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Soccer season is already a week old, but there are still a lot more questions than answers when it comes to the road to the College Cup. Let's start with five of them.
History is divided into two camps in women's college soccer. There is the story written in Chapel Hill, N.C., where Anson Dorrance's Tar Heels have won 20 NCAA titles, including a stretch of nine in a row (1986-94). And there is the story written everywhere else. At least until now. Notre Dame is doing its best to commission a third volume based in South Bend, Ind.
|Notre Dame's title defense begins with senior forward Melissa Henderson.|
A season ago, Notre Dame became the first program other than North Carolina to win as many as three national championships. In the process, Randy Waldrum became the first coach other than Dorrance to win multiple titles, adding a second to the one he captured with the Fighting Irish in 2004 (Chris Petrucelli won Notre Dame's first title in 1995).
All that remains is to be the first team other than North Carolina to win back-to-back championships.
By virtue of that 2004 championship, Waldrum is also in the unusual position of knowing what the Fighting Irish are in for when it comes to defending a title. He called the 2005 team one of the most talented he's had during his time in South Bend, but it failed to even make it back to the College Cup, losing to eventual champion Portland in the quarterfinals. What that effort reinforced was just how early on the calendar a title defense actually begins.
"I think the thing you look at is maybe more of this was changed [in the] spring," Waldrum said. "I think when we won it in 2004, I think we enjoyed the victory and the championship, and then I think we had kind of an average spring. I don't think we took for granted that we'd win, I don't mean it that way. I just mean that we had another spring, like we normally have. And the difference this year was our kids really came back focused.
"They really, really want to be the first Notre Dame team to repeat in women's soccer."
Doing that will require answering a number of questions. They need a replacement for departed keeper Kelsey Lysander, whether it's junior Maddie Fox, who started the opener against Wisconsin or freshman Sarah Voigt, slowed by injury in the preseason. They need to replace stalwart defender Julie Scheidler and versatile All-American Lauren Fowlkes, who started everywhere from the back line to forward during her career, and talented freshman Lauren Bohaboy and returnees will assume expanded roles. But they also have a question working in their favor, one the rest of soccer has yet to answer.
It's a question that offseason developments may render unanswerable: How do you stop Melissa Henderson?
"I think we wanted her to become the best athlete that she could," Waldrum said of the senior forward. "She's extremely athletic, and we always thought her fitness level could be a little higher than it was. I think she's done that. She's eager to see what even are the next steps for her, even beyond Notre Dame, with national teams and hopefully if [Women's Professional Soccer] sticks around and that kind of thing. I think she's really matured in that area."
Only at North Carolina could a team face the prospect of "bouncing back" from a 19-3-2 record and a trip to the Sweet 16. But for the reasons discussed above, such is life for the Tar Heels after losing at home in the Sweet 16 by a 4-1 margin against Notre Dame, the program's first loss by more than a goal in nearly 25 years.
And, boy, are the players who were on the field for that game going to get tired of hearing that fact brought up for the next three-plus months.
Nine starters from that NCAA tournament game remain on the roster, which is a way of pointing out just how young the Tar Heels were last season. Not only did they lose just two starters from that postseason lineup, they still have just three seniors (and a redshirt junior) likely to see major minutes in Anson Dorrance's trademark deep rotation. Sure, there are points of interest, like how the back line that's so important in North Carolina's 3-4-3 formation will mesh. But it's not a question of whether or not there is enough overall talent in Chapel Hill to win a title -- there is always enough talent there to win a title. It's a question of is the talent ready?
Crystal Dunn, Kealia Ohai, Amber Brooks and so many others were part of a forgettable night in November, and that in and of itself may be the best reason to think they won't be a part of another such night this season.
How quickly things can change. At this time a year ago, UCLA was ranked No. 3 in the country and coming off seven consecutive College Cup appearances under the direction of Jill Ellis. Championship disappointment aside for a program still looking for its first title, there was no more sure thing in soccer than the Bruins ranking among the nation's elite.
As this season began with a 2-0 win against Cal State Northridge, the Bruins found themselves jostling for poll position at No. 16 and celebrating the first win of the B.J. Snow era. Snow took over as head coach following Ellis' surprise decision to step away in January after 12 seasons to take over full-time duties in youth development with U.S. Soccer.
In the span of 48 hours, Snow went from one of the most promising coaching prospects in the nation to the man in charge of a flagship program, positions which have not turned over with any frequency in recent years.
A flagship program coming off an eight-loss season and a 3-0 loss to Pac-10 rival Stanford in the Sweet 16.
Not short on credentials, having won two national titles as a standout at Indiana, Snow is young but no neophyte. (He also doesn't lack for a high profile within women's soccer; Snow is married to Lindsay Tarpley.)
"It's not my job to steer this ship on a totally different course of action," Snow said of taking over after five years as Ellis' lieutenant. "My job is to have this team reflect my personality and what my coaching philosophies are about. That involves doing things the right way. Everything is built around trying to bring the right people in to be a part of this whole thing and play an attractive style of soccer and win at the same time."
It doesn't hurt that one of the game's best recruiters as an assistant gets to spend his first season as a head coach working with what should be one of the deepest and most talented freshmen classes in program history. At the top of the list is Samantha Mewis, younger sister of Boston College star Kristie Mewis and perhaps the nation's top recruit.
"Sam is a natural leader," Snow said. "She has qualities that it's hard to find because she can be a ball-winner and she has tremendous feet, she has tremendous vision. So her versatility to be able to play multiple positions is just extraordinary to be able to bring into a team. I think that's what separates Sam."
Quick to point out the pride he took in the team's perseverance playing through injuries last season, Snow also acknowledges the outside world holds the Bruins to an exacting standard.
"To be honest with you, expectations should be for someone to stand back and look at our program and evaluate us by our record because that's the way it should be," Snow said.
Just how unusual was last season, when Boston College and Ohio State both advanced to the College Cup for the first time in each respective program's history? Until then, Florida State, Princeton, UCLA and USC were the only programs to make College Cup debuts since 2000.
|Wake Forest forward Katie Stengel returns to spearhead a potent Demon Deacon attack in the ACC.|
There's no guarantee there will be a newcomer this time around, but Wake Forest has the look of a program capable of continuing the trend.
The Demon Deacons opened the regular season with a pair of quality road results, beating Auburn 4-1 and Central Florida 1-0. The two best reasons to think this team could play into December wasted little time getting going in August. Reigning ACC Freshman of the Year and second-team All-American Katie Stengel scored twice at Auburn, while fellow sophomore Rachel Nuzzolese scored the winner at UCF. Until an injury knocked Nuzzolese out of action midway through last season, it appeared she might be the favorite for the accolades Stengel eventually collected. Nuzzolese finished with nine goals and five assists in her first 11 college games.
Without Nuzzolese, Wake Forest still made a surprise run to an ACC tournament tile last season and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament. With eight starters back, including the potent sophomore tandem up top, a few more postseason wins are within reach.
Danielle Foxhoven, Portland: Last season was the first in a long time that the Pilots didn't produce a player with double-digit goals. Don't expect a repeat, not with a senior forward who scored 41 goals in her first two seasons and put home two against No. 5 Florida State in her first game this season.
Sydney Leroux, UCLA: Strange as it sounds for someone who has been on the scene for so long at the international and college levels, she's almost obscured by all the change in Westwood. But even in a challenging year for the program in 2010, she produced 13 goals in 20 appearances.
Morgan Marlborough. Nebraska: Marlborough, Milwaukee's Sarah Hagen and Dayton's Colleen Williams are among those capable of putting up 20-plus goals for teams that don't open the season with championship expectations. But given Nebraska's place in the Big Ten, Marlborough has the best chance to work her way into the conversation.
Tiffany McCarty, Florida State: Welcome back. McCarty scored in each of her team's first two games, a 1-0 win at Oregon State and a 2-1 loss at Portland, wasting little time announcing her return to form after redshirting last season with an injury. She was the ACC leader in goals as a sophomore in 2009.
Kristie Mewis, Boston College: The junior midfielder already owned perhaps the best left foot in the college game, but a minor preseason injury to that left foot forced her to spend more time working with her right foot. The thought of her serving and shooting the ball with equal adeptness on either foot ought to give coaches sleepless nights.
Graham Hays covers women's college softball for ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.
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