A year ago, it was unrealistic for many of the 14 league members to win the ACC women’s soccer championship because of the strength of the field, which included as many as eight nationally-ranked teams.
This year, it will be impossible for 10 teams to stake a title claim, because only four teams will qualify for the ACC tournament. With the arrival of four teams from the former Big East having swelled expansion in the past two years, the ACC women’s soccer coaches made a couple of major changes in the championship format. First, ACC teams will play only 10 league matches, down from 13 a year ago. That’s so schools can schedule more non-conference opponents, cut down on travel, and spread out the conference schedule. Second, only the top four teams in the ACC standings will play for the league championship at UNC Greensboro from Nov. 7-9.
Had that format existed a year ago, the four teams in the ACC tournament – Virginia, Florida State, North Carolina and Virginia Tech – would have ranked among the top six in the nation. Three of them – all except UNC – made the College Cup, soccer’s final four. So the ACC tournament may be smaller this year, but it probably won’t be any easier to win.
The three Triangle teams in the ACC open the season this weekend. Duke and UNC play in the UNC Nike Invitational, with Duke facing Ohio State and UNC taking on Stanford on Friday. Sunday’s pairings have Duke-Stanford and UNC-Ohio State. N.C. State hosts UNC Wilmington on Friday night and Portland on Sunday.
Here are outlooks for the three Triangle teams:
Only three players who scored goals last year return: senior forward Kelly Cobb, sophomore midfielder Toni Payne and sophomore defender Malinda Allen, who won’t be cleared for contact until Sept. 1 (knee). In addition to losing three of his top four scorers, Duke coach Robbie Church must replace half of his back line. In addition, Christina Gibbons, a starter on defense as a freshman, was unavailable for the Blue Devils’ two exhibition matches because she was playing for the U.S. in the Under-20 Women’s World Cup in Canada. Sophomore midfielder Rebecca Quinn also played in the tournament for Canada.
Although the Blue Devils return only six starters from last year, two midfielders who missed the 2013 season with injuries received medical redshirts and are back. Two years ago, redshirt sophomore Cassie Pecht (knee) was the ACC and national freshman of the year, recording six goals and 15 assists, while redshirt senior Gilda Doria (knee) added six goals and 11 assists. Pecht won’t be cleared for contact until September.
Meghan Thomas, who overcame an early-season injury to win the goalkeeping job at midseason, returns as a redshirt senior. However, the 6-foot-2 Thomas had offseason shoulder surgery and is being pressed hard for the starting role by redshirt junior Ali Kershner, who started 11 games, and freshman EJ Proctor.
Two of Duke’s incoming freshmen also trained with a national team. Imani Dorsey and Schuyler DeBree traveled to Mexico to play with the U.S. U-18 squad, coached by former UNC star April Heinrichs. Dorsey and Cardinal Gibbons grad Morgan Reid were named to TopDrawerSoccer.com’s Best XI Freshman team.
Junior forward Summer Green, a creative goal scorer and passer, will anchor the offense, where junior Paige Nielsen and sophomores Amber Munerlyn and Emily Bruder also saw considerable time last year. Senior Alexa Newfield (0g-3a) would be a factor here, but she is sidelined by a knee injury and could miss the season.
Dunn’s absence will be felt in the midfield because she was so dynamic on the ball. Sophomores Joanna Boyles of Sanderson High in Raleigh and Darcy McFarlane stood out there in the spring, and sophomore Cameron Castleberry of Ravenscroft was a reserve on the wing. Brooke Elby played a large role as a holding midfielder last year but could move to defense. Three freshmen are also in the mix for playing time in the midfield: Jessie Scarpa, Megan Buckingham and Alex Kimball of Chapel Hill High.
Two starters are back on defense in senior Satara Murray and junior Hanna Gardner, although Gardner won’t be available until at least September because of a knee injury. Caitlin Ball, who would be a senior, had to give up soccer because of repeated concussions, so there is an opening for a center back. Junior Katie Bowen is a likely candidate there, as is sophomore Niki Romero.
Green and Bowen missed both of UNC’s exhibition matches because of the U-20 World Cup. Green played for the U.S., and Bowen captained the New Zealand team.
Junior Bryane Heaberlin started 10 games in goal a year ago and will probably share time with redshirt sophomore Lindsey Harris, as coach Anson Dorrance likes to rotate his goalkeepers, at least during the regular season.
To keep the momentum, Santoro has brought in a top 20-rated, seven-player freshman class, plus two transfers in junior midfielder Jenna Kalwa (Penn State) and redshirt sophomore forward Alexa Allen (Auburn). Kalwa scored a goal and two assists in 12 games over two years for the Nittany Lions, who made the NCAA final in 2012. Allen (3 goals, 3 assists) was one of Auburn’s top five scorers in 2012. Both players joined the Wolfpack last spring, but Allen will be absent while she plays for Jamaica this week in the Caribbean Cup, which is the second stage of qualifying for the 2015 World Cup.
Freshman defender Franziska Jaser is still playing for Germany in the U-20 World Cup in Canada and will miss the first two regular-season matches.
The Wolfpack’s star is sophomore forward Jackie Stengel. She was N.C. State’s leading scorer and made the All-ACC freshman team. There are proven scorers to support her in juniors Brittany Stanko and Caroline Gentry, but N.C. State will have to improve defensively to move into the ACC’s upper echelon. Junior defender Dayna Tomayko’s return to health will help. She started the first 10 games before missing the rest of the season with an injury. Senior Jessica Baity is the only other defender with considerable experience as a starter, so there are jobs to be won on the back line.
Mackenzie Stelljes, who started 15 games in goal as a redshirt freshman, was called upon to make an ACC-high 83 saves and 11 times recorded five or more in a match. She is backed up by sophomore Karly Gustafson, who started four games last year.