Looking for a fun title race to follow outside of the top leagues this year? You might want to give the Horizon League a shot. The addition of Oakland, even as the Golden Grizzlies endure a coaching transition, looks to be one that improves the league’s strength of depth further, and OU would probably have been a title contender had former head coach Nick O’Shea not resigned abruptly in July. As is, they’ll probably be good enough to give traditional favorites Milwaukee, Detroit, and Wright State some problems. The end result will likely be a slugfest between the top teams in the league that could make this year’s conference tournament one of the most intriguing from the mid-major ranks.
Wisconsin-Milwaukee faced some very real growing pains a year after losing the best player in program history in Sarah Hagen and the architect of much of their historical success in coach Michael Moynihan. Moynihan left on the back of twelve straight league titles and having turned the Panthers into one of the nation’s most dangerous and respected mid-majors. New boss Greg Henschel came from UW-Whitewater with a nice reputation but took his lumps early in his DI debut, with the club winning just one of their first eight games in 2012. They’d rally in style to win another double after getting hot late, extending the club’s streak of league titles and delivering another NCAA Tournament bid, though Notre Dame proved to be well too much for them in the Big Dance itself. All told, it hadn’t been such a bad year considering the upheaval after 2011, but hungry Panthers fans will of course be eager for more success this season. The good news is the club should have a decent shot at it, despite more big losses. Those losses include the reigning Horizon League Player of the Year, midfielder Helen Steinhauser, the heartbeat of the club in the middle of the park and a clutch performer who netted back-to-back winning goals in two league games in the middle of the season. The club also sees Demi Price leave from midfield as well, meaning the club may be weakest in the middle of the park this year. The cupboard isn’t totally bare, with junior Kelsey Holbert looking like picking up much of the slack after a great sophomore season with three goals and five assists to her name, while classmate Vienna Behnke also slid into a starting role rather effectively after a season where she came off the bench exclusively. The Panthers largely grinded it out in front of goal last year in the absence of Hagen, with nobody netting more than seven goals, though two top options up top should return for the season ahead. Krissy Dorre missed the opening handful of games with injury but returned with a vengeance, netting seven times and winning Horizon League Tournament MVP honors despie playing in just thirteen games. She’s a legitimate threat for double digit goals this season and has a fine striker partner in Kelly Lewers. Lewers hasn’t been prolific in front of goal but did have six assists last year, underlining her importance to the offense. The big worry on defense is replacing goalkeeper Jamie Forbes, who was never the most consistent option in between the pipes but was often a more than capable one, able to make some big saves when necessary. Junior Natalie Fettinger made a start as a rookie in 2011 but didn’t play a minute last season and will probably be part of a wide open race for the gloves with freshmen Paige Lincicum and Tailer Roscoe. Whoever wins the job will probably be playing in front of one of the league’s best defenses. The group should return intact, save center-back Emily Scott, who transferred to Iowa in the offseason. It’s not a small loss by any means, but the group should thrive, being led by junior Amy Kauffung, who played multiple roles in midfield last season before turning into one of the league’s best full-backs down the stretch. Fellow full-back Caity Bestwina and center-back Hannah Kaul also return and should be primely placed for starting spots. Despite the losses of Steinhauser and Forbes, two iconic players from UWM’s great teams of the recent past, the Panthers are still well placed for another run at a title. The likes of Holbert, Lewers, and Dorre should keep the offense ticking over just enough, while the backline looks strong as well. The big question is in goal, but if Henschel is able to find a workable replacement for Forbes, more major trophies will be in sight come November.
The good times returned to Detroit last season, as the Titans lifted a share of the league title after so many close calls in the postseason over the years. A team that went 1-for-4 in consecutive Horizon League Tournament finals at one point still basks in their shock win over Michigan in the 2004 NCAA Tournament, but the Titans have since been on a bit of a roller coaster ride that included a finish at #300 in the RPI in 2009. It’s been an upward trek since though, as the club has soared up the league table and RPI, culminating with last year’s shared league title following a runner-up finish a season before. Much like 2011 though, 2012 ended in the semi-finals of the Horizon League Tournament at the hands of nemesis Wright State. The Titans largely got things done with a suffocating defense last season that held league opponents to just three goals and all opponents to just twelve, but following that effort up doesn’t look to be easy considering the club loses its top two pieces from a year ago. The biggest and most surprising loss may be that of Nora Abolins, the goalkeeper having transferred to Western Kentucky in the offseason. Abolins was the league’s top netminder last season, and to say her loss could be seriously damaging is an understatement. Sophomore Martha Dunbar was last year’s backup and will battle veteran Emily Oberheim for the starting job, with rookie Laura Taylor an outside bet. None of them are Abolins though, and her loss is a big one. Backline standout Sarah Dzuris is another of the five starters from last year’s club to depart, and the converted midfielder ended up being a key member of the defense, also netting four assists for the second straight season. Returnees Victoria Sollestre and Heather Brown will aim to keep the ship steady, though it’s difficult to see this group matching last year’s pace. The offense is a bit of a contradiction, in that it has a lot of talent but wasn’t exactly the most prolific group list season, netting just a goal a game in the league. Bizarrely, it was enough to earn Kaitlyn Quarrell Horizon League Offensive Player of the Year honors despite the fact that she only scored four times and that three of those goals came against Canisius on the opening weekend of the season! Having netted six goals the two seasons before though, there is scoring potential there, and the vet has an outside shot at double digits this season. Fellow senior Abby McCollum couldn’t match her blistering 2011 pace, which saw her net six goals and eight assists, but she’s also a threat with her size and power and could form a very potent duo with Quarrell if the two are clicking. Big Canadian Alyssa Riley had four assists from midfield, while sophomore Heather Brown was also impressive as a rookie and could end up in defense as well for the club. Promising rookie Carley Rice also joins up and could fill an number of roles in midfield for the Titans, who might end up with one of the best midfield units in the league in 2013. The offense has a lot of potential, it’s just a matter of making it all click now. It’ll have to, because the defense probably can’t be as good as last season’s tremendous unit given the losses of Abolins and Dzuris. Though the Titans lose five starters, a few of them vital, they’ve still got a good deal of talent returning for the new year. Back amongst the Horizon League’s upper echelon after some dark days, Detroit should stay there this year and contend for trophies on both fronts in the league.
Unusually sluggish in the league the past few years, Wright State made amends to a certain degree last season with a surprise run all the way to the Horizon League Tournament final, where they’d finally be stopped by Wisconsin-Milwaukee. It really shouldn’t have come to that to try and salvage the club’s season, as this had been a side that had draw with Denver and DePaul and beaten Milwaukee earlier, but league form had largely been indifferent throughout. Club boss Patrick Ferguson was poached from Campbell to get WSU back amongst the trophies after some lean years, but to this point the Raiders have been forced to settle for above average for the most part. There are going to be few excuses for underachievement this season, as WSU welcomes back a side that looks capable of challenging for honors on paper. As was the case with many of the Horizon League’s contenders last season, the Raiders got it done mostly with a storng defense married with an adequate offense. WSU netted just eight goals in the league but also conceded just five in the bargain. That pace might be hard to much this season though after the graduation of the Horizon League Defensive Player of the Year, Lauren Patterson. A four-year starter for the club, the towering defender was unmovable on the backline and even showed a bit of a scoring touch too, netting a couple of goals as a senior. Her immense presence is going to be very hard to compensate for, though the club is not absent some fine defensive talent in her stead. Junior Allie Metzler already looks like developing into one of the league’s best defenders after just a few seasons with the Raiders, while senior Liz Soto has tons of experience through three seasons and was a star of last season’s run to the Horizon League Tournament final. The Raiders should be pretty strong in goal again as well, with Canadian senior Brooke McCurdy returning for her final season. A four-year starter (and javelin thrower on the track team), McCurdy enjoyed her finest season yet despite being kept busy by the occasionally leaky defense last season and may be the league’s best keeper in 2013. WSU’s attack wasn’t exactly explosive last season, though the eight goals they did score were enough to put it in a tie for second best in the anemic Horizon last year. Wright State will be very disappointed if they can’t at least exceed that pace this year as they return joint leading scorers Ini Umotong and Emilie Fillion. Umotong proved to be a very successful import from England, netting seven times as a rookie to win Newcomer of the Year honors, though her scoring rate in the league (one goal) needs to improve. Fillion captured attention briefly this Summer with a dazzling overhead kick goal in the W-League and was big down the stretch with a pair of goals in the Horizon League Tournament. Both are outside bets for double digit goals and could give WSU one of the league’s best offensive duos. The midfield may be more about steel than style this season, with sophomore Ashley Gogolin leading the charge. Gogolin was rock solid in the midfield as a rookie but doesn’t add much offensively. Though the Raiders bid farewell to Patterson, this could be their best squad in quite some time. They look relatively balanced in defense and attack and have two players in McCurdy and Metzler that could challenge for Defensive Player of the Year honors. The attack wasn’t consistent all the time last year though and may be the club’s greatest obstacle in putting together a title push. If everyone’s pulling in the same direction though, there’s no reason WSU can’t contend for honors this year, even in a competitive Horizon League.
Oakland rocked DI soccer’s world in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last year by knocking out a fancied Ohio State team on penalties but had their own world rocked in the Summer with the shocking resignation of head coach Nick O’Shea. It was hardly the best timing, but the Golden Grizzlies could hardly have given their long-time boss a better send off, with the club bringing home their eighth league and conference tournament title each during a glorious 2012 that will be hard to top. Much has changed in the offseason, with assistant Dave Morgan being handed the reigns on an interim basis for the 2013 season. OU also has a new conference home, the Horizon League, where the club may find it a bit more difficult going forward. Through all of the upheaval though, the Golden Grizzlies may have a very real shot of bringing home more trophies this season. Oakland may lose four starters from last year’s title winning side, but the Golden Grizzlies should still have plenty of talent to make an impact on the league race this season. With the club’s excellent defense taking some hits through graduation, it might be up to the attack to carry the load, though it was really only middle of the road in the Summit League last season. OU’s got a great building block for the future in the reigning Summit League Offensive Player of the Year, junior Kyla Kellermann. Kellermann made a solid impression as a rookie with a handful of goals before really breaking out last year with eight goals and four assists. The one concern may be that Kellermann did an awful lot of that out of the league, with the only Summit League foe she scored on being woeful South Dakota, and the defenses she’ll face this year are much tougher. Senior Meghan Reynolds has eleven goals the past two years and should provide support, though both need to up their game given the increase in competition level. Senior Abigail Haelewyn figures to pull the strings from midfield, having led the team with nine assists last year and has multiple options to spray passes to this year. Twins Jamie and Brianne Horne also impressed as rookies for the Golden Grizzlies and could end up giving the club one of the league’s best midfields, though the latter could also end up trying to plug a hole or two in defense for OU. The biggest of which is center-back Kara Weber, a three-time All-Summit League First Team selection who’ll go down as one of the best players in club history after also winning Defensive Player of the Year honors in the league last year. The likes of Horne above and sophomore Sarah Reynolds will try and make up the difference, though a key might be the play of defensive midfielder Julianne Boyle, who was effective in shielding the backline last year and also displayed a nose for goal with a couple of goals of her own. The club loses shootout heroine Shannon Coley to graduation though, with the goalkeeper forever sealing her place in OU lore by saving three penalties in the upset of Ohio State in the NCAA Tournament. Senior Payj O’Shea will try to step into those massive shoes this season after having started sixteen games for the club the past three seasons. Canadian Stephaine Bukovec is probably more of a long-term option, but the rookie figures to see some action this year as well. There’s little separating OU from the top teams in the Horizon on paper going into 2013. In fact, it’d probably be easy to pick the Golden Grizzlies to win a major trophy in their first year in their new home had it not been for the abrupt coaching change in July. Morgan’s not a neophyte though, having been with the team as an assistant for a while, and he and his club might yet shock some people this year. OU’s got plenty of talent despite a few notable losses, and most of all, a winning mentality, which might just mean more silverware come season’s end in November.
The fact that 2012 was Youngstown State‘s best season ever could probably tell you a lot about the history of the tortured Penguins program. That the club’s previous best season was a 6-11-1 effort in 1998 is also rather instructive, but YSU finally looks to be in good hands with head coach Will Lemke leading the club to its first ever season over .500 last year. YSU had had a history of hiring coaches with fine records at lower levels but who promptly ran into a buzzsaw once they had taken control of the Penguins. Lemke brought a little stability into YSU’s form that had been lacking, but they still in most respects hadn’t been taking major strides forward, making 2012 a critical year for the boss’ long-term future. As it turned out, 4-3-0 in the Horizon was good enough to see the club finish in third in the league, a tremendous accomplishment considering all the Penguins had been through in their history. Extraordinarily, YSU actually ended up finishing in fourth though after forfeiting their win against Cleveland State when they fielded a player that should have been suspended due to yellow card accumulation. It didn’t cost them too much in the end, but it was an odd blight on a generally fine season. Beyond that, the lack of postseason pedigree bit YSU in the end, as they went down to a Wright State team they had just beaten three days earlier in the regular season finale. YSU was rocked in the offseason by the loss of offensive talisman Jade Flory, who transferred to Morehead State. It’s a potentially crippling blow for a Penguins offense that largely carried the water for the club in lieu of the league’s second worst defense in conference matches. Flory wasn’t even the club’s leading scorer last year, but she had netted seven goals as a rookie and merited extra defensive attention but still ended up with three league goals and four strikes total while winning All-Horizon First Team honors. Picking up the slack for YSU will likely by junior Chelsey Haney, a revelation up front in her first year with the club. Haney wasn’t on the team in 2011 but ended up being a surprisingly effective forward, leading the club with five goals and three assists. There aren’t any clear offensive options behind her, but the Penguins will likely be desperate to see a return to form from senior Allison Ludwig. Ludwig was YSU’s great offensive hope before Flory, scoring eight goals in 2010. She’d sink to three a year later and zero last year mostly as a sub and has just one season to salvage what had been a very promising college career. The duo of senior Rachel Morrison and sophomore Tyesha Kizer both scored three times last year and could also be in the mix up front, with Kizer earning All-Rookie Team honors for her efforts. Lemke needs some stability out of his offense, because the defense was a little too leaky for its own good in the league last year. True, it was a pretty young rearguard, with the club only losing senior Katie Peterlin from the starting lineup this past year, but there still needs to be big improvement if the club is to challenge for honors. Luckily, the club can boast a pretty promising sophomore in Israeli international Shay Sade. The Penguins had high hopes for Sade coming into 2012, and she more than delivered, looking like one of the league’s best young defenders while netting three goals herself, including two winners. Who surrounds her will be key after the loss of Peterlin, with no shortage of options, though quantity doesn’t guarantee quality. Senior Ali Viola began the year as the club’s starter in goal but eventually lost out to Mount Union transfer Jackie Podolsky by the time league season hit. For what it’s worth, Podolsky finished with the better raw numbers, and given YSU’s league form with her in between the sticks, it’s unlikely she gives up the starting spot this year. The Penguins made a big step forward last season, but the departure of Flory’s seen a bit of a black cloud roll over the program in the offseason. The return of eight starters definitely is cause for optimism, but if Haney can’t provide the offensive spark and/or the defense can’t improve, it’s easy to envision a slide backward. Lemke has the program on the right track it seems though, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if YSU ends up comfortable in mid-table and the postseason again this year.
After the nightmare of 2010, Valparaiso has stabilized themselves in the Horizon League the past few seasons, leading a comfortable, if not necessarily thrilling mid-major life. In 2009, the club had reached the Horizon League Tournament final, getting throttled by Wisconsin-Milwaukee and kicking off a calendar year of futility, with Valpo winning just one league game a year later. The ex-Summit League side were mighty successful in their old league, winning the double in 2005 and the league in 2006 but have found goings harder in their new home. Current boss John Marovich in particular has had some mighty shoes to fill after replacing Stephen Anthony, who had led the team to great success in the Summit League when it was still the Mid-Continent Conference. It’s been better as of late, with Valpo finishing third and fourth, but the Crusaders still haven’t won in the postseason since 2009. Valpo was home to one of the nation’s very best defenses last year, giving up just ten goals in eighteen games. The problem was, the Crusaders did very little on the other side of the ball while they shut up shop. Consider that they only conceded three goals in the league but scored just four in seven Horizon League matches, while netting only fifteen overall. That number might not get demonstrably better this year either, as the club loses some of its best attacking talent through graduation. The duo of midfielder Rachel Hoaglin and Luisa Desario have largely been the core of this Valpo side the past four years, and losing both this year could be a wound that cuts deeply. Desario opened her career with six goals and All-Horizon First Team honors and closed her career out with similar honors, though she netted just four as a senior. That she was the club’s leading scorer as well last year might speak volumes about the club’s scoring problems. Hoaglin had also been huge as a rookie, netting seven goals and had six as a junior but continued a trend of low output in even numbered years, netting just once despite tying for the team lead in shots. There is some returning talent worth noting though. Rita Craven didn’t light up the scoreboard with just one goal but did enough in starting every match for the crusaders as a rookie to earn All-Rookie Team honors. Classmate Jordan Ryfiak was also heavily involved in the attack as a freshman and is joint returning scorer for the club with three goals netted in the middle of last season, while sophomore Sarrah Ludwig, who also netted three times despite starting just ten times as a rookie, should also be in the mix for major minutes. Given all those questions on offense, the defense is probably going to have to perform at a similar level to last year’s to contend. Fortunately for the Crusaders, just about everyone looks set to return. The club does find itself without club captain Janine Lytle, who ended up starting every match possible in her Valparaiso career, and her sheer experience is not going to be easy to replace. The club does have a rather promising youngster in left-back Jenny Fassbinder. Fassbinder worked her way into being a regular in the starting lineup by the end of the year and won All-Rookie honors to boot. She figures to be flanked by seniors Katie Gratzianna, who has rounded into a solid starter after having spent two seasons mainly as a reserve, and Tara Ellis, who herself had only played in four games as a sophomore in 2011 before turning into a key defensive cog last year. Valpo should be solid between the pipes as well, with three-year starter Kristen Manski returning for her senior season. Domination through defense was the name of the game last season for the Crusaders, but even though the club was one of the nation’s best in goals allowed, we probably saw the ceiling for such a strategy when you can’t really score either. Little seems to have changed on the defensive front though Lytle needs replacing, while the offense could be in a bind without Hoaglin and Desario. If the defense still impresses, Valpo should end up back in mid-table without much trouble, but unless someone new emerges as a star on offense, that’ll probably be it this year.
It’s safe to say that the Wisconsin-Green Bay program is stuck in a rut, as evidenced by their being within fifteen places of the same pot in the RPI for four seasons running. Unfortunately for the Phoenix, it’s been towards the bottom of the rankings and not the top or middle, as UWGB continues to flounder in irrelevance in the Horizon League. UWGB didn’t start 2012 much better than they finished 2011 (a 7-0 loss to Milwaukee), and really they came on well too late, rallying with some wins down the stretch but still finding themselves out of the postseason come season’s end. The Phoenix have typically had an aversion to offense under head coach Trevor Warren, and little changed last season. The club did double their output from a season before, when they had netted just eight times, but four of those sixteen goals did come against non-DI Michigan Tech. This season UWGB has to deal with the reality that their top goal scorer from 2012 graduates, as the Phoenix lose the five goals and three assists from midfielder Megan Braatz. Beyond her…well, there’s not a lot beyond her. The only returnee with more than one goal is junior Hannah Kernen, who netted three last year. With such a weak offense, odds are, UWGB’s going to have to ride its defense to any gains this season. The Phoenix were decent defensively last year, though the Horizon League was very stingy defensively for the most part, meaning the club’s lack of offense killed it decisively. The club appears to have a pretty good building block in the form of sophomore Sydney Born. Born stepped in at center-back last season and ended up one of the league’s most promising defenders. With other starters Jenna Harrington, Justy Linton, and Elise Olson also returning, the Phoenix may legitimately have one of the league’s best defenses this season. Junior Katy Pilarzyk held sway over the starting job in goal for much of last season but ended up on the bench for the final two critical games of the year, giving way to sophomore Nastacia Behle. The equation hasn’t changed much for Wisconsin-Green Bay. They still look to be an offensively sluggish team needing great defense to contend. Fortunately, they have the potential to excel on defense with an experienced group returning. They aren’t title challengers, but if UWGB can’t sneak into mid-table and the postseason, one might wonder if it’ll ever happen for them with this regime.
A season after it went very good for Cleveland State, things turned very sour, as the Vikings plummeted back to the depths of the RPI that so typified much of their early existence. Truthfully, the bad old days hadn’t been that far in the rear view mirror going into 2012, with the club having flirted with finishing below #300 in the RPI in 2009, but two straight years of upward mobility had optimism flowing for CSU. An abject league season left the club rooted to the bottom of the table come season’s end and boss Derrek Falor with plenty of questions about the long-term outlook of the club after such a steep fall following two successful seasons. Two lopsided defeats to end the season drastically tipped the club’s defensive statistics in a negative direction, but all the same, it still meant that CSU had conceded seventeen in seven league matches, or eight goals more than any other club in the league. If Falor can reverse that trend, the Vikings could well be in business once more in the Horizon. You could probably attribute some of those struggles at least on the club’s goalkeeping situation, as the roster featured a whopping four rookie keepers last season. The towering Sarah Wood was technically a redshirt freshman after missing most of 2011 through a serious knee injury, but she was still largely untested at this level, though not enough so to keep her out of the starting job for much of 2012. The other three keepers were jettisoned, so Wood will likely be favored to keep the job ahead of the new year ahead of newcomers Jane Piontkowski and Sierra Davis. The defense in front of the keepers should return mostly intact, though the club will have to do without senior Carla Ragone, who had finally locked down a starting spot despite missing a handful of games during the season. The club does return senior Frederike Dubeau, a three-year starter with size, and classmate Sarah Zawie, who began her career at James Madison before coming to CSU before 2011. If the defense finds a way to improve, CSU has a real shot at a decent season, as there is some offense returning. The bad news is the club does lose the services of joint leading goalscorer Jamie Avona, who finished her career with a five goal haul as a senior. That was a little misleading though, as she got three of those from a hat trick against woeful IUPUI and another in a non-conference game against minnows Francis Marion. The hope for the present and future is likely with sophomore Vickie Havas, who started and finished the season cold but did score four in five in the middle of the year and is likely the club’s best offensive option this year. It might be up to some of the newcomers to partner Havas up top, and Falor seems to have signed a good one in Erie native Sarah Kaiser. A Regional ODP member and ODP National Camp participant, Kaiser could well be in the mix for major minutes right away given the offense’s struggles last year. It’s likely a crucial year for Falor at the helm of the Vikings. A good season this year, and last year’s woes will likely be forgotten as taking one step back to go two steps forward. But if CSU can’t make forward progress, the club’s only boss could be sweating a bit at the end of the year. As is, there’s probably enough to at least challenge for the postseason, and I think CSU has a good shot at outperforming my projections, but the gap to the league’s top teams still looks to be quite big.
Projected Order of Finish
3. Wright State
5. Youngstown State
7. Wisconsin-Green Bay
8. Cleveland State
* = Projected Auto-Bid Winner