If there was any debate as to whether or not the ACC was the dominant conference in the women’s game, any argument was ended when Notre Dame jumped ship and joined the conference this year.
The addition of the Fighting Irish to an already stacked conference ensures the league’s status – but who is going to win it this year? Looking past the defending champion North Carolina Tar Heels would be a bit foolhardy, but the talent in this conference runs deep. With three new teams in the fold, it's an even bigger puzzle to predict.
Brief Conference Bio:
2012 Regular Season Champion: Florida State
Conference Tournament Champion: Virginia
Offensive Player of the Year: Caroline Miller, Virginia
Defensive Player of the Year: Crystal Dunn, North Carolina
Freshman of the Year: Cassie Pecht, Duke
Coach of the Year: Mark Krikorian, Florida State
Team (2012 overall/conference record):
Boston College (11-8-3/4-5-1)
Losing an all-time leading scorer is never easy to cope with, and with current NWSL standout Kristen Mewis’ graduation, there is a big gap in the final third that the Eagles must try and fill. Fortunately, head coach Alison Foley has recruited well, and has a slew of goal scorers to try and help the team brace with the offensive hole. Junior Stephanie McCaffrey scored 10 goals and added 7 assists, and must prove she can handle even more of the burden up front. She won’t be alone, as sophomore McKenzie Meehan eased her way into college soccer with 9 goals, and freshman Haley Dowd will look to copy her new teammate and find success early on at the collegiate level.
While scoring was little trouble last season, defensive improvement is almost as important as replacing Mewis’ goals. Midfielders Patrice Vettori, Gibby Wagner and Kate McCarthy are all returning, and the three captains provide ample experiences, while defensive returners include Casey Morrison, Lauren Bernard and Rachel Davitt. In goal, senior GK Jessica Mickelson will look to grab the starting spot in the wake of Alexa Gaul’s graduation.
While last season might not have been positive from a results standpoint, the future is nonetheless looking a bit brighter for Clemson with a young nucleus looking to make an impact in 2013. This year’s additions include Canadian U20 pool goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan and U.S. U17 World Cup veteran Claire Wagner. Both start their careers this fall, which could be the catalyst for a program turnaround.
Of course, it’ll take more than the addition of two talented players to accomplish that for a program that has just two conference wins in the last five seasons. Holdovers from last year include forwards Liska Dobberstein and Tabitha Padgett, and they represent just two players from an entire group that needs to crank things up a level if the Tigers want to start turning things around.
A team used to success in the postseason – the Blue Devils have made it to the Elite Eight in four of the last six seasons – Duke returns the majority of its attack and will look to hunt down instate rivals North Carolina on the strength of an offense led by Laura Weinberg (16 goals) and Kim DeCesare (16 goals). Midfielder Cassie Pecht pulls the string in the attack, while Kelly Cobb is healthy and available for a full season after missing a chunk of 2012 with the U.S. U20 World Cup winning side. A candidate to join those proven collegiate attackers in the starting ranks is highly rated recruit Toni Payne, a member of the U.S. U17 World Cup squad in 2012, who brings pace, quality and dynamism to the attack.
The defense faces questions, however. While Natasha Anasi and Mollie Pathman are both back, the loss of long-time starters including Tara Campbell in goal and defenders Erin Koballa, Maddy Haller and Libby Jandl leave gaps that must be filled – though other new recruits like Lizzy Raben (another U.S. U17 WNT player) and Christina Gibbons may get a chance to crack the starting lineup and aid in the replacement of those who graduated.
Florida State (20-4-0/8-2-0)
Last fall the Seminoles rode the best defense in the ACC all the way to the College Cup, bowing out in the national semifinals in overtime against Penn State. Three out of five starters at the back return – goalkeeper Kelsey Wys, along with center backs Kasey Kallman and Kristin Grubka provide the solid foundation for a back line that conceded 15 goals in 24 games last season. Midfielder Dagny Brynjarsdottir returns after spending the summer competing at the Women’s European Championship for Iceland.
With nine goals and nine assists, Brynjarsdottir represents the top returning scorer after the graduation of Tiffany McCarty, whose 17 goals are going to be difficult to replace. Freshmen attackers Anna McClung and Berglind Thorvaldsdottir (who redshirted in 2012) are two candidates to try and stake a claim on starting roles in the final third. Provided the offense can catch up, the Seminoles should be just as dangerous in 2013.
Under first-year head coach Jonathan Morgan, the Terps fared very well in the ACC last year, putting together a quality regular season campaign and making the ACC tournament championship. While Morgan loses a core of main contributors from that squad, including Danielle Hubka, Domenica Hodak, Olivia Wagner and Becky Kaplan, there are pieces returning to help Maryland finish strong before leaving to the Big Ten next year.
Up front, forward Hayley Brock offers a dynamic and explosive option who can get behind opposing back lines, and she showed a consistent finishing ability leading the team with 13 goals last season. Sophomore midfielder Ashley Spivey, who landed a spot on the All-ACC Freshman Team, has gotten some looks at forward in the spring and preseason, and could be a potential partner up front for Brock, or a quality option in the midfield. The defense is backstopped by Rachelle Beanlands, the Canadian youth international quietly developing into one of the most consistent goalkeepers in the conference. Provided the Terps identify players to step up and lead on the field, they could be ready to pull off a surprise or two this season.
Miami (FL) (9-6-3/4-4-2)
After seven seasons at Albany, Mary Frances-Monroe landed the top spot in Miami following the dismissal of Tom Angagnost at the end of May. Can Frances-Monroe succeed where Anganost came up short? Near the top of her list is going to be improving the Hurricanes’ attack. With just 22 goals scored last year, that’s not going to be enough to compete in the extremely difficult ACC. Fortunately, Miami hung in there at the back with a fairly stifling defense allowing just 16 goals and picking up 11 shutouts on the season in 2012.
Junior forward Ashley Flinn supplies the highest goal scoring return total with three tallies, which was tied for first on the team last year. No doubt she’ll want to boost that alongside sophomore forwards Ava Ambrose and Jasmine Paterson – the latter coming on strong in her first season to land a spot on the All-ACC Freshmen Team. Goalkeeper Emily Lillard and defender Maddie Simms are also returning from that rock solid defense that will look to duplicate the achievements of last year, laying the foundation for a strong season under a new head coach.
North Carolina (15-5-3/6-3-1)
Another year, another embarrassment of riches at head coach Anson Dorrance’s disposal at North Carolina. The defending champions returned to the summit after two years of missing out on college soccer’s crown, and leading the charge this year will be Crystal Dunn, the top women’s player in the nation who picked up a couple of caps with the U.S. Women’s National Team this year.
That doesn’t mean the Tar Heels don’t have questions to answer. They lost the leadership of midfielder Amber Brooks and have a starting goalkeeper to find after two-year starter Adelaide Gay also graduated. Of course, Dunn can play any position outside of GK to help plug in those gaps, while up front Kealia Ohai and Summer Green will provide ample firepower alongside incoming recruits Amber Munerlyn and Emily Bruder. The team’s back line is also untouched, with the College Cup-winning trio of Hanna Gardner, Caitlin Ball and Satara Murray looking to continue the success of the 2012 postseason. As the defending champions, the pressure will be on as UNC looks to win a second straight title for the first time since going back-to-back in 2008 and 2009.
NC State (5-14-0/0-10-0)
It was a season to forget for NC State in 2012 after failing to win a game in the ACC. The program welcomed a new head coach at the end of last year in Tim Santoro to guide the Wolfpack in the nation’s toughest league. Santoro is fortunately no stranger to the competition, having served as associate head coach at Wake Forest across the previous five seasons.
The Wolfpack enter 2013 in an unusual position for most college teams, having graduated no one from last year’s squad, although a small handful of players transferred out, including two starters. Those coming back include the leading scorers from a year ago, forwards Jennie Krauser and Brittany Stanko who both scored five goals each. However, it’s safe to say that Santoro will give plenty of faces a chance as he rebuilds the program and starts his head coaching career. He’ll likely find out ways to work in the freshman class that includes forward Jackie Stengel, who could turn out to be an impact player like her big sister Katie, a star for Wake Forest.
Notre Dame (16-6-2/8-1-1*)
One of three new ACC programs this fall, the nationally prominent Irish are set to jump right into their new conference and are definite contenders right off the bat with ten returning starters. Head coach Randy Waldrum has extensive experience in South Bend and also has one of the deepest teams in the league. There’s do-everything player Cari Roccaro, who can line up anywhere on the field save goalkeeper, a stifling center back pairing of Katie Naughton and Sammy Scofield, all-action midfielder Mandy Laddish who could get time up front, and the quickly-improving forward group led by Crystal Thomas and Lauren Bohaboy.
And that’s just a small glimpse at the returners. With a top five rated recruiting class joining the ranks, including U.S. U17 WNT captain Morgan Andrews, Waldrum is going to have to work quickly to identify the best players and where they fit on the field. Andrews, who is likely to slot in an attacking midfielder spot, is far from the only addition with an impressive resume. Also joining the Irish are Sandra Yu, Mexican youth international Cindy Pineda and Rilka Noel.
The move to the ACC was always going to be a tricky one for Pitt, a program currently entering a second year under head coach Greg Miller. Last season in the Big East, Miller did guide his squad to substantial improvement before putting in work on the recruiting trail to land a class of 12 who are expected to contribute heavily in the Panthers’ first season in the ACC.
Miller does have several returners to call upon led by team captains Morgan Sharick and Caroline Keefer, who can provide guidance for the new crop of youngsters. Of course, improving a back line that conceded 36 goals in Big East play is going to be a critical factor, as ACC attacks will make mincemeat of a defense if they don’t take a step forward.
The Orange fared relatively decently in last season’s Big East campaign. Like Pitt, they face a big step up into the ranks of the ACC, and will be tested throughout the season in 2013. On paper, Syracuse looks decently stocked at the back for the move, with Big East Goalkeeper of the Year Brittany Anghel getting the chance to test herself in the ACC and prove her status amongst the nation’s elite. Experienced defenders Rachel Blum, Jackie Moriarty and Taylor Haenlin return in front of her along the back line.
If the defense can hold fast, returning players up front like Jackie Firenze, Erin Simon and Alexis Koval will look to make an impression and provide the Orange with some offense in their new conference home.
Despite losing 20-goal scorer Caroline Miller, the Cavaliers enter the 2013 season as solid and dangerous as ever. Midfielder Morgan Brian will be available for the entire year after missing a chunk of last season at the U20 World Cup, and her influence in the heart of the team is going to play a big role in how far this talented side can advance. There’s a strong fspine in place along with Brian. Makenzy Doniak and Danielle Colaprico are dangerous options up front, while incoming senior transfer Annie Steinlage was one of the Big Ten’s best defenders before joining Virginia ahead of her final collegiate season. She’ll play along Molly Menchel, one of the team leaders in minutes played last season. There will be a battle in goal for playing time, with highly regarded freshman Morgan Stearns looking to win the starting spot from Danielle DeLisle, who played the majority of the 2012 season.
Along with Stearns, incoming freshmen Morgan Reuther and Alexis Shaffer will fight for playing time and look to contribute on what is sure to be another good Cavaliers squad in 2013.
Virginia Tech (13-6-1/4-5-1)
Coming off a fifth-straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament, the Hokies have made positive strides in the last five years. And while the upper echelon of the ACC still looks like a bit out of reach, there are plenty of reasons for optimism heading into another campaign. With seven starters coming back, including All-ACC Freshmen Team midfielder Ashley Meier – who also lead the team in goals scored with eight – there is depth and experience that Adair can count on.
Also among those returning are Shannon Mayrose, Katie Yensen and Jordan Coburn, the latter another sophomore who enjoyed a strong debut season. Senior goalkeeper Dayle Colpitts should also retain the starting spot in goal after finishing last season as the first choice ‘keeper. The incoming class also features players like Candace Cephers and Sydney Curtis, players capable of stepping in and competing for minutes from day one.
Wake Forest (14-6-3/6-3-1)
In a conference boasting strong spines down the middle of the field, Wake’s is amongst the best. With forward Katie Stengel leading the line, midfielders Riley Ridgik and Ally Berry in the middle, defender Jackie McSally and All-American goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe, Wake has a very solid foundation. Stengel is obviously one of the most important of that group, an unstoppable and physical forward who can contend for Player of the Year honors as a senior. She missed a chunk of the season last year with the U.S. at the U20 World Cup.
It’s going to take a huge push to jump into the upper echelon of ACC sides, but there is ample experience on the Demon Deacons to do just that, especially with a full season of Stengel available to head coach Tony da Luz. Now, they just have to go out and make that happen.
*Indicates 2012 Big East conference record