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NCAA 2013 Preview: Can UNC defend its crown?

Can North Carolina defend its 2012 NCAA title and continue its women's soccer dominance? It won't be easy, especially in the ACC. (Photo Copyright Debby von Winckelmann for EqualizerSoccer.com)

To the delight of Pro WoSo fans, late August once again brings the tense conclusion of a top-flight league, but that light chill in the air also means it’s time to readjust our game clocks to count backwards — it’s time for the start of NCAA women’s soccer.

With NWSL fans and coaches salivating over the bountiful 2014 draft crop featuring UNC’s Crystal Dunn, Santa Clara’s Julie Johnston and Wake Forest’s Katie Stengel, The Equalizer gives you a brief introduction to who and what to look for this fall.

The ACC

The Heavyweights: North Carolina, Virginia, Florida State, Notre Dame

Contenders: Duke, Wake Forest, Maryland, Boston College

Major Players: Crystal Dunn, Kealia Ohai, Cari Roccaro, Mandy Laddish, Morgan Brian, Kelly Cobb, Katie Stengel, Kelsey Wys, Kassey Kallman

But Don’t Overlook: Meg Morris, Hanna Gardner, Crystal Thomas, Dagny Brynjarsdottir, Stephanie McCaffrey, Danielle Colaprico, Hayley Brock

Mark your Calendars: Sept. 6th – UCLA at North Carolina, Sept. 15th – Notre Dame at North Carolina, Sept. 19th – Wake Forest at Duke, Oct. 27th – Florida State at Virginia, Oct. 31st – Duke at North Carolina / Notre Dame at Florida State

Virtually a Premier League unto itself, half the preseason NSCAA Coaches’ Poll Top 10 originates from the ACC. The conference season is a relentless bi-weekly gauntlet of title contenders with teams seldom making it through unblemished. To buffer this, many ACC schools beef up their non-conference schedule strength with a brutal slate, leading to many tasty match-ups early in the season. As if this conference needed to get tougher, the ACC gets a huge boost in pedigree as three-time NCAA champions Notre Dame join a stable already packed with thoroughbreds. Pitt and Syracuse follow the Irish from the Big East, much to the delight of Clemson and NC State, who may no longer be the conference’s lowest-hanging fruit.

Conventional wisdom and several polls have defending NCAA champions North Carolina pegged as preseason favorites and it’s tempting to place money on the reigning national champions. The ACC is rarely so predictable, though, and last year’s Tar Heel team underwhelmed in conference play, concluding with an unceremonious bounce in the first round of the ACC Tournament. The team regrouped remarkably down the stretch in the NCAA Tournament to win the national championship. UNC lost a few notable players on defense from their championship edition, but retain most of their attacking venom with MAC Hermann Trophy-winner and wing back Crystal Dunn, tireless winger Kealia Ohai, and Summer Green, while adding highly-rated recruits Amber Munerlyn and Emily Bruder to the offense. Keep an eye out for former Georgia scoring juggernaut Alexa Newfield, a redshirt junior transfer who could introduce a unique element of craftiness and guile to the midfield attack.

Allegedly a rebuilding year at Notre Dame, the 2012 “Baby Irish” matured quickly, toppling No. 3-seeded Wake Forest and SEC Champion Florida on an unexpected and inspiring run to the Elite 8. This year it is unlikely anyone will underestimate ND as many polls have them seated amongst the top few teams in the country. Sophomore Cari Roccaro received several Freshman of the Year honors with her amazing display of versatility, bouncing from the front line to the back and in-between with astonishing ease. Freshman midfielder Morgan Andrews begins her collegiate career amid huge fanfare, with the two-time Gatorade High School Player of the Year already receiving much praise for her uncanny skill and maturity through the U.S. national team ranks.

Florida State bullied most of their competition throughout 2012 on the strength of a Scrooge-like defense, but a few late-season stumbles and elimination in the penultimate round of the NCAA tournament for the second straight year were an anti-climactic finish for a team top-ranked most of the season. Through the middle, FSU returns goalkeeper Kelsey Wys, center back tandem Kassey Kallman and Kristin Grubka, and the international midfield duo of Dagny Brynjarsdottir and Isabella Schmid. Where the Seminoles need answers is on the wings as the departure of outside backs Casey Short and Ines Jaurena along with assist machine Jessica Price on the attacking flank leaves the team eagerly seeking to fill their boots. To their advantage, the Seminoles have scheduling on their side, playing all but one pre-conference match at home while drawing North Carolina, Notre Dame, Boston College and Maryland all in Tallahassee.

The Virginia Cavaliers continued a tradition of success in 2012, winning the ACC Tournament in a thumping defeat of Maryland before colliding with a resurgent Duke in the NCAA Round of 16. Despite giving up defensive maestro Olivia Brannon to Michigan, the Cavaliers get a major boost with the pickup of dominating center back Annie Steinlage from Michigan State, who, along with Virginia’s three seasoned defenders, should combine for a formidable backline. Clutch striker Caroline Miller’s graduation opens the door for Makenzy Doniak, an attacking revelation last season with 28 points in her freshman campaign. All eyes will be on midfield puppet-master Morgan Brian, but it’s the mature and underrated support cast around her that make the Cavaliers’ fluid style of play a thrill to watch.

The SEC

The Heavyweights: Florida, Texas A&M

Contenders: Kentucky, Tennessee

Major Players: Arin Gilliland, Annie Kunz, Meghan Streight, Havana Solaun, Taylor Burke, Mandy McCalla, Rafaelle Souza, Hannah Wilkinson, Sabrina D’Angelo

But Don’t Overlook: Annie Speese, Taylor Travis, Tori Allen, Pia Rijsdijk, Shea Groom, Danielle Au

Mark your Calendars: Aug. 23rd Texas A&M v Duke, Aug 30th – Florida v Florida State, Oct. 11th – Tennessee at Kentucky, Oct. 25th – Florida at Tennessee, Oct. 27th – Texas A&M at Florida

The SEC table is typically built like a croissant, being plump in the middle and skinny on both ends. Florida usually has a death grip on the high-profile end, going back seemingly forever, though the addition of Big 12 sluggers Texas A&M in 2012 created an instant threat to their rule of the roost. The middle of the table bulges with a dearth of teams throwing elbows in a perilous contest to land somewhere between 3rd and 12th, while a handful of lightweights generally occupy the less-enviable tip.

In Gainesville, there is rarely any question as to whether Florida will top the conference: Between 2006 and 2012 the Gators only failed to win the regular season once, in 2011. Representative of the SEC as a whole, though, they struggle on the national stage, where the team has failed to progress beyond the Sweet 16 for almost a decade. In 2013, talented supporting players Havana Solaun, Annie Speese and Taylor Travis will be expected to take up the mantle of Gator grads Erika Tymrak and Jo Dragotta going forward, while Taylor Burke should ably marshal the defense from the net.

Texas A&M received a veritable red-carpet welcome to the SEC in the form of some generous scheduling in 2012, but were unable to take full advantage, losing a crucial home-soil showdown with Florida to ensure the Gators’ conference dominance again. Unfortunately, the reverse fixtures will be in effect for 2013, meaning the Aggies will face Tennessee, Auburn, Missouri and Florida all without the fearsome 12th Man of College Station in their corner. A&M’s junior class is stocked with heavy artillery, from towering forward Annie Kunz and hard-charging winger Shea Groom, to attack-minded defender Meghan Streight and commanding goalkeeper Jordan Day, one of the best in the conference.

A youthful Kentucky team are aching to improve upon their promising 4th Place finish in the SEC and the program’s first-ever victory in the NCAA Tournament. Returning for the Wildcats are all but two starters from that successful 2012 campaign, including explosive junior Arin Gilliland, a defender/forward whose dynamic skill has already garnered attention from Portland Thorns FC.

Tennessee transitioned successfully under new head coach Brian Pensky in 2012, finishing 3rd in the conference with a decent showing in the SEC Tournament, but were stonewalled in the first round of the NCAA’s. The Vols’ duo of offensive leaders, Caroline Brown and New Zealand’s Hannah Wilkinson, are back while last year’s stellar defense also features some key returnees to lead Pensky’s large incoming freshman class.

Big Ten

The Heavyweight: Penn State

Contenders: Illinois, Ohio State, Michigan

Major Players: Maya Hayes, Vanessa DiBernardo, Cloe Lacasse, Nkem Ezurike, Whitney Church, Danica Wu

But Don’t Overlook: Raquel Rodriguez, Emily Hurd, Jordan Jackson, Meghan Toohey

Mark your Calendars: Aug 30th – Penn State at Virginia, Oct. 13th – Michigan at Penn State, Nov. 2nd – Ohio State at Michigan

After 15 years owning the Big Ten, Penn State finally made a huge breakthrough nationally in 2012 with the program’s first trip to the College Cup Final. Forward Maya Hayes enters her senior season as maybe the best forward in the NCAA. Swarming around Hayes are Mallory Weber, Emily Hurd and Taylor Schram, providing a savvy quick-strike attack. The slick skill of Raquel Rodriguez earned the Costa Rican international the Big 10 Freshman of the Year and she looks fit to fill Christine Nairn’s boots in midfield.

Last year was a successful one for usually mid-table Michigan, but two separate losses to arch-enemy Ohio State stumped the Wolverines’ hopes for potential Big Ten glory. An imposing physical presence on the frontline, Michigan forward Nkem Ezurike had an offensive jamboree, scoring 15 goals and establishing herself as one of the nation’s best forwards. Amongst an off-season of high-profile transfers, some waves came out of Ann Arbor as well with the addition of defensive general and Michigan-native Olivia Brannon from Virginia.

Ohio State may be set for a slight drop as the Buckeyes bring in a large freshman class to fill the void left by a number of top-caliber players over the last few years. An exciting leader in the midfield, Danica Wu is part of a legacy of Canadian national team prospects to come up through the OSU program and one of the few remaining holdovers from a powerhouse Buckeye team that lost to Notre Dame in the 2010 Final Four.

Illinois is more of a sleeper team in 2013, but the Illini have eliminated conference champ Penn State in the Big Ten Tournament for the last two years, so they can never be taken lightly. The offensive centerpiece is senior midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo, a brilliant technical player with a devastating long-range shot, who is more than capable of leading this team on another deep run before trading in the orange-and-blue for a pro kit.

PAC-12

The Heavyweights: Stanford, UCLA

Contender: Cal

Major Players: Taylor Uhl, Chioma Ubogagu, Sara Killion, Samantha Mewis, Emily Oliver

But Don’t Overlook: Lo’eau Labonta, Ifeoma Onumonu, Lindsay Elston

Mark your Calendars: Oct. 10th, UCLA at Stanford

Stanford and UCLA are the storied programs in the PAC-12 and, like Bugs Bunny dueling Elmer Fudd, they continually come at each other with ridiculously huge weapons. The Bruins have played the bridesmaid role of late, though, unable to stand in the way of a Cardinal locomotive that has made an astounding five consecutive trips to the Final Four, even running through last year’s Bruins in the quarterfinal fixture.

UCLA’s out of conference schedule sounds tougher than the road to the College Cup, facing Marquette, Notre Dame, North Carolina and Duke consecutively, before settling in for their conference tour. A mi-season matchup away at Stanford should pave the road for the eventual conference champion and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Incoming head coach Amanda Cromwell inherits a remarkable group featuring three generations of US U-20 standouts: Abby Dahlkemper, Sarah Killion and Samantha Mewis from the 2012 World Cup-winners, Jenna Richmond from the 2010 version, and Gabbi Miranda and Katelyn Rowland representing the latest incarnation. Add to that the Olympic experience of full Canadian international Chelsea Stewart as well as a 2011 World Cup veteran in New Zealander Rosie White and this team looks as stacked as the legendary Bruin teams of the mid-to-late 2000’s that spawned so many WPS regulars.

Stanford’s PAC-12 dominance is unbelievable, with their last conference defeat coming at the hands of Tina DiMartino and UCLA back in 2008. At the close of the 2012 season, Stanford lost key defensive components in Alina Garciamendez, Rachel Quon and Mariah Nogueira, but bring in both the country’s top-rated defender in Stephanie Amack and goalkeeper in Jane Campbell to ensure another four years of miserly defending. In an off-season bombshell, Minnesota’s star forward and the nation’s points leader, Taylor Uhl, transferred to Palo Alto, joining electric forward Chioma Ubogagu and Courtney Verloo in the attack.  A brick wall in the net known as Emily Oliver caps a quietly impressive career at Stanford in which she has allowed just 19 goals through three years.

The WCC

The Heavyweights: Santa Clara, Portland, BYU

Players to Watch: Julie Johnston, Sofia Huerta, Morgan Marlborough, Amanda Frisbie, Cloee Colohan,  Michelle Pao, Erica Owens

Don’t Overlook: Micaela Capelle, Lynn Williams, Colette Jepson Smith

Mark your calendar: August 23rd – Santa Clara vs. North Carolina (in Virginia), August 31st – Portland at Stanford, Oct. 12th – BYU at Santa Clara, Oct, 26th – BYU at Portland

If you’re not familiar with the collegiate women’s soccer landscape, you could easily overlook the West Coast Conference, but the WCC is home to some serious firepower. Santa Clara features Julie Johnston in a more attacking role than her U.S. national team duties, while sensational Mexican forward Sofia Huerta is up top to finish the job for the offense. For 2013, the Broncos can finally unveil stud forward Morgan Marlborough, a 2011 transplant from Nebraska kept on ice through 2012 due to transfer restrictions. File their pre-conference schedule under “What doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger” as SC accepts early challenges from North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Cal and Stanford.

Boasting a rabid fanbase and a rich history of talent, Portland has struggled of late to live up to their lofty heritage, but the return of virtually all starters from last year and a highly-rated crop of freshmen bodes well for the Pilots this season. A healthy Micaela Capelle will be a welcome return for the offense, partnering alongside All-WCC First-Team Forward Amanda Frisbie.

BYU will be hard-pressed to repeat 2012’s Cinderella run capped by a thrilling quarter-final battle against UNC, especially with the departure of Lindsi Lisonbee Cutshall and Carlee Payne Holmoe. Cloee Colohan proved to be a serious offensive threat from the backfield while senior midfielder Colette Jepson Smith could be a major force in the midfield following an injury-hampered 2012.

The Big East

The Heavyweights: Marquette, Georgetown

Players to watch: Daphne Corboz, Meagan Kelly, Emily Menges

Don’t overlook: Amanda Engel , Taylor Houck

Mark your calendar: August 30 – Marquette vs. UCLA (at South Bend, Ind.), Oct. 13 – Georgetown at Marquette

Marquette, last year’s Big East champion, went out of the NCAA tournament in the third round on penalty kicks to BYU. Seniors Meagan Kelly and Taylor Madigan return as leading scorers with 29 pts. and 22 pts., respectively, last season to lead the Golden Eagles into a new-look Big East, while sophomore goalkeeper Amanda Engel returns in net after a stellar freshman year.

Georgetown, runners-up to Marquette last year, returns junior Daphne Corboz, the preseason Big East Offensive Player of the Year. Last year she racked up an incredible 18 goals and eight assists, good for 44 pts.

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The Equalizer will run weekly recaps of all the biggest results in NCAA soccer, as well as regular features from our writers across the country.

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