The Question Now Is Whether They Can continue the success they have had to Date In post season play. By Sarah Sparkman
USC Upstate – Big South Conference – Second year head coach Sharif Saber has a young team with their sights set on winning the Big South Conference championship and the automatic berth that goes with it. Any why not? During Saber’s first season at the helm of the program the Spartans won nine games including a program best six conference wins. So far this year they are 8-2-4 overall with a 5-1-0 mark in conference play that includes wins over UNC Ashville, Winthrop, Gardner-Webb, High Point, Radford. The Spartans are in the driver’s seat to win the Big South regular season title but they took a step backward when they were upset by conference foe Longwood 2-0 on Saturday. As a result, they now likely need to win their last two conference contests against Presbyterian College and Charleston Southern to nail down the regular season title.
The Spartans attack, led by forwards sophomore Dara Russo (8g, 2a, the 2022 Big South Freshman of the Year, junior Nya Baccelli (5g, 4a) and sophomore Margret Edda Bjarnadottir (4g, 1a) and midfielders Paige Armstrong (2g. 4a) and senior Ashley Fin (3g, 2) has produced a total of 27 goals.
A solid USC upstate defense anchored by senior goalkeeper Cora Brendle, the 2022 Big South Goalkeeper of the Year and a solid contingent of backs including fifth year senior Emily Sanders, sophomores Catarina Bastos, Emily Rangel and Savannah Noll, junior Adrianna Pepe, and redshirt freshman Hailey Sapinoro have held opponents to a total of 15 goals.
Whether UC Upstate can rebound from the unexpected loss to Longwood and enter the Big South Tourney as the number one seed remains to be seen. What we do know is that this is a team with a lot of momentum and confidence based on the success that they have enjoyed to date.
Lamar – Southland Conference – There is a lot to like about a veteran Lamar team that is unbeaten in their last 12 contests (11-0-1). The Cardinals are 12-2-2 overall with a 7-0-1 mark in Southland Conference play. Steve Hollman’s squad looks to be talented, experienced, and hungry. A good combination to have for a team that is eager to win the Southland Conference title and punch their ticket to the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back seasons. Anything else will be a disappointment.
A solid nucleus of experienced players exists on both sides of the ball for Lamar. A balanced Cardinals offense powered by forwards Cariel Ellis (5g, 4a) and Isela Ramirez (5g, 1a) and midfielder Hollie Massey (5g, 8a) has produced a total of 28 goals while their defense anchored in goal by graduate student Nicole Panis, the 2022 Southland Conference Goalkeeper of the Year and a five-year stater has allowed a total of only 9 goals.
Senior Alana Clark (2g, 0a), the 2022 Southland Conference Player of the Year, senior Trinity Clark (1g, 1a) and graduate student Kaisa Juvonen round out a midfield that is very good. The backline is anchored by backs senior Arely Alanis,? Maddie Janolo, and freshman Riley Wilson.
Lamar is coming off a 2-2 tie with Texas A and M – Commerce. The regular season Southland Conference title is within grasp for the Cardinals who have conference games remaining on the road against Texas A and M – Corpus Christi and at home against Southeastern Louisiana.
Denver – Summit League – A deep and balanced Denver team is 9-1-5 with a 5-0-1 mark in Summit League play. Thirteen different players including graduate student midfielder Katilyn Glover (6g, 4a) and freshman midfielder Liv Moritz (6g, 4a) have scored for a Pioneer attack that is averaging 2.20 goals per game. Senior Vanessa Murray (1g, 4a) and sophomore Lily O’Grady (1g, 2a) are among other members of a very deep Denver midfield.
Freshman Molly Wissman and senior backs Megan Prazich and Jordon Crockett (1g, 3a) are among are among the key ingredients on the defensive side of the ball for a Pioneer defense that has allowed a total of 16 goals.
Denver is in the driver’s seat to secure the regular season Summit League title with conference games remaining against North Dakota State in Fargo on Thursday and North Dakota in Grand Forks on Sunday. This is a good Denver team but there is reason for cautious optimism when it comes to post season play and the Pioneers chances of earning a berth in the NCAA Tournament. Despite the success they have had during regular season play in the past, the 2018 season was the last in which the Pioneers won the Summit League Tournament and the automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament that goes with it.
Quinnipiac – MAAC – The Bobcats have a strong core that has been focused on winning the MAAC championship in back-to-back seasons and securing another berth in the NCAA Tournament.
Quinnipiac topped Mount St. Mary’s on Wednesday 1-0 to claim the MAAC regular season title and improve to 10-3-0 overall with an 8-0-0 mark in conference play. They close out MAAC play with MAAC games at home on Saturday against Saint Peter’s followed by a game on the road on Wednesday against Manhattan. Now comes the challenge of finishing the regular season strong and sustaining the success they have had during regular season play in the MAAC Tournament. The Bobcats should enter the conference tournament as the prohibitive favorite but they can’t afford to look past anyone in their quest to secure another shining moment together in the NCAA Tournament.
Quinnipiac entered the 2023 season with a question mark regarding offensive productivity due to the departure of Rebecca Cooke who had a nation’s best 22 goals during the 2022 season. No problem. It has been offense by committee for a balanced and multi-dimensional Bobcat attack. Fifteen different players led by senior forward Courtney Chochol (6g, 7a) and graduate student midfielder Markela Bejleri (3g, 2a) have scored so far this year for a Quinnipiac offense that has produced a total of 31 goals. Graduate student transfer forward Lily Schnieders (3g, 1a) is among others who have added an additional option to the offense.
An experienced and tough Bobcat defense anchored in goal by senior Sofia Lospinoso and backs junior Madison Mandleur (1g, 6a), senior Victoria Foster (1g, 1a), and graduate students Kayla Mingachos (1g, 0a) and Olivia Scott (2g, 0a) has only allowed 13 goals while posting six shutouts.
Western Carolina –Southern Conference – The Catamounts clinched the Southern Conference regular season title for the fist time since 2001 when they topped VMI 4-0 to improve to 10-3-3 overall with a 7-1-0 mark in conference play. They will close out regular season play on Sunday when they travel to Johnson City to face ETSU in what should be a very competitive contest.
There is a lot to like about a team oriented Western Carolina squad that has a lot of grit and momentum under head coach Chad Miller. The Catamounts attack led by sophomore forward Isabella DeMarco (10g, 6a) and junior midfielder Naya Margil (8g, 9a) has generated a total of 36 goals and is very capable of scoring in multiples when they are in gear. Senior Alexis DeMarco (3g, 2a) and sophomore Ava Robitaille (0g, 2a) are among those who add stability in the center of the park.
Sophomore goalkeeper Leanna Trudel, a two-year starter, senior backs Becca Campbell (2g, 9a), Katelyn Galbrath (0g, 2a) and Paige McAra and sophomore Sarah Engen (0g, 5a) anchor a steadily improving Catamount defense that has limited opponents to a total of 14 goals including only one goal in their last six matches.
Western Carolina will be traveling in uncharted waters when they reach post season play. They have not had a lot of success in the Southern Conference tournament. The potential exists for that to be different this year.
Sarah Sparkman is a contributing writer for College Soccer News covering women’s college soccer.
Picture from Western Carolina University Athletics