What to expect in the WAC in 2013? Your guess is as good as mine. Stalwarts New Mexico State and Idaho have been here a while, but neither look to be in a position to challenge for honors, while second-year side Seattle will likely have the pressure of expectation hanging over them going into the season. UMKC could be the sleeper having been at least formidable in the Summit League, while the likes of Utah Valley, Grand Canyon, and Cal State Bakersfield will all be hoping to avoid the ills of moving up in class following their moves into the league this year. The double round-robin format is a novel experiment, but it probably isn’t going to stop the league’s winner from a very painful NCAA Tournament matchup against a top seeded team.
Seattle took to life away from being a DI independent rather well last season, finishing in fifth place in the ever-changing WAC, though they were actually just a point away from third though also nine back from the league’s top two teams. There weren’t any giant killing acts, such as when they delivered one of the most shocking regular season upsets in recent memory when they beat Portland in 2011, but consolidation wasn’t the worst thing in the world when all was said and done, while the club did even manage to win a postseason game in the WAC Tournament. Now, it’s a matter of dealing with a role shift, as the Redhawks will likely be tipped as league favorites going into the new year. The biggest challenge facing long-time boss Julie Woodward will be replacing the influence of newly crowned Canadian international Melissa Busque. After surprisingly showing up in Seattle, Busque was aces for the Redhawks, with four goals and four assists to her name in her college sign-off. Junior Stephanie Verdoia does return though and has star potential after a big ten goal showing last year. The scoring threat netted five in the league and two in the WAC Tournament win over Louisiana Tech and will be key for hopes again this year. Three-year starter Julia Besagno also returns to the midfield to provide valuable experience and the occasional odd goal here and there. The worries though are on defense, where the club loses much of the spine of the team through graduation. Last year’s club was respectable on defense, but there’s some necessary retooling in store. Still, there’s enough firepower and talent on the whole to suggest the Redhawks have a great shot at a league title this year.
Chris Cissell’s done an amazing job at UMKC in two seasons, turning the former laughingstock into a postseason contender in the Summit League. He got a club that won two total games in two years to the postseason in his first year in charge, meaning there’ll probably be a little understanding despite last year’s sixth place finish. Thanks to the curious move to the WAC, the Roos will have some new challenges in front of them, but might just have a better shot at postseason glory. Last year’s UMKC side was notably young, and Cissell’s squad looks set to return all but one starter from last year’s team. The Roos might well be a club that leads from the back this year, with junior Sarah Todd hoping to continue her strong collegiate career in the WAC after two impressive years in the Summit League. Cohesion with just about everyone coming back could help their cause as they move leagues. While defense looks like a strong suit for this year’s UMKC side, they might be a bit short in the tooth going forward. Taylor Bare had been a reliable conduit for goals but saw her total slip to just six last year. Nobody else scored more than four though, and the club loses promising rookie Hunter Wagoner, meaning the pressure on Bare to carry the offense could ultimately make or break UMKC’s season. The defense has the potential to dominate most WAC opponents, but a title challenge depends on finding more than just Bare on offense. If Cissell can do that though, UMKC has a chance for its first major trophy, and the boss might draw attention from bigger schools.
Utah Valley will surely be relishing their chance to move up a step in class to the WAC as they search for an NCAA Tournament berth after dominating the Great West in recent years. The Wolverines clawed through opponents last year, winning both pieces of Great West silverware as they signed off in style. They still struggled against non-conference opposition though and will likely be under no illusions about the improvement needed to thrive in their new home. A handful of starters depart going into the new year, meaning boss Brent Anderson will have to scramble to rebuild his side into a contender. The offense must do without GWC Offensive Player of the Year Regan Benson, who netted ten last year, including many against formidable opposition. GWC Tournament MVP Jamie Lyons also departs, though the cupboard is far from bare with Haley Curtis, who netted three in the postseason last year, returning for UVU. Anderson will be hoping Natalie Baker can work as a starter, as she started just eight times last year, though she had twelve goals in 2011. The midfield returns mostly intact, and junior Lexi Robison will look to move from strength to strength after excelling in the GWC. Goalkeeper Lauren Sack was brilliant for three years in the GWC and will be looking to star as a fifth-year senior this season. She’ll have Lexi Dunn controlling the backline in front of her, and the Wolverine rearguard general will have her hands full in leading a group in flux. The WAC could be very unpredictable this year, but the Wolverines may struggle a bit with the step up in class. On the other hand, UVU didn’t blanche in the Great West under any challenge last year and returns a lot of players that know how to win. That mentality could make them contenders sooner than later in the WAC.
Grand Canyon will be happy to avoid the unsavory headlines that have been associated with their rise into Division I, though how much they have to offer on the pitch is up for debate after a mostly uninspired history in Division II. The Lopes have improved under current boss Stevie Gill though, including making the NCAA Tournament in 2011. A late swoon last year ensured there wasn’t going to be a repeat, but GCU will still be able to call upon seven starters from last year’s squad. Gill has spent much of the offseason trying to consolidate for the move up and did manage a big addition in Mexican U17 center-back Jessica Valadez. That and other additions make GCU’s recruiting class the best in the WAC in my eyes, and they’ll need the new recruits to hit the ground running if they’re to contend for a mid-table finish this season. Valadez is a really needed signing, as the Lopes gave up almost a goal and a half last year, which could send alarm bells ringing as the club moves into DI. Valadez and Brittany Gillespie, a promising sophomore, will be counted on to help shore up the defense, and they’ll need to improve a lot, as the offense takes some hits as well. The loss of tenacious midfielder Sasha Scott, a star in the PacWest last year doesn’t figure to be easy to get over right away, and the club will lean on spark plug Gabriella Zavala de Rojas to keep improving after twelve points last season, a number that led the club. Another attacker, Samantha Bush, was also solid last year for the Lopes, though she may need more than last year’s five goals for GCU to contend. There’s precious little else on offense though, and this club had problems scoring at DII level, meaning they could find it even harder in DI. There’s still reasonable depth and experience here though, and the Lopes could well surprise if the rookies prove worthy of a DI club.
Cal State Bakersfield‘s long trek as a DI nomad is finally over, as the Roadrunners finally found a conference home when the WAC came calling to try and stem the tide after a bloody exodus had left the conference on life support. Bakersfield don’t seem too likely to complain about the circumstances of their arrival considering they’ve been scraping by as an unaffiliated club for several years. Last year was a tribute to inconsistency, as the club posted big results against San Francisco and Idaho State but also ended up losing to the likes of New Mexico State and Southern Utah. At the end of the day, the win total doubled, but the RPI stayed about the same, making it hard to judge just how well CSUB will fare in the WAC this year. The Roadrunners don’t get slammed too hard by graduation but do lose leading scorer Sam Pena, who was a steady source of offense throughout her career here, netting six goals and six assists last year. With Pena gone, it’ll likely be up to junior Emily Noethe and senior Erica Shelton to pick up the slack, the duo having combined for ten goals last year. The team also brings in Swede Hedda Regefalk and Czech youth international Anita Maryskova, with young head coach Melissa Phillips obviously hoping one or both of her international signings proves a hit right away. The Roadrunners take some hits defensively with the loss of rookie Alexandra Lindberg, as well as veteran Daisy Vazquez. Converted midfielder Sonja Ericsson will likely lead from center-back again this year, but Bakersfield clearly need to sort things out here to contend in the patchwork WAC. The club has enough punch and some intriguing rookies, meaning they’ve got a chance to stick in mid-table, but third-year boss Phillips doesn’t look likely to be marshaling a title contender this year.
New Mexico State, a program still in its infancy compared to other DI clubs, struggled through their second season with Blair Quinn in charge after a promising 2011 debut with their new boss. Expectations were probably a bit exaggerated after the Aggies had finished in mid-table and won a WAC Tournament game in 2011, but the club tumbled last year, finishing with just one point in the league after losing their final seven matches in WAC play. With the WAC essentially hitting the reset button though, NMSU may fancy their chances of bouncing back immediately and getting back into the postseason. Five senior starters departing should temper expectations a bit though. Not helping matters is the club’s offense, one of DI’s worst with just eight goals all season, a mystifying result considering most of the same players had netted thirty a season before then. Junior Layla Todd started just four games last year but still led the club in goals with four last year, meaning the Aggies will likely be banking on some newcomers to help inject some offense, with diminutive rookie Gabby Campbell likely to make an impact early on in her NMSU career. The offense almost has to come around for the Aggies to do anything this year, as the club loses its fair share of defenders to graduation, three to be exact. Senior Olivia Sierra, junior Alexys Brownell, and sophomore Mikaela Haley look most likely to fight for starting bids in defense, while the club could again rotate keepers Mikaela Bitner, a senior, and Jessica Schutter, a junior. NMSU should benefit from being a little more settled than some of the league’s newcomers, but it’s hard to tip a side that was so bad in front of goal last year for big things. With the defense needing rebuilding too, it’s safe to say Quinn has quite a task on his hands, and his Aggies may have to scrap to just get into the postseason this year.
Idaho has really fallen apart as of late after a rise that had seen the Vandals emerge as one of the league’s most promising clubs just a few years ago. Head coach Peter Showler’s rebuilding effort was a long and tough one, but the Vandals boss reaped the rewards with a league title challenge in 2010 and a strong showing in the RPI. It proved to be a dramatic flash in the pan though, as the Vandals finished fifth and made no noise in the postseason a year later before last year’s rather calamitous season. They had some tough non-conference games to deal with, but the club needed a big finish to just make the postseason, though they’d flame out quickly again against Texas State. The calls for Showler’s head might again get louder this year, as the Vandals failed so spectacularly last year with a veteran laden side, as six departing starters this year can attest to. The roster gets excoriated by graduation, with thirteen players returning. The offense gets pounded, with team talisman Chelsea Small departing after a bit of a down season by her standards, scoring just eight times as a senior, though she did play very well down the stretch. Jill Flockhart, Megan Lopez, and Erica Hart also depart after being key cogs in the attack, meaning Idaho’s cupboard is pretty bare, with an uninspiring recruiting class likely to do little to improve the attack right away. The club returns one player, Katie Baran, with more than one goal last year, though Baran did have a fine season with four goals and eight assists. She probably can’t do it all alone, meaning Idaho’s going to have to star on defense to stand a chance of the postseason. Considering Idaho’s defense was horrendous last year, giving up more than two goals a game in WAC play, the odds don’t look great. All four starters from last year look likely to return, including senior Chelsie Breen and Nitalia Zuniga, but last year’s results make you wonder if the club’s backline can hack it at this level. German Marina Siegl and Swede Kimberly Jaderlund will battle rookie American Torell Stewart for the starting job, but none have played a minute at this level. Idaho should have the stature to fare well against their modest WAC rivals, but the reality tells a different story. With a hobbled offense, forgiving defense, and uncertain goalkeeping situation, Idaho may well sink to the bottom of the league this year
Projected Order of Finish
3. Utah Valley
^4. Grand Canyon
5. Cal State Bakersfield
6. New Mexico State
* = Projected Auto-Bid Winner
^ = Grand Canyon is ineligible for the postseason as a transitioning program.