Two years ago during the Women’s College Cup at Cary’s WakeMed Soccer Park, Florida State coach Mark Krikorian remarked that he would love to see the event played in Florida sometime, where it had never been held in its 32-year history.
Krikorian got his wish, and then some. Including last year’s College Cup, Florida cities will have hosted three of the next four installments of soccer’s final four. The Seminoles celebrated by winning the 2014 NCAA championship at Boca Raton, Fla., beating Virginia 1-0 as FSU became only the second ACC school – after 21-time winner North Carolina – to claim the title. (Note: Notre Dame was not an ACC member when it won its three NCAA crowns.)
The NCAA championship returns to Cary Dec. 4-6, with the four-team ACC tournament set for Nov. 6-8. So who are the likely ACC candidates to make those fields?
Preseason No. 1 FSU and No. 2 UVa are good bets, even though the Seminoles were a senior-dominated team a year ago and the Cavaliers said goodbye to World Cup champion Morgan Brian and ACC midfielder of the year Danielle Colaprico.
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Locally, No. 7 North Carolina again has the depth and firepower to challenge nationally. ACC stalwarts Notre Dame (No. 9), Virginia Tech (No. 13) and Clemson (No. 22) also earned preseason national rankings. Duke, with a veteran cast and some top-notch recruits, could be the sleeper pick for a deep NCAA run after several key performers earned valuable success in the offseason. N.C. State, winless in the ACC a year ago, should be much improved with a healthy Jackie Stengel, who missed almost the entire season with a knee injury.
The unbalanced schedule takes a toll on local rivalries this fall. UNC and N.C. State aren’t scheduled to meet in the regular season in either men’s or women’s soccer. Ditto for the Duke and Wake Forest men and women.
The three Triangle teams in the ACC open their seasons this weekend. Duke and UNC play in the UNC Nike Invitational, with Duke facing Fresno State at 5 p.m. and UNC taking on Weber State at 7 p.m. Friday. Sunday’s pairings have Duke-Weber State at 11 a.m. and UNC-Fresno State at 1 p.m. N.C. State travels to the West Coast to play host San Diego (Friday) and Pepperdine (Sunday) in the Torero Classic before returning to Raleigh for its home opener Aug. 27 against Elon.
Here are outlooks for the ACC’s Triangle teams:
Coach: Robbie Church (254-154-48 in 21 years, 167-105-37 in 14 years at Duke)
2014 record: 8-9-1, 4-5-1 ACC
Finish: 7th ACC, no NCAA bid
Starters returning: 9
Preseason ranking: Unranked
Key losses: F Kelly Cobb (5 goals-2 assists-12 points), M Gilda Doria (0-1-1), GK Ali Kershner (0.95 goals-against avg., 4 shutouts)
Key returnees: Jr. M-F Toni Payne (7-5-19), So. M-F Imani Dorsey (3-3-9), Jr.. D Christina Gibbons (3-3-9), Jr. D Rebecca Quinn (2-2-6), Sr. M Kara Wilson (0-0-0), So. D Schuyler DeBree (0-2-2), Jr. D Lizzy Raben (0-0-0), So. M Ashton Miller (1-2-4), So. D Morgan Reid (0-0-0), R-Jr. M Cassie Pecht (6-15-27 in 2012)
Top newcomers: Fr. M Taylor Racioppi, Fr. M Kat McDonald, Fr. F Kayla McCoy, Fr. M Chelsea Burns
Won’t play: Clemson, Syracuse, Wake Forest
Overview: “We have more options than we have had in the past – we have more talent,” said Duke coach Robbie Church, surveying the depth in his lineup with satisfaction after a 1-0 exhibition win over Clemson last Saturday.
Church’s optimism is warranted. Despite a misleading record, Duke was a strong team last year but missed out on postseason play because of untimely injuries and a killer schedule. However, nine starters are back, and that doesn’t include redshirt junior midfielder Cassie Pecht, the national freshman of the year in 2012, and Malinda Allen, a starter in midfield in 2013. Pecht missed the past two seasons with a knee injury but was cleared to return to action late in the spring.
Five of the top six goal scorers are back, so that’s a plus. The big loss here was Kelly Cobb, who scored 25 goals in her career, including five last season.
Coach: Anson Dorrance (777-58-31 in 36 years, all at UNC)
2014 record: 14-5-2, 9-0-1 ACC
Finish: T-1st ACC, advanced to NCAA third round
Starters returning: 9
Preseason ranking: 7th
Key losses: D Satara Murray (0-1-1), F Amber Munerlyn (3-4-10 transfer to UCLA), M Brooke Elby (0-1-1)
Key returnees: Sr. F Summer Green (2-6-10), Jr. F Emily Bruder (5-2-12), Jr. M Joanna Boyles (3-8-14), So. F Jessie Scarpa (0-0-0), Sr. M Katie Bowen (0-3-3), Jr. M Cameron Castleberry (2-3-7), Sr. D Paige Nielsen (5-1-11), So. M Megan Buckingham (4-0-8), Sr. F Alexa Newfield (0-3-3 in 2013), Jr. D Hanna Gardner (0-1-1 in 2013), Sr. GK Bryane Heaberlin (0.85 GAA)
Top newcomers: M Dorian Bailey, M Kate Morris, D Julia Ashley, GK Samantha Leshnak
Won’t play: N.C. State, Pittsburgh, Virginia
Overview: The Tar Heels shared the ACC regular-season title with Florida State last year but came up short in the postseason. They lost to Virginia in the ACC semifinals and to South Carolina in the NCAA third round, their earliest exit in the national championships since 2011.
“I think we’re going to be better than last year,” veteran coach Anson Dorrance said. “We have some exciting newcomers, and we lost only one (full-time) starter to graduation. So I’m excited about our potential.”
At times UNC struggled to score goals in 2014, although that problem should be remedied by the return to health of redshirt senior forward Alexa Newfield. The former Georgia transfer missed last year with an ACL tear and was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA because of medical hardship. She had missed her original junior year at Georgia with a knee injury.
Coach: Tim Santoro (9-27-2 in 2 years, all at N.C. State)
2014 record: 2-15-2, 0-10 ACC
Finish: 14th ACC, no NCAA bid
Starters returning: 9
Preseason ranking: Unranked
Key losses: F Kayla Saager (5-1-11, transfer to West Virginia), D Franziska Jaser (0-3-3, turned pro with FC Freiburg, Women’s Bundesliga), M Jessica Baity (3-0-6), GK Karly Gustafson (3.01 GAA, transfer to Winthrop)
Key returnees: R-So. F Jackie Stengel (9-1-19 in 2013), R-Jr. D Dayna Tamayko (2-2-6), Sr. M Jenna Kalwa (1-2-4), R-Jr. F Alexa Allen (1-3-5), Sr. F Brittany Stanko (2-2-6), Sr. F Caroline Gentry (0-2-2), Jr. D Alyson Brown (0-0-0), So. D Cailyn Boch (0-0-0), So. M Annah Lindberg (2-0-4), Sr. D Michelle Oestreich (0-00), So. D Mackenzie Graybill (0-1-1), R-Jr. GK Mackenzie Stelljes (2.04 GAA, 1 SO)
Top newcomers: M Taylor Porter, F Maxine Blackwood, Fr. M Ella Bonner, GK Sydney Wootten
Won’t play: Notre Dame, UNC, Wake Forest
Overview: “I’ll be satisfied with our lineup once we get healthy,” third-year N.C. State coach Tim Santoro said after the Wolfpack’s only preseason exhibition, a 3-0 loss to South Carolina.
That was a lingering problem in 2014, when the Pack took a decided step backward. Because of injuries – notably an ACL tear suffered by leading scorer Jackie Stengel – Santoro never could put his best team on the field. As a result, the Wolfpack failed to win an ACC match after jumping 49 points in the RPI in Santoro’s first campaign.