Aug. 26, 2009

By Douglas Kroll
NCAA.com


Only a handful of teams have won a Division I Women's Soccer national championship since it became an NCAA sport in 1982. Nobody's really had the chance, thanks in large part to North Carolina's 19 national championships, including the Tar Heels' latest triumph in 2008.

Plenty of storylines dot the landscape in 2009. Can UCLA's or Penn State's long streak of conference championships be stopped? Will Notre Dame exact some revenge on North Carolina early on?

One of the best things we'll see this season are the rematches of nearly every big NCAA Tournament game from a year ago. Teams will certainly have second chances, and in the case of some rivalries, third or fourth tries.

Florida

The 2009 Florida Gators will be young. Twenty-five of the 33 players on the roster are freshmen or sophomores, but head coach Becky Burleigh saw the 2008 Gators reach the Round of 16 in the NCAA Tournament and become the first team in the SEC to go undefeated in conference play since round-robin play began in 2004. Three SEC All-Freshman team members headline the returning group of Gators, as Tahnai Annis, Jazmyne Avant and Lindsay Thompson - are back in 2009. Annis and Thompson combined for 16 goals in their first collegiate season and are the top two scorers from the 2008 edition.

The incoming freshman class will bring accolades to Gainesville, with five of the 11 members having been named high school All-Americans. The young Gators will face stiff tests, with exactly half of the team's 20-game schedule coming against teams that made the NCAA Tournament in 2008, with things getting started right away against tough in-state rival Miami on the road.

Florida State
Losing five of 11 starters off a team that made it to the Round of 16 the year before is rarely a good thing, but when one of those returning is Tiffany McCarty, things don't seem so bad for fifth-year head coach Mark Krikorian. McCarty will be the leader of the '09 `Noles, as the sophomore returns as the team's leading scorer following an 11-goal, 28-point freshman campaign. And for a Seminoles team that is looking to make it to the Women's College Cup for the fifth time in seven seasons, they should never be ignored.

Last season's 8-1-1 record in ACC play was something to be proud of, especially the one 2-2 tie, which came at Chapel Hill against the eventual national champions. And it looks even better when you take into account they were without star goalkeeper Erin McNulty, who redshirted a season ago to compete with the U-20 Canadian National Team. McNulty went 18-6-3 as she started all 27 games for the Seminoles in 2007, logging more than 2,300 minutes in the process.

North Carolina
A program that boasts an NCAA-record 19 D-I national championships is a terrifying enough prospect for opponents when they go up against the powerhouse that is North Carolina. Add in that head coach Anson Dorrance enters his 31st season at UNC with 11 starters returning from last season's national title team, and you can understand why there is a measure of worry across not only other ACC campuses, but across the nation as a whole. The Tar Heels will look to win No. 20, a year after leading the nation with 89 goals en route to a 25-1-2 record and yet another ACC championship.

Leading the charge once again will be senior Casey Nogueira, who led the nation in goals with 25 in 2008, and was also named the nation's player of the year. Unfortunately for the rest of the country, there's more than just Nogueira. UNC's second- and third-leading scorers from a year ago are also back, in sophomore Courtney Jones and senior Tobin Heath. Jones found the back of the net 13 times in her freshman season, while Heath tallied 24 points last year.

While the Tar Heels are locked and loaded for yet another College Cup run, the 2009 schedule is certainly not an easy one. Both teams North Carolina beat in Cary, N.C. at the 2008 Women's College Cup await the Heels in the early going, including an opening tilt against UCLA in Chapel Hill. But the match on September 4th against rival Notre Dame in South Bend will certainly be one circled on the calendar for both squads, being that the Irish handed the Tar Heels its only loss of 2008, before UNC got the last laugh in the national championship match with a dramatic 2-1 win. In all, seven of North Carolina's eight non-conference opponents appeared in last season's NCAA Tournament, which will surely leave this already tested group ready for what will be yet another tough year in ACC play.

Notre Dame

Only two programs not named North Carolina have won multiple Division I national championships. Notre Dame's one of them. The Fighting Irish have been right on the cusp of their third national title in school history since last winning in 2004 and after falling in the 2008 national championship game to North Carolina, they'll have a chance at some redemption.

After reaching the national title match in three of the last five seasons, Notre Dame has plenty of talent returning, as it looks to outdo last season's school-record 26-1-0 mark and its 10th conference championship. More than 60 percent of the 2008 offense returns for this year's squad, including Big East rookie of the year Melissa Henderson. The Garland, Texas native scored 17 goals and added two assists in her first collegiate season. Also returning is goalkeeper Kelsey Lysander, who after starting just three games in her first two seasons in South Bend, finished 2008 with 26 wins.

The Irish's 53-2-1 record at Alumni Field over the last four years will certainly be put to the test on September 4th when North Carolina comes calling.

Penn State

Eleven straight Big Ten championships is an impressive feat, and one more in 2009 would tie Penn State with the Michigan women's swimming & diving team for most consecutive titles in Big Ten women's team history. The good news for the Nittany Lions is that Katie Schoepfer and Danielle Toney are back in 2009 after combining for 21 of the team's 40 goals in 2008. And they'll be counted on to bolster a scoring offense that head coach Erica Walsh will look to get some more of, after finishing 96th in the nation with just 1.67 goals per game.

The team will be led on the field by senior team captain and two-time NSCAA First Team All-American Alyssa Naeher. The Seymour, Conn. native made 90 saves in her junior season, helping lead Penn State to a 16-8-0 record, including 8-2-0 in the Big Ten. A 2-1 loss to Rutgers in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament in 2008 is something the Nittany Lions will have a chance to avenge in September when the Scarlet Knights come to Happy Valley in non-conference action.

Portland
Winning their 10th West Coast Conference title - the team's fourth in the last five seasons - and appearing in the NCAA Tournament for the 16th time in 17 tries were the headlines for the Portland Pilots in 2008. A 1-0 loss to Stanford in the Quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament ended that run, but when a freshman was one of the biggest catalysts, there are some things to look forward to in 2009.

Sophomore Danielle Foxhoven returns after leading the Pilots in her first collegiate season with 16 goals, as is junior Sophie Schmidt - the only other Pilot to tally double digits in goals a season ago. And when Director of Soccer Bill Irwin has one of the nation's best goalkeepers returning in senior Kelsey Davis, there's no reason to think Portland won't be right back where it was in 2008. Davis played all 1989:19 minutes for the Pilots last season, which included 14 shutouts in 22 games. A trip to Texas A&M in mid-September will be Portland's stiffest test in the non-conference portion of the schedule, and could go a long way when it comes to seeding in the NCAA Tournament at the end of the year.

Stanford

Dealing with UCLA in the Pac-10 hasn't been an easy task for any team over the last few seasons. But the 2009 Stanford Cardinal return nine of 11 starters from last season's 22-2-1 team, and will likely be UCLA's stiffest competition as the Cardinal hopes to be the team that keeps the Bruins from winning a seventh consecutive Pac-10 championship.

And to say Stanford is stacked, locked and loaded to do just that would be an understatement. Of the 71 goals the Cardinal scored in 2008, only two goals don't return with the loss of defender Allison Falk. That means the top seven scorers are back, including Christen Press' 16 goals and 2008 Hermann Trophy Semifinalist Kelley O'Hara. Also back is goalie Kira Maker, who helped lead Stanford to 17 shutouts in 2008, and all the way to the Women's College Cup.

Texas A&M
When Texas A&M head coach G. Guerrieri started the Aggies program from scratch 17 years ago, no one could have expected the type of success he's brought to College Station. Fourteen consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances and ten Big 12 regular season and tournament titles has seen Texas A&M become not only one of the best teams in the conference, but in the nation. The 2008 season finished in bitter disappointment in the Quarterfinal round of the NCAA Tournament, with a double overtime loss to eventual champion North Carolina.

If there was ever any need for added incentive to get past the Quarterfinals for the first time in school history in 2009, hosting the College Cup in College Station could be as good as any reason out there. Only one starter doesn't return from 2008's squad, but that was leading scorer Laura G. Robinson who led the team with nine goals. Now it's up to the likes of Whitney Hooper and Rachel Shipley, who combined for 11 goals a year ago, to turn things up a notch.

UCLA

For the last six seasons, two of the staples in women's soccer have been UCLA winning the Pac-10 and UCLA making an appearance in the Women's College Cup. The only problem? A national championship has eluded the Bruins each and every time. The good news for the Bruins is that the two leading scorers from a year ago return, as seniors Lauren Cheney and Kristina Larsen bring a combined 61 points back to the pitch in Westwood.

But the biggest loss for head coach Jillian Ellis and her Bruins is that of goalkeeper Ashley Thompson, who helped lead UCLA to a 22-1-2 record a year ago. Thompson allowed just six goals in 24 starts, which gave the Bruins the best goals against average in the nation at .233 goals per game. In steps sophomore Yianna Dimmitt, who started one game as a freshman, to fill big shoes.

Virginia
Scoring goals wasn't a problem for the Cavaliers in 2008, tallying 51 en route to a 15-5-3 season before falling in the Round of 16 to fellow ACC rival Duke. But the 24 the Cavs gave up is something to improve upon, averaging 1.006 goals against per game ranked 84th in the nation. So with the three leading scorers back from last year's team, Lauren Alwine, Meghan Lenczyk, and Sinead Farrelly, there's some definite optimism around Charlottesville.

Head coach Steve Swanson will break in a new goalkeeper in 2009 with the departures of Celeste Miles and Sam Hale. Sophomore Chantel Jones or freshman Carrie Wisman will be between the pipes this season, looking to improve upon a .586 save percentage the team saw a year ago. An early trip to Penn State and a rematch in Durham against Duke headline the 2009 schedule, as the Cavaliers look to continue to build a winning program.