Five things to watch for NCAA soccer season

We start this season how we ended the last, with Notre Dame and Stanford topping the polls in women's collegiate soccer. Sure, these two teams are loaded again and probably deserve to be there. But there's a whole season to go and plenty of schools with something to prove, including teams with pedigree (hello, North Carolina and Portland) and teams making fresh starts (UCLA and BYU). Here are a few storylines worth following:

1. Can Notre Dame make it four?

The Irish won their third national title by beating top-ranked Stanford in the final and North Carolina in a third-round road game.

The defending champions have a trio of senior stars back among their seven returning starters. Melissa Henderson (strong player of year candidate), Courtney Barg (2009 first-team All-American midfielder) and Jessica Schuveiller (named 2010 College Cup's outstanding defender) will help the team, as will memories of last year's remarkable postseason run.

One of the few major losses was two-time All-American Lauren Fowlkes, who could play several positions. This year, they'll have an unproven keeper after losing Nikki Weiss, with a junior and a freshman duking it out for the starting spot. Sophomores Mandy Laddish and Elizabeth Tucker return at midfield.

2. UCLA equals team of the future?

UCLA, picked 16th in the preseason coaches' poll, has a new head coach in former assistant B.J. Snow. He was promoted after Jillian Ellis (12 seasons, record of 229-45-14) left to become the U.S. women's national team development director. Snow (married to women's national team player Lindsay Tarpley) inherits a familiar assassin in two-time All-American Sydney Leroux, the team's returning top scorer who was named to the Hermann Trophy watch list. Leroux, a senior, grew up in Vancouver but stars for the U-20 U.S. team, for which she scored 30 goals in 36 international games. The Bruins' best years may be ahead after signing a stellar freshman class led by Samantha Mewis, one of three young U.S. U-20 players along with Canadian U-20 player Ally Courtnall and Rosie White, who played on New Zealand's World Cup team.

3. Stanford tries, tries again

Maybe Stanford needs to lose to win. In 2009, it was unbeaten and untied going into the College Cup final. It lost to North Carolina, 1-0. Last year, the Cardinal were riding a 25-game undefeated streak going into the College Cup final. They lost to Notre Dame, 1-0.

Gone is 2010 Player of the Year Cristen Press, who graduated after scoring 26 times last season, but Stanford returns a whopping nine starters, including Press' hoped-for heir apparent Lindsay Taylor. Taylor is one of four returning All-Americans, including midfielders Teresa Noyola (who played for Mexico's World Cup team this summer) and Mariah Nogueira, along with Courtney Verloo, who can play anywhere.

Stanford will find out what it has soon enough, playing Notre Dame Sept. 9.

4. North Carolina ... an underdog?

Not really. Coaches, who know better than to punish the perennially successful program for one big loss, ranked the Tar Heels third in this preseason.

That's fine by North Carolina and longtime coach Anson Dorrance, whose team can benefit from being the chaser rather than the chased. After the Tar Heels' season ended on the wrong side of a 4-1 blitzing by Notre Dame in the NCAA tournament -- the first time the Tar Heels had lost by more than one goal in a staggering 607 games dating back to 1985 -- the future looks bright for a young team that gained some big experience last season after injuries to senior standouts Rachel Givan and Ali Hawkins reduced their playing time.

Crystal Dunn was one of five freshmen to start against Notre Dame, and she was named the 2010 Defensive Player of the Year. But the versatile sophomore could wind up playing offense, teaming with classmate Kealia Ohai, who led the team in scoring (14 goals, nine assists) last season, and senior Courtney Jones (11 goals, 14 assists).

The midfield should get a boost with the return of Maria Lubrano, out last season, and juniors Amber Brooks and Ranee Premji.

5. Florida State, WCC making waves?

Keep an eye on Florida State. Ranked fifth in the preseason behind Notre Dame, Stanford, North Carolina and Boston College, the Seminoles reached the NCAA quarterfinals for the sixth straight year. Seventh time could be the charm. They return nine starters and have an embarrassment of riches offensively, returning their top three scorers in Janice Cayman, Tori Huster and Casey Short and stars Jessica Price and Tiffany McCarty, who were injury redshirts last season. Price's 17 goals in 2009 led to her winning the ACC Offensive Player of the Year honors, and Price's 42 points (16 goals, 10 assists) led the conference in scoring.

And yes, they can play defense, returning three stellar starters. Iceland's Dagny Brynjarsdottir (no relation to the volcano) may be the NCAA's most unpronounceable midfielder, but the national-teamer can play.

WCC goes deep. Two-and-a-half states and one time zone removed from the West Coast, Brigham Young is nonetheless the newest member of the West Coast Conference, and it's not shy about staking out rich territory. Picked by coaches to finished tied for second with Santa Clara (behind the University of Portland), BYU turned the WCC title hunt from a two-team pursuit to three.

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