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SWAC, Southland, SoCon, Big South previews

Article Written by Will Parchman
Published: August 4, 2015

Southern Conference

2014 Conference Awards

Player of the Year: Stephanie DeVita, Furman
Defensive Player of the Year: Catie Moore, Furman
Coach of the Year: Todd Yelton, Samford
Freshman of the Year: Garazi Murua, East Tennessee State

Teams (2014 overall, conference record)

Samford (14-8-0, 7-2-0)
Furman (13-4-2, 6-1-2)
Mercer (14-6-2, 6-1-2)
East Tennessee State (15-6-0, 6-3-0)
Western Carolina (8-7-4, 5-3-1)
UNC Greensboro (9-8-3, 5-3-1)
Wofford (7-11-0, 3-6-0)
The Citadel (7-14-0, 2-7-0)
VMI (3-15-1, 2-7-0)
UT Chattanooga (1-17-1, 0-9-0)

The SoCon was jumbled before last season, and it so happened a newcomer managed to make off with the conference’s bid to the NCAA Tournament. Mercer moonlighted in the first round before being knocked out by Florida, and they should be back in the hunt again. That said, the need in replacing Lauren Gassie and Washida Blackman, who combined for 15 goals and nine assists last year, is enormous. If they can’t, expect them to take a step back in year two in the SoCon.

Furman is probably the best bet to win the conference. The Paladins bring back seven starters from a team that narrowly missed both the regular season and conference tourney titles. If they did the double in 2015, nobody would bat an eyelash. They lose DPOY Moore, but the return of DeVita, who’s still the conference’s best player, will be a huge boost in the midfield. Don’t overlook Samford, either. The Bulldogs knocked off Auburn last year, and they have a solid base to build on with returning stalwarts like Anna Allen at the back and Malcanisha Kelley up top, both of whom are just juniors.

East Tennessee could make a push into the top three with the return of quality midfielder Sarah Zadrazil, who anchored a team that was awfully close to crashing the party behind its league-best offense. Below those four, the pack has some work to do. Western Carolina and UNC Greensboro were both tough outs last season, and the former’s defense was incredibly tough. Wofford, The Citadel, VMI and Chattanooga are all in the midst of rebuilding efforts and the best among them are probably still a year or two away from cracking the conference’s congested upper third.

Southland Conference

2014 Conference Awards

Player of the Year: Zuri Prince, Stephen F. Austin
Freshman of the Year: Hanna Barker, Stephen F. Austin
Newcomer of the Year: Christa Robinson, Stephen F. Austin
Coach of the Year: Wally Crittenden, Stephen F. Austin

Teams (2014 overall, conference record)

Stephen F. Austin (16-3-1, 11-0-0)
Sam Houston State (9-8-2, 8-2-1)
Houston Baptist (10-6-4, 7-1-3)
McNeese State (8-10-1, 6-5-0)
Abilene Christian (8-9-2, 5-4-2)
Southeastern Louisiana (12-8-0, 5-6-0)
Nicholls State(w) (10-10-0, 5-6-0)
Lamar(w) (5-11-2, 3-6-2)
Northwestern State (6-12-1, 3-7-1)
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (4-9-3, 3-7-1)
Incarnate Word (2-13-3, 2-6-3)
Central Arkansas (5-12-2, 1-9-1)

Stephen F. Austin’s 2014 season was as bizarre as it was unfulfilling at season’s end. The Ladyjacks won an unprecedented fourth consecutive Southland regular season title with an unbeaten 11-0-0 record, and the times they were pushed to the brink were few and far between. Not long after sweeping the conference individual awards, they were bounced from the conference tourney title game by a Houston Baptist team it had beaten handily during the regular season.

Motivation shouldn’t be an issue for SFA in its push for five straight this season, and neither should experience. They’ll miss Chelsea Raymond, Zuri Prince and rock-steady keeper Morgan Glick, but Hanna Barker is one of the best women’s college soccer players in Texas. She’s a player to build around for the next three years. If SFA's taught us anything, it's to never bet against its ability to reload its coffers after losing key pieces. The trouble this time could be plugging in for Prince, who won four conference titles in each of her four years. Houston Baptist, meanwhile, might struggle to get back to the NCAA tourney considering they lose the core of one of the league’s best defenses.

If any team can challenge SFA’s hegemony, it looks like Sam Houston State. The Bearcats are deep with returning talent everywhere, and the attacking core of Ashley Alonzo, Shelby McDaniel and Allie Johnson might be the league’s best. McNeese State pushed SFA to OT last year and could crack the top three if Savannah LaRicci has a big follow-up junior year. The rest of the league is probably on the outside looking in where titles and NCAA bids are concerned, but the league’s massive size always seems to produce some dramatics.

SWAC

2014 Conference Awards

Offensive Player of the Year: Aaliyah Lewis, Alabama State
Defensive Player of the Year: Deborah Arguelles, Prairie View A&M
Co-Freshmen of the Year: Heather Craddock (Mississippi Valley), Margaret Sesay (Alabama A&M)
Goalkeeper of the Year: Kyra Dickinson, Howard
Coach of the Year: Brent Leiba, Howard

Teams (2014 overall, conference record)

Howard (14-9-1, 10-1-0)
Prairie View A&M (11-8-1, 8-1-1)
Alabama State (11-10-0, 7-3-0)
Jackson State (9-9-3, 5-3-1)
Texas Southern (5-10-3, 5-3-2)
Mississippi Valley (4-11-3, 4-3-3)
Southern University (4-13-2, 4-4-2)
Alabama A&M (3-13-4, 3-4-3)
Grambling State (2-10-1, 2-7-0)
Arkansas Pine Bluff (2-17-0, 1-9-0)
Alcorn State (0-14-0, 0-11-0)

Howard made good use of its first year in the SWAC. The Lady Bison cruised through the regular season with just one loss, won the regular season crown and then topped Prairie View A&M in the tourney final, only missing out on the NCAA auto bid because of its recent conference switch. Howard will miss Kyra Dickinson between the posts, but enough talent returns to make this side a quality pick to win the conference again. Watch out for Nikanya Clark, the conference’s second-top returning scoring forward.

Alabama State might be the conference’s most interesting team to monitor in 2015. Last season the club had some modest success out of conference but came on in league play behind Aaliyah Lewis, who might be the best out-and-out player in the SWAC. As a junior with a quality returning cast at her back, ASU can challenge for titles. Prairie View A&M might struggle to maintain its position after taking a major hit with the loss of a massive 10-player senior class that included the conference’s DPOY in Arguelles in 2014.

That should crack open the door for the next tier of teams, namely Jackson State, Texas Southern and Mississippi Valley. The latter’s Nykosi Simmons returns alongside an international roster - returning co-frosh of the year Craddock is British - that should make it one of the most improved teams in the conference. Jackson State, meanwhile, returns 20 players off last year’s fourth-place team and they could well nudge above .500 this season.

Big South

2014 Conference Awards

Attacking Player of the Year: Kacey Kelley, Coastal Carolina
Defensive Player of the Year: Holly Van Noord, Liberty
Freshman of the Year: Caroline Houser, UNC Asheville
Coach of the Year: Paul Hogan, Coastal Carolina

Teams (2014 overall, conference records)

Liberty (14-4-2, 8-1-1)
Coastal Carolina (11-8-2, 7-2-1)
High Point (12-5-4, 7-2-1)
Campbell (8-8-3, 5-3-2)
Gardner-Webb (8-10-2, 4-4-2)
Winthrop (8-9-1, 4-5-1)
UNC Asheville (10-9-1, 4-5-1)
Radford (7-10-2, 4-5-1)
Longwood (8-8-3, 3-5-2)
Charleston Southern (5-13-1, 1-8-1)
Presbyterian (3-10-3, 0-7-3)

The Big South was a grinder at the top last season, with Liberty, Coastal Carolina and High Point all trading barbs right until the final day of the conference season. Liberty escaped the regular season with the crown, but High Point stole it with a thrilling double OT winner to earn the right to rep the conference in the dance.

The good news for fans of this conference is all three return enough firepower to wage another memorable three-way battle in 2015. Each team returns a first-team all-conference player, with Liberty folding back in two in Van Noord, the conference’s top keeper, and midfielder Brittany Aanderud. High Point’s Jenny Marshall and Coastal’s Amber Adams make each of those three squads equally poised to do some damage. Even still, a motivated Liberty squad, as they will be after last year’s disappointment, is tough to count out to lift the ultimate trophy at season’s end. There’s too much talent back in play all up and down the team’s spine.

The bigger question is whether a team further down the pecking order can mount a charge and upset the status quo at the top, In a league that featured eight teams with at least four conference wins last year, anything’s possible. Gardner-Webb might struggle to maintain its position with a few key losses from last year, although forward Shelby Hooe was a firecracker last season. Campbell could be the conference’s dark horse if an in-form Ashley Clark can continue her torrid form from 2015 and the younger pieces gel around her.


 
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