As the Fall sports of the West Coast Conference are wrapping up non-conference play and starting their WCC schedules, we will take a look at how the conference races are shaping up so far. Next up is women’s soccer, a sport coming off a huge year in which three WCC teams qualified for the NCAA Tournament.
It was a fight to the finish as Santa Clara, BYU, and Portland ended the season nationally ranked and tied in the standings. The Broncos claimed the WCC Championship on a point differential tiebreaker, but all three teams celebrated berths in the NCAA Tournament. All three won their opening games, and the Broncos advanced to the Sweet Sixteen to cap off a great year for the conference.
The trio also dominated the postseason awards. Combined they had thirteen All-WCC selections and all four of the conference’s All-American selections. The trio also had five of the conference’s six picks in the 2014 National Women’s Soccer League Draft including 2013 WCC Player of the Year Julie Johnston of Santa Clara being selected fourth overall and 2013 WCC Defender of the Year Amanda Frisbie of Portland being selected seventh overall.
As you can expect, the trio also swept the major WCC season awards including Player of the Year (Santa Clara), Coach of the Year (Portland), Defender of the Year (Portland), Goalkeeper of the Year (BYU), and Freshman of the Year (Portland). These three dominated women’s soccer in the WCC last year, plain and simple.
So what does 2014 hold? Despite those teams losing a lot of talent, we can expect more of the same. These schools dominated the preseason polls with each team getting three first place votes. BYU was picked to win, but they were followed close behind by Portland and Santa Clara. They also claimed seven of the twelve Preseason All-WCC selections.
THE FAVORITES: BYU, PORTLAND, SANTA CLARA
As you can guess, all of the above makes these three schools the heavy favorites to dominate the WCC again. The bigger question is who will emerge from these evenly matched teams. It took multiple tiebreakers to find a champion last season, and they are considered pretty equal once again this year.
The rankings like BYU right now as they sit at #23 in the country. The Cougars have rattled off six straight wins including a win over a good San Diego squad to open WCC play. They are currently 8-3-2 on the year. This comes after they lost WCC Goalkeeper of the Year Erica Owens and their two First Team All-WCC selections.
They do get back All-WCC Second Team selection Paige Hunt and All-Freshman selection Ashley Hatch. Both were named Preseason All-WCC. Hatch in particular has been key to the Cougars success. She is up to eleven goals now in 2014 after a hat trick that lead the Cougars to a big 3-0 win over Portland last night.
With only one shot at each opponent during the regular season, each matchup is huge. The win over Portland is a big one, and the Cougars are now the favorite to move into control of the standings. The next big matchup is in a couple weeks versus Santa Clara. And like last year, it will go a long way to deciding the champion.
Portland played a really tough non-conference schedule, but they couldn’t score any big upsets. So while they are just 5-6-2 on the year, they are a very good team. They are taking care of business so far with wins over Pacific and Saint Mary’s to open conference play.
The Pilots were the most decorated team lat year in terms of individual awards, but as you can guess that meant they took a lot of losses. They lost four of their five All-WCC selections and only get back reigning Freshman of the Year Allison Wetherington. However being Portland they are good at reloading with talent, and Wetherington was joined on the Preseason All-WCC Team by two fellow sophomore Pilots. One of them is Danica Evans, who is leading the team with seven goals.
The Pilots are young and have a lot of talent. The only reason they aren’t more highly regarded nationally is because their tough schedule affected their record. But they’re in the thick of WCC play now and gunning for a title.
The loss to BYU isn’t a nail in the coffin, but falling 3-0 to a main rival is bad. Things will stay tough with an upcoming game against San Diego. They really need to get some wins now to hope their late season match with Santa Clara will still have meaning.
Speaking of Santa Clara, they are doing well on the strength of getting back one of the best players in the WCC in Sophie Huerta. A First Team All-WCC selection last year, she will continue to be relied upon after the loss of 2013 WCC Player of the Year Julie Johnston. The Broncos could be on their way to back-to-back Player of the Year honors.
Like the Pilots, the Broncos played a very tough non-conference schedule. And like the Pilots, they weren’t able to make many waves. They haven’t been able to knock off a ranked team despite multiple chances. Their closest shot came in a tough overtime loss to Cal early in the year.
They are currently 8-5-0 including a win over Loyola Marymount in WCC play. But they also have a loss to red hot Pepperdine, who we will talk more about shortly. The rankings are showing them a lot of respect after last year as they are picking up top 25 votes despite the lack of signature wins.
The Broncos should have the talent to beat most average teams in the conference, so their matchups later in the year against Portland and BYU will be big. Avoiding the Pepperdine loss would have been nice though, because the Waves are moving into title contention very fast. The Broncos might have to settle for fighting for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
IN THE MIX: PEPPERDINE
After all that discussion of the trio that has been dominating the WCC for the past year, the best team in the conference might actually be Pepperdine. They were a distant fourth in the preseason poll and didn’t receive a first place vote, but it hasn’t fazed them. The Waves are 11-1-0, first place in the conference, and ranked #11 in the country.
This is despite losing their top performer from last year, First Team All-WCC selection Michelle Pao. It should have been a big hit as evident by Pao being the only WCC player not from the above big three schools to be selected in the 2014 NWSL Draft. They did get back their other First Team All-WCC selection Lynn Williams, and she leads the Waves in 2014 with eight goals.
So far the schedule has gone about as perfect as it could. The only blemish so far is a 2-0 loss to #1 UCLA. If that’s your only hiccup at this point, you’re doing pretty well. And that’s evident with how they have shot up the rankings. The Waves also boast a win over women’s soccer powerhouse North Carolina and a tie against Washington State. Both teams are in the national rankings, and the North Carolina win continues to impress as the Tar Heels have climbed to #7 in the nation.
The Waves have been winning with some solid defense as they boast eight shutouts including not allowing any goals in the UNC and Washington State games. They haven’t given up more than two goals in a game either. Goalie Hannah Seabert is having a banner year as she is in the top five in the WCC in all the major goalkeeping categories including shutouts and saves. Pepperdine is having a heck of a season, and everything has been going right so far.
They made it past their first hurdle in conference play with a win over Santa Clara when they survived a barrage of shots from Sophie Huerta and held her without a goal. They are now in a soft part of their schedule until they face San Diego and Portland later this month. Their seven game winning streak isn’t in trouble for the moment, and they could roll into those late October games as a top ten team.
THE DARK HORSE: GONZAGA
It’s hard to justify any team as a dark horse right now with so much talent at the top of the standings. It’s tough enough to be competing against the big three, and with Pepperdine in the mix now that’s about it in terms of real contenders. The one team with even a slim chance of coming out of nowhere is Gonzaga. The Bulldogs have started conference play 3-0 and are very quietly sitting in second place behind Pepperdine.
They have hung with some good opponents, but they don’t have any signature wins. And their strong start to WCC play has been against weaker opponents, although the wins over Saint Mary’s and San Diego are solid. Both the Gaels and Toreros have quality squads despite being buried behind these other talented teams.
We’re about to see if the Bulldogs are for real as they will get tested in a big way during October. Upcoming games include BYU, Santa Clara, and Pepperdine. We will either see Gonzaga fall to Earth, or we will officially have a breakout contender.
As exciting as last season was with three teams tying for first place, this season promises even more excitement with all three excellent again plus a fourth team entering the mix in Pepperdine. Adding more intrigue is the danger that those teams could end up beating up on each other. It could open the door for Gonzaga or another dark horse to get some breaks and emerge. Anything could happen as the WCC will again be looking for a strong year in the sport including another year of multiple NCAA Tournament bids.