* = Projected NCAA Tournament Team
*1. Illinois State – 43
2. Loyola (Ill.) – 24
3. Evansville – 22
4. Missouri State – 19
5. Indiana State – 16
6. Drake – 15
7. Northern Iowa – 10
As is usually the case in the MVC, everyone’ll likely be looking up at ISU when all is said and done, as the conference bully looks to again have the best squad in the league by a mile. The Redbirds are going to likely drown opponents in goals with Rachel Tejada and Hannah Leinert to supply the firepower. It remains to be seen if the defense can stand up against tougher non-conference opposition, but that’s of little worry in the league. The Redbirds have already taken a big scalp in the NCAA Tournament last season and could very well match that this year.
Of the best of the rest, Loyola (Ill.) figures to stay in the upper half of the table. Getting nine starters back should help considering some of the other losses around the league, and the club returns a fair amount of strength in depth, though losing last year’s best player, Tricia Stonebraker, hurts. Evansville are largely in the same boat, losing their top player in Stephanie Thompson but returning almost everyone else. They should be able to improve on last season’s fifth place finish with ease.
Missouri State doesn’t have as much strength in depth as the above but does return the league’s Defensive Player of the Year in Kelsey Fouch. Indiana State are likely on the road down given the loss of star midfielder Abby Reed and top defender Shelby Troyer. Drake may struggle to make an impact after a wretched 3-12-5 season losing a league high five starters, including excellent defender Megan Fisher. Northern Iowa are favorite for the bottom of the league again with a shortage in top talent at this level and lost their best player from last year in defender Sam Copley.
*1. San Diego State – 29
*2. Colorado College – 28
3. Utah State – 19
4. New Mexico – 17
5. Boise State – 16
6. Air Force – 11
7. San Jose State – 11
8. Fresno State – 11
9. UNLV – 10
10. Nevada – 8
11. Wyoming – 8
12. Colorado State – 8
San Diego State looked to be an easy pick to win the Mountain West again until Colorado College moved over from Conference USA, making this one effectively a two-horse race if the Tigers find their feet fast. Offensively, SDSU isn’t going to have any problems, with Hannah Keane and Victoria Barba sparking what should be the league’s best attack. Defensively? That could be a problem. The Aztecs lose one of the best players in Mountain West history in full-back Haley Palmer, in addition to another top notch defender, Carli Johnson. SDSU’s offense should get them to the NCAA Tournament. Defensive form will tell whether they stay there long.
Colorado College made a wise move geographically to move to the Mountain West. Perhaps competitively as well, as the top half of their new league looks to be more than a match for their old one, Conference USA. It’ll be all about Jessie Ayers this season for the Tigers, as the midfielder is one of the nation’s best and will be running the show in Colorado Springs this season. The club took some hammer blows defensively though with Kecia Morway’s graduation and Kate Scheele’s transfer to state rivals Colorado. There’s enough here for a challenge for an NCAA Tournament bid, though that may be about it.
After that, it gets a bit murky. Utah State is well coached and battle tested but also lacking in some of the star power that has driven the Aggies to NCAA Tournament berths in the past. Last year’s outstanding player, Jenn Flynn, is gone, leaving Heather Cairns with some questions as to how to get the most out of her attack. The computer says New Mexico finishes fourth. Common sense has no clue to how the Lobos will respond to the off-field tumult after the hazing scandal. Boise State was the league’s cause celebre last season after solid results against Pac-12 teams. It’ll be harder this season without Katy Oehring in midfield, though the return of junior midfielder Brooke Heidemann should ensure the club doesn’t fall too far.
Air Force has been a bottom feeder for…well forever in the Mountain West. But the worm could turn this season with the addition of rookies Meghan Strang in goal and Angela Karamanos in midfield, the type of players the Falcons don’t bring in too often. San Jose State has also hit hard times as of late but will be looking to turn it around with the most starters in the league retuning and a decent recruiting class to go with a new coach in Lauren Hanson. Fresno State got gutted by losses in the offseason, including league Offensive Player of the Year Morgan Castain and top goalkeeper Katie DeVault. Defense may still be the focus with league Freshman of the Year Ariana Holmes in tow. UNLV loses their offensive bell cow in Jenn Wolfe and head coach Michael Coll. Chris Shaw is largely an unknown coach and would do well to prove he can be the top man at this level in year one with the Rebels.
There’s little to separate my projected bottom three. Nevada is short on talent but brings in a decent recruiting class to work with. Wyoming loses just three starters, but two of those are offensive talismans Lucie McDowell and Sara Paul, likely leading to a season of struggle. Colorado State is in year two and should pull closer to the pack, but Bill Hempen’s side may need another year or two to challenge for the postseason.
*1. Fairleigh Dickinson – 28
2. Wagner – 21
3. Long Island – 20
4. Central Connecticut State – 19
5. Saint Francis (PA) – 18
6. Bryant – 12
7. Sacred Heart – 9
8. Mount Saint Mary’s – 6
9. Robert Morris – 5
No more duopoly. Probably. A league ruled by Long Island and Saint Francis (PA) for a long time likely won’t be this season. LIU has a new coach, SFPA has a whole host of losses to overcome. Into the void might step Fairleigh Dickinson, so long a non-factor in the NEC. But the Knights finished tied for second in the league last season and return a whole lot of strength in depth this season, including Rachel Hoekstra up front after the top notch striker missed last season through injury. The big question is likely to be on the touchline, where new boss Eric Teepe’s record at this level is hardly reassuring.
If FDU being a title contender is scarcely believable, then perhaps Wagner being tipped for second is almost as crazy if you’ve followed the NEC for a while. The longtime strugglers finished in mid-table last season, won eleven games, and look poised for a finish in the postseason places this year. The Seahawks have a young core of talent and a great forward to work with in Samantha Jensen. Long Island supporters would hardly be forgiven for shrugging their shoulders at the appointment of Jim Robbins as head coach. Robbins was boss at tiny LaGrange College before this job, and there are likely very real concerns about the step up in class. The squad he inherits is talented though, including last year’s league Rookie of the Year in Jenn Peters, meaning another finish in the postseason places is expected.
One-time league giant Central Connecticut State figures to be in the mix for the postseason again after finishing tied for second in the league last season. Tori Sousa should run the show in attack, but the loss of midfielder Allison Kelly and defender Jewel Robinson will likely preclude any title bid. Recent league titans Saint Francis (PA) get gutted by graduation, losing scoring dynamo Tesa McKibben, forward Barbara Maros de Carvalho, and league Defensive Player of the Year Alecia McNiff. SFPA won’t sink to the bottom, but getting back to the postseason should be seen as a success.
Bryant shouldn’t finish bottom this season like last year but probably aren’t due for the postseason either. Getting ace defender Allison DeBenedictis back should help, but the club’s otherwise atrocious defense was a liability last season that needs to be fixed. Sacred Heart has continuity going for it with nine starters, tied for most in the league, coming back for 2014. The bad news is there’s not a whole lot of top talent amongst that bunch, meaning the Pioneers will likely struggle to improve on last season’s finish.
Mount Saint Mary’s are contenders for the basement after losing five starters, amongst them main scoring threat Jackie Corley. Recent history suggests there won’t be a surprise uprising for the Mount. The same could be said for their brethren in historical struggles in the NEC, Robert Morris, losing six starters, most in the league, including top two players Johanna Kadam and Alexa Sarsfield. The bottom of the league looks likely for RMU.
*Morehead State – 22
Tennessee-Martin – 20
SIU Edwardsville – 19
Eastern Illinois – 18
Jacksonville State – 16
Southeast Missouri State – 16
Murray State – 15
Belmont – 13
Eastern Kentucky – 13
Tennessee Tech – 10
Austin Peay – 7
If Tennessee-Martin didn’t have bad luck, they’d have no luck at all. Last season looked like one with tremendous potential before the news that Sapphyra Coombs-James would miss the season recovering from injury. This year, the SkyHawks get their offensive talisman back…and instead lose midfield star Aoife Lennon unexpectedly after a revelatory season in 2013. UTM now could be looking up at Morehead State, who are usually well positioned to finish at or near the top of this league. The Eagles get all eleven starters back from last year’s squad which, oh, finished second in the league. OVC Offensive Player of the Year Jade Flory should help one of the league’s best offenses keep flowing, and MSU should again be contenders for silverware in the OVC this year.
Phil McNamara’s SkyHawks still won the league last year despite missing Coombs-James, and the Canadian’s return, along with the addition of Irish youth international Rianna Jarrett should ensure the offense keeps scoring even without Lennon. Losing Hannah Fessenden from the backline has to be a bit of a worry as well, but UTM had the league’s best defense last season and does return the conference’s top goalkeeper in Mariah Klenke. McNamara has done an incredible job of bringing in unheralded diamonds in the rough to populate the UTM roster, and his side again should be in the mix for league and conference tournament titles in 2014.
It’d take something special for anyone else to win the title in the league this season, but SIU Edwardsville and Eastern Illinois should be very competitive. SIUE does lose five starters, one of largest numbers for any of the likely top half teams, but they do return most of their top talent, which will definitely help considering they had one of the league’s best attacks last year. Eastern Illinois was abysmal in non-conference play last season but were just fine once league play rolled around in 2013. With midfielder Meagan Radloff and defender Lauren Hoppensteadt back, the Panthers are a sleeper for a move up in the OVC.
I’m tipping Jacksonville State to improve markedly in year two of Neil MacDonald’s reign with the Gamecocks. JSU was very young last season, and ten returning starters will no doubt help their cause, especially with midfielder Jackie Rush back. They’re still a few years away from a title challenge, but the postseason should be a noble goal. Southeast Missouri State have usually been good for upper-mid table in the OVC but may be poised for a step back. Natasha Minor and Breana Beine should provide the punch up front, but recovering from the loss of Defensive Player of the Year Ashton Aubuchon in goal should be much more difficult. Murray State seem to have largely ditched their international recruiting philosophy under new management after years of underachievement. The goals of one of the returning domestic players and a solid recruiting class should have the Racers moving up a bit in the league in 2014.
Without Katie Proud, Belmont doesn’t look likely to match last season’s scoring pace nor it’s league finish. Defense will have to be the name of the game, but the club will need more than just top returnee Alison Alcott to get into the postseason this year. It’d be a surprise of Eastern Kentucky made much upward movement also given their five lost starters. Getting one of the league’s top defenders back in Paige Larking should help EKU from being rooted to the bottom of the conference though.
Tennessee Tech has a new boss in Steve Springthorpe, but he probably won’t be able to get the club out of OVC Never, Never Land right away. TTU would’ve been in last in most other leagues with a -16 goal differential in league but were bailed out by Jacksonville State’s incompetence. With six lost starters though, they may not be so fortunate this season. They could be joined at the bottom by Austin Peay, who underachieved greatly last season given their talent. Most of that talent, including the Ariza sisters is gone, and with just four starters back, APU might be back to their pre-Ariza form: AKA very, very bad.
*1. UCLA – 66
*2. Stanford – 35
*3. Utah – 24
*4. Arizona State – 19
*5. USC – 18
*6. Washington State – 16
7. Cal – 13
8. Oregon – 12
9. Washington – 11
10. Colorado – 10
11. Arizona – 8
12. Oregon State – 7
Good lord, look at that relative power ranking for UCLA! They’re clear favorites to repeat as national champions, and thus, also repeat as Pac-12 champions. The club’s defense basically returns intact and should be able to whitewash almost everyone they face considering their back four and goalkeeper all have the potential to play professionally after this season. Add in a midfield that boasts likely first round NWSL Draft picks Sarah Killion and Sam Mewis, and you’ve got a recipe for domination. The only chance opponents may have this season is if they catch young striking combo Darian Jenkins and Taylor Smith on a bad finishing day. I wouldn’t hold my breath. UCLA has a great chance of going unbeaten this season, as well as being the first team in an age to finish with a perfect record.
The best bet for an upset seems to be former standard bearers Stanford, who finished fourth in the league last year, an anomaly given their form for much of the past half-decade. The defense boasts the likes of Maddie Bauer and Stephanie Amack and could benefit from the return of Jane Campbell in goal, with the rookie seemingly poised to cash in on her boundless potential. The Card will likely be hoping the attack can come through this season after a frustrating go of it for much of last year. Chioma Ubogagu and Taylor Uhl both have the ability to dominate matches but are hardly the most consistent figures, while the club also has to replace Courtney Verloo up top. Stanford does bring in another elite band of recruits though, and that may pay dividends for them sooner rather than later.
It’s a rather lengthy drop from the top two, but Utah look the best of the rest after another excellent season. The Utes bring back seven starters but will have to make do without the club’s best defender in departed senior Jenny Hutton. Head coach Rich Manning will still be confident of his club’s chances though thanks to the presence of elite keeper Lindsey Luke in between the pipes. Utah’s never really been a place for offensive outbursts, but Ashton Hall leads the line and will be ably supported by Katie Rigby and Katie Taylor in midfield. The Utes probably don’t have enough to challenge for a title, but they could win a game or two in the NCAA Tournament if the draw breaks their way.
Arizona State will likely use last season’s NCAA Tournament omission as fuel for a run back to the Big Dance this year. The Sun Devils lose five starters and two big pieces in Devin Marshall and Kaitlyn Pavlovich, but the front and backlines are still very strong. Cali Farquharson has star potential leading the line but may have to take on a lot of the burden of scoring herself, while McKenzie Berryhill will be looked at to keep the defense tight. ASU’s offense labored in the league, so finding some help for Farquharson might be the difference between the NCAA Tournament and another near miss.
Likely rivaling them in mid-table will be a USC team now under Keidane McAlpine’s reign after years of struggle in the Pac-12. There are some losses to compensate for for the new boss, but he has a nice young corps of talent to work with. Mandy Freeman has the potential to be one of the league’s elite defenders after a fantastic rookie season, while fellow sophomore Kayla Mills is a raw offensive talent that could be great. It might take a while to dislodge the top of the conference, but mid-table and an NCAA Tournament berth are possible.
McAlpine’s old club, Washington State, has a new boss and some old stars departing, with Micaela Castain’s goals needing to be replaced, while the defense has to find their way without Australian lynchpin Rachael Doyle. The losses likely mean that Canadian midfield stud Nicole Setterlund is the team’s new alpha dog, while senior keeper Gurveen Clair will look to be a steady set of hands in goal for the club. The addition of Swede Sofia Anker-Kofoed was a shrewd one and could point to the program’s rising profile. A second place finish again isn’t likely, but another NCAA Tournament bid should be in the cards.
The rest of the league looks like a crapshoot. Cal might have been a bit disappointed with last season’s fifth place finish with a squad that probably could’ve done much more. This year’s unit boasts one of the nation’s best recruiting classes but also just four returning starters. One of those is forward Ifeoma Onumonu, who’ll have to be tremendous up front for Cal to rise out of mid-pack. Oregon finished rock bottom in Kat Mertz’s first season in charge. They’ve got a decent shot of at least bettering that, thanks to nine starters returning, tied for second most in the league. Bri Pugh, sister of U.S. youth international wonderkid Mallory Pugh, will need to deliver the scoring for the Ducks to thrive.
Washington’s offense failed to ignite last season, and the club loses both Lindsay Elston and Isabel Farrell from the lineup this year. Clearly, the Huskies are going to have to win with defense this year, which also isn’t out of the question. Lesle Gallimore’s side can boast one of the nation’s best keepers in Megan Kufeld and a promising defender in Havana McElvaine, but they need to find an offensive spark to sniff the NCAA Tournament. Colorado were a revelation last season after a run to the Sweet Sixteen last year. But they also lose defensive stud Lizzy Herzl as well as Anne Stuller from the attack, which could complicate plans for a repeat trip to the Big Dance. Brie Hooks will have a lot of responsibility up top, while the addition of Colorado College transfer Kate Scheele in goal was a big addition, though perhaps not enough to lift the club out of mid-table.
Arizona was more than a little respectable in Tony Amato’s first season in league play, with the club tying for eighth after years of listlessness. Losing Jazmin Ponce hurts though, and the club probably needs a bit more strength in depth before an NCAA Tournament challenge. Oregon State looks like a sinking ship after a turbulent offseason. After themselves tying for eighth, the club lost a ton of their roster to transfers and return just four starters. One of those being strong defender Kathryn Baker should help, but it’s not a difficult decision to tip the Beavers for the basement this season.
*1. Navy – 37
2. Colgate – 32
3. Boston University – 24
4. American – 23
5. Bucknell – 19
6. Holy Cross – 13
7. Army – 12
8. Lafayette – 12
9. Loyola (MD) – 8
10. Lehigh – 7
Navy will be eager to erase last year’s heartbreak and get back to the NCAA Tournament after winning part of the league title but losing to Boston University in the Patriot League Tournament. Though they do find themselves losing four starters, Navy also brings back a whole lot of talent that should see them in good stead as they hunt silverware. Chief among the retuning stars is senior Jade Seabrook, one of the nation’s best defenders and one of the best players in Annapolis for ages. She’ll have to be great again, as the club loses top goalkeeper Elizabeth Hoerner. Goals should not be a worry with league Offensive Player of the Year Morgan Dankanich back. Navy have done so well in the league as of late, but breaking their postseason duck has to be the goal in 2014.
Colgate were a distant third in the league last season, but there has to be optimism with ten starters returning for the unfancied Raiders. Kathy Brawn’s side doesn’t have as much star power as in years past, but they do return a real difference maker at this level in the form of attacking threat Caroline Brawner. There’s a lot of strength in depth throughout the rest of the squad, and with Brawn’s history of developing very competitive squads, you wouldn’t put a piece of silverware as out of reach for the Raiders this season.
If it were anyone else, you might doubt Boston University contending for any type of title this season after losing seven starters, most in the league. BU’s not just any team though, and this is a program that routinely reloads when losing talent. The midfield in particular gets gutted with the loss of Emma Clark and Kylie Strom. In front and behind the midfield, there is solace though. McKenzie Hollenbaugh could be one of the nation’s best defenders in leading that unit, while BU supporters will be hoping league Rookie of the Year Erica Kosienski can make The Leap this year. Based on coaching and precedent, counting BU out would be quite foolish. The potential league sleeper could be American, who were safely in mid-table last season. With nine starters coming back and reasonable strength in depth, the postseason is the minimum, and there may be room for more in the nation’s capital.
Bucknell has been drowning in mid-table obscurity more often than not as of late, and little appears to be different this season. The Bison return a reasonably experienced side but don’t have much in the way of star power besides Polish international midfielder Evelyn Nicinski. That probably equates to more of the same, though postseason qualification is hardly the worst thing.
The bottom half of the table probably will have a familiar feel to last season’s. Holy Cross has the league’s best recruiting class. But hey, we’ve been here before with the Crusaders before. If that class can come through right away, HC might challenge for the postseason. If not, they’ll be near the bottom again. Army look to be in for a drop after a fourth place finish last season. Losing six starters, including Kim An and Molly McGuigan, two of the best players in recent club history, doesn’t bode well. Lafayette could move up a little bit from last year’s last place finish. Jaclyn Giordano is a solid offensive option, but there’s not much else here indicating a postseason berth.
Loyola (MD) hired well with Naomi Meiburger after jettisoning Katherine Remy Vettori after a dismal 2013, but the Greyhounds aren’t likely to be racing up the standings this season. They’re reasonably experienced with eight starters returning but don’t have the talent to contend with the league’s heavyweights. As is the case with Lehigh, who are favorites to sink to the bottom of the table this year. Best player Murphee Greeley departs, and there’s little strength in depth or star power to indicate a turnaround in 2014.
*1. Furman – 42
2. East Tennessee State – 21
3. UNC Greensboro – 19
4. Mercer – 18
5. Samford – 14
6. Wofford – 11
7. Western Carolina – 11
8. VMI – 11
9. The Citadel – 9
10. Chattanooga – 8
Furman won last season’s SoCon title by a whopping six points and a ludicrous goal differential of +26. Oh, and they did that without any seniors in the starting lineup. The Paladins return all eleven of last year’s starters on their title winning team, which likely spells doom for the aspirations of their league rivals. The attack hummed with mid-major gem Stephanie DeVita and league Freshman of the Year Carlie Couch terrorizing opposing backlines, while midfielder India Robinson reaped the benefits with some eye-popping assist numbers. Oh, and the defense was also the league’s best, buoyed by Rose Hull in goal and a steely backline led by Catie Moore. Furman not winning the SoCon would be among the biggest upsets in DI this season.
Crazy as it seems, their biggest challenge may be from the eighth placed team in the A-Sun last year, East Tennessee State. The Lady Bucs don’t really return a ton of starters (just seven), and aren’t replete with stars, but they do have a nice recruiting class for this level and a legit star in Austrian Sarah Zadrazil. The ETSU architect looks already to be a key figure for her nation’s full WNT and will likely again rip opposing defenses apart this season. The club’s international recruitment policy has been hit or miss for head coach Adam Sayers, but there’s no denying the sheer potential of recruit like Spaniard Garazi Murua and Italian Paola Roversi. If it all gels together, ETSU could be an interesting proposition in November, though a league title might be beyond them.
The days of UNC Greensboro beating ACC sides is probably over, but the Spartans, under new manager Michael Coll, should still have enough for an upper-mid table finish in the SoCon. Rebecca Burrows in defense and Chesney White in the midfield are strong talents at this level, and the Spartans should be able to overcome most of the league’s chaff with little problem. Mercer are another new addition after finishing fourth in the A-Sun last year. Cross-conference comparisons aren’t easy, but the Bears would appear to at least be capable of mid-table in the league. Washida Blackman should be able to rule the roost against many SoCon defenses, but there’s probably not enough star power here for silverware.
Samford is usually amongst the leaders but might be in for a rebuilding season in 2014 after losing five starters from last year’s squad. The Bulldogs are hurting in midfield in particular following the loss of Michelle Moll and Trine Taule, while the transfer of Molly Pittman to Indiana is a big blow to the defense. Odds are, Samford will have to, atypically, roll with their attack, led by sophomore Malcanisha Kelley and South African recruit Jermaine Seoposenwe, a player of intriguing talent. They’ll probably play everyone tough, but it’s hard to see silverware in the club’s immediate future.
Perennially mediocre Wofford shocked many by finishing in mid-table last season, and that sounds about right in 2014 as well. That may be more about the deficiencies of their rivals than anything else though, as the Terriers do lose five starters, star defender Maggie Bosley among them. Western Carolina returns eleven starters, which should ensure they avoid the basement, though the talent level isn’t there for a title challenge. VMI also brings back eleven starters, though given the club’s -29 goal differential and last place finish in the Big South last season, you wonder what exactly that counts for.
The Citadel’s ludicrous all-out attack style makes them dangerous to those not knowing what they’re getting into, but it also left the club next to last in the SoCon last year with a -21 goal differential. They’ll likely be spared a spot in the basement by the punchline that is Chattanooga women’s soccer. The Lady Mocs have lost thirteen league games in a row and finished last season with a -37 goal differential in the league in just ten matches! With a team that still looks hopelessly outgunned at this level, another season at the bottom looks likely.
*1. Stephen F. Austin – 36
2. Southeastern Louisiana – 31
3. Sam Houston State – 20
4. Nicholls State – 17
5. Houston Baptist – 14
6. Central Arkansas – 13
7. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi – 13
8. Lamar – 12
9. McNeese State – 9
10. Abilene Christian – 9
11. Northwestern State – 7
12. Incarnate Word – 7
It’s been Stephen F. Austin vs Southeastern Louisiana for much of the recent history of the Southland, and it’ll probably be that way again this season after the latter shocked the former in the final of last season’s Southland Conference Tournament. The Ladyjacks will be favored to triumph again and won’t be short of motivation thanks to the shootout heartbreak at the end of last season. Melissa Gaudet must be replaced in midfield, but the return of the Dunnigan sisters in defense as well as goalmouth predator Chelsea Raymond should ensure the Ladyjacks roll over most of their opponents. A very competitive non-conference slate should ensure the club is battle tested before league play. It’s now just a matter of getting over the line in the end.
Likely pushing them every step of the way will be Southeastern Louisiana, who returned to form in 2013 after some stutters in form. Sophomore goalkeeper Hope Sabadash went from unheralded recruit to one of the nation’s best young goalkeepers by helping lead the club to Southland Conference Tournament glory. While the Lions have enough strength in depth to take down most of the league’s lesser lights, the loss of midfielder Kelsey Salcido and Shanyce Shaw from the back four likely leaves SELA as second favorites behind SFA. That doesn’t mean much in a one-off situation though as we saw last year, but the club’s traditionally terrible non-conference schedule may leave it ill-equipped to go all the way in the league this season.
Everyone else is just hoping for a puncher’s chance in the Southland this season. Mid-table last season, Sam Houston State actually has a chance at a pretty sizable move up the ladder thanks to ten starters returning. Among the returnees is midfield star Mariah Titus, but the Bearkats probably lack the true star power to compete with the big two. Nicholls State should also have room to move up a notch or two after last season’s breakthrough season. Forward Spencer Valdespino turned into one of mid-major soccer’s best stories after a goal scoring storm last year. NSU will likely be riding her goals again to try and upset the league’s elite.
Houston Baptist will be among a clutch of teams hoping to stick in mid-table this season. Continuity works for the Huskies with nine starters returning, and HBU brings in the best recruiting class in the league, though they are short on top talent. Central Arkansas needs a new source of goals after the departure of Adriana Lucar, their Peruvian scoring machine. Midfielder Kate Koch’s a talent to watch, but the Bears probably don’t have enough for more than mid-table. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi found life hard in their first season as a program, but getting ten starters from last year’s team back should help propel them upwards in 2014. Yvette Franco is a solid building block for the future and could help the Islanders up the table this year. Lamar might move up a little but probably not much after losing five starters. At least the offense should keep flowing, with Kimmy Albeno and Jannet Hernandez back.
McNeese State was dismal last season at 1-10-1 in the league and doesn’t look to be in much better shape this season despite returning nine starters. Abilene Christian really overachieved last season, finishing fourth in their first season as a DI program. ACU loses Andrea Carpenter up front and Brie Buchanan in defense though, meaning a plummet down the table is possible. Also losing their star power is Northwestern State, who says farewell to midfielder Ashlee Savona and three other starters, as well as Incarnate Word, who will likely deeply miss Katie Miller up front, and could drop noticeably from last year’s credible showing.
*1. Denver – 33
2. North Dakota State – 26
3. Oral Roberts – 24
4. South Dakota State – 23
5. IPFW – 16
6. Nebraska-Omaha – 13
7. IUPUI – 11
8. Western Illinois – 9
9. South Dakota – 9
The good news for the bulk of the Summit League is that Denver loses seven starters, most of anyone in the league. The bad news is that the Pioneers still look like favorites to win the league. The losses for Denver are immense, not just in quantity but in quality as well. Chief amongst the departures are first-team All-American forward Kristen Hamilton, as well as All-American midfielder Nichoeltte DiGiacomo. Also gone is league Defensive Player of the Year Jessy Battelli, though the defense should survive with senior Sam Harder still a source of talent for the club. There are many more questions on offense, with sophomore midfielder Francesca Garzelloni the top returner. The gap between Denver and the rest of the league has definitely shrunk this season, though they should still be reasonable favorites in the league.
North Dakota State would appear to be Denver’s closest contenders this season. The Bison return nine starters, tied for the best in the league, including the deadly scoring duo of league Freshman of the Year Lauren Miller and Anisha Kinnarath. NDSU has Denver at home this season and may fancy their chances of springing a shock on the league favorites. Oral Roberts will at least be confident of qualifying for the postseason after a runner-up finish in the lone season in the Southland. Junior defender Kaily Cox should be a great force on the backline, but the loss of superb midfielder Jennifer Abernathy likely rules out a title challenge. South Dakota State beat everyone but Denver in the league last season and could easily achieve that feat again this year. There are offensive questions after the departure of Caylee Costello in the midfield, but the defense should still be strong with the return of star defender Dani Patterson and solid goalkeeper Nicole Inskeep.
IPFW has a new boss in Jason Burr after Margaret Saurin left for Oakland, and it remains to be seen if the new coach can keep the Mastodons punching above their weight. Getting nine starters back should help. Losing top midfielder Sydney Hoareau will not, and the Mastodons look destined for mid-table. Nebraska-Omaha looks likely to join them given what could be one of the best defenses in the league. Hannah Wampler and Lauren Lawler should serve the club well on that backline as they try to climb the Summit League ladder.
IUPUI heads up the likely strugglers this season. The defense was a sieve last year, giving up more than two goals a game in the league and again could be a major impediment to the club’s hopes of a postseason finish this year as well. Western Illinois will struggle to replicate last season’s mid-table finish after losing six starters, including top defender Amber Davis. Traditional strugglers South Dakota has continuity on their side with nine starters returning for 2014 but little else in their favor, making a trip to the postseason not particularly likely.
*1. Louisiana-Lafayette – 27
2. Appalachian State – 22
3. Georgia State – 18
4. Texas State – 16
5. Arkansas State – 13
6. Georgia Southern – 12
7. Louisiana-Monroe – 10
8. UALR – 10
9. South Alabama – 8
10. Troy – 7
Oh, how one unexpected departure can swing a title race. OK, South Alabama wasn’t projected to win the league, even with Lauren Allison, in my projections, but they sure as hell weren’t projected to finish last either. The Brit’s return back home opens the door up even more for Louisiana-Lafayette to rise to the top of a very turbulent league. All of the Ragin’ Cajuns’ top players return to a pretty experienced squad overall with the gem being league Defensive Player of the Year Grace Howell-Haries, a star even during the bad years in Lafayette. Most of the headlines could be made by attacking combo Annika Schmidt and Yazmin Montoya who lit up lesser defenses last season. The program doesn’t exactly have a winning tradition, but the potential for silverware is here this season.
Appalachian State is the league’s big mystery. You can’t really trust the power rankings when factoring in conference changes, but on paper, the Mountaineers would appear to be contenders in the Sun Belt right away after finishing mid-table in the SoCon last year. The conference newbies return nine starters and just about all their top talent, including striking duo Samantha Childress and Julia Holz. ASU should find Sun Belt defenses more pliable than some of the prior SoCon brethren, and they should be really competitive off the bat. I suspect they’ll contend for honors right away in their new home.
Georgia State found life in the Sun Belt difficult last season, finishing tied for sixth, which had to be a real disappointment considering expectations and the less than stellar competition. But with a great recruiting class and scoring threat Ashley Nagy returning, the Panthers could be the league’s big movers this year. Fellow newbies Texas State handled the transition a bit better but still were lodged in mid-table at season’s end. They have a chance of slight improvement with the return of forward Lynsey Curry and midfielder Tori Hale, two of the league’s best, but they still look a little short of a title challenge.
Arkansas State figures to be a mid-table club again in 2014. The club should have little trouble in scoring thanks to the return of junior Loren Mitchell, but the defense is a worry with Lindsay Johansen departing. Georgia Southern comes over from the SoCon along with Appalachian State, but the odds on their making a title challenge appear to be much longer than the Mountaineers. Midfielder Nora El-Shami’s been the spark plug that’s made the Eagles go for a while, and she’ll have to star heavily if the clubs if to fly higher than mid-table.
Louisiana-Monroe has been drowning in the abyss for a while, but this might be the year Roberto Mazza’s side starts climbing the ladder. Ten starters return, and the perpetually young Warhawks may make the continuity count, though there aren’t many stars to be found. UALR have been in a similar rebuilding pattern for a while but may also be able to jump a few spots in the table. They do lose five starters but return the most important one, midfielder Ariel Galetti, who should be able to be a nice building block for the Trojans.
South Alabama are probably going to finish a wee bit higher than ninth, but the signs aren’t good for a return to the NCAA Tournament this year. It’s not just losing Allison (which is still a huge loss), but it’s the subsequent loss of Clarissa Hernandez in midfield and Jess Oram in defense that could cripple the Jaguars. USA will have to hope head coach Graham Winkworth’s recruiting touch keeps the club rolling after some of last year’s gems. Troy is rebuilding under new head coach Jason Hamilton. Losing Necee Jennings to a transfer to Memphis and Madison Winter to graduation won’t help, and the Trojans may well be staring up at the rest of the league come season’s end.
*1. Alabama State – 32
2. Jackson State – 27
3. Alabama A&M – 23
4. Southern – 14
5. Mississippi Valley State – 13
6. Prairie View A&M – 13
7. Texas Southern – 13
8. Arkansas-Pine Bluff – 11
9. Howard – 9
10. Grambling – 8
11. Alcorn State – 2
Figuring out the SWAC is a headache inducing puzzle, even for the most ardent fan, but I’ll give it a shot. Alabama State should again come up trumps in the league after doing so well last season…until the SWAC Tournament. The Hornets are earning a reputation as chokers in the clutch thanks to their inability to solve the postseason, and they lose four starters from last year’s squad, including league Freshman of the Year, Anastasia McCleary, who transferred to Creighton. Getting the Lewis twins, Aaliyah and Ariela, Offensive and Defensive Players of the Year respectively, back should ease some of the pain. Another wave of big losses hits after this season though, so if ASU fails to take advantage of their talent this year, their window could well close.
Dean Joseph knows how to navigate this league as well as anyone, and the Jackson State head coach must fancy his odds for a league title given his club returning all eleven starters from last year, almost unheard of in this league. JSU will likely be trusting in the defense of Rayana Speight and their strength in depth to help with a title challenge. Alabama A&M has been best known for terrible non-conference beatings as of late but bring back ten starters and most of last year’s top talent. In particular, midfielder Ana Huertas is one to watch, and the Bulldogs might be a sleeper if they can likely shrug off some more painful non-conference losses this season.
The league gets significantly murkier (if that’s possible) from there. Southern returns ten starters but there’s not a particularly large amount of gamebreaking talent for the Jaguars other than forward Jami Blackston. Mississippi Valley State has just thirteen players listed on their roster and a new head coach in N. Fabio Boateng. Losing seven starters probably isn’t going to make his life easier, though getting midfield star Nykosi Simmons should keep the club in mid-table. Prairie View A&M was dominant in some stretches and not so much at other times in the SWAC last year. Mid-table looks likely, as the club will have a hard time replacing departed forward Angie Guilory. Texas Southern are much in the same boat, but the club also has a new head coach in Kathryn Saunders, most recently an assistant at league rival Alabama State.
One-time league juggernaut Arkansas-Pine Bluff didn’t win a game against a Division I opponent last season, a sad state of affairs for a program that had won thirteen games just two seasons ago. It’s difficult seeing much change this year either, though the expected return of goalkeeper Alyssa Cobbs could be good for damage limitation. Nobody knows quite what to expect from newcomers Howard. On the one hand, they’ve been playing against better than SWAC opposition for some while. On the other, they’re playing “home” league games in Vestavia Hills, Alabama, which doesn’t particularly seem kosher for so many reasons. Brutally underfunded Grambling has three wins against DI opponents in three seasons and hasn’t won against a DI opponent since October 7, 2012. Don’t count on a huge turnaround this season. Alcorn State is in the same boat. Their roster is still a mystery to this point, and on paper they would seem to be losing a whole lot of seniors from a squad that was losing by five plus goals in the SWAC. That pretty much says it all.
*1. Seattle – 26
2. UMKC – 17
3. Cal State Bakersfield – 16
4. Grand Canyon – 12
5. Utah Valley – 12
6. New Mexico State – 10
7. Texas-Pan American – N/A
8. Chicago State – N/A
If the double round-robin format of the WAC was designed as an impediment to Seattle sweeping through the league, it didn’t work, as Seattle won all twelve matches to finish perfect in the league. The format of the league is even wonkier this season, with an unbalanced one and a half round-robin as the league says goodbye to Idaho and hello to startup programs Texas-Pan American and Chicago State. Oh, and Seattle’s still the heavy favorite to win the league again.
The Redhawks lose five starters, tied for most in the league, but still have enough talent so that they should get over the line in the WAC. Not to say that some of the losses are big, because compensating for the departure of WAC Tournament MVP Monique Escalera in defense and Julia Besagno in midfield figures to be a real challenges. But getting the league’s Offensive Player of the Year, Stephanie Verdoia, back to lead the attack will help their cause. The Redhawks probably don’t have enough in the tank to spring an upset in the NCAA Tournament, but they’ll be favorites to get back there from the WAC.
Last year’s runners-up UMKC look like the best of the rest in the league again this season and probably have the best shot of springing an upset in the WAC Tournament. The absence of striker Taylor Bare, the club’s best player last year, probably precludes any notions of a title challenge for the Roos. Given the inauspicious start to their DI life, a top half finish will probably suit them just fine. Gary Curneen takes over at Cal State Bakersfield this season and has the talent for a top half finish after the club’s disappointing sixth place finish last year. Midfielder Erica Shelton’s departure hurts, but the club returns league Freshman of the Year Hedda Regefalk up front, with her goals likely firing them up the league table.
Grand Canyon heads up the potential strugglers. The DI neophytes did very well for themselves in their first year at this level, finishing a creditable fourth ahead of some much more developed DI programs. There’s not a ton of top talent here though, and GCU may need another solid recruiting class to contribute for the club to jump into the top half of the league. Utah Valley finished third last year but gets crushed by graduation of top talent, with league Defensive Player of the Year Lauren Sack the biggest loss. The recruiting class isn’t bad, so UVU may not fall that far. New Mexico State propped up the table last season, which isn’t exactly the greatest sign considering they are tied for most starters lost in the offseason. Freddy Delgado takes over, and he’ll have to hope Jennae Cambra can keep the scoring coming for his club to have hopes of a decent finish.
The league adds two first-year programs to the mix to replace Big Sky bound Idaho. Texas-Pan American obviously has a great recruiting base and a shrewd boss in Glad Bugariu, who was last at South Carolina State, performing a minor miracle or two after a great career at Belmont Abbey. The learning curve in this league is slighter than most, but it’ll still take a season or two to climb the ladder in all likelihood. Chicago State also joins up, but with one of the smallest budgets of any program in DI and no shortage of local rivals for talent, it’s going to be a very tough go of it. Anything but the wooden spoon this season would have to be seen as a success.
*1. Pepperdine – 27
*2. Portland – 27
*3. Santa Clara – 26
*4. San Diego – 22
5. San Francisco – 19
6. Saint Mary’s (CA) – 16
7. Gonzaga – 16
8. BYU – 14
9. Loyola Marymount – 12
10. Pacific – 9
The WCC has been host to some thrilling title races in its recent history, including last season’s three-way tie at the top of the table with BYU, Portland, and Santa Clara. The tea leaves seem to portend a very close race again at the top of the league, meaning the WCC should again be a very entertaining league to watch. BYU probably is set for a down season after sharing the league crown last year, but taking their place should be a Pepperdine likely still stewing after just missing out on the Big Dance last season. Old standards Portland and Santa Clara should again battle for silverware despite some big losses.
Pepperdine loses their All-American full-back Michelle Pao, which would usually spell trouble for many clubs, but the Waves are catching the WCC at a good time and are rated as title favorites in my system. Just. Much will depend on how well Lynn Williams performs as a senior. Williams has shown flashes of being a star in the past, but that hasn’t really translated into the Waves overpowering opponents offensively, with the club scoring just twelve in nine league games last year while conceding eighteen, which doesn’t equal title contenders. A great recruiting haul could be the impetus for putting it all together this season. The Waves’ defense is probably too much of a concern for a deep November run, but a title could still be possible.
Portland has lost: Top offensive threat Micaela Capelle, All-American defender Amanda Frisbie, midfield lynchpin Ellen Parker, and goalkeeping star Erin Dees. Lost cause? Hardly. The Pilots bring back a club with some budding stars like Ellie Boon and Ariel Viera on the defense among others. The big question though is if Danica Evans can be the true goalscoring threat the club has been hoping she can become for so long. If she can, the Pilots should again rise to the top of the league. Again though, replacing Dees could be the key for the Pilots. They have a great history of producing superb netminders, but there’s as much inexperience in the corps here as there’s been for a while. Despite all that, UP should still battle for honors in the WCC.
Last of the likely title challengers is Santa Clara, who has to find some way to replace the presence and scoring of Julie Johnston and Morgan Marlborough up top. The good news is that the club does have Sofia Huerta to lean on up front, and the Mexican international could be poised for a spectacular season. Huerta can’t do it all herself though, and the Broncos best find another source of goals to help relieve the burden. Young prospects like Jordan Jesolva and some of the league’s best recruiting class should help SCU compete for a league title. How far the club might go in November likely rests on some of the team’s good players turning into great ones.
Ever the league’s mid-table standard, San Diego figures to be the best of the rest in the WCC this season. Like some of the other league favorites, USD loses five starters. The Toreros should be strong in defense this season with the return of Jacqueline Altschuld who had a tremendous freshman season on the backline last year. Goals might be a bit more difficult to come by though, with Emily Dillon gone, though USD has a great recruiting class coming in and should be NCAA Tournament contenders at minimum. Finishing next to last last season, San Francisco might be ready to make their move with ten starters returning. Jim Millinder’s Dons return all their top talent, though they are still missing that star element that could see them breakaway from the pack. At the very least though, mid-table is a very real possibility.
Saint Mary’s (CA) should also be a contender to move up a few spots in the WCC after hanging out towards the bottom of the league last season. Losing forward Briana Campos is a blow, but Caroline Beaulne should be able to replace some of the lost scoring if she keeps developing. The Gaels still look a little short of an NCAA Tournament contender though. Battling them for a mid-table spot in all likelihood is a Gonzaga side that could ride the goals of Karley Baggerly and Heather Johnson up the table. As is the case with SMC, the Zags probably don’t have enough in the tank in terms of star power to compete for a spot in the field of sixty-four.
BYU is being treated pretty bearishly by these projections, but it’s not hard to see why I’m being so pessimistic towards them. The last big vestiges of the 2012 Elite Eight team are gone, with Erica Owens, Rachel Manning, and Cloee Colohan all gone. Add in Paige Hunt’s sabbatical for a mission, and the Cougars figure to be in tough for 2014. There’s no shortage of fast, athletic attackers, with Ashley Hatch the most promising, but BYU looks atypically short of star power going into this season. I wouldn’t count them out of sneaking into the NCAA Tournament again, but don’t be shocked if they end up closer to the bottom of the league than the top.
Loyola Marymount had an unbelievably abysmal season in 2013, going 3-16-1 and not even winning a league game. They really can’t get any worse, and they should get a little bit better. Jo Blankenship will be key in midfield, and some of the newcomers should be big hitters immediately, but seeing this club rise above mid-table would be a shock. After some really bad non-conference results, Pacific shocked everyone by finishing sixth last year. Losing five starters and top defender Brittni Beeman could really hurt the Tigers though. They may yet defy the odds again, but Pacific may well end up on bottom this season.