Aug. 14, 2012
Picked to finish third in the SEC West by the league's coaches, the Auburn soccer team begins a new era in 2012, its first season without four-time First Team All-SEC selection and two-time All-American Katy Frierson on the pitch. Though it will be a new challenge, it is not one that head coach Karen Hoppa, in her 14th season at Auburn, isn't ready to accept head-on.
"The expectations are pretty high coming off the SEC Tournament Championship," Hoppa said of the team's first league tournament title in 2011. "The girls got a taste for what it was like to be successful and win championships. They are really focused on continuing that level of play."
Traditionally, Hoppa's best teams have always been backstopped by a shutdown goalkeeper. From Megan Rivera to Allison Whitworth to current senior Amy Howard, Hoppa relies heavily on her goalkeepers for their leadership and shot-stopping ability. For the fourth straight season, Howard fits the bill.
After missing half of the 2011 season due to injury, Howard is back at full-force in 2012. Her first two seasons produced above-average results but it was the second half of last season in which she really broke through, guiding Auburn to the league tournament title by allowing just two goals over three matches and then leading the team into the second round of the NCAA Tournament. In three seasons she has a 1.24 goals against average, which would rank fifth all-time for a career at Auburn if she never played another game, has made 257 saves, which is fourth all-time with the very real possibility that she will end her career second at the school, and she has already posted 15 shutouts, third already to only Rivera and Whitworth.
"Anytime you can have a senior goalkeeper with three years under her belt is a huge benefit just from an experience standpoint," Hoppa said of Howard. "What Amy has done throughout her career has been phenomenal. Starting as a freshman was unexpected and she never has looked back. We would not have won the SEC Tournament last year had she not sacrificed her year and given up a redshirt to come back after ACL surgery that quickly."
Howard doesn't do it all by herself, however, as the signature of Hoppa's tenure at Auburn has always been the back line. The 2012 season presents a new challenge for Hoppa as she must replace a pair of four-year starters in Heather Havron and Julie King, who was a Co-Defensive Player of the Year in the SEC last year. The pair played mostly on the wings last season, leaving the center of the field to Bianca Sierra and Mary Nicholson.
Sierra is expected to miss the non-conference portion of the season as she and midfielder Ashley Kotero are a part of the Mexican National Team playing in the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup in Japan. When she does return she will look for another solid season after breaking out as a sophomore when she logged a team-high 2,206 minutes, playing all but one minute of the season as Auburn as a team posted a 1.26 GAA, allowing just 31 goals over 24 matches. Nicholson, a fifth-year senior, was in and out of the starting lineup in her first two seasons but locked down a starting spot in 2011, a nod she expects to keep this season after she helped the team post eight shutouts last year.
"Mary Nicholson is going to be the leader of that back group. She is going to be the general back there and control everything. We will have to play the other center-back by committee until we get Bianca back from the World Cup," Hoppa said.
The outsides of the backline will be almost entirely new with Havron and King gone but that doesn't mean there isn't a good amount of experience returning. Sophomore Jordan Miller is expected to be back on the field after missing all of 2011 due to an injury. As a freshman the 5-foot, 10-inch outside back played in 17 matches with two starts as Auburn posted a 10-5-2 mark when she played. She also used her height to head in the game-winner off of a corner in a 1-0 upset of Florida. Kim Spence will also push for playing time. One of the most versatile players on Hoppa's squad, she has been used all over the field in her first two seasons. In 2011 she played in all 24 of the team's matches with 10 starts, being used in the back or as a forward depending on the team's needs. Her speed helped her finish with four points on four assists.
"Losing King and Havron were big losses but the good news on losing King is that we really replaced her during the post-season last year; we pushed her up to forward and Kim Spence came into the lineup and did a fantastic job for us. We feel really good about her and the experience she has there," Hoppa said. "On the other side we have quite a few freshmen that are doing a great job. Kala Faulkner has a ton of experience as a youth player and has looked good in the preseason. We have converted Sophie Simantel to an outside back and we certainly expect Jordan Miller to give us a lot of experience as well as another option."
Auburn's playmakers will continue to reside in the midfield in 2012. The most accomplished of the group will be senior Ana Cate, who made a name for herself last season when she finished second on the team in points with 24, tying Frierson for the team lead in goals (nine) while adding six assists. A SEC All-Tournament Team selection after scoring the championship-clinching goal against Florida to go along with an assist in each of the first two tournament wins, she has worked her way into one of the top midfielders in the league.
While Cate puts up the numbers, classmate Jessica Rightmer
quietly goes about her business next to her. At just 5-foot, 1-inch she is easily overlooked in the midfield, where many other teams employ taller girls to win the 50-50 balls, but her tenacity has helped her become one of the most dynamic players in the league. Playing the most minutes of any non-defender on the team last season, she started all 24 matches but had just a goal and an assist on eight shots, instead becoming a ball-hawking pest that continually created turnovers in the midfield which Auburn used to its advantage en route to scoring 50 goals last season, the second-highest total in school history.
"Having Rightmer and Cate back as seniors is massive for our midfield. They should be a handful no matter who is playing the midfield with them," Hoppa said. "Rightmer really locks us down defensively in the midfield and Ana provides a great attack for us. We are going to look for Ana to be more of a playmaker for us with the loss of Katy (Frierson). You don't replace Katy with any one individual. What we need to do is everybody must step their game up a little bit. Ana needs to get more goals and our forwards need to get more goals."
After Cate and Rightmer, the amount of experience in the midfield takes a significant hit but there is a large collection of players that have each seen meaningful if not consistent time on the field. The leader of that group is Maddie Barnes, a junior who was making a name for herself at the end of her redshirt freshman season before an injury derailed her progress. She returned to play in 23 matches in 2011 with seven starts, registering five points on two goals and an assist. Right behind her is Kotero who at 5-foot, 11-inches is Auburn's tallest player in the middle of the field. After returning from Japan along with Sierra, she will look to expound upon her sophomore season when she had three assists in 23 matches (13 starts).
"I think we have quite a few players that will do really well at the other midfield spot," Hoppa said. "Tori Ball, who can play in either the midfield or up top, has had a great preseason and is playing the best soccer of her career. We also have a freshman in Natalie Donaldson who has been phenomenal so far. She plays a lot like Ana; she is very attacking-minded and can shoot with both feet which should take some of the scoring pressure off Ana. Maddie Barnes and a number of other players could also play there."
The most complete positional group in 2012 is the forwards. Of Auburn's 50 goals last season, 30 percent of them came from three forwards that return this season in Ball, Mary Coffed and Tatiana Coleman. Coffed is a senior that has used her speed to collect 41 points on 11 goals and 19 assists. The only three-year starter among the forwards, she had a big start to the 2011 season, scoring 12 of her 16 points in the first 11 matches of the season, a torrid pace she will look to maintain throughout the 2012 campaign.
Coleman, a SEC All-Freshman selection last year, was as dangerous a player as anyone outside of Frierson last year, scoring seven goals and adding eight assists in her rookie year. Injuries kept her out of four games as Auburn was an incredible 15-4-1 with her in the lineup but winless (0-3-1) without her, out-scoring teams 47-23 when she was in the lineup but being out-scored 8-3 when she wasn't. Ball is the least accomplished of the three but is still a major asset to Hoppa's group. At 5-foot, 11-inches, she is Auburn's tallest forward and she parlayed her size advantage into four goals and an assist last year in just 530 minutes. All four of her goals were game-winning goals, including the game-winners in the first rounds of the SEC and NCAA Tournaments.
"Tatiana had a great freshman year and her challenge will be to avoid the sophomore slump and get better. I think she will be a dominating force for us again," Hoppa said. "Mary Coffed's experience on the left flank, having started there for three years, is going to be great. She is more of a play-maker and Tati is more of a goal-scorer so there is really a great balance up top. We have tremendous experience in the center-forward position with Chelsea Gandy-Cromer back and Maddie along with quite a few freshmen that have looked strong, in particular Alexa Allen."
For the first time in four years, Hoppa's staff will also have a new look to it as Ben Madsen joins the staff from Iowa State after the departure of Keidane McAlpine for the head coaching position at Washington State. Madsen teams with offensive guru and recruiting coordinator Amy Berbary to form one of the top one-two assistant combos in the SEC.
Hoppa continues to put together one of the most challenging schedules in the country, playing a total of 12 matches against teams that advanced to last season's NCAA Tournament, including four that played in the second round. After opening the season at home against Georgia State on Friday and High Point on Sunday, Auburn will play a string of four straight matches against 2012 NCAA Tournament teams. That begins on Aug. 24 at Pepperdine and continues at UC Irvine on Aug. 26. Auburn then returns home to face Samford (Aug. 31) and William & Mary (Sept. 2). Auburn's final non-conference match-up is against Texas Tech (Sept. 8), a team Auburn last faced in 2009.
Auburn's SEC slate opens with a new face as it welcomes SEC newcomer Missouri to the Auburn Soccer Complex on Sept. 14. Auburn then closes out its five-match home stand against SEC preseason favorite Florida on Sept. 16, which is also the start of a second four-match stretch against NCAA Tournament teams from a year ago.
Auburn's first SEC road trip takes it to the two teams picked ahead of it in the SEC West in LSU (Sept. 21) and newcomer and the coaches' pick to win the division in Texas A&M (Sept. 23) before navigating its way through the rest of the league schedule in hopes of securing one of the league's 10 spots in the newly expanded SEC Tournament (Oct. 29-Nov. 4) at Orange Beach, Ala.