Empires rise and fall in the OVC with great speed, just ask the likes of fallen giants Eastern Illinois, Morehead State, and Southeast Missouri State. It’s a fact heavy favorites Tennessee-Martin won’t want to dwell on for too long as the SkyHawks are widely expected to make it to their third straight NCAA Tournament. Loaded as they may be, UTM should still face creditable challenges from SIU Edwardsville, Eastern Kentucky, and Austin Peay in their bid for a title. There’s intrigue at the other end of the table as well, as any of the other seven clubs could realistically vie for the two final playoff places in 2013.
Tennessee-Martin were achingly close to causing an NCAA Tournament shock last season when they took Kentucky to extra time in the first round before bowing out bravely. The SkyHawks have flourished under the thumb of Phil McNamara, building on the progress that Craig Roberts started before leaving for Ball State after the 2009 season. UTM won the OVC Tournament in 2011 but really came of age last season, doing the double before that impressive Big Dance showing in defeat. A third season in a row would seal UTM’s place as undisputed OVC flagship program, and on paper, McNamara’s side appear to have a pretty good shot at pulling it off, with eight starters and the bulk of last year’s best players returning. The SkyHawks scored an eye-watering two and a half goals in league games last year, while conceding just six in ten OVC matches. Canadian sophomore forward Saphyra Coombs-James may end up being a game changer for UTM, as the rookie battering ram netted nine goals en route to OVC Freshman of the Year honors last year. She was a little dinged up late in the year, and if she can stay healthy and on form, UTM could make some magic happen offensively. The SkyHawks aren’t a one-trick pony though, as five other players netted at least five goals. Junior Alyssa Curtis and super sub senior Abi Sanvee, who netted seven last year, should provide great cover up top for the SkyHawks. The club is pretty strong in the middle of the park as well, with big midfielder Hannah McGowen doing very well for the club in holding down the center of the park. McNamara’s recruitment policy has been very shrewd indeed, and the addition of rookie Northern Ireland international Aoife Lennon to add more bulk to the middle of the park could be another masterstroke. On defense, junior Ashley Reveiz ended up being quite the find as a transfer from Middle Tennessee State, as the Knoxville native ended up as one of the league’s best defenders on one of the league’s best defenses. Amy Maksimowicz and Lucy Pater, who were both excellent in the OVC Tournament, also return, meaning the backline should be as fierce as ever. UTM should be strong again in goal, with junior Mariah Klenke set to return after a star turn in the OVC Tournament and should again thrive behind what looks like a talented backline. The SkyHawks are absolutely loaded going into the new season and should be comfortable favorites to win the league and make it into a third straight NCAA Tournament. Given the right matchup, they could again put a big scare into a more fancied foe.
SIU Edwardsville took another big step forward in their evolution as a DI program last season by qualifying for the postseason in their first year of eligibility after transitioning from DII. The Cougars had been a program struggling to find their footing since the move up, but head coach Derek Burton successfully steered his side into sixth and the last playoff place in the OVC, even advancing into the conference tournament semi-finals via a shootout before going down to Austin Peay. Taking the next step will mean rectifying a woeful away record, as SIUE didn’t win away from Edwardsville in 2012, though they made their home ground a fortress to compensate. Eight starters are set to return, which spells good things for a defense that gave up just fifteen goals all year. It really starts in goal, as sophomore Jennifer Pelley has already impressed after a great rookie season and could develop into one of the club’s best if she keeps progressing. She’ll play behind a backline marshaled by senior Kourtney Price, a vet who looks like one of the club’s best defenders. She’ll have help from the likes of senior Mary Kate Reed and rookie Cory Levels, meaning SIUE could again be formidable defensively. On the other hand, the club’s offense could be a worry, as the team netted just fourteen times and nine in the league in 2012. Junior Michelle Auer had three goals and four assists to lead the club but was pretty cold in the league, not netting after September 30. Sophomore Cassidy Sherman also impressed enough to earn All-OVC Second Team honors, though she wasn’t a real force offensively, with just one goal. The likes of seniors Meagan Iffrig and Sarah Doggendorf and sophomore reserve Katye Skrivan will all try to aid Auer in the attack, but there’s been precious little consistency in attack here recently. Don’t expect a defense heavy recruiting class to help in that regard either. That defense should help SIUE stay in every game and makes them dangerous in the postseason, but the lack of offense and poor road form is worrisome. With the OVC pretty barren beyond Tennessee-Martin though, defense might be enough to see SIUE climb the ladder again this year.
Eastern Kentucky‘s 2013 season was a mixed bag. The Colonels did get their first winning season under the helm of Lindsay Basalyga, but they also lost their boss, who jumped to Bowling Green after the season. EKU was a bit of a late starter in the college game but came along slowly, before finishing second in 2008 in the OVC spurring something of a golden age. The Colonels have suffered in the postseason though, having not won a game in the OVC Tournament, a string that continued last year when they were bounced in the opening round by SIU Edwardsville after a third place finish in the league. UNC Wilmington assistant Melissa Barnes is the new boss, and she inherits a squad that should return nine starters from last year’s team. That includes a defense which certainly has room for improvement and returns talented fifth-year senior Lauren Fant, a full-back who loves to get forward and who netted three goals last year. Center-back Emily D’Italia also returns, and though she’s not quite the offensive maven Fant is, the junior is just as important to EKU’s gameplan and should again be one of the league’s better defensive options. There’s stability in goal as well, with sophomore Erika Wolfer set to return for the new campaign after starting seventeen goals as the club’s #1 last year. In the attack, the Colonels will lean heavily on senior Nicole Donnelly, which isn’t such a bad thing considering she’s been a leading light for the club for so long, netting seven goals last year, including four in OVC play. She wore down late though, and the club really needs to find a complement for their striking star. Only Fant and two others that return netted multiple goals, so diversifying the offense will probably be a priority for EKU this season. Sophomore midfielder Mikala Ferguson had three assists and was one of the club’s most promising players, so Barnes will naturally be hoping she also can step it up and help inject more energy into the attack. Barnes walks into a pretty good situation in Richmond this year. EKU returns a pretty experienced squad in comparison to many of their rivals and have a defense which should be among the very best in the league. Donnelly should be a contender for double digit goals but only if the Colonels can give her some support. If they can, they’ll probably end that long, long wait for a postseason win. They might just have a shot at more than one, too.
Austin Peay will try to shed their recent tag of the OVC’s ‘almost’ team in 2013 as a golden generation of talent bids farewell in their senior season for the Lady Govs. After a 1-13-4 season in 2009, the Lady Govs and Kelley Guth have been a club reborn, winning fifteen games and reaching the OVC Tournament final just one season later. They’d regress noticeably a year later but bounced back last year to finish as league runners-up, though they again fell in the conference tournament final. APU will finally want to seal the deal make the Big Dance full well knowing that their window may close after this season once the Colombian senior Ariza twins graduate. The Lady Govs actually had an atypically brilliant defense last year, conceding just five goals in the league, best in the OVC, but it’s always been about offense here. Tatiana Ariza, already a full Colombian international, has thirty-nine goals in three years, including twelve last year (and eight assists) despite missing a chunk of time at the Olympics. It’d be a real shock if she didn’t win the OVC Offensive Player of the Year award, and she’ll have help up top from senior Andy Quiceno, who netted six last year. Guth has to figure out how to replace the scoring of Emily Perkins last year, who had an impressive seven goals and six assists as a senior. The club’s other Ariza, Natalia, played more of a defensive role last year, much to the club’s success, and might be a contender to bomb forward more this year. The midfield as a whole has the potential to shine with Joceline Quiceno, Andy’s sister, and Morgan Zigelsky also back. APU’s defense was rock solid for much of last year, but fans need only remember 2011′s horror show to know that a steely rearguard isn’t a guarantee. The unit loses two starters, which could be problematic, and returning starters Taylor Van Wagner and Corey Osborn are experienced but not going to be stars. It’s entirely possible Natalia Ariza, who has full-back experience, ends up back here. The Lady Govs should be fine in goal though, with experienced and talented netminder Haylee Shoaff back for her junior season after being ever-present last year. With most of their best players being seniors, it’s clearly go time for the Lady Govs if they want a trophy before their window likely shuts for a while after this season. They’re plenty dangerous going forward with Tatiana Ariza and co. and return a good deal of experience, though the defense might be a bit rockier than last season’s impressive unit. APU’s clearly better than the dregs of the league, but it still has to prove it can close the deal and finally bring home a major trophy.
Morehead State had survived one spate of heavy losses through graduation in 2011, so their inability to survive another one last year proved a bit surprising. They had made the OVC Tournament final a year before, so last year’s steep plunge towards the bottom of the league was not expected. MSU finished tenth of eleven come season’s end, and surely head coach Warren Lipka will be feeling the pressure for improvement after major trophies during the first few years of his reign at the club. The Eagles’ boss should probably get a pass for last year when you consider they were starting upwards of ten underclassmen for much of the year. With nine starters set to return for 2013, MSU should be one of the league’s more experienced teams this year. The defense was actually not that bad despite not keeping a clean sheet last year, ending up mid-pack in the OVC. Despite losing the game and experienced Alyssa Nacke form the backline, the club does return Kelsey Gomez, who was the team’s best plater as a rookie and who’ll probably need to take on more of a leadership role for a defense that also returns starters Kimberly Borys and Kelsey Toepfer. The club should be set in goal again as well, with sophomore Elizabeth Floyd returning and likely to be first choice again. Offense is a much bigger worry, and last year’s attack sagged after losing 2011′s top four scorers. The leading scorers last year had three goals and both were listed as defenders, which have to be taken as ominous signs going into the new year. Lipka figures to be leaning heavily on newcomers for goals, including Youngstown State transfer Jade Flory. Flory netted eleven goals and seven assists in two years with the Penguins. A similar return would go a long way in helping MSU drive themselves off the bottom of the league. If she and her club can’t score at a brisker pace though, it could be another year out of the postseason. I think the defense and the experience will just do enough to get the club into mid-table and back to the OVC Tournament come November though.
That Southeast Missouri State was able to perform at any type of level last year after the tragic death of senior defender Meg Herndon was a credit to club boss Heather Nelson and the mental strength of her squad, which finished in fourth in the OVC. Nelson’s side had entered the new year looking for a little redemption after crushing opponents en route to a league title in 2011 before fluffing their lines in the postseason. The former Florida State’s boss has been very profitable with four league titles and two OVC Tournament crowns in over a decade’s hard work in Cape Girardeau. With the emotional scars of 2012 in the rear view mirror, SEMO will be looking to bring home another trophy this year, though the club loses four starters, including some key cogs in the defense. None bigger than departed Australian Hayley Abbott though. One of the league’s best defenders in recent memory and last year’s OVC Defensive Player of the Year, Abbott’s loss is a tough one to bear, while the club also loses the talented and towering Ali Bauer as well. The likes of Amy Harrington and Paige Luehmann return and bring experience but not size, while Nelson will hope a new Australian, Bridget Sankey, and JUCO transfer Kylie Seyer can make an instant impact. Though the club loses Renee Kertz in goal, the fallback option is senior Ashton Aubuchon, All-OVC First Team in 2011, so the club probably won’t take too far a step back in between the pipes. SEMO’s attack was effective, though the club didn’t really get consistent scoring from one source, with just Torey Byrd netting more than two goals. The junior midfielder’s six tallies were a big cause of the team’s late rise, though the Redhawks must do without forward Courtney Luehmann, the team’s leader in shots. The best hope for goals may come from two players who didn’t feature last year. 2011 OVC Freshman of the Year Erin Shulman had nine goals then but missed most of last year with a major injury, while Evansville transfer Breana Beine was the 2010 MVC Freshman of the Year and also brings scoring potential to the fore after sitting last year out. The Redhawks probably aren’t going to be among the hot favorites on paper coming into this season, but this looks like a side a lot more dangerous than what they first appear to be. There’s still talent in defense despite the loss of Abbott and Kertz, while the attack should be more dangerous this year if Shulman and Beine are fit and firing true. I don’t think they’ll challenge for a league title, but SEMO are just the type of team that could catch fire late and shock someone in the OVC Tournament.
October was the cruelest month of all for Jacksonville State in 2012. Before then, the Gamecocks looked to be having one of their best seasons ever after two months of fantastic results. The bottom fell out late though, and JSU went winless in seven, finishing eighth in the league and out of the postseason for the seventh straight year. It also led to Julie Davis Carlson getting sacked, with the Gamecocks bringing in another freshly sacked coach, Neil Macdonald from Mississippi State, to fill the void. JSU would appear to have a decent offensive lynchpin to build around in the form of sophomore Kelsey Bright, who enjoyed a fine rookie season. Eight goals, including five in the league, was a fine jumping off point, but Macdonald likely knows he needs more from more players for his side to continue to rise in the OVC. Super sub Courtney Hurt could be one to watch, having netted seven goals in just four starts for the club last year. The Gamecocks could be soft in the middle of the park though, as Kaitlin Manns, who had six assists last year, and destroyer Austen Stoelting depart following their senior seasons. Defensively, JSU was young last year and should return most of last year’s major contributors. None of the potential starting four of center-backs Brianna Salverda and Sydney Keller and full-backs Katt Dowd and Jessica Monahan are seniors, so the best could be yet to come for Macdonald’s side on defense. Even if the club is a little more cohesive in the rearguard this year, they have to replace starting keeper Katelyn Geddings, a starter the last two years, and top backup Ali Koenig. Sophomore Taylor Hammond and rookies Cate Eden and Katie Thomas will duke it out in what looks like a wide open race. While JSU does lose four starters, Macdonald doesn’t walk into an awful situation in Jacksonville. The club looks to have a decent attack powered by the promising Bright, while the defense figures to improve with another year of experience if the goalkeeping situation sorts itself out. There’s precious little separating the gaggle of clubs fighting for the last few spots in the OVC Tournament, and JSU probably is as good a bet as anyone to be in the mix for the Top Six come the end of the season.
Murray State has not been a pretty sight for the past few years, as the Racers, a side that had won major trophies in the OVC in 2008 and 2009, pretty much hit rock bottom last season. The Racers tumbled all the way to the bottom of the table, another bad omen for head coach Beth Acreman, who seems to have lost her magic touch after coming in like a house afire early in her career with the club. The Racers’ gamble on international talent to boost the club’s fortunes appears to be a thing of the past, as Acreman has overseen a massive clearout in the offseason, with just twelve players returning. Eight starters do return though, but the club will be hard pressed to replace Czech star Veronika Pribyslavska, who was again a big figure for MSU last year after two injury blighted seasons. Used in midfield and defense during her tenure here, the Czech utility player also led the club in scoring with seven goals last year. The team netted just seven in ten league games last year, meaning the offense is a major worry. Julie Mooney and Shauna Wicker combined for fifteen goals in 2011 but were both dire last year, netting just once each. Megg Hudson’s the only other player with multiple goals that returns, meaning MSU could be in tough in the attack this year. There are problems in goal too, where both of last year’s top keepers, Latesha Stevenson and Yi Du depart prematurely, while third stringer Lauren Kelly departs as well. Rookies Savannah Haberman and Kylie Lawrence will battle it out for the #1 job and will play behind an experienced backline. The trio of Halle Pinkham, Bronagh Kerins, and Amber Hanson all return after major minutes last year and should be boosted by the addition of Finnish youth international senior Rebecca Bjorkvall, who sat out last season after transferring from Lindsey Wilson College. MSU hasn’t been helped by all the roster chopping and changing recently, and one might say that the reliance on always risky international players has blown up in Acreman’s face the past few years. Lessons appear to be learned, as MSU has gone heavily with domestic freshmen in this year’s recruiting class, and they’ll have to make the grade early given all the club loses. There’s potential in attack if everyone gets back to form, but the Racers losing their best player and having a potential nightmare in goal doesn’t bode well. They have a good chance of hauling themselves off the basement, but missing the postseason again is a distinct possibility.
Heather Henson’s done a fine job at Belmont in her first two seasons in Nashville after an acrimonious beginning to her tenure following the firing of former coach Lisa Howe following the 2010 season that made national headlines. Henson managed to keep much of the 2010 squad intact and finished four in the league in her debut before making the postseason again last year, though the club remains without a win in the postseason since 2009, something the Bruins boss will be looking to rectify this year. She’ll need to shuffle the deck about, with four starters departing from last year’s squad. The defense needs the most work, as the club had the worst goals allowed record of last year’s OVC playoff contenders. Veteran duo Kailee Hawkins and Jane Owen Robbins depart, meaning juniors Meredith Martin and Alison Alcott will be under pressure to lead by example as Henson tries to find the right combo to use in the back. Nicole Berner’s started forty-four games in three years in goal here and should again be the club’s unquestioned #1 between the pipes in 2013. Belmont weren’t exactly prolific going forward either, with nobody on the team netting more than four goals on the year. To make matters worse, the club loses midfielder Laura Harris (who netted those four) and forward Laura Paynter. Katie Proud scored three goals and is the club’s leading returning scorer but didn’t net in the league and has to prove she can carry the offense going forward. Fellow returnees Kim Elmore, Taylor Smith, and Rachel Schmidt also come back, but their offensive output was limited last year. Henson doesn’t seem to have brought in any out and out forwards from this year’s recruiting class, but NSCAA High School All-American midfielder Meg Howard will be expected to make an impact. Belmont’s probably not going to challenge the league’s upper echelon, but they’ve proven to be a battling unit under Henson and probably aren’t going to fold despite some noticeable flaws. Ambitions beyond scraping their way into the postseason will probably have to wait for another season though.
With realistic postseason ambitions before 2012, it’s safe to say that Tennessee Tech underachieved last year, finishing ninth in the OVC, some five points off the postseason pace. The Golden Eagles have largely been treading water for this chapter of their history, having to face the reality that their club has been little more than a stepping stone for others on the way to the top (or what passes at the top) of Division I. Entering his fourth year at the helm, head coach Daniel Brizard comes in under pressure to boost TTU into the playoff places at long last. The problem is, TTU was probably better set up for a big push forward going into last year, with the vast majority of the club’s starters returning for the 2012 season. It’s no where near as rosy going into this year, as the club looks set to lose at almost half of last year’s starting XI. Senior Ellie Iaciofano is the club’s best returning player and is a handful for opposing defenses at a towering 6’0″, scoring eight goals last year to lead the team by a mile. Beyond her, the club looks to be hurting on offense, as both other players who scored multiple goals, Sarah Gawthrop and Andrea Meloff, depart. Other than Iaciofano, the other returnees netted just two goals last year. Adding to the doom and gloom around TTU this year is the worrisome defense, which was the league’s worst last year, giving up over two goals a game in league play. The unit was youthful last year, with all but departed senior Julie Thompson set to return, and those youngsters really need to improve for the Golden Eagles to make any progress this season. Senior Taylor Hicks and junior Katie Phillips are the likely stalwarts there this year, but Brizard’s cause would be really helped by some newcomers helping immediately. Sophomore Jordan Brown was very impressive at times last season and was also very busy, making one hundred twenty-three saves. She might be busy again in front of a pretty unsettled defense. The Golden Eagles appear to have Iaciofano, Brown perhaps, and not much else. They might have blown a big chance to make their move last year with so much experience returning and now may have to pay the consequences with so much midfield and forward talent departing. The recruiting class looks relatively undistinguished, another ominous sign for Brizard, who’s received a lot of patience thus far despite a mostly forgettable tenure. Another season like the past few though, and the fourth-year boss could be sweating come season’s end.
It’s not been pleasant at Eastern Illinois in recent seasons. The Panthers had been a force in the OVC for about half a decade at the turn of the century under current UTSA head coach Steve Ballard, but the program has been largely confined to the middle of the table since. If you’re looking for omens for the season ahead, the resignation of Summer Perala from the head coaching position wasn’t exactly a good one when it came so deep into the offseason. Perala’s last season in charge saw EIU miss out on the postseason for the first time in ages, a painful coda to a mostly forgettable reign. Assistant Jason Cherry takes over for the 2013 season on an interim basis, but his odds of keeping the job full-time don’t look great if those chances depend on league performance. EIU loses five starters from last year’s club, including arguably last year’s best two players. Scorer of eight of the club’s twenty goals last year, Kristin Germann is a massive loss, especially when you consider she scored five in the league. Nobody else returning scored more than two goals last year, which should be a cause for serious trepidation, though sophomore Hannah Miller will be hoping for a star turn after a couple goals last year. Defensive ace Ashley Streid also departs, and the converted attacker led the club in assists with three. The Panthers gave up over two goals a game in the league, so it’s debatable whether the three other starters from last year’s backline returning is such great news. In any event, EIU also has to replace Jessica Taldone in goal after the veteran started in between the pipes for the past two years. Sophomore Emily Hinton looks likely to take up the gloves for the Panthers after having featured in a handful of games last year as a rookie, including five games as a starter in league play. She’ll be challenged by senior Brittany O’Dell, St. Xavier transfer Cortney Jerzy, and true freshman Jessica Kiely. The Panthers look to be in trouble again in 2013 after missing out on the postseason last year. EIU just doesn’t look to have much going forward after Germann’s graduation, with the club also being rocked by graduation and early departures. The backline could be decent if the group is more cohesive after last season, but breaking in a new full-time starter in goal only adds to the worries. While the Panthers will be wanting to get back in the postseason, the above shows a finish near the bottom may be more likely.
Projected Order of Finish
2. SIU Edwardsville
3. Eastern Kentucky
4. Austin Peay
5. Morehead State
6. Southeast Missouri State
7. Jacksonville State
8. Murray State
10. Tennessee Tech
11. Eastern Illinois
* = Projected Auto-Bid Winner