Santa Barbara and head coach Paul Stumpf will try to elevate themselves from their status as constant disappointments in the Big West, but it looks unlikely this season. Nobody here scored more than five goals last year, and one of those players, Allie Ariniello, graduates. Madison Beckley, a sub for most of last year, also scored five goals and may have to lead the offense this season, though rookies Amanda Ball and Brittney McKinney are reasonably highly touted. The defense actually wasn’t bad last year and has a good netminder in junior Beth Ritter who returns after a star turn last season. Without more in attack though, it’s tough seeing UCSB move up the ladder. Cal State Northridge won the Big West Tournament in 2012 but fell to the basement last season. Why? The league’s worst offense and worst defense. Eight starters return, but any sense of star power hasn’t. The recruiting class is modest, and the Matadors may need more time to rebuild and rejoin the league’s elite.