Ever the unpredictable league, the Big Sky Tournament often turns into a spectacle that’s part luck, part sheer survival come November. Getting there is often the big challenge, with stingy defenses and impotent offenses often meaning the battle for the playoff places will come down to the very last round of league games. Weber State’s young and talented team and a Northern Colorado side poised for a bounce back season will likely open up as slight favorites over double winners Idaho State, but the postseason race behind the favorites looks pretty open.
The above will be wary though, knowing this league has a penchant for the dramatic in the postseason, meaning fourth place might have as good as odds as first to win the coveted auto-bid come November.
After two highly similar seasons in 2011 and 2012, Weber State will finally be looking to make the big breakthrough this year and contend for a league title. Head coach Tim Crompton can’t be used to not contending for trophies, as WSU was a challenger for league titles in the middle of the last decade, though results have sagged since. A young Wildcats team did OK for themselves last year, finishing in fourth, just three points adrift of the title, though they were felled early in the Big Sky Tournament. With ten starters back in the fray for WSU this year, the Wildcats will likely start the year as one of the favorites for the title. Defensively stout, Weber State will again look to smother teams in 2013, with sophomore center-back Brecken Holbrook ready to lead the club’s rearguard. Already one of the region’s most promising young defenders, Holbrook should have plenty of cover with fellow youngsters Shaylee Petersen and Jaymee Frye also looking to impress once more. The young and impressive backline will be buttressed by senior Ryann Waldman, who has basically seen it all in three years as the starter here. Much will depend on the club showing enough of a cutting edge in front of goal. Leading scorer Chansi Crompton won Big Sky Newcomer of the Year honors last season and will again lead the attack, though five goals and six assists may not be enough for WSU to be a title winning team this year. Crompton, the coach’s daughter, obviously has great potential, but she’s also a midfielder, meaning the club needs more production from other weapons. Much of the rest of the attack had trouble scoring, and the other returnee with more than two goals, Kenzie Harrison, will be looking to boost her total after slumping late last year. Offensive worries aside, WSU were very impressive for a side starting no seniors last year and could be a force in this league for years to come. The defense should crush most opponents again, meaning all it might take is an above average offensive showing for WSU to lift a trophy come the end of 2013.
After their league title run in 2011, Northern Colorado was almost always going to take a step back following some big losses in personnel. They’ve always been a team to be reckoned with since joining the Big Sky in some form or another and hit paydirt in 2011 after a brief period of consolidation. They’re still looking for an NCAA Tournament berth though, and long-time boss Tim Barrera will likely fancy his chances of delivering just that this year. Last year was a bit of a down year, with the club just missing out on the postseason, though they did manage to turn some heads by beating Utah State and drawing with Colorado College and Nebraska. UNC takes some rather big hits in graduation again but does seem to have enough left to suggest they might just be able to put something together in the always turbulent Big Sky. Goalkeeper Natalie D’Adamio getting a fifth season of eligibility may well be the event that turns the title race in the end, as the senior came from nowhere to turn into the league’s best keeper last year. She’ll be setting the tone behind a rearguard that hast to overcome the loss of veteran grafters Aundreaha Martinez and Janelle Kramer. Those losses will be easier to swallow with the return of sophomore Adrienne Jordan, who was a smashing success last year, turning into one of the league’s best defenders right out of the gate. The Bears pretty much used a goalscorer by committee approach last year, with nobody netting more than four. That number might not bounce back up much, as the club loses a lot of the midfield from last year’s club, including towering JJ Wykstra, who had led the club in goals in 2011. The frontline will be led by senior Brittany Dunn, leader in goals and assists last year with four in each category, though she still has to show she can be a go-to scorer here. There’s little else proven in attack, with Juliana Grover the likely best secondary option with three goals last year. UNC will probably stifle most clubs with defense, as D’Adamio and Jordan look like two of the best at their position in the league. The spotty offense could curb title thoughts though, but you’d still fancy this club for the postseason in 2013.
Idaho State likely banished a hell of a lot of demons last year. The Bengals had looked like a program in need of a change going into 2012 after two of four seasons on bottom of the league and two trips to the Big Sky Tournament in six seasons. Allison Gibson delivered the perfect riposte to critics last year though, winning the league with four straight victories to close out the regular season and then winning the Big Sky Tournament title after two shootout wins. What odds for an encore? Not bad. ISU doesn’t get off scot free with graduation, but they still return eight starters and some key talent, meaning they’ll at least have a fighting chance in 2013. ISU flattened most opponents in the Big Sky last season with an offense that netted fifteen goals in league games, second best in the conference. The duo of Rachel Strawn and Amanda Ellsworth tortured opposing defenses to the tune of nineteen combined goals in 2013. Goals may be a little harder to come by this season though, with Strawn having graduated. The pressure will obviously be on Ellsworth to keep upping her game as the focus of the offense. The co-Offensive MVP of the Big Sky last year will have to largely do it herself, as no other returnee had more than two goals. With the club also losing Anna Pingree from the midfield, it’s safe to say ISU may be depending a little bit more on its defense to get things done this year. Fortunately for the Bengals, they look set to make a reasonable improvement upon an above average group last year. Senior Allyson Stainbrook starred in the club’s Big Sky Tournament triumph and should be one of the league’s best defenders, while sophomore Vanessa Cabilan also showed flashes of real potential as a rookie last year. The club should be solid in goal too, returning sophomore Sheridan Hapsic, who instantly wrote herself into ISU lore with three penalty kick saves in the Big Sky Tournament final last year. If the Bengal defense can pick up a little of the slack from losing Strawn up top, they’ve got as good a shot as anyone here for a trophy. Realistically though, anything other than a return to the postseason would be a disappointment.
It’s clearly go time for Eastern Washington, who may have their best chance of making the postseason in ages in 2013. The Eagles finally made some progress last year, rising to seventh in the league, which doesn’t sound great on its face, but EWU is a program that had previously gone 4-27-2 in two seasons after a shock runner-up finish in 2009. Some of the pressure on long-time boss George Hageage may have eased after last season, but more improvement will be expected from a side that should be among the favorites for a postseason spot on paper. Eight starters are set to return form last year’s squad, with few more important than junior Cassie Black in the attack. Black netted eight goals last season to add to her six from her rookie year and looks like one of the league’s best attackers going into her third season here. The rest of the offense was pedestrian in nature last year, with just one other returnee having netted more than one goal last year. Junior midfielder Haley Stading had four assists and will be counted upon for help in setting up the attackers this year in what looks like a bit of a one-dimensional offense. The defense wasn’t up to snuff with the best of the league in 2012 but could still take a big step forward nonetheless this year with many returnees. Senior Brianna Brannan looks like one of the league’s best defenders and should only get better after last season was just her first as a full-time starer. With three juniors likely to flank her on the backline, the Eagles could have one of the league’s best backlines. Which is good, because EWU’s Achilles’ heel could be in goal with the graduation of Jamie Walker. Swiss junior Nathalie Schwery’s had trouble winning a job she should have claimed a while ago given her youth international credentials, and she’ll have to battle another European import, German Clara Elsholz for the job this year. Black and Brannan should be among the best at their positions in the league this year, and that might be just enough to get the club over the line and into the postseason this year. EWU’s stumbled in this position before though, and if they don’t banish their seeming inferiority complex, it could be disappointment again in 2013.
Portland State was able to laugh in the face of conventional wisdom last season, winning a share of their second straight league title despite having suffered heavy losses to graduation in the previous offseason. PSU might be hoping for deja vu this season, as they are again heavily impacted by departures going into 2013. Head coach Laura Schott’s a rising star in the region though after three league titles in four seasons, and if that trend continues this year, she could be another Viking coach bound for greener pastures. Schott will be hoping to go one better than the club’s semi-final defeat in the Big Sky Tournament last year, but she has quite a task on her hand with all the losses, especially on offense. The club loses six starters total, including two of the league’s best midfielders in Amanda Dutra and Amanda Howie. Howie scored in the club’s final five games, while Dutra translated another brilliant season into getting a shot as a reserve player for the NWSL’s Portland Thorns. Also gone is Mexican U20 international Daniela Solis, who scored four times despite missing time at the U20 World Cup. Cori Bianchini is the only player among last year’s top five starters, but she’ll need much more than three goals to become this team’s attacking talisman. PSU’s calling card might have to be defense this year, and the rearguard does get off a little easier with attrition. Torie Morris was highly impressive as a rookie and could turn into one of the league’s best defenders, and the club’s recruiting pipeline might have delivered another gem in rookie Aurora Bodenhamer. The backline could be compromised by a shaky situation in goal though, as starter Lainey Hulsizer departs after a solid senior season. Sophomores Caitlin Plese and Angela Haluska will battle for the starting job, but the situation looks very much up in the air going into 2013. Schott knows how to rebuild a program in the short-term, but this season represents a big challenge given all that’s lost, especially in offense. The Vikings could contend for a postseason spot, but a third straight title looks unlikely.
Northern Arizona‘s 2011 season was so ghastly, that 2012′s sixth place finish was absolutely paradise in comparison, which should speak volumes. The Lumberjacks had won the league title in 2010 and Big Sky Tournament titles in the two seasons before, so the recent downward trend, especially considering the club had just opened a glamorously renovated Lumberjack Stadium in 2011. They didn’t crack the RPI Top 300 that year and were again rather unimpressive last season, though it was still a step back in the right direction. NAU might be a sleeper candidate for a move back up the ladder this year though, as the Lumberjacks look likely to return ten starters, though there’s still a distinctive lack of star power here. Depth shouldn’t be an issue either, with forty players listed on a preliminary roster as of press time, though that could unsettle some players who will be left to collect dust on the bench. The club’s defense was pummeled by Norther Colorado, 5-0, but also kept six clean sheets in the league, meaning it should be a strong suit for NAU this year. That is, if the club can adequately replace the team’s best player in the departed Georgia Foltz, one of the league’s best. Highly touted rookie Melissa Kettelkamp will join veterans like Alana D’Onofrio in what should be one of the league’s better defenses. Senior Lauren Weaver also returns in goal, though youngster Natalie Gilbertson might steal some minutes in goal as well. Last year’s offense was essentially cobbled together after the club lost most of its best talent in the offseason. Demi Schmieder led the club with three goals, with two of those coming against woeful North Dakota, and you’d figure that a whole lot of the club’s recruits will be auditioned as had coach Andre Luciano searches for the right mix. Experience and a cohesive defense should be assets for NAU this year, but the worrisome offense and an overall lack of top-line talent for this level means mid-table might be their limit this year.
Montana‘s been living the stuff of dreams for Mark Plakorus’ first two years in charge. The club may have finished 6-12-4 in his debut in 2011, they also ended up shocking the world by winning the Big Sky Tournament and then looking respectable against Stanford in the NCAA Tournament. It was a callback to the dream season of 2000 when they stunned Washington State in the NCAA Tournament. Plakorus kept the good times rolling last year, as Montana surged up the RPI and won a share of the league title. There’d be postseason heartbreak though, as the club was downed on penalties in the Big Sky Tournament final against Idaho State. The Grizzlies had most of their squad back last year which is definitely not the case this year, meaning Plakorus will face a big challenge to bring home another major trophy. Montana had the co-Offensive MVP in Erin Craig and the Defensive MVP in Lauren Costa last year. But both depart, meaning there’s a massive void for the Grizz to try and fill going into 2013. Craig couldn’t quite match her ten goals as a junior but was still a force to be reckoned with with seven goals and five assists, though just two of those came in the league. Junior Paytyn Wheeler is the leading returning scorer with five last year, and like many of her returning teammates, came on late in the season on the scoring chart. The trio of Mackenzie Akins, Mary Makris, and Allie Simon all had three goals last year as well, but Craig’s loss could hang heavily over this club this year. Losing Lauren McCreath, who was in many ways the glue in midfield isn’t going to help the cause for Montana either. The defense improved by leaps and bounds last year, and much of that was down to the presence of Costa on the backline. The center-back was immense last year, and replacing her and fellow departed senior Kate Wilkins promises to be a tough task. Returning senior Maddey Frey has been a constant in the backline, and she’ll have to pick up the slack as a leader this year with all the losses. There are headaches in goal as well, as Kristen Hoon departs after playing almost every minute as a senior. Kendra McMillen is the only returnee with experience, having started seven games in 2011, but she only played thirty-nine minutes last year. Plakorus has proven himself a talented manager, but he and Montana are up against it this year. The losses cut to the bone in terms of talent, and Montana will likely struggle to get above mid-table and back into the postseason.
Sacramento State struggled through another season in 2012, with much of the promise for the program after a Big Sky Tournament win in 2010 having been erased by continued underachievement. The Hornets won the double in 2007 before that 2010 triumph, but the club took some major blows last year while trying to overcome major personnel losses. Eighth in the league was painful, though not entirely unexpected. Sacramento State again loses around half of last year’s starters, including some particularly painful hits on offense. The top two scorers and top three shot takers depart, including leading point scorer Victoria Ramirez, who had four goals and three assists from midfield last year. Also gone are attacking options Elece McBride and Jordan Carlberg, raising serious questions as to where the offense is going to come from, considering the returning leading scorer is sophomore Alyssa Anderson, who netted three goals as a rookie, with just two other returnees having even netted multiple goals last year. As you can see from the above, the Hornets are probably going to have to get it done with their defense. Kassidy Kellogg is likely the team’s most talented returnee, and the defender was one of two players to start every game last year, especially impressive for a rookie. The defense looks to be the most complete unit, though the club also needs to blood a new starting goalkeeper after losing starter Shelby Tomasello. Junior Kimberly Mata is likely a slim favorite to be the team’s new #1 after four starts last year, but she’ll have to fend off redshirt freshman Hannah Gendron. Mid-table is starting the Hornets in the face again, as a stout rearguard probably isn’t going to overcome a punchless offense and uncertainty in goal this year.
Out of their depth doesn’t even begin to describe the 2012 season for North Dakota, as they endured a horror show of a season, their first in the Big Sky. The arrow had been trending down heading into last season after an indifferent end to their tenure in the ramshackle Great West in 2011, but few likely expected the pain to be so severe in their new surroundings last year. Losing eleven in a row, including all of their league games cost North Dakota boss Kristen Gay her job, with Ferris State boss Matt Kellogg the latest boss in a job that has changed hands a whole lot. Kellogg’s record at the DII strugglers was middling, and he’ll have it all to prove in a very tough job in 2013. The defense was abhorrent here last year, giving up three a game in the league last year, which was unthinkable in such a stingy league defensively, as UND gave up sixteen more goals than the next worst defense! The club’s best defender, Sheri Stapf, graduates, though much of the rest of the defense looks like returning intact. Cohesion can only go so far though, and junior keeper Kristi Hestdalen will be desperately hoping that she doesn’t get pummeled in goal again this year. The situation up top isn’t really that much more promising. Three goals in the league was a pitiful return, and things may not get much better in the short-term with Rhaya Ballon departing after just two goals last year following nine as a junior. Nobody else netted more than twice either though, with returnees Noel Scherer, Taryn MacMillan, and Megan Anderson all likely to be in the frame for a shot at leading the line. Rookies like Ashlee Beckwith, a solid prospect for this level, should get immediate shots at major minutes, but it’s clear this program isn’t going to be a quick fix. The gaping holes on both sides of the ball mean UND is probably looking at another fight to avoid the basement in the Big Sky this year.
Becky Hogan’s first year in charge of Southern Utah left much to be desired, as a Thunderbirds team that looked competitive on paper flopped in their first season in the Big Sky. The club didn’t win a DI game until mid-October, and even that was over a North Dakota side that was horrifically bad. SUU finished twelve points out of the playoff places, and Hogan has a lot of work to do to show she’s the right woman for the job here. SUU’s offense floundered last year, netting just twelve goals against DI foes and six in nine league matches. Nobody returns for 2013 that managed more than two goals last year, with leading scorer Stacey Brinkman leaving after five tallies as a senior. The only player with multiple goals that does return, Sydney Cook, had just nine shots total last year, which spells trouble, while the likes of Sabrina Hernandez and Madison Wood will also try to fight off some of the recruits to keep their playing time intact this year. The Thunderbirds’ defense wasn’t as calamitous as say, North Dakota’s, but it was still bad enough to warrant improvement if SUU is to make any move up the ladder this year. That’s probably not going to be easy to achieve though, as a massive offseason clearout has also hit the defense, with juniors Andrea Albrecht and Christine Meehan likely expected to hold down the fort on the backline with a whole lot of uncertainty around them. It doesn’t get any better in goal either, with Charly Booth having graduated after playing almost every minute last year. Last season’s backup Laura Rivera will probably start the season as #1 on the depth chart but will face challenges from Tessa Christensen and rookie Elyssa Hashimoto. Change seems to be the order of the day in Cedar City. After last year’s failures, just four starters and fifteen players overall return for the new campaign, with a big influx of rookies coming to town. While that should mean a lot of youthful energy, it also points towards a lack of experience. That and the club’s seeming lack of firepower will likely ensure another season towards the bottom of the league.
Projected Order of Finish
*1. Weber State
2. Northern Colorado
3. Idaho State
4. Eastern Washington
5. Portland State
6. Northern Arizona
8. Sacramento State
9. North Dakota
10. Southern Utah
* = Projected Auto-Bid Winner