Picking teams that look to be gaining momentum is a little like trying to find sleeper stocks that are likely to rise in value. In reality, the factors that one might use in both instances are pretty similar. For example does the team/business have solid leadership? Is the team/business beginning to show an upward trend in productivity? Do the members of the team/business demonstrate teamwork and have a solid work ethic? Does the team/business have clearly defined and understood goals and objectives and are they focused on results? Is the team/business bringing on board new talent that will take performance to a higher level? Does the team/business operate in an environment that supports continued growth?
College Soccer News utilized the above factors to pick a few schools whose “stock” looks to be on the rise. Keep an eye on them in 2012 and beyond.
Appalachian State – Matt Nelson was named the head coach at Appalachian State at the conclusion of the 2011 season after serving as interim head coach for most of the season due to the tragic death of Shaun Pendleton three games into the season. The Mountaineers were 10-5-4 overall last year with a 3-2-2 mark in Southern Conference play which gave them the number five seed in the conference tournament. The norm for wins in a single season for ASU is between eight and ten so 2011 was not particularly exceptional in that regard. What was exceptional was the fact that the Mountaineers held opponents to a total of only twelve goals while establishing a school record eleven shutouts.
In 2011 ASU had solid non-conference wins over Coastal Carolina and East Tennessee State University with a win over UNC Greensboro and ties with Furman and the College of Charleston in Southern Conference play. The Mountaineers look to be a team that can maintain a high level of defensive intensity in 2012 while also improving their productivity on the offensive side of the ball. If that occurs this is a team that is going to experience an upward trend in the win column.
The return of senior back Lee Williams and senior netminder Danny Free bodes well for the defense while the return of sophomore forwards Boubacar Toure (4g, 1a), Nicholas Skoda (1g, 4a) and Stanley Broaden (0g, 2a) who gained valuable playing time as freshmen is a plus for the offense.
Furman, UNC Greensboro and the College of Charleston have traditionally been the big dogs in the Southern Conference. ASU may not overtake all three but this is a program that belongs on the watch list of teams likely to experience an increase in their win total over the next few seasons.
Northern Illinois – NIU may not be the first team that comes to mind when you think of the Mid-American Conference but they did set the conference on its ear in 2011 when they won the MAC Tourney and made the program’s third trip to the NCAA Tourney.
You have to like the direction the program is taking under the direction of head coach Eric Luzzi. The Huskies were 15-6-0 in 2011 matching the highest single-season win total in school history. Luzzi stated, “It isn’t easy to get a team in the NCAA Tournament and now our expectation is, moving forward we are going to be an NCAA Team every year.”
Success tends to breed success as reflected in the fact that Luzzi has added an eight member 2012 recruiting class that maintains NIU’s ties with the talent rich Chicago area while also going out of state to sign several very promising newcomers who should help the Huskies achieve their goal of returning to the NCAA Tourney. The 2012 class includes highly regarded center midfielder Gabe Christianson from Cedar Rapids, Iowa as well a midfielder Charlie Oliver who played for the Chicago Fire Academy team. The Huskies also return a solid core from the 2011 team including junior forward James Stevenson (6g, 3a) and senior goalkeeper Jordan Godsey.
NIU is a talented team but the factor that may separate them from the pack is a work ethic that often gives them the edge in the close contests. NIU belongs on the short list of programs for which the trend line looks to be heading upward.
Washington – The Huskies have been absent from the NCAA Tournament since the 2007 season. Nonetheless this is a program that has had its share of successful seasons in the past. Thumbs up to Dean Wurzberger for a solid nineteen year tenure at the head of the program during which time the Huskies made eleven appearances in the NCAA Tourney. Now Jamie Clark who took over the reigns of the program in 2011 is well positioned to take UW to a higher level. Clark’s resume includes being named an All-American as a player at Stanford, serving as an assistant coach at New Mexico under Jeremy Fishbein, serving as an assistant coach at Notre Dame under his father Bobby Clark, serving as the head coach at Harvard for two seasons and as the head coach for one season at Creighton.
The Huskies were 12-4-2 overall in 2011 with an impressive 7-3-0 mark in Pac-12 play. While no NCAA Tourney at-large berth was in the picture there were plenty of positives to build on. Speaking of positives, look for Clark to build on the positives that already exist at Washington while putting in place an up tempo, high pressure system of play that talented players will find attractive and fans will enjoy watching. Good things are on the horizon at Washington.
UC Riverside – The Highlanders have been cellar dwellers in the Big West Conference but they surprised everyone in 2011 with a 9-6-4 overall record and a 4-3-3 mark in conference play that was good for a fourth place finish in regular season play. As a result the lads from UC Riverside made their first ever appearance in the Big West Tournament and Junior Gonzalez was honored as the Big West Coach of the Year.
One season does not make a trend so some might think it a bit premature to place the Highlanders on a list of teams that look to be moving up. It is also significant that they will be without All-Big West First Team forward Cesar Diaz Pizarro (9g, 3a).
On the other hand this is a team that topped UC Santa Barbara twice in 2011 and UC Irvine once which is a pretty good indication that the Highlanders reached a tipping point of sorts in 2011 and that better days and more wins are in the future. Warning – any opponent who now elects to look past UC Riverside may find that it is hazardous to the health of their record.
Marquette – The Golden Eagles have been a work in progress ever since Louis Bennett decided to jump ship from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee at the conclusion of the 2005 season to make the move cross town to Marquette. No one expected an immediate turnaround and the consensus was that overtime Bennett would break the code on what it would take to transform Marquette into a competitive program in the Big East Conference.
Bennett has never appeared to be the type of coach to back away from a challenge. The wins were few and far between in the first few years however slowly but surely Bennett began the process of turning the ship around. In 2011 Marquette turned a big corner when they were 9-8-2 overall with a very healthy 7-2-0 mark in Big East.
The center of attention at Marquette in 2011 was midfielder Calum Mallace who was a College Soccer News Second Team All-America selection and was named the Big East Midfielder of the Year. Mallace also broke a barrier when he became the first player from Marquette to be selected in the MLS SuperDraft. His graduation leaves a big gap to fill but the pieces look to be in place for continued success at Marquette.
The competition in the Big East is brutal with little margin for error but Marquette is now a team that is not outmanned. Look for a higher level of consistency in the play of Marquette as the Golden Eagles build on the success they enjoyed in 2011 and begin to win more of the big games that have eluded them in the past.
Rutgers – When Dan Donigan took over the reigns at Rutgers in 2010 he inherited a proud program that had enjoyed a great deal of success for many years under legendary head coach Bob Reasso but it also was a program that had been absent from the NCAA Tourney since the 2006 season. After a four win season in 2010 Donigan quickly established that he was the perfect fit to get the program back on track when he led the Scarlet Knights to a ten win season and return trip to the NCAA Tourney in 2011.
The fact that Donigan is a New Jersey guy who was a star at Steinart High School in Hamilton Township before he had a stellar career as an All-American at the University of Connecticut likely helped prepare him for the challenges he would face at Rutgers. Add to that a successful nine year tenure as the head coach at St. Louis during which time the Billikens made seven appearances in the NCAA Tourney and you have someone who is not going to panic in the face of a challenge.
An NCAA Tourney berth in 2010 and a season ending rank of twenty by College Soccer News and twenty-three by the NSCAA was huge for Rutgers in 2011. The competition in the Big East Conference will continue to be fierce and each season stands on its on. However, with the return of players like sophomore forward Juan Pablo Correa (6g, 5a) and as Donovan is able to attract new talent and build excitement around the program it is highly likely that Rutgers will continue to put a lot of wins on the board in the future and that Yurcak Field will be rocking.
Wright State – Folks outside of the Horizon League may not know a lot about Wright State. In fact, folks inside the Horizon League may not know a lot about Wright State. That could change as this is a program that is beginning to get traction under the direction of head coach Bryan Davis who will enter his fourth season at the helm of the program in 2012. The Raiders were a very solid 11-7-2 in 2011 which gave them a record above the .500 mark for the first time since going 12-7-1 in 2001.
Picked to finish last in the 2011 Horizon League preseason poll, Wright State exceeded expectations when they finished in the number two spot in regular season play and advanced to the championship match of the league tourney where they fell one game short of earning their first ever appearance into the NCAA Tourney when they were defeated by Loyola 1-0 in overtime.
This is a team that will return ten starters from the 2011 team led by junior midfielder Bryce Rockwell-Ashton who was a First Team All-Horizon selection. The case that this is a team that is going to continue to improve is bolstered by the fact that four freshmen, goalkeeper Craig Feehan, midfielder Emeka Ononye, forward Justin Laird, and defender Gustav Svensson, were starters last year.
Davis is doing a very good job on the recruiting trail and in ingraining the intangibles that must exist in order for the Raiders to win consistently. Look for Wright State to have more ten win plus seasons.
Stanford – Exit Bret Simon after eleven years at the helm of the program and enter Jeremy Gunn after taking Charlotte to the 2011 National Title game. Simon is a very good coach with a resume that includes accomplishments like two trips to the Final Four that many very well thought of coaches will never achieve. However other than his first two seasons on the Farm he never really seemed to be able to get things done at Stanford particularly on the offensive side of the ball including the 2011 season in which the Cardinals were 6-10-2 overall.
Gunn comes to Stanford with a record of success as a head coach at Division II Fort Lewis College and at Charlotte and as an assistant coach at Cal-State Bakersfield which gives him ties to the west coast. His passion for the game and his ability to merge the individual talent of his players into a hard working and unified team should be a big plus and good fit at Stanford. What remains to be seen is not whether Stanford is going to once again gain national prominence but how long it is going to take. A new era of Stanford soccer is right around the corner.
North Carolina State – You know good things are happening at N.C. State when the program invests 2.2 million dollars in a new practice complex and upgrades to Dail Soccer Stadium. Another plus relating to the future prognosis of the program is the addition of Kelly Findley as the new Wolfpack head coach in 2011. Findley assumed the head coaching duties in Raleigh after veteran N.C. State head coach George Tarantini resigned at the conclusion of the 2010 season after serving in that capacity for twenty-five years.
The Wolfpack finished the 2011 season under Findley with a 7-11-2 overall record and a 2-6-0 mark in Atlantic Coast Conference play but this is a program that is going to steadily improve as Findley begins to infuse promising talent by taping into recruiting hotbeds and as the Wolfpack players make the transition to his system of play. Prior to coming to N.C. State, Findley was the head coach at Butler for five seasons during which time he was named the Horizon League Coach of the Year in both 2009 and 2010. Before that he served as an assistant coach at Charlotte for five seasons during which time he was highly respected by the Charlotte players.
Look for N.C. State to be a much stronger team in 2012 and beyond. The problem is the Atlantic Coast Conference will again be very competitive which means a tough conference schedule and rough going for a team like N.C. State that is faced with the very real challenge of trying to close the talent gap that exists between them and the frontrunners in the conference. Nonetheless, N.C. State is a work in progress and this is a program that looks destined to see a substantive although likely incremental increase in its win total as things fall into place. The final analysis is that there is no limit on just how competitive this program can be. The Pack will be back.
Wisconsin – A lot of soccer has been played and a lot of seasons have gone by since Wisconsin won the National Championship back in 1985. No telling how many more will pass before the Badgers have a legitimate shot at winning it again. However, what is for sure is that Wisconsin is a program with a lot of momentum and that bodes well for the future of the program.
The Badgers improved from a 4-13-3 overall record with a 1-4-1 mark in Big Ten play in John Trask’s first year as the head coach at Wisconsin in 2010 to 10-8-2 overall with a 4-2-0 in Big Ten play in his second year. Trask is a proven commodity as a head coach and has the resolve and determination for lack of a better word needed to turn things around at Wisconsin.
To win on a consistent basis it also takes talent and a deep roster and those are two areas where some would say Wisconsin has been in short supply compared to other members of the Big Ten in past years but they appear to be catching up. With nine out of the eleven starters from the 2011 team slated to return including the likes of midfielder Tomislav Zardo, forward Chris Prince, defender A.J. Chochran, and goalkeeper Max Jentsch there are plenty of upsides associated with Wisconsin in 2012 and thereafter.
This is a team that is now playing to win instead of playing not to lose as reflected in the fact that they are not sitting back on their heels playing defense. With so many more positives than negatives steady improvement is the name of the game at Wisconsin.