UNC favored to repeat as national champions, but faces stiff competition
North Carolina nearly made school history last year, but the Tar Heels are thankful they didn’t.
Never before had the Tar Heels gone three years without capturing a national title, and had it not been for an improbable playoff run, that would have happened. But now with the championship in tow, UNC is looking to be the first repeat champions since it did it in 2008-09.
Eight starters are back from that Tar Heels team that defeated three No. 1 seeds in last year's tournament. Last year’s leading scorer and College Cup most outstanding player Keahlia Ohai returns to anchor UNC’s attack. Ohai scored the first goal against Penn State in the second minute before defender Hannah Gardner –- who returns with Caitlin Bell and Satara Murray to give UNC its top three defenders back –- scored the game-winning goal early in the second half. That gave the Heels their 21st title in 32 years.
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Gone from last year’s squad are three starters -- forward Maria Lubrano, four-year starter at midfield Amber Brooks and keeper Adelaide Gay. Anna Sieloff, the only other keeper to start a game in 2012, looks to be the starter after not giving up a goal in 251 minutes last season.
The offense returns its top-two point-getters in Ohai and 22-point scorer sophomore Summer Green.
UNC is ranked No. 1 in the NSCAA coaches' poll to start the season, but Penn State could once again have a say in if North Carolina is going to extend its dominance. The Nittany Lions are ranked No. 4 after returning eight starters from the first Big 10 team to reach the national championship game.
Two-time All-American Maya Mayes returns at forward and the defense is backed up by the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Whitney Church. Another key returner is Big Ten Freshman of the Year Raquel Rodriguez, who had four goals and 18 points in her debut year.
Last year’s leading scorer, Christine Naim (17 goals, 46 points), has graduated, as well as standout keeper Erin McNutly. Redshirt sophomore Britt Eckerstrom started four games last year in goal, winning all of them while posting a .89 goals-against average.
Penn State’s ranking is its highest preseason ranking since it was No. 3 in 2006. But a high ranking is expected after reaching the title game and going undefeated in Big Ten play for the fifth time in school history.
The Pac-12 contains two big threats to UNC’s title defense. No. 2 Stanford and No. 5 UCLA both can knock off the Tar Heels. The Cardinal, the four-time reigning PAC-12 champion, has made five consecutive College Cups and will benefit with the addition of the nation’s leading scorer, Taylor Uhl.
Uhl transferred after spending her first two seasons at Minnesota. In her sophomore season last year, she scored 21 goals for a nation-high 51 points. She will be allowed to play immediately and will help ease the loss of five starters from last year’s team.
The Cardinal’s offense should be potent with Uhl and fellow All-American Courtney Verloo at attack. Another All-American, keeper Emily Oliver, returns to bolster a defense that gave up 15 goals last season.
UCLA has its own strong defense, led by junior defender and two-time All-American Abby Dahlkemper. She helped keepers Katelyn Rowland (who returns for her junior season) and Alana Munger post 14 shutouts and a .55 goals-against average. Rowland set the school record for consecutive shutout minutes last year with 564.
Nine starters return from last year’s team but the Bruins are on their third head coach in four years. B.J. Snow left the team in December to become head coach for the U.S. U-17 national team after a two-year tenure in Los Angeles. The school hired former UCF head coach Amanda Cromwell to replace Snow after Cromwell led the Knights for 14 years, compiling a 203-83-26 record and 11 NCAA tournament appearances.
While UCLA has had some changes the past few years, No. 3 Florida State is entering its ninth year under Mark Krikorian. In his time, he has led the Seminoles to six College Cup appearances, including one last year.
Six starters return from last year’s team, including school-record holder keeper Kelsey Wys, a senior who owns the marks for wins (51), shutouts (30) and starts (68).
In front of Wys is top defender Kassey Kallman, who helped the team to a program-high 17 shutouts last season and a .62 goals-against average and 17 shutouts.
The Seminoles offense loses top scores Tiffany McCarty and Jessica Price who combined to score 88 goals and 59 assists in their careers. Krikorian will rely on Iceland native Dagny Brynjarsdottir to replace some of that production. Brynjarsdottir was second on the team last year with nine goals and 23 points.
Last year, UNC was ranked No. 8 and Penn State was No. 9 to start the season, so chances are a team or two will rise up and make a surprise entrance into the College Cup. But for right now, it’s UNC’s turn atop the polls -- an all-too-familiar refrain for the other teams in the sport.