It might be a vintage year for the Big South, known more usually as a league that often serves as a punching bag for some of the bigger schools on the East Coast. But things might be a little different this season, as the likes of High Point, Radford, and Winthrop look come in loaded ahead of the new season, retaining most or all of their top talent from last season. It’s the Panthers in particular who could pack some serious bite, with excellent talent on both sides of the ball and a shrewd and talented manager in Marty Beall.
Some of the mid-table teams will undoubtedly excite but will probably lack the consistency to maintain a title challenge and will probably have to wait for the Big South Tournament for a chance to shine. The big guns would be foolish to overlook them in the league’s showpiece event. Though chaos in the conference tournament has been reigned in a bit the past few years, it’s historically been a dream smasher for league title winners, and there’s no telling when it might revert to prior form.
Irony of ironies, High Point, once queens of the Big South Tournament, come into 2013 having lost a bit of their magic touch in the postseason showpiece as of late. After three triumphs in four years, the Panthers have fallen flat for the past two seasons, though head coach Marty Beall was able to celebrate a league title last year. High Point really came on late last season to claim the title, but they’d be felled in the Big South Tournament semi-finals to title rivals Winthrop. Despite that disappointment, HPU still netted their best RPI finish in ages, and the Panthers will probably approach 2013 with some degree of optimism given all that returns. Namely eight starters and all of last year’s players who won individual awards during the season. The Panther attack was able to overwhelm many of their league foes last year, and they’ve got the potential to do much of the same this year. Much of the HPU offense last year run through the dynamic midfield duo of Becca Hemby and Taylor Parker. The towering Hemby continued her dynamic growth on the pitch by putting in a marvelous season last year with eleven goals and four assists to her name. She’d be hotter early and late than in the middle, but if she puts together her electric form consistently, she could approach fifteen goals. Classmate Taylor Parker was a revelation in her first season after transferring from Kentucky, setting up eight goals and netting four herself to for a volatile one-two punch in midfield for HPU. Add in six goals and eight assists from Jacky Kessler up top, and the Panthers have all the makings of an offensive side that might run roughshod over most Big South opponents. When you consider the club has another player, Kelli Joline, who was a sub for much of last year and had twenty goals her first two seasons here as a starter, and also brings in highly touted rookie Kai-lin Hernandez, it’s a little hard to see how HPU won’t end up with one of the best offenses in the Big South. The bad news for opponents is that the defense, which was already one of the league’s best last year, could be top of the heap in the Big south as well this year. Senior left-back Sammy Vercellino has been a consistent and excellent performer for three years now and will be looking for her fourth All-Big South team honor this year, though she’s still looking for her first First Team recognition. The center-back duo of junior Alise LeCompte and sophomore Amy Burch are massive for this level at 5’11″ and 5’10″ respectively, and both showed they can play last year, doing well in their first seasons as full-time starters here. Oh, and High Point are pretty good in goal too. Jesse May split time for much of the year with sophomore Ivy Cocklereece, with the former standing out in the Big South Tournament. Both could see time again and should profit from playing behind a very good backline again. High Point is absolutely loaded this season. It’s rare for a club to return most, much less all, of its best players from a title winning side, and this group might just have a shot at an unbeaten league season, especially with title rivals Radford and Winthrop coming to Vert Stadium. A double could be within their grasp, as this year’s side looks like one of the best Big South sides in recent memory. Who knows how high they could fly if they don’t get matched up with an ACC powerhouse in the NCAA Tournament.
Radford may have officially stolen the mantle of Big South Tournament masters from High Point after their second straight triumph in the competition last year. The Highlanders didn’t exactly back into it either, keeping six straight clean sheets to close out the regular season while carrying a sixteen match unbeaten streak into the NCAA Tournament. The club has now won four major trophies in three years under the watch of head coach Ben Sohrabi and were close to making it back-to-back doubles last year, losing out on the league title by just a point to High Point in the end. Sohrabi’s been doing it for over a decade now, and though the Highlander supremo seems destined for a move to a bigger program one of these days, he’ll be looking to keep his side flying ahead of the 2013 season. Though High Point will likely open up as league title favorites, Radford comes in loaded as well, with every shot at more trophies this year. As you might tell from the above, defense was largely the name of the game for Radford last year, with the club giving up a league low five goals in eleven conference matches. Odds are, the club will be in a position to put the squeeze on opponents again this year, with the key pieces of the defensive unit returning to do battle once again. Che’ Brown is already a club legend in goal as a two-time Big South Defensive Player of the Year and was last year’s Big South Tournament MVP as well. Brown is on pace to become one of the league’s best ever players, and another strong season might have her moving up NWSL Draft boards as well. In between those two Defensive Player of the Year awards, defender Tyler Drake won that honor herself in 2011. A libero-ish center-back who has become a rock in the foundation of Radford’s recent successes, Drake should again be one of the league’s very best defenders this year. Another three-year starter in defense is Sydney Golden, a set piece ace for the club who had seven assists in 2011 and has ten in her career thus far. Radford’s terrific defensive trio should again have them in with a shot at being the league’s best defense. Offensively, Radford used a more scattergun approach then you might expect for a title challenger, but it worked to great effect, with the Highlanders netting twenty-three goals in the league, despite nobody finishing with more than seven individually. The centerpiece is Canadian senior Rachel Conway, who had a breakout year in midfield with a team high seven goals for the Highlanders. She’ll look to continue her surge, but she’ll also have some talented help too. Sophomore Asyia Mitchell proved to be a lightning bolt off the bench, netting three goals as a rookie to be one of the league’s best-first year players. Though Megan Rhodes, who was impressive in the Big South Tournament last year, departs, the club can still count on the return of seniors Sahar Aflaki and Julie Ruh’e who combined for ten goals last year. Aflaki in particular is really worth watching, as she is capable of much more having netted nine times in 2011. The club also bids farewell to leading assister Mary Wiley and six-goal Kara Nay, but the advantage of not being reliant on one scorer is such that Radford may not see their offensive potential dip that much. Given Radford’s recent history and their returning talent, it’s tough to look past them when looking at potential title challengers this year. They should be in the mix for the silverware in the Big South again and have every chance of making it three straight trips to the NCAA Tournament.
Winthrop were painfully close to both prongs of the Big South title last season, finishing just three points off a league title before falling in the final of the conference tournament to Radford. The Eagles seemed to have momentum favoring them after five straight wins and seven unbeaten but fell nonetheless to put an end to the second straight season of twelve wins under head coach Spencer Smith. Smith claimed a share of the league title with the club in 2010 and 2011, but the Eagles are still in search of some postseason success under the talented manager. Smith will be aiming for more silverware this season and looks to have a squad that could push the favorites at the top this year. The Eagles do lose three starters from last year’s squad, but they do look set to return the core of the side that came so close to silverware last year. There’s no question as to where Winthrop’s bread was buttered last year, as the Eagles scored an eye-watering thirty-one goals in the league, or almost three goals a game! Many of those came off the feet (and presumably head) of Krystyna Freda, who has quickly become a lethal weapon up front for Winthrop. Thirty goals in two seasons says much, and the high volume shooter should again be willing and eager to pull the trigger for the Eagles in attack this year. Freda’s far from the only scoring threat on this team though, as two other players netted five or more goals for the club last year. Junior midfielder Grace Radler had won a starting spot as a rookie in 2011, but few could have envisioned her busting out in a new role after spending 2011 as a defender. She ended up breaking the club’s single season record for assists with twelve while also scoring seven times herself. Youngster Taylor Walton provided a spark off the bench with two goals and five assists as a rookie, while utility player Megan David could again see major minutes in midfield or defense. Junior Devin Puckett flew a bit under the radar as well but netted a handful of goals, meaning Winthrop should have few problems scoring going into the new season. The key to a title run may be tightening up a defense which lagged behind the leaders last year. Senior Megan Pritts is a fine building block and another converted midfielder who has started all three seasons here. Fellow senior Okina Crawley has been juggled between defense and midfield here in two seasons after transferring from Coastal Carolina but might be needed more in defense this year as the club seeks to stop the rearguard from leaking goals. Some extra experience in goal should help matters this year though. Redshirt freshman Ameila Henderson started just about every game and played about 75% of the minutes last year. She returns this season and without backup Sarah Schippers to rotate with, figures to take all of the minutes this year and could be improved with the experience. Winthrop figures to be contenders in the Big South on both fronts this season. It’s difficult to envision too many clubs outgunning the Eagles this year. In the end though, maintaining a challenge for silverware may be up to how the defense can improve after a middle of the road performance in the league last year.
It’s safe to say there wasn’t a learning curve for Longwood in their first season as a Big South member. The Lancers came within a single point of winning the league title in their first year in the conference in the midst of one of their best seasons ever. Finally able to avoid a fate of having to cobble together a schedule as a DI independent, Longwood flourished, taking to their new league with some ease, though they did fall in the Big South Tournament semi-finals. Head coach Todd Dyer’s still done a fantastic job in Farmville with the relative minnows, and the next step is winning the club’s first major trophy at DI level. Though the Lancers look like a club that’ll still be formidable in the league this year, they also look like a club that might be a few pieces short of contending for silverware. Longwood will again be largely reliant on the goals of senior Kelsey Pardue. The Lancers would’ve likely been sunk without Pardue in their ranks, with the midfielder having netted seven goals and six assists, meaning she had a hand in half of the club’s goals last year. Pardue’s goal total has increased every season in Farmville, but she’s likely to receive a lot of extra defensive attention this season after the loss of the club’s next best scoring threat, Lindsey Ottavio. Ottavio had a bit of a star-crossed career at LU, looking like a potential superstar after sixteen goals in 2010 but not combining for half that total over the next two years. She netted three goals and five assists last year, but that she was the team’s joint second leading scorer says much about Longwood’s offense. Promising sophomore Olivia Colella is one of three returnees with three goals last year and perhaps the one with the most potential. She and the rest of the Lancers will need to step it up though if Pardue isn’t to become a marked woman in the attack. The team does add reinforcements from its rookie class, including promising forward Christina Corbin and midfielder Nickie Ivey, but it remains to be seen if the attack has enough diversity to keep Longwood amongst the league’s elite. With that offense sputtering at times last year, Longwood also used a defense that conceded just over half a goal a game in the league in 2012 to help propel it up the table. Matching that pace this year might not be easy though, as the club loses center-back Natalie Massey, one of the league’s best defenders. Massey was undersized for a central defender but was still a rock at the heart of the Lancer defense and a four-year starter for the club. The hope for the long and short-term for Longwood in defense might be sophomore Meghan Magee, a player who was impressive as a rookie who was one of six Lancers to start every game. Magee has the versatility to play anywhere on the backline, which could be huge for a club trying to find the right mix of personnel on defense. There’s a big hole to fill in goal as well, with the club having to replace starter Kyra Byron, the team’s #1 the past two seasons. Experience on the ground is scarce, but it looks like senior Shelby Hall, the team’s backup last year, will get first shot at holding the job down, though junior Dana Wallace and sophomore Hailey Machen are also in contention. Dyer did a great job in getting Longwood to be immediately competitive in the Big South last year, but it’s tough to envision the club not taking a small step back this year. The league’s elite come through the offseason almost unscathed, while Longwood loses a few key players in attack and defense, which might be enough to see them drift out of the top tier. They probably won’t fade too far though, and mid-table seems achievable enough this year.
After claiming a share of the Big South title in 2010, Charleston Southern has receded towards having to fight their way into the postseason over the past few seasons. Couple that with a history of postseason underachievement, and CSU has had the looks of a program in need of some upward thrust in the Big South in recent seasons. They needed a much bigger late run than usual last season, needing a last day win to just qualify for the Big South Tournament, where they’d go down tamely to High Point. There should be a fair amount of optimism going forward into 2013 though, as Charleston Southern looks set to return ten of eleven starters from last year’s squad. Head coach Eric Terrill has been able to preside over many goalmouth predators in his time as CSU boss, and he gets to welcome back senior Toni Lashley for one last go of it with the Bucs. Lashley burst onto the scene as a rookie with six goals and has seen her total arc upwards each season since, culminating with last season’s eleven goal effort. The one starter the club does lose was the team’s second scoring threat last year, Rebecca Hollstegge. With five goals and four assists, including a hat trick in the league over Gardner-Webb, Hollstegge was a pleasant surprise after she had combined for just three goals and two assists in the two previous seasons with the club. Senior Allison Lewis isn’t shy about pulling the trigger and did score four as a freshman in 2010, so she could be an option if not needed in midfield. The midfield should be in good hands with Lewis and impressive sophomore Gina Cox returning. Cox was an All-Big South Rookie Team selection last year and is another that isn’t shy about pulling the trigger in front of goal despite scoring just once. The club also adds in a promising rookie in the form of Erica Gazzani, a Regional ODP team member who has played up top but figures to serve as a playmaker for the Bucs in the present and future. The backline wasn’t great last year, giving up two goals a game, but they could take a sizable step forward with everyone returning this year. Senior Chloe Urig won her starting spot back last year after being a midfield sub in 2011 and is the elder stateswoman on a unit that’s still pretty young. Junior Tori Wright figures to be one who joins her after starting every game as a sophomore and chipping in with three assists, while classmate Stephanie Hand, impressive going forward and in defense as a rookie in 2011, sophomore Chandler Wingreen, and junior utility player Hali Singleton all figure to be in the mix for starting minutes as well. Towering junior Caitlin Cody split time in goal as a redshirt freshman in 2011 but was certainly not in a position to complain about the workload last year as she led DI in saves with a startling one hundred sixty-seven. CSU could be a sneaky pick to make some noise in the Big South. They’ve got the experience with ten returning starters, a decent amount of depth, and a striker who should excel at this level in Lashley. CSU hasn’t been past the opening round of the Big South Tournament since 2005, but considering all the above, they’ve got a great chance at breaking that duck, though there’s probably not enough in the tank for a title challenge this season.
There was some blessed stability for Coastal Carolina in 2012 after some unbelievable tumult over the past half decade in Conway. Head coach Paul Hogan had surely wondered what he had gotten himself into after a 2011 that had gone down as the worst season in club history. 2-14-2 was a far cry from a 2007 where the club had won fifteen games under Rohan Naraine. Colorado associate head coach Hogan was the man tabbed to try and clean up the mess, and it became very clear early on that he had been handed the keys to a massive boondoggle. The biggest red flag was the overall turnover on the roster between seasons which was massive to say the least. A year after having won the league, CCU finished tenth in the league and #300 in the final RPI, putting pressure on Hogan going into 2012 as he tried to right the ship at a program that had become used to winning and winning often in the last half decade. The Chants would really catch fire late in 2012, rising to fifth in the league, though they were of little consequence in the postseason. With seven starters likely to return for the new campaign, including most of the club’s core talent, CCU should stand a good chance of at least matching last year’s performance. The Chants will likely be building through their attack, with a couple of the league’s more imposing threats returning on offense. After a rather nondescript rookie season that saw her score just twice, junior Kacey Kelley came to life last year, netting nine goals to lead the squad, including six in the league. After a slightly slow start, Kelley scored four in five games to solidify CCU’s march up the table, and her form will likely be crucial for the Chants again this year. Swedish youth international Fia Jonsson looked like a real coup when she signed for CCU before last season and more than justified the hype, winning Big South Freshman of the Year honors after scoring six goals for the club while chipping in with five assists. Jonsson was more than a little clutch down the stretch, scoring four in four to end the regular season. Beyond those two, the returning scoring depth is a little thin. CCU might lean towards some newcomers for help, with Floridian Taylor Valentine looking the pick of the rookies this season in Conway. In midfield, the club does lose senior Anna Lowe, who rebounded after missing all of 2011 through injury to start fifteen games. Returnees Amanda Clark, who was another who returned after being plagued by injury in 2011, and Camille Christie, who started seventeen games as a rookie, figure to get first crack at starting roles in midfield, though neither proved too dynamic going forward last year. CCU wasn’t that bad defensively last year, conceding less than a goal a game, but there’s some major retooling in the works after the loss of two of their starters. Chief among those losses is Cami Skladany, who started for almost all of her four years with the Chants, including turning into one of the club’s best players and a fine defender at Big South level last year. Skladany helped anchor a defense that gave up the fewest league goals in club history last year, and given the additional unexpected loss of freshman Megan Wagner, who started every game last season as a rookie, Hogan has some rebuilding to do to keep this unit humming. Junior Maddie Phillips looks like the constant in defense among the returners after leading the club in minutes last year and has two years of starting experience to fall back on, but there’s no telling who’ll be partnering her on the backline. Senior Megan Spencer took over as the club’s full-time starter in goal last year after starting a few matches during the club’s fitful 2011 season. Hogan looks like he’s got the Chants back on the right track after the nightmare of 2011, and he’ll be looking to push on in his third year in charge. It’s difficult to see this group challenge the big guns of High Point, Radford, and Winthrop this year, but CCU does have a shot of being the best of the rest if Jonsson and Kelley can keep the scoring coming. The defense has too many question marks though to believe the Chants will challenge for honors.
If 2011 was (almost) the best of times for Campbell, it’s hard to argue against 2013 being the worst of times, as the Camels sunk into the pack in the Big South one season after making a shocking run at two trophies in their first season in the conference. Current boss Todd Clark’s form with the club has teetered erratically for much of his tenure, with 2012 certainly not ranking among his most memorable triumphs. The club looked great early, relatively speaking, but hit a big wall late, losing four of five to close out the regular season in seventh place. There weren’t any postseason upheavals, and Clark will again be hoping for better after last year’s disappointment. Initial signs probably aren’t promising for a quick bounce-back effort. The Camels lose five starters, most of any team in the conference, which might scuttle hopes right then and there. The defense looks to be an especially sore spot for Campbell this season, as the club loses a pair of solid starters from a group that was already a middle of the road unit last year. Taylor Brown, a utility player capable of excelling either in defense or the midfield, proved again to be one of the league’s very best players with her second straight All-Big South First Team nod while finishing second on the team in goals with five. The largely dependable Jeannie Borda and Cissy Nitz are also gone from the backline which could be seriously problematic for the Camels going into the new season. It’s a good thing then that Clark continued Campbell’s tradition of looking to Europe for players, signing Northern Irish youth international Nicole Connolly, who has also featured with Crusaders in the UEFA Women’s Champions League. She’ll have to show some of that continental class if the Camels’ defense is to stay afloat this year. There’s notable in goal as well, as starter Ryann Torrero graduates. Torrero ceded time late to Alexis Connors though, and the sophomore showed potential in her late season minutes, meaning Campbell might not be that bad off in between the pipes. Up front, it’s clearly Ashley Clark’s show. Twenty-one goals and ten assists in two seasons is a fine return, though Big South defenses may have clearly figured her out, as she netted just one goal in the club’s final nine matches last year. It goes without saying that the Camels need to find a secondary source of offense, made all the more difficult buy the loss of Brown and Kirsty Meyer, one of the club’s two players who netted three goals last year. Midfielder Michelle Procaccini, who led the club with five assists, and junior Melissa Messier, who is the second leading returning scorer despite starting just ten games, might be options, but the Camels will probably be banking more on some of their newcomers. The most interesting of those newcomers is Norwegian Kine Thorsvik, who was expected to pop up at Kennesaw State last year but who instead looks set for a rookie season with Campbell this year. The former Norway youth international will hope to continue the Camels’ trend of great European players, and the club will likely need her to if they’re to come close to contending this year. Given the shaky nature of the defense, coupled with questions on the offense beyond Clark, it’s tough to tip Campbell for a move up the table. More than likely, it’ll be more of the same for the Camels as they try and consolidate before a run next season.
Technically, you could call 2012 progress for tiny Presbyterian, but just how much progress was made is up for debate. The Blue Hose managed to climb into the RPI Top 300 for the first time since 2008, but just barely. The year started out atrociously for the club, as they lost their first ten games on the trot. They’d keep many of them close, but at the same time, the Blue Hose were shipping goals left and right, with the club’s traditionally anemic offense unable to keep pace. They’d top Gardner-Webb decisively in the season’s penultimate game but fell in a 6-3 thriller to UNC Asheville in the finale. It wouldn’t have mattered even in victory, with the Blue Hose finishing six points out of eighth place and the final playoff spot in the Big South. It was another disappointment for a program that has looked like a fish out of water at this level. Head coach Brian Purcell turned the Blue Hose into a major force in Division II, but the program has found the step up to be perilous. Purcell has certainly bought himself some time given his success at the lower levels with Presbyterian, but surely steps forward need to be made at some point. They should get such a chance this year. The Blue Hose look like returning ten of eleven starters from last year’s squad, losing just two seniors on paper, while returning the club’s most talented players. Scoring goals was a bit of a problem in the league for the Blue Hose. Though the club was roundly in the middle of the scoring table in the Big South, the offense was still well off the pace of the leaders and will have to improve if the club is to make a significant move up the table. The club does look to have some appreciable firepower up top though. Senior Sara Simpson made another breakthrough on her way to All-Big South Second Team honors, hitting for six goals, all in league play, while also adding five assists. There’s also firepower in the form of senior Tori Lopez, who missed 2011 but came back strong last year with six goals. Defensively, the Blue Hose were atrocious last season. They gave up nearly three goals a game in all competitions, while shipping thirty-one goals in eleven league games, a major factor in their missing out on the postseason. The one starter the club does lose, Alice Blackwell, comes from that backline, and she’s leaving behind a lot of experience, having started for the club the past three years. All isn’t totally lost though, as the club has a nice centerpiece for the future in sophomore Hanna Gaither. Gaither was ever-present in defense for the club as a rookie and already looks like one of the league’s most promising defensive prospects. Purcell juggled senior Jordan Broadway and sophomore Sydney Fontenot in goal throughout the season. The younger of the duo got more playing time as the season went along, and there’s no guarantee that she won’t be able to wrest the starting job away come 2013. Presbyterian looks like a club that could be in line for a move up the table this year. Returning the bulk of their squad, including their best few players, undoubtedly helps, as the does the relative tight nature of much of the Big South. Don’t expect any miracles, but the postseason should be the minimum goal for the Blue Hose this year.
Jessica Hain’s been mostly up rather than down at Liberty during her half-decade in charge, but last year was hardly the most memorable for the Flames on the pitch. Hain took over in the unenviable position of having to take over for James Price, who just led the club to two league titles and three Big South Tournament titles. She’d certainly deliver in her second season with a league title, but it’s been a trophyless existence since, with the club mostly being out of sight and out of mind in the league last year, finishing sixth in the league. Some good work in non-conference play saw the Flames with their highest win total since 2005, a potential rallying point for a move up the table this season. Liberty’s success last season was largely based around a defense that conceded just nine in the league and sixteen overall. And that could be a big problem, because the Flames lose their best defender and last year’s starting goalkeeper, who was no slouch herself. After an injury interrupted beginning to her career in 2009, Lauren Stell quickly became an integral member of the backline for Liberty. Stell was one of the Big South’s best last season and was more than just a blunt object on the rearguard as well, finishing with four goals on the season, third best on the team. Senior Casey Norris will lead a group full of converted attackers, including Maddie Boone and Alex Mack, though the unit will probably find the leadership and reliability of Stell hard to replace this year. A bigger worry may be replacing goalkeeper Karen Blocker who started for the better part of four seasons for the club, gradually growing into the club’s undisputed #1 for her final two years with the club. Sophomore Holly VanNoord didn’t see any action as a rookie, but the club didn’t have any other goalkeepers on the roster as of press time, meaning she might be the club’s top option by default. It’s not exactly an ideal circumstance, and it might be just one reason why Liberty will have to rely on offense to get the job done this season. The Flames’ offense wasn’t awful last year, but it still couldn’t hold a candle to the league’s best sides. The best hopes for Liberty are probably a sophomore duo who caught the eyes with their performances as rookies last year. Playmaker Brittany Aanderud pulled many of the strings from midfield, leading the club with five assists, which was three more than anyone else on the club had, perhaps underlining a lack of creativity in the side. Aanderud also wasn’t afraid to pull the trigger, with a team leading sixty-eight shots, though considering she scored just once, Hain might be happier to see her stick to distributing the ball. Up top, Jamie Bouffard netted a team leading five goals in her rookie year, scoring them all in a seven game stretch in the middle of the year. If she’s more consistent, she might turn into a top flight option in attack for Liberty. The only other returnee with more than two goals is junior Helena Pereira, who also netted five and did most of her damage in the league. My projections are somewhat pessimistic on Liberty this season. It’s looking like a good year for the Big South, and Liberty has questions on both sides of the ball, with the defense needing to replace key personnel and the offense needing a little more production. I think the Flames could outperform my projections and again make the postseason, but I doubt they’ll be there for the business part of the Big South Tournament.
You could accuse UNC Asheville of being many things in 2012, but boring certainly wasn’t one of them. The Bulldogs had the firepower to score two goals a game in the Big South but also had a defense bad enough to concede three a game in the league. As you might imagine, such a record wasn’t exactly conducive to a title challenge, and UNCA rode a roller coaster for much of the 2012 season. Their erratic form in the league left Asheville six points out of the postseason and in ninth place in the final Big South table. Michelle Demko’s certainly made improvements since two disastrous seasons to open her tenure in Asheville, but the club needs to find more balance if they’re to grow into anything more than an entertaining sideshow for neutrals. The good news is, UNCA should certainly not be lacking for goals this year. Junior Kaitlyn Eckert has star potential after a breakout season in 2012 for the Bulldogs. Everyone figured she had potential after six goals as a rookie, but Eckert blistered foes for eleven goals and nine assists last year. Eckert could be one of the league’s best strikers this year and may be key to the club’s postseason hopes. There’s much more than just her though, with three other returnees coming back with at least five goals last year. Senior Amanda Knapp netted six goals for the second straight year, including four in the league. Junior Amanda Dailor and sophomore Paige Trent both netted five, though the latter only scored once in the league. Nobody’s doubting UNCA’s scoring ability, but can they stop anyone? It’s anybody’s guess as to who ends up in the defense. Starter Ferriss Roberts graduates, but the rest of the starting unit should return, for better or worse. Senior Erin Ryan and junior Shenny Lenhart are the veteran leaders and will need every bit of their veteran wiles to help turn around a defense that was epically bad last season, though Lenhart could also end up in midfield given her offensive skills (four goals in 2012). Junior Heather Muller played every minute in goal last season and faced a ridiculous one hundred eighty seven shots on goal, ending up picking the ball out of her net a whole lot in the process. Has anything really changed for Asheville going into 2013? The offense is clearly going to be able to score. A lot. Can the defense improve to make most of those goals relevant? That’s the proverbial $64,000 question. Continuity in defense might make the Bulldogs favorites to reach the postseason, but unless that D improves by a substantial margin, anything other than mid-table looks unlikely.
Gardner-Webb increasingly looks like a spent force in the Big South, even though the Runnin’ Bulldogs have never really been a consistent contender at this level. The club looked like a potential contender after finishing as runners up in 2009 before a nice postseason run a year later. The program has sunk with scarcely a trace since, barely making the postseason in 2011 before another dismal campaign last year. After a slow start, they’d need a miraculous run-in to keep their streak of postseason appearances alive, but GWU all but rolled over in their final two games, losing 3-0 to Presbyterian and then 5-0 in the season finale against Winthrop. It was not a flattering picture of a program which appears close to a historical nadir. Long-time boss Kevin Mounce has seen the club through multiple divisions and conferences, but the program has been spinning its wheels the past couple of years. One doesn’t imagine too many more years like 2012 in Boiling Springs will be tolerated before the broom is brought out by the administration. Adding to the pressure on Mounce going into 2013 is the fact that GWU actually seems well positioned to make a reasonable move up the standings. The club looks poised to welcome back nine starters from last year’s side, meaning experience certainly should not be an issue going into the new campaign. As you might expect, GWU was pretty young last year, having lost nearly half their starters from a season before. That meant that a whole slew of players got shuffled into the starting lineup at some point, with Mounce trying a whopping twenty-one players in the first XI for at least one game last year. GWU will hope the continuity shows itself in the backline, as the Runnin’ Bulldogs weren’t appalling in defense last year, but they also weren’t great, conceding a little over two a game in league matches. Diminutive senior Ele Margelos looks like the veteran leader of the rearguard this year, with the likes of Brooke Kelly and Addison Abee also likely to see major minutes in the backline after featuring prominently last year. Junior Amy Schmitt was one of the few immune to the shuffling, with the netminder playing all but a quarter of an hour between the pipes last year. The offense was always going to struggle to replace ten goal scorer Dawn Rollyson, but they probably didn’t envision promising youngster Megan Curan throwing up a goose egg after five goals as a rookie. It largely left GWU’s offense without a leg to stand on, as they didn’t average a goal a game in the league. Sophomore Shelby Hooe was the top scorer last season with just four goals, and two of those came against a woeful USC Upstate side. Another option could be Nichole Poppe, who netted two goals in the league. GWU simply has to do better this season. The excuse of inexperience should be a thing of the past, meaning the Runnin’ Bulldogs should realistically be in the running for a spot in the conference tournament. Talent deficiencies on both side of the ball could ultimately prove too much to overcome though, and these Bulldogs may have to scrap to just make it into the Big South Tournament.
Most probably expected bad for VMI last season, going into the season with what looked like a shockingly threadbare roster short on talent and shorter on numbers. What they got was actually much, much worse, as the club failed to beat a single Division I club, and won just one game overall in a dismal season. Somewhat miraculously, head coach Bryan Williams managed to avoid the sack after such a horrendous season. Williams had certainly shown promise in 2008 and 2009, with seventeen combined wins. Since though, it’s been an absolute disaster, culminating with 2012′s abomination. Nobody ever said VMI was the easiest place to recruit to or win at, but one figures Williams’ time will be up at the school if last year’s failures are repeated. Part of the problem seems to be a remarkable inability to actually construct a program built for the long haul. Last year’s squad had just four upperclassmen, all seniors. This year’s program will likely have zero seniors, which might bode well for the program’s future, but does not reflect very well on Williams’ recruiting or ability to keep a team together for the long run. Even though the vast majority of last year’s squad returns, one wonders just how much of a good thing that is. The raw numbers for VMI last season were appalling. The club gave up nearly three and a half goals a game in league play and scored just four goals in eleven Big South matches, both league worsts by some margin. Tightening up the club’s defense would appear to be the quickest route to at least staying in games, and that will no doubt be helped out by the return of the vast majority of the backline. Play between the pipes should is a question, as the club started true freshman Mackenzie Harrmann for much of the 2012 season, but she departed in the offseason. Junior Kirsten Hancock also saw time in goal last year and might be favored to start over sophomore transfer Liz Nickerson and rookie Emily Marbury. If the defense can’t get its act together, it might depend on the offense to get cranking, which isn’t exactly a sure proposition. Simone Jimenez, the club’s top returning scorer going into last year, was an unmitigated bust, with just one goal on eleven shots, and departs, as does mammoth Cameroonian forward Christelle N’Dongo after just one goal in an injury riddled season. The club returns just one of the five players who scored a goal last year, and even she scored just one, which should be all kinds of alarming. Sophomore Meredith Baldasare is that returnee but wasn’t even a starter last year, while junior Liz Affronti had a couple of goals in 2011 and was one of the club leaders in shots last year and might need to have a breakthrough season. Classmate Allie Segura, who led the club in shots last season, will also have to improve for VMI to contend for the postseason. Even if they, and other Keydets, do make a big step forward, it’s difficult envisioning this side climbing into the postseason places in the Big South. It’s almost impossible to see them being as bad as last year’s squad, but rather ludicrously, they were outshot 37-1 in a preseason exhibition to George Washington. VMI looks like one of the worst teams in Division I, and you can only hope things don’t get too bad for them this season.
Projected Order of Finish
*1. High Point
5. Charleston Southern
6. Coastal Carolina
10. UNC Asheville
* = Projected Auto-Bid Winner