The SWAC wasn’t exactly much to crow about last year after Roberto Mazza’s departure from Arkansas-Pine Bluff saw the league lose much of its little luster. Alabama State did net some non-conference wins, but mostly, it was a case of the clubs taking their beatings (and checks) until league play. As is usual here, the league was all over the place, but Mississippi Valley State were deserved winners of the league’s auto bid in the end.
The Devilettes will likely be in the mix for more trophies this year, along with perennial contenders Jackson State and serial underachievers Alabama State. It’s the latter to keep an eye on, as the Hornets look like they’re well placed for a title run but have a history of not performing when the lights are brightest. If they perform to their potential though, they could not only win the league but also upset some non-conference foes as well.
Now is clearly the time for Alabama State to cash in on their potential and win a league title. The Lady Hornets have seemingly been as well supported as any SWAC side has but has almost always come up short in the hunt for trophies. Last season brought some shocking success against non-conference foes before the Lady Hornets crashed and burned in the league, finishing fourth of five teams in their division before losing in the SWAC Tournament quarterfinals. With nine starters returning and the league’s best recruiting class coming in, there’s simply no more room for excuses. Australian youth international Anastasia McCleary seems far overqualified for this level, but ASU isn’t complaining, with the Aussie winning SWAC Freshman of the Year honors last year with four goals and six assists. Also back are attacking targets Alexandria Cannon and India Pleasant, who combined with nineteen goals last year. Add in Alaska Gatorade State Player of the Year Aaliyah Lewis, and ASU should have no shortage of firepower. Defensively, the club needs to improve but has potential with Finland’s Iita Pienimaki leading the rearguard for the third straight season. Starting keeper Kylee Hathaway is another that seems too good for this level and already looks like the league’s top netminder as a junior. If it doesn’t come this season, it might never come for ASU, who look like title favorites. The Lady Hornets have experience and talent in droves but have to shed the losing mentality that has gripped the program throughout its history. If it can cultivate some mental toughness, this ASU club could well finally lift some silverware come November.
Mississippi Valley State finally struck true last season, winning the SWAC Tournament following two exits in the final in 2010 and 2011. Head coach Sonia Curvelo will be hoping to continue the winning trend this season, with her Devilettes looking like one of the title favorites once again. Though the club does lose more than title rivals Alabama State and Jackson State, Curvelo’s side does return the main core of last year’s squad that reached the NCAA Tournament. The scoring duo of Shanesse Spratt and Nykosi Simmons didn’t have too much trouble against SWAC opposition last season, while Josee Primeau should also be able to deliver the goods if healthy this year. Defensively, the Devilettes will lean on senior Bianca Vigilante to keep opposing offenses at bay, while netminder Shelby Willcocks will likely again be under fire all season, though she will also likely remain one of the league’s best in goal. The club’s main worry will be replacing midfielder Kayla Boyd, one of the league’s best in the middle of the park. Keeping a steady supply line to the forwards will be key given some of the shootouts MVSU is likely to be in in the defensively challenged SWAC. Curvelo’s established herself as one of the league’s best bosses, making MVSU one of the league’s more consistent teams, and they’ll again challenge for honors in the SWAC in 2013.
Jackson State continued to be a club that seemed to be on the brink of big success in the SWAC, only to fall short in the end last year. Since 2010′s title winning season, JSU’s been forced to play second fiddle in the league, falling into mid-table last year after a late swoon. They’d recover in the postseason to a certain degree but fell short in the final to Mississippi Valley State. Head coach Dean Joseph got a late, late start to last season, his first in charge of JSU, but the Tigers boss will surely fancy his chances for a successful 2013 with a full offseason under his belt. Nine starters look set to return, though the club will be looking for one of those starters to step up in the face of an offense that did it more by committee last year. Sophomore Shatiaunna Banks led the club with five goals, but three came against Alcorn State, with the rookie slowing down down the stretch and seriously putting a crimp in the club’s hopes. Improvement will likely depend on a defense that was young and took their knocks last year, especially out of conference. Another of a fine rookie class last year, Rayana Speight, looks like developing into one of the league’s best defenders, a good sign for goalkeeper Taylor Emerson, overworked as almost all SWAC keepers are. Joseph doesn’t have a star to hang his hat on but does have a good track record at this level and a squad that looks more than the sum of its parts. It equals another likely title challenge for JSU, though supporters will be hoping the club can finally close the deal.
Considered by some as title contenders at the start of 2012, Prairie View A&M instead flopped in the postseason again. The Lady Panthers would do their part with a divisional title in the SWAC after a late run, but they’d be dumped out on spot kicks for the second straight season in the SWAC Tournament semi-finals. It’s probably a bit much to say that the bottom will completely fall out on the Lady Panthers, but they probably aren’t among the hot favorites going into 2013, losing five starters. The good news is that talented senior striker Angie Guillory returns after hitting for five goals in five SWAC games at one point. Yosselyn Aguilar departs though, and considering she was one of the club’s better performers in the postseason, that could be bad news unless the likes of Ariana Roundtree can step it up. Guillory may have to do a lot herself, as the club’s midfield also takes some hits, including losing star Navyd Diaz from the lineup. This year’s side isn’t quite senior laden, but one of the few vets, Debbie Arguelles, will need to hold together a defense that loses some starters and that gave up over a goal a game in league action last year. The Lady Panthers probably aren’t going to be in the mix for trophies this year given some of the personnel that needs to be replaced. But the club could still yet surprise a team or two if what’s left steps up their game, especially if some of the JUCO additions pan out.
Arkansas-Pine Bluff did not fare that well in year one without miracle worker Roberto Mazza, who fled to Louisiana-Monroe after the 2011 season. The all-conquering legacy of the previous season faded in the face of mid-table obscurity under new boss Rohan Naraine last year. A five-goal defeat to non-DI side Oklahoma Wesleyan about summed it up, though they picked it up late, including a win in the SWAC Tournament quarterfinals against Alabama A&M. UAPB used a crushing defense, at least in league play, to make their hay, giving up just five goals in nine SWAC games last year. Considering they didn’t have a dedicated goalkeeper on the roster after being transfer ravaged last year, it ended up being quite the feat. Canadian center-back Molly Stone’s return should help fortify that defense which will again need to excel given the rather morose looking offense. They scored just eight in nine in the league last year, which was definitely most un-UAPB-like after Mazza’s exciting reign. The Carrera twins, Celeste and Czelene, combined for ten goals to lead the squad but need to show more if more help doesn’t boost last year’s attack. Naraine didn’t exactly inherit a great situation, as most of Mazza’s title winning side graduated or jumped ship after his departure, but the former Coastal Carolina coach still did well given the circumstances. The bar has been set high here though, and mid-table, where the club is likely to end up given the club’s offensive worries, may not be good enough in time. UAPB’s smothering defense does make them dark horses in the SWAC Tournament though.
Dead last in the RPI last season, Southern needed a change badly and got it after John Knighten retired as head coach in the offseason. Knighten had seen the club win five games in 2011 and reach the SWAC Tournament semi-finals, but they crashed and burned last year, losing six in a row in the league, unsurprisingly finishing out of the postseason. Assistant Courtnie Prather takes over and has experience here and with William Carey University as an assistant but nonetheless faces a steep challenge. The club’s defense last season was abysmal but should at least be able to call upon the services of Canadian keeper Sarah Forde, an All-SWAC First Team selection, though that could have had more to do with the number of saves she had to make than anything else. If the defense doesn’t come around, it’s hard envisioning Southern doing much on the whole this year, as the offense was almost equally repugnant last year. Junior Fabiola Parra looks like the best hope, as she scored four of the team’s seven goals in 2012, though she obviously needs much more help to thrive. The Lady Jaguars don’t exactly look impressive on paper, but then again, neither do most of their rivals. If Knighten can inject some life into the moribund program, they could claw their way into mid-table and the postseason. If not, they could just as easily be propping up the league once again come November.
Texas Southern have largely underachieved given the track record of coach Tamura Crawley-Marigny as she took over the program after a successful stint at Grambling. Three seasons on, TSU hasn’t sniffed the semi-finals of the SWAC Tournament. Mid-table in their division of the SWAC wasn’t anything to write home about, and the club was again easily dismissed in the postseason, dropping their quarterfinal to Jackson State. The Lady Tigers will be happy to note that they return ten starters from last year’s side, and that alone should make for a more cohesive squad after last year’s youthful struggles. The bad news is that one lost starter is Florence Onyera, last year’s SWAC Defensive Player of the Year. Considering TSU’s defense still wasn’t that great with Onyera, what’s it going to look like without her? The offense was rather pedestrian as well, though Marlyn Campa showed potential with four goals and three assists as a rookie last year. Senior midfield duo Gabriella Perales and Jessica Smith also each netted a handful of goals, though it’s still apparent that TSU may not have the one dependable forward to lean on going into 2013. The lack of star power, the worries in defense, and TSU’s general underachieving ways may weigh more heavily in Houston than the club’s returning ten starters. It all adds up to another likely finish in mid-table for the Lady Tigers and little joy in the postseason.
A one-time force in the SWAC who had once been formidable enough to crack the Top 200 of the RPI, Alabama A&M had fallen on hard times before 2012, largely being most noticeable as a punching bag in non-conference season. Out of the postseason in 2011, the Bulldogs did well to shake off some non-conference beatings and finish top of their division in the SWAC. The clock hit midnight on the club’s season prematurely though, as A&M were bounced by Arkansas-Pine Bluff in the SWAC Tournament quarterfinal. Not capitalizing on that opportunity last season could prove costly this year, as the club loses seven starters, a league worst. The anemic offense isn’t going to be helped by the loss of Ghanaian Diana Amafoa and Nycole Henderson, who both helped pace the A&M offense. It means there’ll be a heavy focus on Colombian Ana Huertas, who netted six as a rookie last year. Calling the Bulldogs lackadaisical on defense might be a bit kind, as the club shipped almost four goals a game, though most of that came out of the league. With most of last year’s defense departing though, including goalkeeper Linda Aboagye, there could be trouble afoot in Normal this year. Given the widespread losses and the seeming lack of depth on offense and defense, A&M might struggle to make it back to the postseason this year.
Alcorn State were back to their disappointing normal selves in 2012 after a brief glimmer of hope in 2011. The Lady Braves finished out of the postseason once again, winning two or fewer games for the fourth time in five years after a truly dire season that ended with three straight losses. Head coach Christie Chambers-Brandon should surely be under pressure to turn things around, though given the cub’s truly awful last half-decade, some might wonder why a change hasn’t already been made. ASU has nine starters returning on paper for what that’s worth, and considering leading scorer Deborah Quaye is one of those lost, it might not be worth much. The club returns just two players who scored last year. Chavon Douglas only netted twice last season though, with Emily Sauer, who netted three as a rookie in 2011, but none last year, also in the mix on offense. Defensively, ASU was hopeless last year, not netting a single clean sheet and giving up multiple goals in all but three matches against DI foes. At least it was a young group, so in theory, the extra experience should help the team out. In reality though, Alcorn State again looks like an unmitigated disaster in every way except the club’s returning swath of experience. They’ve got a shot of staying off bottom because of that experience, but the dearth of talent means sneaking into the postseason is probably the best ASU can hope for in 2013.
Grambling started out the league season well last year with two wins in their first four league games. Then, the bottom fell out, with the team losing its last six against league foes in the regular season before bowing out early in the SWAC Tournament. Second year boss T.O. Totty was tasked with picking up the pieces after the hapless Marcia Oliveira ran the once formidable program into the ground, including a finish in dead last in the 2011 RPI. The signs of this being a long-term rebuilding project are definitely there though. The club loses four starters from last year’s strugglers, including SWAC Player of the Year Sierra Ardnt, an odd selection considering the club’s woes. She did lead the conference with eight goals, and her absence along with other losses means the club returns just two goals from last year’s squad, with returnees Amila Omerovic and Khadaiha Simpkins each netting just once. Considering Grambling also had last year’s worst defense in SWAC play and graduates much of last year’s starting defense, you’d have to be very optimistic to conclude the Lady Tigers are due for a step back up. Little depth is apparent, and Totty will have to bring in a big rookie class to avert a potential nightmare here. Grambling will likely be favorites for the basement in the SWAC this season, and another last place finish in the RPI is a possibility if the club struggles as expected.
Projected Order of Finish
*1. Alabama State
2. Mississippi Valley State
3. Jackson State
4. Alabama A&M
5. Alcorn State
1. Prairie View A&M
2. Arkansas-Pine Bluff
4. Texas Southern
* = Projected Auto Bid Winner