2016 Conference Honors
Offensive Players of the Year: Courtney Dike (Oklahoma State), Michaela Abam (West Virginia)
Defensive Player of the Year: Kadeisha Buchanan, West Virginia
Freshman of the Year: Cyera Hintzen, Texas
Coach of the Year: Nikki Izzo-Brown, West Virginia
West Virginia (23-2-2, 8-0)
Kansas (11-6-4, 5-1-2)
Baylor (12-7-1, 4-3-1)
Oklahoma (14-7-2, 4-3-1)
Iowa State (10-8-1, 3-4-1)
Oklahoma State (9-9-3, 3-4-1)
TCU (12-7-2, 2-5-1)
Texas Tech (9-9-2, 2-6)
Texas (8-9-1, 1-6-1)
Kansas State (4-9-3 as independent)
Every year, the same question seems to hang over the Big 12: can anyone stop, or even moderately slow down, West Virginia? And every year the question seems to come back with an emphatic no. The Mountaineers rolled to their fifth straight Big 12 title last year, and they had it easily sewed up with two games left. West Virginia ultimately made it to the NCAA title game, a first for a Big 12 team, before falling to USC on the finish line.
Despite losing Kadeisha Buchanan, the country’s best player in 2016, West Virginia is locked and loaded with difference-makers and is among the nation's preseason favorites for a reason. Michaela Abam should be at least a top 10 draft pick next year, and the Mountaineers have a further five players on the preseason All-Big 12 team. The depth and top-end talent coach Nikki Izzo-Brown’s cultivated in Morgantown is frankly stunning, and they proved decisively they’re a national elite in 2016 by beating UCLA, Duke and North Carolina en route to the title game. There may be years when the Big 12 can hope to finally overturn West Virginia’s dominance, but this certainly doesn’t appear to be one of them.
As usual, the second tier below West Virginia appears to be a bit of a jumble. Kansas broke out with an impressive 11-win campaign in 2016, but they’ll have to cope with the losses of twin midfield engines Hanna Kallmaier and Taylor Estrada. Grace Hagan exploded as a bonafide No. 1 forward last year and should be expected to carry the scoring burden in 2017. The best Kansas can hope for is to simply not be caught, but in the up-and-down Big 12 that seems unlikely.
Baylor, as usual, got it done in 2016 with hearty defense and discipline, but they’ll need to find more than 1.65 goals per game to improve on four conference wins this year. The return of midfield maestro Julie James should help keep them in just about every game, and the Bears’ youth in some key spots last year grew up fast. The return of difference-makers like Lauren Piercy and freshman All-Big 12er Raegan Padgett gives Baylor a puncher’s chance of finishing second.
Both Oklahoma schools seem like sleeping giants, although 2017 doesn’t appear to be the year for a full reawakening for either. Oklahoma State used to be a lock for a deep NCAA run every year, but the last few seasons spent around .500 knocked down the expectations a bit for 2017. The Cowgirls didn’t land anyone on the preseason All-Big 12 team, and they lost their only two All-Big 12ers from last year in Courtney Dike and Natalie Calhoun. There’s talent here – watch out for Elise Hawn this year – and the return of eight starters should help continuity. But they’ll have to scrap to get on the right side of .500.
Oklahoma, meanwhile, seems to be turning a corner. Historically second-best in-state to OSU, the Sooners won their first ever NCAA tourney game in 2016 and finished the year in the top 25. The return of 18 players from last year’s squad, including one of the league’s best defenders in Paige Welch, should imbue them with hope of a return to the NCAA tourney and a run at the league’s coveted moniker of the-best-team-not-named-West-Virginia.
Iowa State’s been a scrappy unit the last couple years and should be back in the mix again. The fact that the Cyclones managed to win even as many games as they did with just 17 goals 19 games is remarkable in itself. Iowa State was exceptionally young last year, and 14 of those 17 goals return to the fray this season, including the team-leading four from up-and-coming forward Klasey Medelberg. But as good as the defense’s been, they’ll need to find more goals from somewhere if they hope to improve on their 10-win 2016.
The broader question is whether last year’s bottom three can climb up to challenge the rest. Texas has been a frank disappointment since their 2014 NCAA tournament appearance despite a string of notable recruiting successes. Texas seems to be young every year, and its best player in 2017, Cyera Hintzen, is just a sophomore. But the Longhorns are experienced in key spots this year, and excuses are dwindling. The arrival of a potentially game-changing freshman class, including the nation’s best GK recruit in Savannah Madden and USYNT midfielder Haley Berg who's been committed since the 8th grade, could augur a shift in the wind.
TCU’s been slowly catching up with the league since joining a half decade ago, and the Horned Frogs are finally Big 12 competitive from top to bottom. Senior Emma Heckendorn is one of the most exciting players in the league, and if she can hit around nine assists again, TCU should remain dangerous. Texas Tech has a solid incoming freshman class, but the gameplan will continue to rotate around midfielder Jordan Harr, who was electric at times as a freshman in 2016. The transfer of Tatum Barton, who left for Colorado in the summer, thins out the Red Raiders up front.
Finally, Kansas State is coming into the league for its first full-fledged season of Big 12 action. The Wildcats played a non-conference schedule in its first year of existence in 2016 and went a respectable 4-9-3. It's hard to gauge exactly where expectations should reasonably rest for the Wildcats, who have a 12-player freshman class and will need to grow up fast in a league this parity-driven. In its only game against Big 12 opposition last year, Kansas State lost 2-0 to Texas, the conference's worst team. We'll have to wait and see how Kansas State adjusts to the step up in competition.