Northwest: 2012 Women’s Preview

by | January 5, 2012, 6:19am 0

We have an awkward big-little region up here in the far corner of the country.  The geographic area is vast; the drive from University of Alaska – Fairbanks to BYU is 2,915 miles.  (San Francisco to DC is a mere 2,815 miles.)  That’s a bit of a joke, since no one in Alaska fielded a team for the series last year, but Utah tried.  They drove 16 hours for the conference championships and then declined their spot to Regionals.  It’s not an easy 16 hours either – crossing the Rockies in the early spring is no joke as you are one bad snow storm from missing the tournament or three days of school.  So despite this huge area there aren’t very many teams.  Last year our conference and regional tournaments were virtually identical, with Whitman the single addition out of D-III conference.

Andrea Cheng goes up for the catch - Photo by Andrew Davis

The competitive make-up looks to be similar to last year with the big three of Oregon, Washington and British Columbia leading the way and Western Washington, Whitman and Oregon State fighting for fourth.  The conventional wisdom is that the region will earn three bids to Nationals again this year and that the same three teams are likely to go.  This is a bit optimistic – both Oregon and UBC lost 10 players.  Western (9-19 last year) continues to struggle with depth, hurting the region’s overall competitiveness.  Whitman and OSU look to improve on last year, but both programs are a long way from competing on the national level.

In Their Element

After surviving a season of dramatic changes in 2011, Washington looks poised for a breakout season.  They return coach Danny Karlinsky for a second year at the helm.  Teams and coaches usually experience a big breakthrough in the second year, as the focus shifts from learning to execution.  Despite losing 6 players from last year’s squad, Element should be just fine from a talent standpoint.  Last year they were still in the process of figuring out who their stars were, often playing 14 or 16 players deep.  So while the players they are losing are quite good, they have another dozen equally skilled.  Factor in a Seattle juniors program that consistently supplies Element with talent and once again, you will have a team capable of running two full lines.

Prediction: If Washington can figure out how to win, they have all the pieces to make a run at the Title.

Still on Top?

The situation is much more unsettled for Oregon and UBC.  Both teams lost 10 players and a ton of offensive talent.

Reception by Oregon in 2011 Semi Finals - Photo by Andrew Davis

Oregon lost Callahan finalists Julia Sherwood (2010) and Katy Craley (2011).  Putative 2012 Callahan finalist Bailey Zahniser is out indefinitely with a torn ACL.  The T-birds were hit even harder, losing their top five offensive players (Tucker, Cheng, Lo, Moens and Epperson).  How these two teams reload and restructure will go a long way to determining their success or failure.  Both teams are fortunate to be returning their head coaches, Tasia Balding (UBC) and Lou Burruss (U of O).  For UBC, the challenge will be implementing a possession-oriented ho-stack offense with an inexperienced team.  That offense spreads the responsibility across the entire team, rather than focusing on an individual or two.  When it works, it is very hard to stop because there is no one to key in on.  When it fails, the wounds are usually self-inflicted drops and throw-aways.  For Oregon, the challenge will be to fix 2011’s maddening inconsistency.  (Exhibit A is three consecutive games at Nationals: a 9-15 loss to 12th-place Carleton, a 15-9 win over 5th-place Iowa and a 9-15 loss to finalist Michigan.)

Prediction: If the rookies on these teams can figure out how to be stars, they will challenge for semifinals.  If they don’t, even qualifying for Nationals will be a struggle.

Whitman and Western

Whitman scored a pair of big wins this fall, beating Western Washington for the first time in recent memory.  Led by Margaret Wilson-Moses, the Sweets are organized and composed.  They don’t have the depth of talent to compete for D-I Nationals (they were outscored 28-72 in 7 losses at Regionals last year), but should they choose to go D-III, they will compete for the title.

Prediction:  The choice is the Sweets’: D-I and difficulty or D-III and great success.

Western Washington is a very similar team to what it is has been for years: a solid, mid-level team lead by a budding star.  Callie Mah (of Riot) is a game changing player…when she is healthy.  Unfortunately for Chaos, Mah is out with a blown ACL.

Prediction: Without their star, this team will really struggle.

The Rest

Rounding out the region are a group of teams that are working to build a consistent program.  Reed, Puget Sound, Willamette, Portland State, Oregon State, Victoria and Pacific Lutheran have all experienced some success in recent years.  For some of these programs, success has been mere existence and for others it has been to build to the point of competing Nationally.

Prediction: OSU is the most likely candidate to break out, but it could be any of these teams.

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