Who is next in line at Akron?
For four consecutive seasons the Zips have lost a big time goal scorer but it hasn’t presented a significant problem since someone has always been on board who was capable of filling the gap. It went like this: Steve Zakuani to Teal Bunbury, Bunbury to Darlington Nagbe, Nagbe to Darren Mattocks. Zakuani left in 2008 after his sophomore season to enter the professional ranks. Bunbury did the same in 2009 at the conclusion of his sophomore season. Nagbe followed suit in 2010 after his junior season. Mattocks completed the cycle when he elected to take his game to the professional level in 2011 at the end of his sophomore season.
The success that Zakuani, Bunbury, Nagbe, and Mattocks achieved at Akron speaks well for the program but the exit left enter right scenario of big time goal scorers looks to have at least temporarily come to an end heading into the 2012 season.
Can North Carolina repeat in 2012?
The Tar Heels have made four consecutive trips to the Final Four and they won the National Championship in 2011. The fact that North Carolina annually welcomes one of the top recruiting classes to Chapel Hill, including the class ranked by College Soccer News as the number one in the nation last year, is a big plus but a program can’t maintain the success that the Tar Heels have achieved over the past four seasons without a core group of talented returning players.
Heading into the 2012 season North Carolina head coach Carlos Somoano must fill the gap on the offensive side of the ball that exists due to the loss of forwards Billy Schuler (16g, 5a) and Ben Speas (7g, 10a) and midfielders Enzo Martinez (9g, 11a) and Kirk Urso (3g, 7a). The Heels must also replace All-American defender Matt Hedges (6g, 1a). Returning players who Somoano will likely look to for offensive firepower include forwards Rob Lovejoy (7g, 5a), Carlos McCrary (3g, 1a), and Cooper Vandermass-Peeler. Mikey Lopez (3g, 4a), the ACC Freshman of the Year, returns in the midfield along with Jordan Gafa (2g, 2a). Jordan McCrary and Boyd Okwuonu are prime timers who return in the back after banner freshmen seasons. Scott Goodwin, who was an All-ACC First Team selection in 2011, is slated to return in goal with two highly successful years of starting experience under his belt.
Five of the Tar Heel starters in 2011 were newcomers but transfers Hedges from Butler and Speas from Akron were not your normal newcomers. Each wore Carolina blue for only one year but the talent and experience that they immediately brought to the table was unique and played a key role in the success the Tar Heels enjoyed in 2011. North Carolina should be in the hunt for the National Championship again in 2012 with another recruiting class that looks to be among the best in the country headed to Chapel Hill. A solid core does return but some of the newcomers must play key roles in order for the Tar Heels to have a chance of keeping their streak of Final Four appearances intact.
What are the expectations for the Big Ten Conference in 2012?
Let’s get right at it by saying that the 2011 season was not a banner year for the Big Ten. You need look no further than the fact that only two schools from the Big Ten, Northwestern and Indiana, received invites to the NCAA Tourney in 2011 as compared to five in both 2009 and 2010.
While 2011 may have been a good year for Northwestern which won the Big Ten Tourney for the first time in the history of the program and Indiana which earned a number sixteen seed in the NCAA Tourney, it was not a good year for the conference overall. In fairness, Wisconsin also belongs in the good year category. The Badgers under the direction of John Trask showed significant improvement with a 10-8-2 overall record that included four regular season wins in Big Ten play which is the most Wisconsin has achieved in league play since the 1995 season. The Badgers also defeated Indiana for the first time in sixteen years.
The RPI, which is the major factor in determining NCAA Tourney at-large berths, of everyone in the league was negatively impacted by the fact that several teams in the conference had subpar seasons. For example, Michigan’s final RPI in 2011 was 144. The Big Ten is among the top conferences in the country so chances are pretty good that it will rebound with at least four teams back in the NCAA Tourney field in 2012.
Heading into the 2012 season Northwestern looks to be the team to beat in the Big Ten followed closely by Indiana. Last year after beginning the year with a 1-3-1 record Northwestern rebounded to go 10-2-4 in their last sixteen matches to win both the Big Ten regular season and tournament titles. The Wildcats must replace leading scorer Oliver Kupe (8g, 1a) who was a First Team All-Big Ten selection and midfielder Peter O’Neill (2g, 5a) due to graduation. However nine starters return led by midfielders Lepe Seetane (5g, 3a) and Chris Ritter (4g, 2a) and defender Nikko Boxall who were All-Big Ten Second Team selections. The backline returns intact and will feature All-Big Ten First Team member Tyler Miller who had a banner freshman season between the pipes.
Indiana returns a very solid nucleus of eight starters from the 2011 squad that was 13-4-5 overall with a 3-1-2 mark in Big Ten play but they have some rebuilding to do on the defensive side of the ball due to the graduation of All Big-Ten First Team backs Chris Estridge and Tommy Meyer. They also must replace All-Big Ten First Team midfielder Alex Purdie.
On the plus side of the ledger the Hoosiers return forward Eriq Zavaleta (10g, 5a) who led the Hoosiers in scoring and was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year. Zavaleta became the first freshman to lead Indiana in goal scoring since head coach Todd Yeagley did back in 1991. All Big Ten First Team midfielder Nikita Zotlov (9g, 1a) also returns to add an additional dimension to the Hoosier attack. Senior Luis Soffner returns in goal with three years of starting experience under his belt. Incoming freshman forward Andrew Oliver is among the members of the 2012 IU recruiting class who should contribute immediately.
Michigan State is among the teams in the Big Ten that didn’t have the type of season that they normally have. The Spartans sustained several key injuries which likely contributed to the fact that they struggled out of the gate with a 2-5-2 record in the month of September. The Spartans rallied down the home stretch but it was too little too late to keep their streak of four consecutive NCAA Tourney berths intact as they finished the season with a 7-8-4 overall record. Chances are good that the Spartans will be among the teams in the Big Ten to get back on track in 2012.
Forward Domenic Barone and defender Kevin Cope are among the Michigan State players who missed the 2011 season due to injury who will be back in 2012. The Spartans have gaps to fill due to the loss midfielder Cyrus Saydee (1g, 6a) who was an All-Big Ten First Team selection and midfielder Mark Barone (2g, 4a) who was an All-Big Ten Second Team selection but a solid nucleus does return. Forward Adam Montague, midfielders Fatai Alashe and Cody Henderson, and defender Ryan Keener all gained valuable experience as freshmen that should bode well for Michigan State in 2012. The biggest unanswered question heading into the 2012 campaign is who is going to replace goalkeeper Jeremy Clark.
What’s the prognosis for the Pac-12 Conference in 2012?
Who would have thought that the Pac 12 would ever have only one representative in the NCAA Tourney? That is exactly what happened in 2011 when the UCLA Burins secured the conference’s automatic berth and no at-large bid was awarded. This is a conference with just six members but it is a major conference. One could argue that the Pac 12 got a taste of what many of the mid-majors experience on a yearly basis. It is also worth noting that in 2010 UC Santa Barbara was the only representative of the Big West Conference in the NCAA Tourney.
Chances are pretty good that the 2011 season in the Pac 12 was the exception rather than the rule as this looks to be a conference that is now in the process of getting stronger from top to bottom. It is unlikely that we will ever see a season again in which the Pac 12 has only one member in the NCAA Tourney. Likewise we may never see another season in which a single team dominates Pac 12 play like UCLA did in 2011 with a perfect 10-0-0 mark in conference play.
UCLA has gone dancing for the past twenty-nine consecutive seasons and baring unforeseen circumstances that steak is not likely to end anytime soon. The Bruins remain the flagship team of the west coast as reflected by their 18-4-2 overall record and run to the Final Four in 2011.
California was in rebuilding mode in 2011 and should be much improved in 2012. The Golden Bears have played their way into the NCAA Tourney eight out of the past ten years. This is a team that clearly will not be down for long.
Washington has not appeared in the NCAA Tourney since the 2007 season. The Huskies have to replace All-Pac 12 First Team members Brent Richards, Jacob Husted, and Jamie Finch from the 2011 team but this is a program that has a ton of momentum and is going to catch its second wind under the direction of second year head coach Jamie Clark.
Stanford played its way into the College Cup back in 2001 and 2002 and received an at large berth to the NCAA Tourney in 2009 but face it this is a program that has stagnated and underachieved of late. Look for new head coach Jeremy Gunn to immediately energize Stanford and for better days to be ahead for the Cardinal.
San Diego State last appeared in the NCAA Tourney in 2005 and 2006. The Aztecs were a competitive 10-6-3 overall last year with a 4-5-1 mark in conference play. SDSU will rise as the overall level of play and the RPI improves in the conference. Oregon State has not gone dancing since the 2002 and 2003 seasons. The Beavers were 5-11-2 overall last year with a 3-6-1 mark in conference play. There is reason for cautious optimism in Corvallis heading into the 2012 campaign as coach Steve Simmons returns a solid nucleus including several talented young players who should benefit from the playing time they had last year.
What about the only unbeaten team in 2011? Can they do it again in 2012?
New Mexico was the only undefeated team in 2011 with a 18-0-4 overall record that included a 10-0-0 mark in MPSF play. The Lobo’s season ended in the Round of Sixteen in the NCAA Tourney when they tied South Florida 0-0 but came out on the short end of a penalty kick shootout. New Mexico head coach Jeremy Fishbein has always endorsed the value of team unity. Speaking about the Lobo’s season in 2011 Fishbein stated, “There never was a question of effort, never a question of preparation. It was a team of outstanding individuals who put aside individual goals in order to become a great team.”
New Mexico loses midfielders Mike Green and Lance Rozenboom due to graduation but with nine starters slated to return including forward Devon Sandoval (8g, 8a), midfielder Blake Smith (10g, 5a), center back Kyle Venter and goalkeeper Victor Rodriguez this is a team for which the sky is the limit in 2012