The NEC has been a two-horse race in recent years, with the firepower of Saint Francis (PA) facing off against the defensive steel of Long Island. That rivalry will likely take a backseat this season though, as SFPA looks likely to run rampant, while LIU faces the prospect of a rebuilding year.
Can anyone stop the Red Flash and star striker Tesa McKibben? Probably not, but former league titans Central Connecticut State probably has the best shot. Elsewhere, look for usual league punching bags Fairleigh Dickinson and Robert Morris to rise up in lieu of the since departed Monmouth and Quinnipiac. FDU and RMU might well enjoy their most promising season in a long time, though everyone behind the likely champions will be an unpredictable package, making for an interesting season, though the league as a whole could face a down year in 2013.
It’s going to take a brave soul to bet against Saint Francis (PA) to win another league title after they romped to the NEC crown by a whopping eight points last season. The Red Flash aren’t going to be lacking for motivation going into the new season though, as they were felled by their league nemesis Long Island in the NEC Tournament final, preventing a dream double. Despite postseason disappointment for the second straight season, the Red Flash have now won major trophies in three straight seasons and are odds on to add to their trophy case this year. Much will rest on the talented feet of senior Tesa McKibben, who might go down as the NEC’s best player ever, which doesn’t sound so blasphemous (this conference produced Christie Rampone, remember?) when you consider McKibben has a shot for her fourth straight NEC Player of the Year award this season. Nineteen goals and eleven assists were career bests in each category, and McKibben scored in twelve straight games at one point! SFPA knows where there bread is buttered offensively and gets it to McKibben early and often, but the club has a fine support system, with Brazilian Eloa Nascimento a talented second banana with six goals last year. There’s quality in depth too, with senior midfielder Stephanie Boulter likely one of the best generals in the league this year, while sophomore forward Brittany Hasson also displayed great potential last year. The club should be pretty stable defensively as well, with the return of the NEC Defensive Player of the Year, Alecia McNiff. A consistent three-year starter here, McNiff has become a dominant force for the Red Flash and will likely be on the shortlist for contenders for Defensive Player of the Year again here. The unit gave up just four goals in league play, but there’ll probably be a little scrambling with the club losing starting goalkeeper Brianna Butcher, the club’s full-time #1 her last two years here and a solid netminder despite her lack of size. With no returning experience in goal, it’ll be up to rookies Jena Lafferty and Abbey Collins to fill the void. While SFPA looks relatively bulletproof going forward, the goalkeeping situation does look like a potential weakness, and the club also has to replace solid senior Katy LaBella on the backline. NEC clubs aren’t going to be able to stop McKibben though, and SFPA looks like one of the safest bets for honors in all of DI this year. Given the right matchup, they might just put a fright into someone in the NCAA Tournament too.
Central Connecticut State, once titans of the NEC, has largely been reduced to the role of bystander as Saint Francis (PA) and Long Island have traded blows in the battle for trophies lately. 2011 was the first time the Blue Devils had missed the postseason in almost a decade, an occurrence that was repeated last season as the club slipped away to seventh in the league. Long-time boss Mick D’Arcy will be hoping to stop the rot this year, and step one of that will be finding someone to score goals. CCSU was haunted by the unexpected loss of Rosie Maguire before last season, and they club never recovered offensively, netting just twelve goals total and five in the league. Nobody scored more than two goals, with just two players netting multiple times, revealing just how bad CCSU’s plight up top is. Junior Kerriann Welch, one who scored two goals, and senior Jewel Robinson, a converted defender, along with Irish sophomore Claire Walsh look like leading the line, but the track record doesn’t look great for the returnees. Newcomers Tori Sousa, a highly touted transfer from UMass, and Cypriot youth international Christiana Solomou helped make CCSU my top rated recruiting class in the NEC this season and will have to excel right away for the Blue Devils to contend. Senior Allison Kelley and rookie Kristine Kelly should make the midfield formidable, but what they have further forward to give service to remains in question. Defensively, the club loses starters Ashlee Barrow and Annie Freer but does bring back the experienced Nikki Kureczka and Marissa Quesnel to try to help pick up the slack. Having the league’s best netminder should solve a lot of defensive problems though, and Australian youth international Nikola Deiter was in fine form in WPSL action this Summer. She’ll need to be great again, because CCSU is probably going to have to win with defense this year. D’Arcy’s a shrewd boss though, and if he can get the most out of his newcomers, CCSU might be a surprising contender for the league’s auto bid given how little separates the middle of the pack from everyone behind Saint Francis (PA).
Fairleigh Dickinson were shambles off the pitch last season, when they sacked Renee Montana on July 3, sacked caretaker boss Marco Masucci in the middle of the season and generally were pretty damn lucky to avoid the basement of the NEC. The FDU brass may have finally turned their brains on in the offseason though, hiring former Seton Hall assistant and caretaker boss of Sky Blue FC of the WPS Rick Stainton to run the show in Teaneck. Stainton seems grossly overqualified for the job and walks into a situation with potential this year. The growth of last year’s NEC rookie of the Year, Rachel Hoekstra will be vital for FDU’s hopes in 2013. Hoekstra netted nine as a rookie and could round into something special at this level, but there was very little beyond her, as the club only scored nineteen total, with nobody else netting more than two on the year. Another of last year’s special rookie class, Canadian Amanda Goulet, has the potential to be a league leader in midfield and netted a couple game winning goals last year. Defensively, Stainton has to deal with the loss of a couple of starters, especially problematic since most of the club’s other defenders are still very young. At least there’s a little more experience in goal, with the expected return of senior Sage DoVale between the pipes, though she missed the closing weeks of last season through injury. FDU’s looking like a club moving in the right direction despite the follies of last season and made one of the year’s best hires in bringing aboard Stainton. It may sound shocking given the club’s recent dysfunction, but FDU doesn’t look poorly placed at all for a postseason run. If Hoekstra and Goulet come up big, the Knights could well find themselves in the NEC Tournament in 2013.
Robert Morris smoldered pitifully last season, burning at the bottom of the league after a 2-16-2 campaign that was the worst in Moon Township in nearly a decade. The Colonials had finished fifth just a year before, making some believe that one of the league’s historical underachievers had finally gotten in right. That was far from the case last year though, and RMU were only spared the wooden spoon in the NEC with a last day win over Wagner. Club supremo John Kowalski will likely fancy his chances of leading the club back up the table this year, especially after having had to deal with an exodus due to graduation going into last year that tips back in the club’s favor this season, with ten starters set to return on paper. Losing top forward Ayana Davis hurts though, as Davis had been the club’s top offensive weapon in 2010 and 2011 before suffering a turgid year last season, netting just once. The club netted just eleven times total last year, with only six in the league. Leading returning scorers Alexa Sarsfield and Kristen Check netted just twice each, meaning RMU might have problems scoring again this year. At least the club can boast the solid Johanna Kadam in midfield, with the all-action vet likely to be one of the league’s premier midfielders this year. Defensively, RMU were pretty wretched as well last year, though the inexperience of last year’s club obviously stifled form. Getting junior Haley Vincent, who missed all but seven games last year, back should help, as she’s got the potential to be one of the league’s best defenders, while Swede Jenny Eriksson Palmgren is another to watch in the backline. The situation in goal is far from settled as well, with sophomore Chelsea de Jager and junior Becky Schoenecker likely to do battle once again after being juggled as #1s last year. Kowalski’s got a ton of experience and respect, but he’s not going to survive too many more season like 2012 here. Fortunately for him, RMU has the potential to yo-yo back up the table thanks to a whole lot of returning experience in what looks like a down year for the NEC. Questions over firepower could keep them out of the postseason, but RMU still has a decent shot of making the Top Four this year.
Bryant continued their rapid progress last year, with the Bulldogs finishing above .500 for the first time in their history as a DI program. Head coach Chris Flint has done well to keep Bryant a force in Division II before the club dealt with natural growing pains that come with a move up in divisions. Sixth in 2011 was a solid showing, and Bryant continued to climb the ladder last year finishing just a point out of the postseason places in fifth, though they also were just four out of second place. Consolidation might be the name of the game this season though, as the club find themselves having to replace six starters from last year’s team, including much of the defense. Four players who started eight or more games in defense last year for Bryant depart, meaning the Bulldogs could be seriously shaky at the back this year. Senior Alyssa Kozlowski will be counted upon to keep the unit together, but what might have more of an impact is senior goalkeeper Lauren Viverito, whose form will be crucial given the backline questions in front of her. The offense wasn’t exactly prolific last year and has to deal with the loss of the capable Alex Bengston and Regan Marin from the midfield. Further forward, the club does have some nice potential with the return of Shana Follette and Rachel Ivanicki. Follette was a revelation last season, with a team best eight goals helping her and Bryant’s cause. Ivanicki also made a big impression as a rookie, assisting on six goals and giving the Bulldogs a pretty potent duo in attack. Beyond them though, there’s very little in reserve going forward, meaning an off season from either could be deadly for postseason hopes. Flint’s been very good at the helm thus far for Bryant, but the Bulldogs might struggle to take the next step this year. The attack has some potential, but all those defensive losses should ultimately limit their upside to mid-table this year.
Sacred Heart plummeted in the RPI last season, which was disappointing given their amazing rise to just outside the Top 100 in 2011, but they equaled their fourth place finish in the league all the same. Seemingly almost the always team of the NEC throughout their history, the Pioneers are still likely thankful it hasn’t gotten as bad as it did in 2008 when the club went 2-14-4. The next step is postseason success, but it looks like it’ll be hard to come by this season, as the club has to replace not just five starters but its two best players in midfielder Jen Mulvey and Elizabeth Stewart, a defender. Stewart looks harder to replace considering Sacred Heart was primarily a defensive team last year, conceding just five in ten NEC games last year. Head coach Kim Banner will likely be hoping that returning senior Alyssa Brandofino can keep up her star turn after six assists in her freshmen and sophomore seasons, though there’s very little proven beside her. Exacerbating the problem is the loss of starting keeper Sydney Judkins, though junior Talia Schwartz did get a little bit of action in non-conference play last season. In the attack, Mulvey combined for nine goals in her final two years here and isn’t going to be easily replaced, though the club does return joint leading scorer Dana Cosmedy, though her final goals tally was modest at four goals. Junior Kristin Verette is the only other returnee with multiple goals, so it’s hard to argue SHU won’t need to find something extra in the tank if they’re to contend for the postseason again this year. Two straight seasons in the postseason have been a great return for Banner after some hard times, but making it three straight will probably take one of her best coaching jobs yet after losing its two best players and five starters. The league as a whole looks down though, so SHU still has a decent shot of ending up in mid-table at season’s end.
Terminal mediocrity has been the phrase best describing moribund Mount Saint Mary’s existence. The Mount has never finished at .500. Ever. They haven’t reached the postseason since 1997 and haven’t been close in most seasons. The club were looking to climb the ladder after finishing seventh in 2011 and were impressive early in the league season only to see it go horribly wrong down the stretch, losing their last six. They had their best winning percentage in nearly a decade but achieved it mainly through beating pitiful opposition in non-conference play. Head coach Tom Gosselin hasn’t been able to buck the trend of losing in six seasons and may be under pressure to improve results this year, though it doesn’t look easy. It might be a case of never or never however, as MSM returns nine starters from last year’s side. The offense wasn’t bad by NEC standards and brings back junior Alicia Mirando, who netted seven goals but faded late for the club. She’ll need a more consistent performance, because second leading scorer Kelly Baker, who netted five times, graduates. Seniors Jackie Corley and Ragan Cote are other offensive options, but neither look like contenders for anything approaching double digit goals. The Mount will need the offense to lead the team, because the defense underwhelmed last season. Youth didn’t work in MSM’s favor in 2012, but that could be to their advantage this season, as they only look like losing senior Andrea Bujacich from the backline. Kate Murphy, a senior, looks like the new leader, and Gosselin will be hoping that some more time together helps the backline gel after last year’s showing. Rachel Bourne and Vicky Cocozza platooned in goal as rookies last year, meaning stability in goal may not be a strong suit for the club. Much of the NEC could be a muddle this year, but it’s still hard to have a lot of faith in MSM given their long history of futility. The offense isn’t bad though, and the defense has potential to improve, meaning a puncher’s chance at the postseason isn’t out of the question, though you certainly wouldn’t favor them for a Top Four finish.
It seems absurd to put NEC titans Long Island in this category, but then again, how many conference tournament winners come into the new season having lost an absurd nine starters? That’s the plight facing the Blackbirds and their well respected boss Tracey Bartholomew. LIU’s been a force since the middle of the last decade, winning the double in 2006 and two more league titles in 2008 and 2010. NEC Tournament heartbreak was the norm until 2011 when the club won the final on penalties and then upset Saint Francis (PA) again last year to make it back-to-back trips to the Big Dance. If LIU gets back to the Big Dance this year, Bartholomew should be up for national Coach of the Year honors, given the aforementioned losses. LIU’s crushing defense gave up just four games in the league and figures to have to do some serious scrambling to stay afloat this year. The big loss is Katie Egan, a one-time spot starter who ended up as one of the NEC’s best defenders her last two seasons at LIU, also netting five assists as a senior full-back last year. Defensively, Egan helped shutout Saint Francis (PA)’s Tesa McKibben in the NEC Tournament final, and replacing her presence on the backline is going to be key, though the club also has to replace just about everyone else on the rearguard as well. English sophomore full-back Lucy Gunton-Jones is one of the only two returning starters, and the Great Yarmouth native was a nice find for LIU, turning into a set piece threat as well. The situation in goal was a mixed bag, with departed senior Jennifer Bannon leaving big shoes to fill as a former NEC Goalkeeper of the Year in 2011. The good news is that LIU does return massive senior Jessica Sexton, 2010′s NEC Goalkeeper of the Year and last year’s NEC Tournament MVP after taking over postseason goalkeeping duties from Bannon. She figures to be very busy this year. The offense isn’t any better off, and LIU’s attack wheezed last year, with just departed senior scoring more than two goals. Her seven constituted almost half the team’s output last year, and none of the returning starters (all two of them) scored last year. The wild card is junior Jen Spicer, who scored seven goals in 2011 but missed all of last year through injury. Senior Shino Kunisawa proved a nice find out of the JUCO ranks, and the Japanese midfielder is going to have to take on a big leadership role this season if LIU is to go anywhere. Midfield workhorse Nicole Labo also departs after a great senior season, meaning even more work for Bartholomew to keep LIU competitive this year. I won’t be shocked if LIU surprises us all, as Bartholomew is arguably the NEC’s best coach, and the team plays in a style conducive to getting the most of its players. All those losses from last year look deadly though, and I’d still be surprised if the Blackbirds make the postseason.
Wagner‘s all-time winning percentage is .260. Really, is there much more you need to know about the Staten Island club? 2011 was marred by a late collapse, and last year was actually worse, as the Seahawks defense was battered time and time again en route to a last place finish in the NEC. Head coach Mike Minielli is the program’s all-time winningest coach, but that’s like being a marginally deeper piece of the Titanic, such is the woe at Wagner. The odds aren’t with the club for a quick turnaround. Wagner isn’t badly hit by graduation in comparison to their league rivals, but the teams is woefully short on returning talent, including the club’s top player Julie Vigliotti. Vigliotti leaves Wagner as one of the team’s best ever players, scoring seven as a senior but also being a marked woman in the league as the Seahawks had few other options to lean on. Without her, the club will be desperate for goalscorers, but the most likely returning option Jackie Nicholas hasn’t eclipsed five goals in each of the team’s past two seasons. Nicholas also didn’t have a shot on goal in the final six games last year, so she’s far from a sure thing, and nobody else had more than two goals. The midfield takes some hits through attrition but does add a decent prospect in rookie Megan Fritz. The defense here was really bad last season too, giving up more than two goals a game in the league in 2012. Katie Keown departs, and the senior leader leaves a void, though much of the rest of the backline returns, for better or for worse. The situation in goal doesn’t inspire much confidence either, as the team has juggled Maureen Vetter, Lisa Capelli, and Katie Marcy in recent years. The Seahawks don’t appear to have much going in their favor in 2013. The offense takes a big blow with the loss of Vigliotti, and the new unit looks too dependent on Nicholas’ goals to stay afloat. Defensively, Wagner’s no great shakes either, and may be depending on more continuity to stem the tide of goals going the other way. I don’t know if they’ll be as bad in the RPI as they were last season, but escaping the lower tier of the NEC looks unlikely.
Projected Order of Finish
*1. Saint Francis (PA)
2. Central Connecticut State
3. Fairleigh Dickinson
4. Robert Morris
6. Sacred Heart
7. Mount Saint Mary’s
8. Long Island
* = Projected Auto-Bid Winner