Brief Conference Bio:2013 conference tournament champion: Colorado CollegeOffensive Player of the Year: Rachel Holden, North TexasDefensive Player of the Year: Kelsey Hodges, North TexasMidfielder of the Year: Kaeli Vandersluis, Colorado CollegeFreshman of the Year: Rachel Holden, North TexasCoach of the Year: Geoff Bennett, Colorado College
Teams (2013 overall, conference record):
East Division1. Charlotte (11-7-2, 5-3-2)2. East Carolina (9-9-3, 5-4-1)3. Florida International (9-10, 5-5)4. UAB (11-7-2, 4-4-2)5. Marshall (10-7-3, 4-4-2)6. Florida Atlantic (5-10-4, 3-4-3)7. Middle Tennessee (6-8-4, 3-5-2)8. Old Dominion (1-13-3, 1-7-2)
West Division1. Colorado College (15-4-2, 8-1-1)2. North Texas (14-7-1, 6-3-1)3. UTEP (12-6-3, 5-3-2)4. Rice (7-8-3, 5-4-1)5. Tulsa (11-6-4, 4-3-3)6. UTSA (5-12-2, 4-4-2)7. Louisiana Tech (9-10-1, 4-6)8. Southern Miss(w) (7-9-4, 1-7-2)Western Kentucky (10-6-5, 6-2-0)*
*Denotes Sun Belt record
For a league this large, the in-and-out change is relatively paltry, but it’s not insignificant. Last year the league’s NCAA tournament representative was Colorado College, which swept the CUSA regular season and conference crowns. But the Tigers are gone to the Mountain West, leaving a power vacuum in their wake. American Athletic Conference newcomers East Carolina and Tulsa them out the door, and Western Kentucky’s addition from the Sun Belt meant the league only shrank from 16 to 14 this season.
Western Kentucky’s addition is particularly interesting considering the Hilltopers return six starters from a team that won the Sun Belt last year. That means they should be able to slot in and compete immediately, though their selection at ninth in the league’s preseason poll shows they may not have much respect coming from a smaller league.
That said, a lot of attention should swing to North Texas and Charlotte in particular this season. North Texas returns defending offensive and newcomer of the year Rachel Holden, who had 12 goals as a freshman last year and is unquestionably the league’s brightest young attacking talent. Charlotte counters with preseason conference defensive player of the year Monica Trickett and an immensely talented team that was picked to win the league in the preseason. If everything goes as most expect, North Texas and Charlotte will be playing each other in the conference tournament title game at season’s end.
But a heavy haul of talent stands in their way. UTEP and Rice are both building off winning league seasons last year, and UTSA managed to finish near the bottom of its division last season despite sporting a .500 league record. The return of Emma Makela, the league’s best keeper last year as a freshman, will give UTSA hope of climbing into the top half of the league this season. Rice in particular appears poised to mount an assault on the top this year with the return of the trio of Holly Hargreaves, Lauren Hughes and Quinny Truong. Florida International should challenge as well behind prolific striker Ashleigh Shim, and more is expected out of Waco native Aleah Davis and UTEP after a 5-3-2 record last year.
2013 conference tournament champion: San Diego StateOffensive Player of the Year: Morgan Castain, Fresno StateDefensive Player of the Year: Haley Palmer, San Diego StateFreshman of the Year: Kayla Tucker, Boise StateCoach of the Year: Mike Friesen, San Diego State
1. San Diego State (13-7-2, 9-1)2. Fresno State (10-8-2, 7-2-1)3. Boise State (12-7-3, 6-3-1)4. New Mexico (8-10-3, 6-3-1)5. Utah State (10-7-5, 5-3-2)6. UNLV (10-8-3, 5-5)7. Wyoming (7-11-4, 4-4-2)8. Nevada (5-11-4, 3-6-1)9. Air Force (3-13-2, 2-7-1)10. San Jose State (3-14-1, 2-7-1)11. Colorado State (2-13-3, 1-9)Colorado College (15-4-2, 8-1-1)*
*Denotes 2013 Conference USA record
The overriding question over the past two seasons has increasingly become whether or not anyone can catch San Diego State. The Aztecs have swept the conference and regular season titles in each of the past two seasons, and the league’s coaches selected them to win the league again in 2014. The return of forward Hannah Keane, who had 12 goals and four assists last year, along with midfielder Victoria Barba and Melanie Vaughn should make them favorites in every league game in 2014.
The league kept all its pieces from last year and added a 12th in Colorado College, which is one of the most intriguing league additions in the country. The Tigers won Conference USA last year and made the NCAA tourney, and 2013 CUSA midfielder of the year Kaeli Vandersluis (nine goals, nine assists) leads a talented group into the season. It would seem San Diego State has a new title challenger from day one.
Boise State enters year two of the Jim Thomas era with enthusiasm to burn. The Broncos bring back seven starters from a 13-win team that finished third in the league last year, including top midfielder Brooke Heidemann. New Mexico, Utah State and Fresno State were also picked to finish in the top half of the league with a core of experience returning in 2014.