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2016 Conf Previews: Southland, SWAC, more

Article Written by Will Parchman
Published: August 8, 2016

Southern Conference

2015 Conference Honors
Conference Tournament Champion: Furman
Player of the Year: Sarah Zadrazil, East Tennessee State
Defensive Player of the Year: Olivia Cole, Samford
Coach of the Year: Todd Yelton, Samford
Freshman of the Year: Caylin Prillaman, UNC Greensboro

Teams (2015 overall, conference record)
Samford (14-5-1, 8-1-0)
Furman (17-5-1, 7-1-1)
UNC Greensboro (9-9-3, 6-2-1)
Mercer (9-8-4, 5-3-1)
East Tennessee State (9-9-1, 4-4-1)
Western Carolina (8-8-3, 4-4-1)
Wofford (6-8-4, 3-4-2)
UT Chattanooga (4-12-3, 2-6-1)
VMI (6-13-2, 2-7-0)
The Citadel (1-19-0, 0-9-0)

Behind an stout defense led by the conference’s top defensive player, Samford(m) surprised the SoCon by stealing the regular season conference title out from under frontrunner Furman and superstar midfielder Stephanie DeVita. Furman exacted its revenge in the conference tournament by winning the tourney title for the second time in three years and advancing to the NCAA tournament. But DeVita is now gone, leaving Furman vulnerable after losing its talisman. There’s still plenty of talent, and forward Carlie Couch is among the conference’s best. But with the core of its defense back, including 2015 DPOY Olivia Cole and conference first team keeper Anna Maddox, Samford may well repeat its regular season crown.

Behind the two frontrunners in 2016, there are a few sides looking to elbow into one of the top two tourney seeds. UNC Greensboro was arguably the pleasant surprise of the conference in 2015, posting an incredibly impressive six goals against and leaning on some wildly impressive youth. Greensboro lost some quality at the back to graduation, but the return of Kiwi Georgia Brown will be a boost. If they can cope with some losses from a massively talented senior class, they should be back in the top four again.

Mercer, East Tennessee State, Western Carolina and Wofford were all in a logjam in the middle of the conference, and who separates from who is up for much debate. ETSU might take a step back without POTY Sarah Zadrazil, while Mercer seems as well poised as anyone to leap into the top two after building a mountain of confidence in the 2015 conference tourney. Mercer shocked Samford in penalties in the conference semis and it took Furman two overtimes to bump them off in the final. Mercer did it with a team ethos despite not landing anyone on the year-end conference 1st team, and despite some losses the return of defensive captain Katelyn Dimopolous and midfield maestro Maddie Clark will make Mercer dangerous yet again in 2016.

Southland Conference

2015 Conference Honors
Conference Tournament Champion: Southeastern Louisiana
Player of the Year: Amanda Doyle, Stephen F. Austin
Freshman of the Year: Camille Bassett, Central Arkansas
Newcomer of the Year: Bettina Brulhart, McNeese State
Coach of the Year: Wally Crittenden, Stephen F. Austin

Teams (2015 overall, conference record)
Stephen F. Austin (9-8-1, 8-1-2)
Houston Baptist (10-6-1, 8-3-0)
Abilene Christian (8-8-3, 7-2-2)
Southeastern Louisiana (13-5-4, 6-3-2)
Sam Houston State (10-6-5, 6-3-2)
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (5-11-2, 5-5-1)
Lamar(w) (8-11-1, 4-6-1)
Central Arkansas (7-11-2, 4-6-1)
Nicholls State(w) (6-10-1, 4-7-0)
Northwestern State (5-10-4, 2-6-3)
McNeese State (6-11-0, 3-8-0)
Incarnate Word (3-14-2, 1-8-2)

The 2015 season was hardly a vintage one for SFA headed into conference play. They’d lost six of their first seven games and were seemingly as vulnerable as ever. And yet the conference still couldn’t break the Ladyjacks’ hold on the Southland, and SFA managed to win its fifth regular season title in a row. It ultimately couldn’t bring home the conference tourney, but it was an impressive display nonetheless. If any team is going to stop them on their quest for a sixth straight, they’ll have to do better.

The conference tends to twirl around SFA, and 2015 was supposed to be a rebuilding year. The conference will have a tougher time with the Ladyjacks in 2016, as conference POTY midfielder Amanda Doyle returns alongside keeper Lillie Ehlert and hugely effective forward Hanna Barker, among others. Sam Houston State was the lone team to nick a regular season win off SFA last year, and their solidly built defense was the key. The Bearcats lose some key figures, but the return of 1st team all-conference defender Caitlin Schwartz should lead them back into relevancy in 2016. Houston Baptist and Abilene Christian, both of whom return quality starters, should also be back in the mixer in 2016. Abilene Christian in particular has been on the up-and-up for a few years, and an exceedingly young roster featuring talent like Kelsie Roberts and sophomore Dylan Owens will only get better.

Southeastern Louisiana, which won its second conference tourney title in three years, showed uncommon grit in the postseason, but they have some major question marks with some key players departing. They won 13 games on the back of Canadian midfielder Gisenia Utreras, but she’s graduated alongside keystone defender Maddie Allen. If they can get some contributions from the young core, the top half of the conference should be a grinder yet again in 2016. The question is whether anyone can stop SFA from finishing top again?

SWAC

2015 Conference Honors
Conference Tournament Champion: Howard
Offensive Player of the Year: Nykosi Simmons, Mississippi Valley
Defensive Player of the Year: Kyleigh Io, Jackson State
Co-Freshman of the Year: Faith Toennies (Jackson State), Karrisa Fenwick (Arkansas Pine Bluff)
Goalkeeper of the Year: Faith Toennies, Jackson State

Teams (2015 overall, conference record)
Mississippi Valley (13-7-2, 8-1-1)
Jackson State (11-7-2, 8-1-1)
Howard (13-8-2, 7-3-0)
Alabama State (9-11-1, 7-3-0)
Texas Southern (8-11-0, 6-4-0)
Arkansas Pine Bluff (7-10-1, 6-4-0)
Prairie View A&M (9-9-1, 5-5-0)
Alabama A&M (3-13-0, 3-7-0)
Grambling State (2-11-0, 2-8-0)
Southern University (2-15-0, 2-8-0)
Alcorn State (0-13-0, 0-10-0)

A dynasty is rising at Howard, which is quickly establishing itself as the go-to answer as to who has the SWAC on lock-down. The Bison weren’t the conference’s best during the 2015 regular season, but the cream rose in the postseason tourney as Howard won its second consecutive title. After watching Mississippi Valley and Jackson State duke it out for the regular season crown, Howard took the NCAA bid, and 2016 looks to be another step in the process. Of the 22 players named to conference preseason first and second teams, an incredible eight were Howard players. That includes preseason Offensive POY Kela Gray, Defensive POY Kendall Hamilton and keeper Mackenzie Diotte. Unsurprisingly, Howard should be the conference’s team to beat this year.

As Howard mounts its assault on the top after finishing third, Mississippi Valley and Jackson State will attempt a return to the summit they shared in 2015. Jackson State lost a raft of talent in the offseason, but the return of last year’s DPOY Kyleigh Io should help smooth the transition. Mississippi Valley, meanwhile, relied on the conference’s best attack last year, but they’ll have a lot of work to do to fill in the gaps. They lost 44 goals between Nykosi Simmons and Ernestina Abambila, so they’ll have to plug in with new contributors up top and hope the fall-off isn’t too severe.

Elsewhere, Alabama State returns the quality of Aaliyah Lewis up top, who should be able to carry the goalscoring load for a team that won seven conference games last year. The massive logjam in the middle between Texas Southern, Arkansas Pine Bluff and Prairie View A&M should be interesting to monitor. PVA&M got the highest nod in the preseason poll, but the race to the top is anyone’s game.

Big South Conference

2015 Conference Honors
Conference Tournament Champion: Liberty
Attacking Player of the Year: Ashley Clark, Campbell
Defensive Player of the Year: Alex Persiani, High Point
Freshman of the Year: Kayla Christian, Coastal Carolina
Coach of the Year: Paul Hogan, Coastal Carolina

Teams (2015 overall, conference record)
Liberty (13-8-1, 8-2-0)
Campbell (14-7-0, 7-3-0)
High Point (12-5-4, 6-3-1)
Longwood (9-8-2, 5-3-2)
UNC Asheville (11-9-0, 4-6-0)
Charleston Southern (7-9-2, 4-6-0)
Winthrop (6-9-3, 3-5-2)
Gardner-Webb (6-9-4, 3-5-2)
Presbyterian (6-11-1, 2-7-1)
Radford (6-11-1, 1-8-1)

Liberty did the double last year, bagging the regular season Big South crown and then taking home the tourney title with a 1-0 win over Campbell for a spot in the NCAA tourney. A quality showing against North Carolina propelled them into an offseason spent puzzling out ways to repeat. And the good news for Liberty is they did it all without a single huge superstar propelling them forward. The return of quality contributors like Jennifer Knoebel and Holly Van Noord should leave Liberty in good position to repeat at least one of their titles from last season. They’ll have teams charging hard at their back, though, so they’ll need to continue their improvement after a hot finish to the 2015 season.

Campbell has quality back from a team that lost in the conference tourney final but loses some key pieces, notably last year’s Attacking POTY Ashley Clark. The door for Coastal Carolina has never been more open. Elsewhere, High Point and Longwood are doing their best to crack into the top two. High Point’s quality defense should be back in form this season through the exploits of Kelsey Perrell, while Longwood will have to find a way to replace the first team duo of Olivia Colella and Alana Mackey, both of whome graduated. The lower half of the standings from last year look improved across the board, so the league should have even more parity in its ranks this season.

 
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