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2011 NCAA Soccer Preview – Missouri Valley – Birds and Bears

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Friday, August 12, 2011 at 1:19am EDT

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Brittney Neumann

Flying High - Creighton Forward Brittney Neumann Could Fire The Bluejays to Another Title

Can anybody stop the tide of blue that swept over the Missouri Valley Conference last season? The all-conquering Bluejays side from Creighton did well to blow through most of their MVC rivals last season with an explosive offense that lit up the Nebraska sky for much of the year. Creighton scored multiple goals fifteen times last year, including a pair in a thriller against Big Ten foes Minnesota in the NCAA Tournament. It was a fine way to draw a little attention to the smallest DI soccer conference in the country.

The bad news for MVC opponents is that that Creighton side returns the bulk of its talent for the upcoming campaign, including just about all of its volatile offense from last season. With only six league matches to play, Bruce Erickson’s side had the luxury of picking a lot of non-conference showpiece games to flaunt what is likely to be a high scoring side this year. Unfortunately, there are a lot of easy victims on that list, and the most difficult test, against Oklahoma State, isn’t one these Bluejays are likely to pass. Creighton will just have to make do with matches against fellow mid-major darlings Northern Colorado and Wright State and a chance to topple Big XII side Kansas, spread throughout the year.

The rest of the league is probably going to be stuck playing second fiddle this year. There are some great individual players like Illinois State’s Jessica Carlson, Missouri State’s Jessica Teahan, and Indiana State’s Alison Gasparovich but also a lack of truly complete teams that can probably keep up with the Bluejays over the course of a league season. The most drama involving the MVC this year might end up being whether Creighton can put it together in the NCAA Tournament for an upset bid.

(Teams listed in order of 2010 final RPI ranking.)

You almost figured that CREIGHTON might have something special last season when they went to Lawrence and steamrolled Kansas in an exhibition match a week before the beginning of the season. While a rather lethargic start to the actual season may have tempered early prognostications for the Bluejays, it didn’t take long for Creighton to roll into high gear and start clobbering teams. That Head Coach Bruce Erickson even got a chance to build a team capable of taking home trophies is something in itself considering Erickson had suffered through a 1-15 season with tiny Viterbo in 1995 in his lone season as a head coach before being called into action in Omaha before the 1999 season.

Erickson took charge of a program who, despite employing some talented coaches such as current Harvard boss Ray Leone, had been living with an empty trophy cabinet. It took a few seasons to mold the team to his liking, but Erickson changed that emphatically by bringing home the MVC double in 2002. Since then, Creighton have extended their streak of winning seasons to a full decade while earning the title of MVC Tournament specialists with a trio of wins after their 2002 double coming into the 2010 season. The past two seasons’ conference tournaments had brought little but misery to the Bluejays as they went out in the first round on penalties in 2008 before losing a tight final to Illinois State in 2009.

After finishing the regular season in those years in mid-table, there was the hope that Creighton could push for a second league title going into 2010. After an uninspiring first weekend that saw the Bluejays draw with South Dakota State and lose to Northern Illinois, Creighton pulled a “Loyola double” of sorts, beating Loyola (MD) and Loyola (Ill.) on a single weekend. The following week saw Erickson’s side lose to Iowa State narrowly and then draw with Summit League title challengers North Dakota State. It’d be the last time Creighton would lose for quite a while as the Bluejays hit a great groove and reeled off ten wins on the trot including a 6-2 pounding of Mountain West team Wyoming. Creighton were downright dominant in most of those matches, winning seven by multiple goals and putting together strings of three straight clean sheets on two separate occasions.

In a league of seven teams, every single point is essential, and the Bluejays dropped all three at a tricky tie at Missouri State. It meant that the Bluejays couldn’t afford another slip in the regular season finale against Illinois State, and Erickson’s side held their nerve with a 2-1 win to lift their first league title since 2002. The MVC Tournament was the final roadblock between the Bluejays and a spot in the NCAA Tournament, and Creighton made a statement in the semi-finals with a 5-0 pounding of Evansville.

A rematch with Missouri State awaited in the final, and the two sides didn’t disappoint, producing an end-to-end affair that went to extra time when Missouri State scored a second half equalizer. Creighton would have all the momentum in extra time though and found a title winning goal from the penalty spot near the end of the first half of extra time.

With an NCAA Tournament berth in their pocket, Creighton headed off to play Minnesota in the first round. There, Creighton would take a shock lead into the half despite being outshot by a 3:1 margin in the first half. After the break, Creighton would wilt under the pressure and end up losing 4-2, but not before they had done themselves proud against the Big Ten side.

The exciting Bluejays were no less than what Creighton’s glamorous Morrison Stadium deserved either. One of the great soccer grounds of the Midwest, Morrison is surely a great asset in recruiting, and judging by some of the players coming through Omaha in recent seasons, the beautiful facility is certainly doing its part in ensuring Creighton is right in the mix in the race to be able to be called the MVC’s flagship program.

Erickson’s Bluejays will be aiming high for another double and another chance at claiming a major scalp in the NCAA Tournament in 2011. With nine starters returning from last year’s double winners, you wouldn’t bet against Creighton at the beginning of the year either. CU will be fueled by an explosive offense that ran roughshod over the MVC (and many other opponents) last season and is perfectly poised to do so again with almost all of the key players back in Omaha this year.

The crown jewel in Creighton’s armada is junior Brittney Neumann, who’s quickly established herself as one of the region’s most dangerous scoring threats in just two seasons. 2009′s MVC Freshman of the Year after seven goals and six assists, Neumann went better for an encore with nine goals and five assists, including twelve points in league play to finish as the league scoring champ and earning herself a well deserved MVC Player of the Year award. The Bluejays’ goalmouth predator should be in fine form again this season and is certainly a threat for double digit goals.

There’s so much more to Creighton’s offense than just Neumann though as the Bluejays had four players with at least eight goals last season. Neumann actually wasn’t the team’s leading scorer last season, with that honor falling to senior Andrea Zuniga. The Chilean youth international had nine goals and nine assists to pace Creighton but did most of her damage in non-conference play, with all but one of her goals coming away from MVC league play. Zuniga still had four assists in conference action though and is plenty good enough to worry most defenses.

The parade of riches for the Bluejays doesn’t end though there, as Erickson struck gold again with a freshman in Lauren Cingoranelli. Cingoranelli went on a rampage during her freshman season with eight goals and six assists and was second on the team in league goals with three. If she avoids a sophomore slump, Cingoranelli should be another scoring threat to plague opposing defenses. Canadian senior Beth Fyles could be one of the first options off the bench and has a history of sparking the team into life in the past and is certainly a nice option off the bench or in spot starts in either attack or midfield.

The last big scorer for Creighton isn’t necessarily an out and out forward though, as utility player Erin Gunther can do a little of everything. That includes scoring penalties (three) and clutch goals (four) as she notched up eight goals last season. The only big loss offensively is midfielder Emily Orbell, a nice contributor herself who tied for second on the team in assists with six. Shonna Fraser started eleven matches in midfield last season and is a good bet to start there again this year, while reserve Sarah Kendall could also feature. Given all the attacking talent on the team, Erickson may do his best to cram as much firepower as he can into the starting XI without unbalancing the team too much. Despite the loss of Orbell, this offense has staggering potential against most of the defenses they will face and for that matter has the ability to give most defenses problems.

For all the talk about Creighton’s offense, their defense was pretty darn good last season as they kept ten clean sheets and only conceded eighteen goals all season, with four of those goals coming against Minnesota. The loss of Claire Zach, the team’s best defender, to graduation is a little cause for worry, though the rest of the team’s starting defense should return intact. Gunther is one option to see major time, if she doesn’t play a prominent role further up the pitch.

Senior center-back workhorse Macy Mauer will also be one of the leaders of the pack for Creighton, with upperclassmen Rachelle Holt, Kat Wright, and Kelly Connolly also likely to be in the mix on the starting backline for the Bluejays. The team also adds Sacramento State transfer Kelsey O’Donnell, a versatile weapon in her time with the Hornets both in attack and on defense. She’s just another weapon for Erickson in a very versatile team.

In goal, Alicia Montgomery battled toe-to-toe for the starting spot with Katie Jo Swanson, who held the job early in the season for the most part before Montgomery ultimately won out through league play. The talented Montgomery will likely open up her senior season as the team’s starter, but Swanson is back too, and competition should only sharpen both for the challenges ahead.

The task ahead for Creighton is dealing with the pressure that goes along with being league title favorites, which the Bluejays will surely be when the season kicks off in August. If Erickson’s side can hold their nerve and get back to the NCAA Tournament, they’re the classic team you don’t want to meet in your regional: experienced and capable on both sides of the ball. It’s the Bluejay offense though that will give opposing coaches sleepless nights though, with Neumann, Zuniga, and Cingoranelli set to wreak havoc in 2011 and possibly cause a high-profile upset come November.

The trophy case at MISSOURI STATE doesn’t exactly make for pleasant viewing upon first glance as the Bears have only one solitary trophy to their name, the 2000 MVC Tournament crown. All too often, the Bears have been somewhere in mid-table in the Missouri Valley, virtual non-factors in the title race come season’s end. But despite the relatively undistinguished history of the program, long serving Head Coach Rob Brewer may finally be onto something in Springfield. After a few seasons stranded in the middle of the pack, the Bears raised a few eyebrows with a second place finish in the league in 2009, finishing two points behind league champions Illinois State.

The improvement in league position didn’t change the Bears’ fickle fortunes in the postseason though as they were eliminated at the first hurdle in the semi-finals to Creighton. Unswayed, MSU entered 2010 hoping to go one better and challenge for their first ever league title. The season started out well enough with three wins in four, albeit over rather pedestrian competition. Stiffer opposition saw one win in five, although that one win was one of the best in program history, a 3-2 victory against Oklahoma. League play started in winning fashion with wins over Northern Iowa and Indiana State, but a tough road weekend saw the Bears only pick up a single point, drawing against Illinois State before a defeat to Drake.

The bad weekend, as most bad weekends do in a seven team league, put paid to the Bears’ title hopes, but on the last weekend, Missouri State did manage to take down league champs Creighton and followed that up with a win over Evansville, sealing the Bears’ second straight runner-up finish in the league and a bye through the first round of the conference tournament. This time, Missouri State would manage to hold their nerve in the semi-finals, defeating Illinois State on penalties after a 1-1 draw, earning another match against Creighton, this time for the MVC Tournament title and the program’s first NCAA Tournament berth since 2000. Despite a battling effort, the Bears would not be able to beat Creighton a second time in 2010, losing in heartbreaking fashion as they fell to a penalty kick in extra time after regulation had ended 1-1.

On paper, after returning eight starters after another second place finish, Missouri State would look to be in prime position to contend for their first ever league title. That is until you took a hard look at the players the Bears do lose from that starting lineup. The biggest loss is defender Jordan Reppell, the reigning MVC Defensive Player of the Year, and undisputedly one of the best players to have ever suited up for the Bears. Reppell was a four year starter for the Bears and one of the best defenders in recent years in the Missouri Valley.

Also gone from the team is another defender, Sarah Linsin, who started every match for the Bears in 2010. The loss of those two is a big worry for Brewer and the Bears, especially when you consider MSU really made their name on defense last year. Thankfully for Missouri State, the cupboard isn’t totally bare. Junior Nia Williams will likely step up into the leadership role on the backline with the losses this year and her form this year could be key for MSU’s success. Williams is also a threat in helping out the attack and had six assists to lead the team in 2010. Jennifer Hamlin made eight starts last year, including most of MVC play, and will surely be one of the favorites to claim a starting spot this season as well. Reserve Logan Bisbee and some of the freshmen will be battling to fill remaining slots in the backline.

The Bears have one of the best goalkeepers in the country in Jessica Teahan, who will be odds on to pick up her third All-MVC First Team honor after 2011. Junior reserve Chelsea Voet will be the backup again and has seen action in a handful of games in relief over the course of her first two seasons with the Bears.

The fate of the defense is that much more important when you consider how ordinary the offense looks at first glance. Brooke Williams had a decent freshman season for the Bears with six goals and an assist but was a virtual non-factor in league play with a solitary goal to her name. Making matters worse, Williams left the program in the offseason, leaving an almighty scoring void in her place. Sophomore Rachel Weimer looked like a possible answer last year with two goals through five matches but was then sidelined for the rest of the season, putting a major crimp in the Bears’ offense. Katelyn Frederickson is another to watch in 2011 after finishing second on the team in assists with four in a starting role for MSU.

The midfield might be a more reliable source of goals in all honesty. Tiffany Laughlin only started six matches and none in league play but still managed to finish second on the team in goals with four. Fellow midfielder Michelle Sommer was the only Bear to score multiple goals in league action, scoring a pair. Grace Cross might be MSU’s best midfielder but is less of a goal threat than the Bears’ other players in that zone. Versatile returnees Tara Bailes and Christine Cross could also feature in the first XI after starting extensively last season for the Bears.

Brewer has done good things in Springfield in getting the Bears into title contention over the past few seasons, but the loss of Reppell is a tough one to overcome, especially with what looks like a rather tame recruiting class coming in. All the returning experience and the brilliance of Teahan should ensure MSU doesn’t drop too far, if at all, but the loss of Reppell and offensive questions galore will probably keep the Bears from title contention this year.

When you put together a kind of record former DRAKE Head Coach Corbin Stone did in his time with the Bulldogs, odds are you’re going to leave a mighty shadow over the program once you leave. Stone turned Drake into a fearsome team in the MVC in the middle of the decade, winning four league titles in a row and only losing one league match in those four title winning seasons. Drake were a bit of a soft touch come postseason play with only one MVC Tournament title, but it was still a stunner when Stone stepped away after a bit of a down year in 2007.

Assistant Lindsey Horner stepped into the breach and looked to build on Stone’s success but has instead found it very rough going through three seasons with the Bulldogs. Mid-table finishes in the league for Drake only told part of the story, as the Bulldogs were mired well into the two hundreds in the final RPI, a depressing turn of events for a program that was once among the Missouri Valley’s elite. Horner and her team entered 2010 desperately needing to show improvement after a 2009 that was largely built on wins over some of the nation’s lowliest DI programs.

The early schedule did the Bulldogs no favors, with their first seven matches away from home. Admirably, Drake coped pretty well, going undefeated in their first five, a run which included a draw with Iowa State and wins over South Dakota State and UNLV. They ran out of gas towards the end of the road trip, but six straight matches back at home were the perfect tonic, and Drake was able to go 4-1-1 on that homestand with the only loss against a talented Illinois State team. That defeat was the catalyst of a poor run of three straight league defeats though, threatening to undo a lot of the hard work Drake had done thus far in the season.

Showing resilience though, Drake gutted out two wins to close out the regular season and ended up as the #4 seed in the MVC Tournament, earning a home match in the first round in the process. It did them little good though, as Evansville got revenge for a regular season defeat and bounced Drake at the first hurdle. Despite the disappointing postseason, Drake could look back on 2010 as a successful season as the Bulldogs soared up the RPI rankings, taking a big step forwards toward getting back to being a MVC contender in the process.

The next step should come this season, a year in which Drake returns eight starters, including most of its offense from 2010. That might be a little deceiving though as the Bulldogs had one of the more toothless offenses in the league, averaging exactly a goal a game in league matches. The team’s biggest threat going forward was junior forward Laura Moklestad who turned in a five goal campaign for the second season running and saved her best for league play, tallying three of her scores in MVC action. Moklestad figures to be the focus of the offense again this year but should have help from some of Drake’s promising youngsters.

Sophomore forward Paige Dusek was equally threatening in her freshman season with five goals herself and also had three in league play. Dusek also showed a real feeling for the moment as well, with four of her five goals match winning scores. Other than those two though, scoring was sparse, and Drake figures to be heavily dependent on that duo for scoring unless someone else rises up unexpectedly to shoulder the scoring burden. Danielle Figliola and Generve Charles combined for five goals last year and will be looking to raise their profile this year.

The midfield for the Bulldogs is likely to be lead by another sophomore, Brittany Schuling. Schuling was a big hit for Drake last season in her freshman season, starting every match and leading the team with five assists. Schuling should get better with age and has the potential to be one of the league’s top midfielders in time. Lauren Berner, a senior, also should feature in the starting lineup after making eleven starts last year, while Lindsey Johnston will look to take a step up from a super sub role from last season.

With such a spotty attack, Drake’s defense had to be a formidable one for the team to have any type of success. They were and then some, but the Bulldogs will still have to replace a pair of starting defenders in Bailey Dorrington and Katie Anderson. The good news for Horner’s side is that the Bulldogs do return the best pieces to the defense, and that group should form the core for a great rearguard for a few years yet.

Big sophomore Megan Fisher was a strong presence on the backline for Drake in her first collegiate season and scored four goals and two assists in the process. Fisher should be a leading presence on this defense for years to come, and her big frame makes her a tantalizing target to get onto the end of set pieces. Arkansas transfer Tara Zika was another success story for the Bulldogs in her first season after transferring from Arkansas, starting seventeen matches last season. Top reserves Melanie Fielder and Ann Hoover will battle with the incoming freshmen to fill the remaining holes.

Another first-year player last year, Kalena Litch, was a pleasant surprise for the Bulldogs in goal. Litch won the starting job in between the pipes in camp and never let go for Drake, playing every minute for the Bulldogs in 2010. She figures to become part of the furniture for Drake over the next three years and should develop into the league’s best keeper with experience.

Experience is something this team should have in spades this season, and that alone makes them a threat to walk away with some silverware. A somewhat unsettled offense likely precludes them from being favorites coming into the season, but their defense should keep them in about every match, making them a dangerous proposition in the MVC.

The winning run for ILLINOIS STATE Head Coach Drew Roff had to stop sooner or later, and stop it did in 2010. Roff had achieved stunning success with the Redbirds in his first three seasons at the helm, bringing home three straight league titles. It took until 2009 for ISU to close the deal and do the double though, returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 2003 double winning campaign.

The hope coming into 2010 was that the Redbirds would push on and complete a grand slam of titles while getting to the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year. Early form was spotty, with Illinois State losing two of their first three to meager competition before pulling it together and beating more storied opponents DePaul and Kansas. A tougher road leading up to league play saw the Redbirds lose to three bigger opponents handily, being shut out by Iowa State, Northwestern, and Minnesota. A league of seven teams makes the margin of error in the MVC minute, and a record of 1-1-1 in ISU’s first three matches just wasn’t going to cut it as far as defending their title went.

Two wins in their final three league matches helped boost the Redbirds into the third seed but also meant that they’d be playing in the opening round for the first time since 2006. Home advantage helped them overcome Indiana State in that opening round match though, Roff’s side topping the Sycamores by a 2-1 margin for the second time in a week. Then it was off to Omaha for a MVC Tournament semi-final encounter with Missouri State who ISU had drew with back at home, 0-0, earlier in the season.

The two clubs were fit to be tied once more and a penalty shootout had to separate the teams and decide who’d be meeting Creighton in the final. It was Illinois State who would falter though, and Roff tasted the bitter sting of defeat, a rarity thus far with the Redbirds. Their three year trophy run halted, Illinois State will set out to begin a whole new silverware streak in 2011.

Roff’s Redbirds will have to like their chances, returning an experienced and talented squad ahead of the new season. The centerpiece of the Redbirds is senior forward Jessica Carlson, one of the very best the league has to offer going forward. Carlson may not have reached the lofty heights of her eleven goal, five assist campaign in 2009, but she did manage seven goals and five assists with two fewer matches to work with. Carlson’s four goals and three assists were good enough for second in league play, and the senior from Darien, Illinois will be among the favorites to top the MVC scoring chart this season.

If anything, Illinois State may be a bit too dependent on their talisman, struggling for secondary scoring options last season. The only player besides Carlson with more than two goals last season was Alyssa Schulz, and she’s graduated, one of two starters the Redbirds lose for this season. Junior Rachel Bostick has a chance to fill the secondary scorer role after a down sophomore season in which she only scored twice. The Naperville native had five goals in thirteen matches as a rookie, so the potential is there. Injuries derailed sophomore Anna Stinson to a certain extent last year as well, but a pair of goals and a pair of assists gives hope that Stinson could be the answer to some of ISU’s scoring woes either up front or in midfield this season.

Sophomore Kyla Cross also made eighteen starts last season and returns along with a slew of reserves who saw big minutes off the bench last year. Stinson, along with utility player Allie Newsom figure to be among those in the running for starting roles in midfield this Fall. Key reserves Heather Sterling and midfielder Katrina Jakobsze may also get the chance to step up into bigger roles in midfield, battling the incoming freshmen for playing time.

Going the other way, should have one of the Missouri Valley’s best defenses with the entire starting unit set to return for Roff and crew in 2011. Canadian senior Natalie McCabe will once again be the Redbirds’ shutdown artist on defense, likely tasked with putting the clamps on top opposing forwards, a role she excelled at last season. Upperclassmen Alex Howell and Kristin Cooley are also experienced and capable, while also being able to play other positions if need be. Senior reserve Afton Delvecchio and the freshmen will compete for the remaining minutes.

The situation in goal looks stable as well with Serbian international Mara Kremenovic back in goal for her junior season with the Redbirds. Kremenovic was in goal for every minute in 2010, and there’s no reason why she shouldn’t continue for ISU in 2011. Allie Newsom’s sister, Aryn, is a redshirt freshman for the Redbirds and is the club’s backup in goal.

Roff drafts in no fewer than eight newcomers to an experienced squad, hoping that the additions are enough to push his side over the top in 2011. The Illinois State supremo has enjoyed great success with the Redbirds thus far and has an excellent chance of adding to that success if ISU can find a way to keep the defensive heat off of Carlson by getting goals from some of the other offensive weapons on the team. The Redbirds are experienced throughout the side and are solid everywhere on the pitch, meaning they have a good chance of lifting MVC silverware come the end of the year.

It wasn’t quite a revolution, but Erika True’s makeover of INDIANA STATE soccer continued with some promising results in 2010. The Sycamores, who have a solitary appearance in a MVC Tournament final to their name thus far in their history didn’t really get any closer to emulating or surpassing that mark last year but did make strides elsewhere. After a somewhat disappointing first weekend with a pair of losses to Western Michigan and Ball State, the Sycamores went on a winning binge, taking six straight victories.

While closer examination reveals that they only beat one team that would finish in the RPI Top 200, when your program has only won nine games combined the previous two seasons, you’ll generally take what you can get. It was at this point though that ISU suffered a real downturn in form. The Sycamores only won one of their next seven matches, although it was a good win against a Drake team that would serve as the program’s marquee win in 2010 as the Bulldogs ended up at 130 in the final RPI. But with only three points heading into the second half of the MVC season, Indiana State clearly needed points to ensure they wouldn’t be the team facing the ignominy of not making the postseason from the seven team league.

Beating Northern Iowa 1-0 pushed the team to the brink of qualification, but it was still a nervy wait as the club lost their final two regular season matches, including a 2-1 loss to Illinois State to end the regular season. As sixth seeds, the Sycamores would get a second chance as they headed back out to play Illinois State again in the first round of the MVC Tournament. But history would repeat itself, and True’s team would lose 2-1 again, although this time they pushed matters to extra time. While the league results weren’t anything to shout about, the team did manage to climb thirty-six spots in the RPI as compared to 2009 and achieved its highest win total since 2006′s 8-10-0 season.

True’s goal now is to get her Indiana State team above .500 for the first time in ages and to start to climb the MVC table. Luckily, after some seasons of chopping and churning the roster to her liking, the former Indiana assistant looks like she has some experience and depth to work with. The ace of Indiana State’s 2011 charge looks to be senior midfielder Alison Gasparovich, who looks set to go down as one of the best Sycamores in program history. Gasparovich’s nine goals for the Sycamores last year were a single season record for the program, and the Kansas native has an outside chance to overtake Lauren Podolski’s career goals mark at the school with a strong senior season.

The graduation of Casey Clark and more unexpected departure of freshmen Kylie Greischar and Autumn Jacobs means the midfield is hardest hit for ISU, but there’s little other attrition to speak of. Aussie midfielder Seyma Erenli was the goalscorer in the 2-1 loss to Illinois State in the MVC Tournament and is back for a final year with the club. Taylor Hancock and Shelby Troyer both had nine starts last season and will likely be asked to step up into more minutes this season if freshmen aren’t able to come in and claim one of the open spots.

The biggest problem facing True’s side might be an overreliance on their star player for goals. ISU scored twenty-goals last year, and nine came off of Gasparovich’s boot. Ashley Collins was second best on the team with three goals and two assists but went silent during league play. She’s a former two-time JUCO All-American from her days at the College of DuPage though, so the hope has to be that another year of DI experience will have her firing true this season. Senior forward Jessica Rosenberg also returns after making eleven starts last year but hasn’t been prolific in front of goal and will likely battle with some of ISU’s freshmen for playing time.

If the offense isn’t firing, the team will just have to rely on their defense to get the job done. Said defense was about on par with the league leaders in conference play, with junior defender Casey Albright winning the most plaudits for her play. Albright was one of ISU’s top offensive players as a freshman in 2009 but made a successful transition to defense last year and figures to be the leader of an experienced group again this year. Seniors Morgan Wendlandt and Katie Geyman return as well, along with junior Kourtney Vassar, meaning the Sycamores should have one of the most experienced defenses in the league.

Keeper Emily Lahay also earned All-MVC Honorable Mention honors and figures to have a chance to claim many of the program’s goalkeeping records by season’s end in 2011. Rangy sophomore Brianna Supulski figures to be the backup and saw a couple of starts for ISU last season as a rookie.

With more depth than ever here, the Sycamores have a chance of climbing a few spots in the MVC hierarchy in 2011. The defense has plenty of experience and could be one of the league’s best. In attack, Gasparovich should be brilliant again, but it may ultimately be up to her supporting cast to decide the fate of ISU’s season.

Sometimes life trumps soccer as the EVANSVILLE Purple Aces found out all too easily last season. Evansville’s preparations for the 2010 season where thrown into chaos with the shocking news in Summer that sophomore Abby Guerra had been killed in a road accident. Remarkably, a case of mistaken identity had occurred and Guerra had in fact survived but with serious injuries. As Guerra began a long road to recovery, the Purple Aces did their best to focus their attention towards matters on the pitch.

Evansville, who had once been the dominant force in the Missouri Valley Conference, winning four straight regular season titles and five MVC Tournament titles under current Indiana coach Mick Lyon, was looking to prove 2008′s double under first-year coach Krista McKendree was no fluke after a steep drop-off the year after. One win in the team’s opening seven matches wasn’t what McKendree was looking for, although that one win, over Middle Tennessee State, looked better and better as the season progressed. Having won only two matches in non-conference play, the pressure was on to turn things around in MVC action, but the Purple Aces dropped their first three matches against some of the conference’s upper echelon.

A rally to win two of their final three MVC matches got Evansville into the conference tournament as the league’s fifth seed. Evansville managed to go on the road and avenge a regular season loss to Drake, earning a trip to Omaha and a date with league champs Creighton. The Purple Aces were soundly beaten, but being reunited with Guerra, who had begun the long road to recovery in Arizona before flying out to Omaha to meet the team, served as an important reminder that wins and losses are not everything in the game of life.

As Guerra continues her long road to recovery, her teammates will do their best to pursue a sixth regular season title and/or seventh conference tournament title in program history. McKendree, an ex-player for the Purple Aces, was a hit in her first season as coach but has since seen her side struggle to make an impact in the MVC.

That has a good chance of changing in 2011 though, as the Purple Aces return almost all of their key parts, with towering defender Shayna Jones and Vanessa Legault-Cordisco the only major minutes winners leaving. The loss of Legault-Cordisco was a deeply damaging blow to the Purple Aces though. A Canadian U20 who’s been tipped to maker her full international debut in the near future, Legault-Cordisco saw major minutes in defense for the Purple Aces in 2010. The Canadian was also a big contributor on offense, leading the team in assists with six last season. Her transfer to Marquette was a big downer for a program who surely thought it had its cornerstone for the next three seasons in place.

It’s always hard to make judgments on teams when they play in the tiny MVC which is D1′s smallest conference with only seven teams, but Evansville surely need to tighten up their defense after finishing with the league’s worst unit statistically. To be fair though, five of the fifteen they shipped came in the season ender to Creighton, but even taking that into account, the Purple Aces were far from an airtight unit. Senior defender Sam Conrad, who’s improved every season and grown into an important role for the team, will surely be one of the team’s leaders as a senior in 2011. Conrad can also fill in in the midfield if needed for Evansville. Evansville returns a good deal of experience beside Conrad, with Olivia Robinson and Lauren Tiernan also coming back after starting last season for the team. Depth’s a little iffy though, and McKendree will be hoping a freshman or two steps up this year.

In goal, the team returns big junior Chaviel Harrison, who won the starting job at the end of her freshman season and hasn’t looked back since. She’ll likely get the bulk of the minutes again, as the only backup is true freshman Erin Flynn.

Youth will be served up front as well for the Purple Aces through promising sophomore forwards Breanna Beine and Kaitlin Robinett. Beine was simply outstanding as a freshman, winning the MVC Freshman of the Year award while leading the team in scoring in her first season with the Purple Aces, scoring seven goals and two assists, including two match winners and three scores in league play. After making a midseason switch from defense to attack, Robinett turned into a microwave as the season got into crunch time, scoring all three of her goals and assists in league play, a big reason why Evansville got to the postseason. The dynamic duo will be in full force for Evansville again in 2011 and will be looking to shoot for greater heights in their second seasons.

The Purple Aces will be even better if they can get junior Kristen Davis firing again. Davis had five goals, including three match winners in 2009 but was held pointless last year. The team also adds Trinidad and Tobago U20 international Tasha Prentice, who was a reserve at Auburn last season.

Evansville’s midfield is full of scrappy types who didn’t necessarily overwhelm with their offensive capabilities last year. Stephanie Thompson seems like the most offensive minded after two goals and three assists last season as a freshman. Juniors Kasey Cartwright and Danielle Langness were also key contributers last season and should be again this year for the Purple Aces. Evansville also adds fiery midfielder Tatiana Pagan to the group this season. While this group probably isn’t going to be too flashy, they have the potential to be one of the club’s strengths this year.

Despite two subpar seasons in a row, the needle looks pointed upwards for the Purple Aces, who are poised for a move up the standings thanks to some talented youngsters to go along with an experienced core. But the unexpected loss of Legault-Cordisco probably curbs any hopes for silverware though, at least for another season.

Is NORTHERN IOWA hedging their future on a foundation of sand? It’s a question that needs to be asked after UNI AD Troy Dannen raised a few eyebrows by extending the contract of coach James Price through the 2015 season, effectively giving Price five more years of theoretical job security. While Price came to the school with a boatload of trophies to his name from his time at Liberty, he’s done precious little to move the needle for the Panthers so far in his two years with the program. 2009 was effectively another wasted year with only two very hollow wins to show for the team’s trouble.

Then again, Dannen may just be thankful for a little stability in the hot seat as UNI has been a revolving door of coaches since program matriarch Linda Whitehead left after the 2004 season. Whitehead was also the only coach in program history to deliver a winning season to Cedar Falls, when she led the Panthers to a 10-8-1 mark in 2003. But Price was the program’s fourth coach in six years after Jennifer Plante’s ill-timed one year reign at the helm of the Panthers in 2008.

There were the faintest signs of progress last year however. After a punishing non-conference schedule that saw the team lose five out of six matches by multiple goals, UNI responded with a great weekend, drawing South Dakota State before beating North Dakota State, the Summit League Tournament winners, on the road. The Panthers would go on to win their first MVC league match since 2007 in a 1-0 win over a good Illinois State team on the road but would have to settle for a 1-5-0 record overall after dropping all their other MVC matches. While it wasn’t exactly the breakthrough most UNI fans would have hoped for, the season did get the program out of the 300s in the RPI for the first time since 2007, which counts for forward progress at least, even if the results in the W-L-T column haven’t necessarily wowed anyone.

Still, UNI looks some way short of contending for the program’s second finish at or over .500, with 2003′s 10-8-1 mark the only time the Panthers have managed the feat so far. Last year’s unit was deficient on both fronts, not scoring enough and conceding way too many in response. The former figures to be exacerbated this year by the graduation of both of UNI’s leading goalscorers, Nicole Ferlito and Chelsie Hochstedler.

The three listed forwards returning to the fray combined for a whopping one goal last season. Said goal belonged to sophomore Claire Clark, who only saw one start as a rookie. Clark, Melissa Hagan, and Ashley Capone all figure to be in the mix for a starting gig with the freshmen, though somebody needs to take a big step up if the Panthers are to have an offense able to compete with their MVC peers.

The team also loses midfielder Laura Heaton and a few reserves as well for good measure. Of the returning midfielders, junior Kiki McClellan figures to be the most talented returnee and will likely be looked upon to provide leadership to a group still trying to find its feet in the Missouri Valley Conference. At least the Panthers shouldn’t be lacking for experience in the back this year with plenty of minutes returning for more. Returnees Ashley Sill and Kala Negus saw major minutes last year and are prime contenders for starting roles again, though Price is probably hoping they can chip in a little more on the offensive end of the ball.

Going the other way, there’s little attrition but few reinforcements as well, meaning Price will have to hope that last year’s back line can up their game and stem the flow of goals flying into the goal. The only Panther returning with multiple goals from 2010 is Megan Cameron. And considering the senior is a defender by trade, meaning the Panthers shouldn’t count on her to lead the line any time soon, though she’ll be one of the surer things defensively. Sam Copley looks like a nice find though, the sophomore having impressed for the Panthers in her first season of collegiate ball. Copley may also slot into the midfield for this year’s Panthers squad. Ericka O’Meara also saw twelve matches of starting action last year and could be joined in the starting lineup by reserves Allie Brees and Elizabeth Rodriguez.

UNI needs more consistent play in goal though. Sophomore Erin Zaideman and senior Lauren Potzman shared duties last year, but neither were particularly convincing. Given her seniority, Potzman would have to be considered a tentative favorite to win the job, but there could, again, be a time split in goal this year.

Price has a vote of confidence and a new long-term contract from the UNI brass. Which is a good thing considering that the Panthers don’t look to be getting out of the basement this season. Northern Iowa remains quite the rebuilding project, but with the Missouri Valley Conference being so small, only needs to climb one spot to return to the postseason.

Projected Order of Finish

* = Projected NCAA Tournament Automatic Bid Winner

*1. Creighton
2. Illinois State
3. Drake
4. Indiana State
5. Missouri State
6. Evansville
-
7. Northern Iowa

Non-Conference Strength of Schedule Rankings (From Most to Least Difficult)

1. Illinois State
2. Creighton
3. Indiana State
T4. Drake
T4. Evansville
6. Missouri State
7. Northern Iowa

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