Generally during this series I've been sticking to player previews, but occasionally it's also important to highlight a critical position battle; we've already hit the Men's Soccer goalies and Volleyball setters, and we'll revisit Volleyball to talk servers and outside hitters in the next few days.
Considering seven starters return from a MAC Championship team, it's easy to feel good about Women's Soccer's lineup again this year. Tangentially, we've already talked about how the squad will weather the departures up top thanks to impact transfers and experienced returners, but it's much more critical to consider how Buffalo will account for the graduation of a pair of All-MAC honorees in Courtney Mann and Sophie Therien on the defense.
For a refresher, Therien played in the middle of four Bulls across the back line, next to Jackie Hall (Kristin Markiewicz and Angel Hart worked on the edges), and Mann played a defensive midfield role just in front of that line, generally a bit more free-ranging, but also able to step back and bolster the defense's numbers when needed.
Hart - (Therien) - Hall - Markiewicz
Mann's position is probably the more critical to fill; even the best centerbacks can get into trouble quickly if no one is stepping up and stopping the attack in front of them. Therien's role is also going to be easier to manage for the Bulls; reigning Third Team All-American and MAC Defensive Player of the Year Jackie Hall is still right next door, and both Hart and Markiewicz have experience playing in a more central role. Following the domino effect, someone like Dana Lytle or even Kassidy Kidd could move back on the edge.
Replacing Courtney Mann at Defensive Mid: Possibilities
Players moving up the depth chart: Last year a pair of freshmen stepped into crucial roles, and I've already detailed that I expect the same from UB's incoming transfers. But in this case, it could be most likely that UB fills in the holes the old-fashioned way; by moving Ashley Evans or Kori Hughes into a more important role than they've seen in the past.
Hughes did not play last year due to injury, and may be a little more offensively minded than would work for this position, but despite only a half-season of on-field experience with Buffalo, she's got the pedigree: a pair of First Team All-NYS honors and a handful of school records.
Evans, on the other hand, is appropriately defense-minded, having played centerback in high school, and acclimated to competition, having seen action in 14 games last year (though two were as an emergency goalie). She subbed in most frequently for Megan Giesen last year, but I think she could be effective at any position up and down the middle of the field.
Players moving from a different position: This one is pretty simple. I think Angel Hart could bring a remarkably similar style to the defensive midfield as Courtney Mann last year. Hart spent 2014 starting regularly along the back line of the defense, but should she move, there are a number of players with 2014 experience who could fill in Angel's old spot. Dana Lytle would be the most likely in this scenario - she started the year there before rolling her ankle in the first game.
Alternatively, I almost hate to say it given her work in a more attacking role last season, but Kassidy Kidd could also fall back deeper in the midfield to fill the role and with her experience bring the responsibility to not get too aggressive and leave UB susceptible to a quick counterattack. The one concern I'd have with this possibility is if Kidd's game is physical enough to play aggressive defense when necessary.
A freshman: I think it's less likely a freshman fill this spot, but only because I think a freshman holds the inside track on the other open spot on the defense. Still, among the incoming, midfield-heavy group, Kayla Hospodka is the likely name to watch. However, Burke specifically called her an "outside back" upon her signing, so it's probably a long shot.
Replacing Sophie Therien at Centerback: Possibilities
Players moving from a different position: Part of what made UB's defense so strong last year was that Burke had at his disposal a number of players with extensive experience in the middle of the field. As a result, I wouldn't be surprised to see Hart or Markiewicz move inside, with a similar domino effect from above.
A freshman: I think it's less likely someone like Evans steps into this role, and I think the frontrunner here is actually freshman Meghan Simmons, a late addition to the recruiting class. It seems every other Canadian recruit UB pulls in has experience suiting up for an Ontario team, but Simmons could be the real deal, with a national championship under her belt and a prior commitment to Kentucky.
Soccer recruiting is much less fine-tuned, but Kentucky has advanced to three of the last four NCAA Tournaments, and that should catch your attention. Furthermore, the press release from Simmons' arrival all but slots her into the starting lineup next to Hall from Day One.
I'm holding off on full lineup predictions until our full team preview posts in two weeks, but I don't think there's too many possibilities in play beyond what's here. Despite the flexibility Markiewicz and Hart provide Burke among the defense, there are relatively few pure defenders on the squad beyond the three returners, which opens the door for Simmons. On the other hand, there are a lot of midfielders up and down the roster, but Courtney Mann was such a mainstay last year that no one else really got a chance to show off their defensive prowess.