All eyes are bound to be on Missouri Valley powerhouse Illinois State going into the new season, as the Redbirds try to make it three NCAA Tournament appearances on the bounce. ISU have bullied much of the conference around as of late with Rachel Tejada supplying the firepower, but Drew Roff’s side has defensive issues that may not have been answered if two rather wobbly preseason results would seem to indicate. Waiting to pounce are a deceptively strong and well-balanced Drake side, as well as last season’s league champs, Evansville. The battle to make the postseason should be fierce as ever, with the league’s lower half clubs knowing the conference tournament has thrown up a shock or two in recent years.
Optimism is likely on the rise again at Drake heading into the 2013 season, as the Bulldogs look to be back on the up after correcting their course last year. The one-time giants of the MVC have been mired in mid-table more often than not under head coach Lindsey Horner as of late, but hit a low point when they finished fifth in 2011. Last season was much more encouraging though, as the Bulldogs won eight in a row in the middle of the season at one point and climbed to third in the league come season’s end. The Bulldogs would face the ignominy of losing to a Creighton side that had gone 0-6-0 in the league in the opening round of the MVC Tournament though, putting a deep blemish on an otherwise creditable season. Drake will be searching for redemption this season, and they actually look to have a pretty good shot at it. While Drake didn’t exactly light it up on offense last season, they utilized a three headed monster in attack that was, at the very least, functional for their purposes. Junior Ashlie Stokes was a surprising breakout star for the Bulldogs last year, making up for an anonymous rookie season by leading the club with seven goals, including four winners last year. She’ll have to be even better in all likelihood this year, because the club loses the services of the deadly consistent Laura Moklestad, who scored five goals three seasons, and four in the other to help lead Drake’s attack. Also shoring things up will be Generve Charles, a senior who caught fire in the middle of the season, finishing with six goals, who needs to be a little more consistent in the league. Drake looks pretty solid in the midfield as well, with senior Brittany Schuling returning after a fine season last year that saw her lead the club in assists with six. Sophomore Rhian Pritchard also showed potential as a rookie, starting eighteen games as a freshman and netting three assists in a promising campaign. Drake’s defense gave up less than a goal a game last season, and the good news is that that unit basically returns intact. Senior Megan Fisher is the big anchor for the club, a three-year starter who has rounded into one of the league’s very best in defense and who’ll be vital for the club’s title hopes. Horner really didn’t do a lot of chopping and changing last season, with the club having eleven players start at least seventeen matches. That continuity could be huge, especially on the backline, where a stingy defense could be even more airtight this season. There probably aren’t going to be any worries in goal either, with the return of senior starter Kalena Litch. Litch is a three-year starter and has been a solid campaigner thus far, and she’ll have good cover as well with the transfer in of Andrea Swanson, who started thirteen games at Iowa State in two seasons. Illinois State is bound to get all the adoration from the casual fan, but this Drake team looks very dangerous on paper. They’ve got tons of experience returning, don’t seem to have any glaring weaknesses, and should be short of no motivation after the end of last season. The lack of a truly explosive goalscorer may prove telling in the end, but this Bulldogs side has a very real shot at silverware this season.
The role of mid-major darling didn’t necessarily suit Illinois State well for much of last season. The Redbirds showed their raw potential in a draw against Illinois and a close defeat at Wisconsin, but far too often, they had puzzling slips, losing to the likes of Western Michigan and Northern Iowa. It was the latter that effectively cost ISU a league title, as they finished behind Evansville in the final standings of the MVC. They’d make good with a dominant run in the conference tournament to win the NCAA Tournament bid most thought would come easily, though Marquette would prove a bridge too far. Despite perhaps falling a little short of preseason expectations, it still marked five seasons out of six with major trophies for ISU. The question now is if the Redbirds have what it takes to take the next step and do some damage in the Big Dance before a bigger school inevitably comes calling for talented head coach Drew Roff. ISU will also want to strike when they’ve got transformational talent Rachel Tejada still on the books. Tejada shocked many by netting twenty-one goals and nine assists as a rookie in 2011 but backed those heady numbers up last year with eighteen goals and ten assists, more than justifying her place as one of the nation’s most dangerous strikers. Consider that the junior needed just eighty shots for those goals (nearly one goal for every four shots), and you realize the Redbirds have quite the talent in Tejada. Winger Kyla Cross returns as a great second option after her second straight eight goal season last year. Add in highly touted rookie Dagny Olson, and ISU certainly won’t be lacking for frontline firepower this year. Things are a little more complicated in midfield, where the Redbirds have to overcome the loss of the massive Rachel Bostick, a 6’2″ monolith who had thirteen goals and eight assists while being an enforcer in the middle. ISU can still call upon the excellent Anna Stinson though, as the senior had a pretty good season last year, though she couldn’t quite match the five goal, nine assist pace she set in 2011. Sophomore Lauren Koehl was excellent as a rookie this season and may be used in a midfield role after splitting time there and up top as a rookie. The big worries are on defense. ISU’s cavalier style was to their detriment at times last year, as they kept just one clean sheet in the league and were pounded by Evansville, 4-1. The team kept just five clean sheets overall, and the news doesn’t really get better with the club losing much of the experience from last year’s line. The biggest loss is of center-back Kristin Cooley, a four-year starter and a player who turned into one of the league’s best defenders by the time she finished up her career. Sophomore Alyse Williams looked like a budding star given some of last year’s performances down the stretch, and she’ll have to combine will with full-back Gabbi McArtor to hold things down while the rest of the line gels. It is perhaps not the best sign that Roff may be depending heavily on converted forward Abby Van Deventer and 2012 serious injury victim Rhianna Krutz to play major minutes. A wide swath of rookies, including hotly tipped Kara Morway, will also inevitably make their presence felt this year. The capable Aryn Newsom begins her third year as first choice in between the pipes, and she’ll have to be at her best in all likelihood given the question marks in front of her. It’s not hard to see why ISU are tipped to win the MVC given their vast arsenal of firepower available to them, with Tejada set to shine brightest. But the reality is that ISU also has some rather glaring questions on the other side of the ball. It might be enough to come to haunt the Redbirds, though their penchant for turning it on when it really matters the past two years could bode well for them in 2013.
2012 might be looked back upon as a season full of cognitive dissonance for Evansville. The one-time titans of the MVC had looked decidedly less than spectacular in recent seasons coming into 2012, having won just four games in 2011. It looked dire for a club that had once won four straight league titles and five MVC Tournament crowns under former boss Mick Lyon. Current boss Krista McKendree had made a tremendous first impression as boss in 2008 when her Purple Aces won both parts of the MVC crown in her first season at the helm. Fourth in the league in 2011 had been largely offset by finishing out of the Top 250 in the final uRPI, and McKendree was probably under a bit of pressure going into the new season. Things didn’t look good in the least when the club won one of nine non-conference games, but the Purple Aces shocked the league by ending up on top of the pile come season’s end. A double wasn’t in the cards though, as they fell in the MVC Tournament semi-finals to Indiana State. In the end, it was something of a mixed bag for Evansville. Yes, they were champions, which should silence any talk of McKendree being on the hot seat for now, but Evansville still finished with just five wins and only moved up in the RPI marginally. The Purple Aces should be a team on a mission in 2013, eager to prove that last year’s surprising league success wasn’t a fluke. There’s no doubting what was Evansville’s strength last year, as their defense smothered league rivals, conceding just two in the league and zero in the club’s three game winning streak at the end of the regular season. It’s going to be tough to produce an encore, as Evansville loses a pair of starters from last year’s backline. Kasey Cartwright was strong in her freshman season at center-back but blew her knee out in 2009 and missed the whole season. After a sojourn in midfield, Cartwright was again a rock in defense as a junior and senior and saved her best for last last year. Also gone is the versatile Danielle Langness, an aggressive ball winner who played all over the park. Don’t cry too hard for the Purple Aces though. They’ve got some prime talent returning for 2013, and really, it starts in goal. It’s a little amazing to think Simone Busby began the season as second choice behind Chaviel Harrison, but the Guyanese youth international quickly established herself as one of the region’s best young keepers by the end of the season. Busby finished with a remarkable 91.8% save percentage and was named MVC Goalkeeper of the Year. Junior Taylor Brand is the backline’s new leader after an impressive sophomore season that saw her win All-MVC Second Team honors as she started every game on Evansville’s crushing defense. Besides junior Tatiana Pagan, who else fills the gaps is a question. Evansville’s offense couldn’t keep pace with Illinois State’s high powered assault, but they were still better than everyone else in league play, though they struggled to score in non-conference games. That being said, Evansville still has a three-headed attacking monster that proved very effective against league foes last year. 2012 MVC Freshman of the Year Abby Springer produced one of the season’s must stunning individual efforts when she scored a hat trick against Illinois State that may have been the catalyst to Evansville’s late season surge. She only scored two the rest of the season, but Springer had a shot on goal in every league game and could develop into a double digit scoring threat for the Purple Aces in time. Attacking midfielder Stephanie Thompson has also proven herself dangerous going forward and saw her goals total rise for the second straight year after netting twice in 2010. Thompson was money down the stretch, with goals in three of Evansville’s last four and could be clutch again this year as a senior. Sophomore Kayla Smith didn’t get as much attention as classmate Springer but still proved an invaluable offensive asset, scoring two big goals against UNI and Indiana State down the stretch. The rest of the club’s midfield and attacking personnel is pretty functional in nature. McKendree brings in a big recruiting class, with the cornerstone being midfielder Colleen Dierkes, an ECNL star for St. Louis Scott Gallagher in recent years and a player who could battle for major minutes early. While Illinois State will likely be the betting favorite for MVC glory, overlooking these Purple Aces would be foolish. Evansville showed what they could do against ISU last season, and many of last season’s most important pieces look set to return for 2013. Springer, Thompson, and Smith are a handful in attack, and the club boasts the league’s best goalkeeper in Busby. If McKendree can effectively plug a few holes in defense, her side could well make a successful defense of their crown. Make no mistake, this Evansville side is a very viable entity in contention for both pieces of hardware in the MVC this season.
Missouri State has mostly been an afterthought in the landscape of the MVC throughout their history, but last season must have seriously tested the patience of its long suffering fanbase. With just one major trophy, the 2000 MVC Tournament title, to their name, the Bears may have hit a nadir in 2012, finishing as the only team in the league not to make the postseason, the first time they had ever missed the postseason . Rob Brewer’s side kind of got screwed by red tape, as they actually finished sixth in the league, but seventh place Creighton got the last tournament slot as hosts. It was a far cry from the past few years, where MSU had finished second in the league and in the MVC Tournament frequently. The Bears would not appear to have enough to challenge the order on paper. Finishing out of the postseason again would probably be a disaster though, as the club does return a decent amount of talent. Brewer has a big task on his hands to replace defensive lynchpin Nia Williams though, key to the club’s suffocating rearguard. Williams won MVC Defensive Player of the Year honors for the Bears last season and also actually finished tied for second in career assists at MSU, with fourteen. Besides the current FC Kansas City player, MSU also has to replace another fantastic defender in Grace Cross, an All-MVC First Team selection the past two seasons here. Sophomore Alix Opfer will likely stick to center-back this year after rotating there and in midfield as a rookie, with the Springfield native looking like a potential star last year for MSU. What else surrounds her is in question, and it’s difficult imagining this group matching last year’s pace. Starting goalkeeper Chelsea Voet also departs, adding to the worries. Samford transfer Jessica Perry got a smattering of experience last year as a rookie in the SoCon, but her long-term future there was shaky, with the newcomer likely to find more opportunities here. She’ll have to hold off rookies Laura Ketzer, a German, and Evan Stamp though. The offense suffers a bit too, with the club losing the services of Michelle Sommer in midfield. A three-year starter, Sommer saved her best scoring season for last, netting four times last year. With Sommer departing, MSU returns just one player who had more than three goals last year, that being senior Rachel Weimer. A hard luck case who had missed most of two seasons through injury, Weimer ended up staying healthy last year and MSU reaped the dividends, as she netted six times. If she can stay on the pitch again this year, the Bears should profit again. It’s shaky beyond her though. Sophomore Molly Brewer, daughter of the head coach, was in excellent form as a rookie, leading the team with five assists last year and can play up top or in midfield. The Bears might be heavily dependent on the incoming Molly Huber to make an immediate impact though. Transferring after two years at Kentucky, Huber has the potential to be a dominant player at this level, but it’s all a matter of gelling with her new teammates now. The pressure’s likely on Brewer to raise the club’s spirits after last year’s traumatic season, and he figures to at least have a chance to get the club back to mid-table, with little separation between the bottom half teams in the MVC this season. But the club also could have some real defensive issues given the losses suffered, while the offense lacks a bit of punch. MSU should be safely in the postseason mix, but they still look miles off the league’s top teams this year.
Continued progress has been the name of the game since James Price took over the program at Northern Iowa in 2009. Very little had been brewing in Cedar Falls beforehand. The club enjoyed a ten win season under Linda Whitehead in 2003, but since, it’s largely been a struggle, with neither Kathy Kakoyianni-Bering nor Jennifer Plante having done much to lift the Panthers above the fray in the MVC. Price looked like another questionable hire after two seasons netted a combined six wins, but the faith the administration put in him with an early contract extension through the 2015 season was repaid in 2011, with a breakthrough season that featured the club advancing into the semi-finals of the first conference tournament they had qualified for since 2004. Fourth in the league last year was a fine outcome, though the Panthers did end up tripping at the first hurdle of the postseason. It may have been a bit of an anti-climax to the season, but it had still been another nice step forward for Price and the Panthers. The next step probably involves injecting some life into an offense which scored just eighteen goals last season. The Panthers were mid-table in goals scored in MVC play, but they were still miles off top two clubs Evansville and Illinois State and will need more firepower to truly challenge for league honors. Nobody on UNI managed more than four goals last year, while the club loses one of its best attackers in Melissa Hagan. Hagan’s been a big part of the club’s rise the past couple of years, though her scoring was limited with two goals and two assists despite leading the club in shots. What’s left and returning is just a pair of players who managed to score multiple goals last year. One is England’s Charlotte Jones, who looked on track to have a great season in midfield but missed a giant chunk of the campaign in the second half of the year. Jones had four goals in just twelve games, so if the club can keep her on the field, she could be one of their best hopes offensively. Also in midfield and a threat is junior Caitlyn Fuller, a key part of the club the past two seasons and impressive in the club’s shootout defeat in the MVC Tournament this past year. The Panthers also add to what could be one of the league’s best midfields with the addition of Region ODP team member Natalie Winkates, who could compete immediately for major minutes. Given the club’s litany of questions in attack though, the defense is going to have to come up big for UNI to contend for further moves up the MVC ladder. Fortunately, UNI could have one of the league’s best defenses this year. Senior Allie Brees is the group’s leader and turned into one of the MVC’s better defenders last season in a starting role for the Panthers. The Urbandale native should again head up a formidable unit that also boasts sophomore Sarah McHugh, an MVC All-Freshman Team member last year. Starting eighteen games, McHugh wasn’t afraid of getting up into the attack and had a couple of assists for her troubles as a rookie. The Panthers probably won’t have any worries in goal either, as senior Erin Zaideman returns to the fore. Zaideman split time in between the sticks for two seasons but was the club’s clear #1 last season and should retain that role in 2013. The Panthers look like a club in good shape to at least retain their spot as a mid-table MVC side this year. The defense, which was adequate in the league last year could be one of the MVC’s best as they return some talented players and experience to the fore. A title challenge doesn’t look likely though, as the club is still searching for answers in attack. Consolidation may not sound appealing to UNI fans getting used to seeing their club improve each year, but for a program down for so long, it might just be the next best step towards contender status.
A program that’s seemingly been spinning its wheels in perpetuity, little changed for Indiana State last year. At least in the regular season. Keep in mind that the Sycamores are a program that have never finished at .500 in their somewhat lengthy history. Really, it couldn’t get much worse than 2011, when the club finished dead last in the MVC, suffering the ignominy of being the only team in the conference not to make the postseason. As her reign got closer to a half a decade in charge, the pressure was beginning to rise on head coach Erika True to be the one to finally bring ISU towards being competitive in the MVC, though some severe roster turnover going into 2012 had to hurt expectations going into the new year. Sixth in the league meant ISU barely edged into the postseason, but they promptly went on a miracle run to the MVC Tournament final, where they were thusly dispatched by Illinois State. The Sycamores may not be in a position to make a significant move up the ladder this season though, as ISU gets rocked by offseason departures, including many premature ones. Offensively, the club had trouble keeping pace with the top offenses attacks in the MVC last year, scoring just a goal a game in the league last year. One player that does return is offensive talisman Sydney Lovelace, who took the offense by the scruff of the neck as a rookie and ran with it, leading the club in shots by a good amount and tying for the lead in goals with four. She had a limited impact in front of goal against league foes though, not scoring in the league but still scoring against Evansville in the MVC Tournament. Junior forward Bria Caldwell’s struggled to make an impression at times with ISU but came up huge in the MVC Tournament last season, also scoring against Evansville in the club’s upset win. Senior midfielder Taylor Reed also had four goals and was one of the club’s most effective scoring options down the stretch, with three goals in the second half of the season. Together, the different parts might all form something resembling a coherent offense, but unless Lovelace takes it to another level, it’s difficult to see this attack keeping pace with the best in the MVC. Defensively, ISU’s record was a bit deceiving thanks to that awful Illinois State defeat, but keeping that aside, the club gave up just a goal a game in the other five league games. Losing senior starter Kourtney Vassar could be a big hammer blow though, as she was the club’s best defender last year and a four-year starter for the Sycamores. Vassar saved some of her best for the club’s MVC Tournament run, and she’ll be sorely missed, especially after helping with three assists as well last year. Also gone are Casey Albright…and Sadie Bauserman…and Marisa Windisch. Who is going to be starting for this defense in 2013? Your guess is as good as mine, though whoever’s there could face some serious growing pains as True tries to piece a unit together. A good bet to start right off the bat though is rookie Bergen Elkjer, a player who starred for the VSA Heat side that won a 2012 USYS National Title at the U17 age group. Elkjer and her new defensive teammates will also be breaking in a new goalkeeper as well after the departure of the only goalkeeper on last year’s roster, Erin Mitchell, who left the club after just a single season. Her departure means the club will again be counting on a true freshman to play between the pipes, with recruits Abby Keller and Brittany San Roman fighting it out for the honors this year. ISU may have done well to rally in the postseason last year, but all the early departures in the offseason seem to have cast a bit of a pall over the program heading into the new season. The offense doesn’t look flashy but should be somewhat competent at the very least, but the defense looks like a potential disaster zone with so many losses. The roster churn with another big freshman class this season is getting a bit worrying, and True still has to prove she’s the long-term solution for the Sycamores going forward. She and her club could struggle this year though, as the lack of experience and defensive worries could mean a rough road to the postseason for ISU.
Loyola (Ill.) is learning the hard way that sometimes the grass is not greener on the other side, as the club has sunk into obscurity in the Missouri Valley Conference two years into current head coach Barry Bimbi’s tenure. The decision to appoint Bimbi by quick triggered athletic director M. Grace Calhoun raised many an eyebrow considering he had been an assistant at a quite awful Pittsburgh program most recently. There was also the fact that he was replacing Frank Mateus, who had brough home two Horizon League Tournament crowns and a league title between 2006-2008, no easy feat considering Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s usual dominance of the league. Mateus’ Ramblers had moved backwards in 2009 and 2010, but the fact that he wasn’t given a little more time to straighten the ship out was befuddling considering his earlier success. Bimbi had taken over in March of 2011, and it’s fair to say his first season in charge had been a mini-disaster, as the Ramblers missed out on the postseason for the first time in nearly two decades. The club upset DePaul on the road in non-conference play last year, but they also slipped to sixth in the league, though they’d also win in the opening round of the conference tournament. It wasn’t a great season by any means, but it had still been a small step forward for Bimbi’s Ramblers, perhaps alleviating a little of the skepticism that had greeted his appointment to the hot seat. There’s still hard work over the horizon for Bimbi and the Ramblers though. Besides the club’s late, late move to the Missouri Valley Conference ahead of the 2013 season, Loyola also has to deal with heavy losses from last year’s starting XI, with their five departed starters the worst among the seven MVC clubs on paper. Last year, the Ramblers were very much a team that was very strong in one area and woefully deficient in the other. The club’s defense was rock solid in the league, giving up just four goals in Horizon League play, but the offense was positively woeful, scoring just four in that span, tied for the worst mark in the conference. The rearguard gets hit with the loss of Chelsie Stokes and Tessa Daniels, with Stokes in particular being a big loss. Though she perhaps didn’t hit the highest of heights due to injury woes, Stokes still enjoyed a fantastic senior season for the club, turning into one of the league’s best defenders despite starting just eleven games. There’s still a fine amount of quality returning to the backline however. Junior Valerie Gonyo entered Loyola with a good amount of expectation behind her arrival and hasn’t disappointed, anchoring the defense here for the past two seasons. The club also has another young star in the making on defense in sophomore Mariah Vichich, an All-Rookie Team selection last year who started seventeen games and chipped in with a couple of assists. Loyola should be stable in goal also, as junior Monica Gonyo, sister of Valerie, returns as starter once again. Like her sister, Gonyo was highly touted coming into college and has been steady in goal her first two seasons with the Ramblers. The bigger worries for Bimbi and co. are further forward however, as the club tries to figure out how to jumpstart an anemic offense. Nobody on the club scored more than three goals all year, and of the eleven starters, two of the three who scored last year graduate. It doesn’t promise to get any easier this season, with the club losing midfielder Jessie Hubly, arguably their best player. Hubly was more of a defensive midfielder, even playing on defense in 2011, but she contributed the odd goal and assist as well and was the heartbeat of the club in the middle of the pitch. The only starter returning with multiple goals is senior Tricia Stonebraker, who finished second on the team in points last year with two goals and two assists. Loyola’s firepower actually came from some reserve last year, with Moriah Schwarz coming off the bench most of the season and leading the club with three goals, all in the league. The club adds a fair amount of rookie muscle this year, but there doesn’t appear to be a whole lot of true firepower, though midfielder Alex Gage could be worth watching coming into Loyola with Region II ODP experience. Most signs point to a difficult season ahead for Loyola (Ill.) this year. The experience lost, along with last year’s excellent defense getting a bit weaker through said graduation doesn’t bode well in the Ramblers’ new home. Neither does the utter lack of firepower the club seems to have, meaning it might be a battle just to make it into the postseason this year for Bimbi’s bunch.
Projected Order of Finish
2. Illinois State
4. Missouri State
5. Northern Iowa
6. Indiana State
7. Loyola (IL)
* = Projected Auto-Bid Winner