Fall, Women's Soccer

ACC Women’s Soccer Preview: Tiers of Contention

Summer is over for the 14 women’s soccer teams in the ACC, as training camp and exhibitions are in full swing. Despite the fact that 12 members of the assorted rosters are in France participating in the U-20 Women’s World Cup, the deepest conference in Division I college soccer is just a week and a half away from getting the 2018 campaign started. Here’s a look at the how the conference stacks up in terms of who’s in contention.

The Favorites

The ACC, once again, is absolutely loaded—the conference placed six teams in the United States Coaches Preseason Top 25 and is just a year removed from sending eight to the NCAA Tournament—but there’s plenty of space between the three or four teams at the top and those below. The current favorite? A familiar face.

1) North Carolina

The Tar Heels enter after winning their ACC-best 21st conference title last season, and although UNC didn’t make it past the third round of the postseason, it’s likely the favorite to repeat. The Tar Heels earned the No. 1 spot in the preseason coaches poll and boast a recruiting class that stands out even amid several other strong groups.

UNC is losing a talented group of seniors, the largest loss being Joanna Boyles—described by Anson Dorrance as the “most technically gifted player he’s ever had,” no small praise from the longtime head coach. Still, the bulk of the Tar Heels’ talent returns. Forward Alessia Russo is a preseason All-ACC selection after totaling 20 points as a freshman, while midfielder Dorian Bailey impressed with six goals and nine assists. Defender Emily Fox is currently with the United States U-20 National Team, while Russo is on England’s youth team—and has taken a similar starring role. The talent only continues to flow in, as freshman recruit Brianna Pinto is playing alongside Fox in France. Pinto’s the top incoming freshman, but the duo of Rachael Dowart and Rachel Jones aren’t far behind in the rankings.

2) Duke

Lost in the coaches poll and recruiting rankings is the fact that Duke made it all the way to the national semifinals last year—bouncing back from an ACC Championship loss to win four-straight games before falling to UCLA in penalty kicks. That said, there’s reason to be wary about the Blue Devils’ chances at making a similar run, as they’ve taken a big hit in departures. Duke sent six players to the NWSL Draft, including ACC Offensive Player of the Year Imani Dorsey. Dorsey scored 14 goals to pace the Blue Devils and departed alongside Midfielder of the Year Rebecca Quinn and Defensive Player of the Year Schuyler Quinn. But, if anyone can recover from losing his top players at three different positions, it’s Eric Church, the reigning ACC Coach of the Year. Church still has forward Kayla McCoy (35 points) and Ella Stevens (21 points) to pave the way, while midfielder Taylor Racioppi is as consistent as they get. Add in a No. 8 recruiting class, and Duke isn’t going anywhere.

3) Florida State

The Seminoles had won the previous four conference titles before the Tar Heels claimed the league championship in 2017. It comes as no surprise, but FSU once again boasts a strong roster heading into this season. The Seminoles lost four seniors that were members of the 2014 national title-winning team, but have plenty of firepower remaining. Forward Deyna Castellanos led the conference in goals (19) and points (41) last year while defender, team captain, and fellow All-ACC selection Natalia Kuikka returns to anchor the back line. Yujie Zhao, a member of the Chinese U-20 team, and midfielder Jaelin Howell—the No. 2 recruit in the country—make up a promising recruiting class.

4) Virginia

Finally, UVA is not to be lost among the heavyweights. After all, the Cavaliers carry three players on the U.S. U-17 team—goaltender Laurel Ivory, midfielder Taryn Torres, and defender Zoe Morse—and, additionally, feature the fourth-ranked crop of recruits and a talented transfer from the Big Ten in Northwestern’s McKenna Angotti.

In Contention

5) Notre Dame

Head coach Nate Norman takes over in South Bend, and has a Notre Dame team that returns five starters and seems poised for a strong year. Norman’s also pulled in a large nine-player class that ranks fifth in the country, headed by midfielder Brianna Martinez. The Irish don’t have any one star that’s risen to the top of the ACC, but Jennifer Westendorf (10 goals, 27 points in 2017) and Sammi Fisher are two talented underclassmen. Natalie Jacobs, an ACC-Second Team selection, transferred to Southern California, which is always expected with coaching turnover—but it hurts nonetheless.

6) North Carolina State

N.C. State checked in at No. 20 in the United States Coaches Preseason Poll, and optimism is high for the Wolfpack. It lost just one starter from a team that piled up 15 wins a year ago and has a pair of All-ACC selections on the experienced roster. All five of its top scorers return, too, with forward Tziarra King having quickly proven herself as an elite talent—she piled up 17 goals and 40 points as a sophomore.

7) Clemson

A talented defense that features players performing well internationally puts Clemson in this tier, a year removed from a 10-win campaign that included a NCAA Tournament appearance. Keeper Sandy MacIver has been a stalwart on England’s youth national teams and placed fifth in the ACC in goals against average and fourth in save percentage. Meanwhile, left-footed defender Sam Staab earned All-ACC honors and has spent time with the U.S. U-23 camp, further strengthening her reputation as a key piece in the middle of the field.

Something for Romantics

8) Wake Forest

Wake Forest returns four of its top five scorers, but is especially youthful—it welcomes in nine freshman and will boast a roster that’s more than 50 percent underclassmen. Eight years removed from their lone conference championship, the Demon Deacons overperformed last season, finishing four spots above where they landed in preseason polls. It’s more of the same this year, as they don’t feature a star and are slotted to regress five spots.

9) Boston College

Led by Sam Coffey, who took the conference by storm as a freshman, BC enters looking to use a solid recruiting class and the return of a pair of players from injury to make a tournament appearance. The Eagles made it to NCAAs without pause from 2004 to 2013, but have returned just once in the last four years. The loss of a trio of key starters—Lauren Berman, Allyson Swaby, and Madison Kenny—hurts, but BC has plenty returning. Alexis Bryant will start in the net for the fourth-straight year, scoring threat Gabby Carreiro and capable midfielder Jade Ruiters have recovered, and there’s depth throughout the Eagles’ attack. Massachusetts Gatorade Player of the Year Kayla Duran should help shore up the midfield, while Gianna Mitchell had a breakout first season on the Heights.

10) Louisville

Louisville finished near the bottom of the conference in RPI and missed the NCAA Tournament for the fourth-consecutive year, but it wasn’t all bad. Freshman Emina Ekic broke out for 17 points in 17 games to put the ACC on notice, while classmate and midfielder Mollie Rouse is proving herself while abroad with the English U-20 national team. The bright spot for the Cardinals is that they return the top four scorers and have a steady presence with goalkeeper Gabby Kouzelos entering her second season.

11) Virginia Tech

The last team aiming for prior heights is VTech, which missed the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row—the first time the Hokies have done so since 2006-07. They were missing several players due to injury and managed just 16 goals in 18 games on offense, with the lack of continuity posing a problem. A veteran core will have another go at it, led by U.S. U-20 national team goaltender Mandy McGlynn. She’s the backbone of a defense that allowed just 20 goals last year, two shy of a school record, while the front line returns six goal scorers from a season ago. Incoming freshman Emily Gray—who is ranked as one of the nation’s top-20 recruits—per TopDrawerSoccer, is just part of VTech’s healthy-sized 2018 recruiting class.

Down the Road

12) Miami
13) Syracuse
14) Pittsburgh

The final three teams don’t inspire much optimism, with none of the three possessing an All-ACC player and lacking general depth. Miami leans on one of the conference’s best goaltenders in Phallon Tullis-Joyce, who was called upon for 84 saves in just 16 games last year, but the Hurricanes still managed just one ACC win. Syracuse has Georgia Allen playing abroad with England and return leading scorer Sydney Brackett, but struggled to keep up with the rest of the league. Pittsburgh, finally, didn’t win a single conference game and led the league in yellow cards, a product of chasing more talented teams around the pitch.

Featured Image by Jacob Catania / Heights Staff

August 13, 2018