2013 Preview: Talented and competitive Pac-12 gearing up for season
Pac-12 women’s soccer kicks off this weekend with no shortage of talent from top to bottom in a league that has dominated the college soccer ranks over the last decade. Since 2003, the Pac-12 has sent seven teams to the NCAA tournament eight times, producing two semifinalists on four occasions and appearing in four of the last six national championship games, winning two of them (USC and STANFORD). The mix of experienced veterans and promising youngsters should continue the trend of Pac-12 women’s soccer excellence in 2013.
Over the last four years one team has risen above the rest. The Stanford Cardinal have not just dominated, but soundly controlled the Conference as of late, winning the last four Pac-12 titles while boasting a 42-match league winning streak--the third-longest conference winning streak in NCAA Division I history. The Cardinal captured their first NCAA National Championship in 2011, capping an undefeated season after taking down Duke in the College Cup final. Last year, they were an overtime loss away from returning to the College Cup final, losing to eventual champion North Carolina 1-0 in the semifinals.
Despite losing All-Americans Rachel Quon and Mariah Nogueira to graduation, the No. 2 Cardinal return six starters from the 2012 squad, including top scorers Courtney Verloo and Chioma Ubogagu. Adding to an already solid front line, Stanford welcomes transfer Taylor Uhl, the nation’s top scorer last season. Uhl, an All-American junior forward, was granted a release from Minnesota and is eligible to play immediately. The addition of Uhl will only make the Cardinal attack more dangerous. In defense of their Pac-12 title they will rely on their workhouse in the net, 2011 All-American and three-time all-Conference performer Emily Oliver. The senior goalkeeper led the league in goals-against average and save percentage in 2012 and will be a four-year starter this season with a national championship already under her belt.
Challenging Stanford at the top will be the Bruins of UCLA. Currently ranked behind the Cardinal in the preseason NSCAA poll at No. 5, the Bruins were narrowly chosen by the Pac-12 coaches as league favorites in 2013. Although they no longer have reigning Pac-12 Player of the Year Zakiya Bywaters or their head coach B.J. Snow, UCLA has a conference-high seven returning starters back from a team that advanced to the 2012 NCAA Tournament quaterfinals. With junior defender Abby Dahlkemper, a two-time all-Conference selection and NSCAA All-American, leading the back line and a new coach with an impressive resume in Amanda Cromwell, the Bruins seemed poised for a chance to end Stanford’s championship run.
CALIFORNIA, the second runner-up in the Conference last season, is projected to finish in the same position in 2013. The Bears will surely miss All-Pac-12 performer and Olympian Betsy Hassett, but will have another offensive weapon to offset her loss in reigning Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Ifeoma Onumonu. Onumonu took little time to adjust to soccer at the college level, ending her first year in third place in the Conference in total points and points per game behind UCLA’s Bywaters and Stanford’s Verloo. The Bears will also need to rely on two key seniors, Kaitlyn Fitzpatrick and Emi Lawson, to bring veteran leadership to the 2013 squad. Fitzpatrick will need to step up in the midfield in the absence of Hassett, while Lawson will be looked on to continue to be a strong force on the back-line if the Bears want to stay in title contention. After signing a league-high 10 players for the incoming class of 2013, the balance of returning experience and young talent could bode well for the Bears.
While the Cardinal, Bruins, and Bears seem to be the teams to beat, the depth and breadth of the talent in the Conference makes the outcome far from guaranteed. WASHINGTON STATE, WASHINGTON and ARIZONA STATE were all 2012 NCAA tournament selections and have their eyes on repeating that feat in 2013.
The Cougars didn’t take long to adjust to their new coach Keidane McAlpine last season as they finished out the year winning five of seven contests and earning a NCAA tournament bid for the fourth time in five seasons. Second team All-Pac-12 forward Micaela Castain, the team leader in total points and goals a year ago, will return to lead the WSU attack. The Cougars will also enjoy the luxury of an experienced keeper in the net, with redshirt junior Gurveen Clair back as their third-year starter.
Washington and Arizona State must both replace key starters, but have skilled returnees and newcomers that will aid in putting pressure on the Conference powerhouses. Strong defense will be key for Washington as the Huskies find themselves with a yet to be decided first-year goalkeeper after losing experienced fifth-year senior and Pac-12 honorable mention selection Kari Davidson to graduation. Senior forward Lindsey Elston, the team’s points leader in 2012, and sophomore standout midfielder Isabel Farrell will need to key the attack if the Huskies are to pull off the upsets that are needed to shoot them to the top of the standings.
The Sun Devils can be optimistic heading in to 2013 after nabbing their highest finish in Pac-12 play since 2004 and their third NCAA Tournament appearance in four seasons a year ago. Athough ASU graduated a large class, the Sun Devils have eight returnees who started 14 games or more last season, including their top four scorers. All-Conference selections senior Devin Marshall and sophomore Cali Farquharson return up front, while senior defender and 57-game starter Jasmine Roth will be a force on the back line. ASU will also welcome a strong incoming class headlined by Katie Mohr of Santa Rosa Calif., a member of ESPN’s top 50 class of 2013.
Last season OREGON STATE won 11 games for the fourth-straight year, one of only three Conference teams to accomplish that feat in the same time period. Despite a sixth-place league finish, the Beavers missed out on a fourth-consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance after failing to receive an at-large bid in 2012. Picked to finish sixth by the Pac-12 coaches, OSU will surely be in the mix in the top half of the Conference with all-Conference forward Jenna Richardson returning in addition to an experienced midfield that features two senior and two junior starters.
USC will be another team that could muddle the middle of the league come conference play. The Trojans have struggled over the last couple seasons during a transition period that saw its 2011 roster include 25 new faces out of its 34 members. The young team began to find its way late in 2012, capping the year with an overtime win over then No. 2 UCLA. Although the team is still young in 2013, the end of last season brought optimism and confidence to a squad that now has valuable game experience. With a strong recruiting class that features the No. 24 recruit in the country and a top five player out of Hawaii in Kayla Mills and Jensen Toner, the Trojans seem to be building a team that could compete with the best in the Conference.
OREGON and ARIZONA join UCLA in welcoming new coaches to their programs. Oregon hired Kat Mertz as their new head coach in December after head coaching stints at St. Louis and UNLV. Mertz, a former UCLA assistant, has made nine NCAA Tournament appearances over her 14 year coaching career. The Ducks will rely on sophomore Kristen Parr, the young forward who emerged as their most prolific scorer as a freshman last year, and junior midfielder Bri Pugh to lead a young team and compete with a talented conference slate.
Arizona hired Tony Amato away from Stephen F. Austin where he led the Ladyjacks to two-consecutive league titles and top 50 RPI rankings, including a .813 winning percentage in his there years at the helm. Amato will look to forward Jazmin Ponce and keeper Gabby Kaufman for senior leadership in his first year in Tucson. Ponce, an All-Pac-12 selection in 2012, was the team’s points leader last season while Kaufman returns as a second-year starter after leading the league in saves a year ago.
COLORADO and UTAH enter their third season as members of the Pac-12 and both are looking to improve on their first two years in the new conference. The Utes will have a strong defense in 2013 as they return four starters on an experienced back line that includes senior Jenny Hutton and juniors Sarah Duncan and Abby Groth. The offense should be much improved in 2013 as two-year starter and Pac-12 honorable mention selection Avery Ford is back to lead the offense.
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