As always, Penn State is the team to beat, but the Illini and Wolverines are lurking if the Nittany Lions falter.
Women's soccer has taken to starting its season ahead of the other fall sports, which always leaves those of us who cover the sport scrambling a bit to get our previews and predictions done in time. This year is no different, with the season starting for many teams tomorrow night. It's time to take a look at the Big Ten conference and make a stab at some predictions. Let's start with my preseason choices to take home the major awards.
Forward of the Year: Maya Hayes - Penn State. Hayes took the conference by storm her sophomore season, scoring 31 goals in 26 games and taking home this award for her efforts. She was slowed a bit last season because of her play with the USA U-20 team, and "only" 16 goals in 20 games. Her biggest competition for this honor figures to be Michigan's Nkem Ezurike, especially with Taylor Uhl transferring from Minnesota to Stanford in the offseason.
Midfielder of the Year: Vanessa DiBernardo - Illinois. Like Hayes, DiBernardo had a standout sophomore campaign, winning this award and leading the Illini to a Big Ten Tournament title. As a junior, she posted her lowest goal and point totals as and Illini after returning from U-20 duty, but that was still enough to earn first-team all-Big Ten honors. Also keep an eye on Michigan senior Meghan Toohey and Penn State sophomore Raquel Rodriguez.
Defender of the Year: Holly Hein - Michigan. Hein has come all the way back from both knee surgery and treatment for thyroid cancer to become a first-team all-Big Ten defender in 2012. As the leader of one of the top defenses in the league, she's a top candidate for this honor. Penn State's Whitney Church should also be in the mix, as she's on the preseason MAC Hermann Award watch list, given to the nation's outstanding player.
Goalkeeper of the Year: Jillian McVicker - Ohio State. This is probably the most wide open of all the positional awards this season, as most conference contenders are going with new, or relatively inexperienced, players at the position. McVicker took over as starter for the Buckeyes down the stretch and played very well, as she was named to the Big Ten all-Freshman team. But with new starters in goal at Penn State, Michigan, Illinois and Minnesota, among others, this one is really anybody's guess.
Coach of the Year: Greg Ryan - Michigan. Ryan has done a fine job rebuilding a Michigan program that had fallen on hard times before his arrival in 2008, leading Michigan to a Sweet 16 appearance last season. The Wolverines have much of that 2012 team returning, and should push Penn State very hard for the conference championship in 2013.
Freshman of the Year: Rose LaVelle - Wisconsin. LaVelle has a great opportunity to step into a playmaking role for Paula Wilkins' Wisconsin squad, and has a good target up top in Cara Walls. Also watch Britney Basinger, a highly-touted defender for Penn State.
On to the predicted order of finish for the league in 2013.
1. Penn State. After a run to the College Cup final in 2012, the 15-time defending Big Ten champions still have talent aplenty in State College. They do have some key pieces to replace in midfielder Christine Nairn and goalkeeper Erin McNulty (among others), but with Maya Hayes back to lead the attack and Whitney Church to anchor a solid back line, pick against the Nittany Lions at your peril.
2. Michigan. With nine starters returning from last season's Sweet 16 team, the Wolverines probably have the best chance of anyone to knock Penn State from atop the league standings. Nkem Ezurike is a handful up top, and it looks like she'll get some help from sophomore Corinne Harris, who tallied a hat trick in an exhibition win over Dayton. The one question mark is in goal, where Michigan must replace four-year starter (and All-American) Haley Kopmeyer.
3. Illinois. Last year's U-20 championships may have affected the Illini as much as any team in the country. Vanessa DiBernardo is arguably as important to the Illini as any player in a major conference is to their squad. Without DiBernardo in the first month, the Illini didn't play badly, but even after her return they never reached the level of play they attained in 2011. Despite a season of ups and downs, Illinois reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament and the Big Ten Tournament final. With DiBernardo and head coach Janet Rayfield (who was a U-20 assistant) back for the full season, look for a bit more continuity in the Illini attack this season.
4. Wisconsin. The Badgers were another team that dealt with a roller coaster season. The end result was elimination in the opening rounds of both the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments. Paula Wilkins has a young, but fairly experienced squad, with just two scholarship seniors. Freshman midfielder Rose Lavelle could have a big impact on the Badgers attack, which also returns 10-goal scorer Cara Walls.
5. Ohio State. After several seasons of up-and-down performances, the Buckeyes program has become one of the most consistent in the Big Ten, with four consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances. Last season ended with a thud when OSU was eliminated in the NCAA first round by a plucky Oakland squad. Head coach Lori Walker has much to replace, including leading scorer Tiffany Cameron. A non-conference schedule starting with four consecutive winnable home matches should give some young players a chance to get comfortable before the schedule toughens.
6. Iowa. The Hawkeyes have made no bones about their goal for the 2013 season...an NCAA Tournament berth. They weren't that far away in 2012, but were undone by a weak finish to their Big Ten season, and a non-conference schedule that could be charitably described as weak. Barring a surprise, their 2013 non-conference schedule won't do them any favors either, as none of those squads posted an RPI in the top 100 last season. They do return much of their scoring firepower from last season, including junior Cloe Lacasse, who led Iowa with 13 goals last season.
7. Northwestern. Michael Moynihan's young Wildcat squad showed some pluck late last season by closing out the regular season with three wins over Illinois, Iowa and Michigan State. Almost all of the offense returns, including leading scorer Kate Allen. Look for this program to continue to show progress in year two of Moynihan's rebuilding program.
8. Nebraska. The Cornhuskers continue to have peaks and valleys playing their unconventional brand of soccer in the Big Ten. Nebraska will continue to score goals at a pretty high pace, but they take so many chances defensively that their chances of moving up the table this season look pretty slim. They recorded one shutout in league play, and that was in the opener against a struggling Northwestern side. Until they figure out how to allow fewer than four goals to the league's better teams (Penn State, Ohio State, Illinois and Minnesota all hit that number in 2012), Nebraska will find themselves in a fight to make the Big Ten tournament by finishing in the top eight.
9. Minnesota. The Gophers may have as many question marks as any team heading into this season. One big question is...who will make up for the goalscoring of Taylor Uhl? The junior transferred to national power Stanford in the offseason, clouding the immediate future under second-year coach Stefanie Golan. There are some quality pieces returning, including junior Katie Thyken. If Golan can work 12 newcomers (8 freshmen, 4 tranfers) into the mix without too many issues, the Gophers could finish a spot or two higher.
10. Purdue. It was strange to see a Rob Klatte-coached team struggle as much defensively as the Boilermakers did in 2012, allowing 32 goals on the season. They do return much of last year's roster, including leading scorers Jordan Pawlik and Alex Hairston. Purdue hasn't made the NCAA Tournament, or even finished with a winning record since 2009. They'll need to show some progress in 2013, or there could be changes coming in West Lafayette.
11. Michigan State. The post-Laura Heyboer era in East Lansing did not get off to a good start, as MSU finished out of any postseason play with an 8-9-2 overall record, and just 2-8-1 in league action. With only one senior on Tom Saxton's roster, it could be tough for the Spartans to show much improvement.
12. Indiana. The Hoosiers said goodbye to long-time head coach Mick Lyon in the offseason (retired), and welcome new head coach Amy Berbary from Auburn, where she was an assistant for the last five seasons. IU loses just three starters, but one of them is leading scorer Orianica Velasquez. Year one of a rebuild can often be the toughest. We'll see how Berbary fares in Bloomington.
Thanks for reading. I'll break down the Illini's schedule tomorrow in detail.