Head coach Len Tsantiris has been rebuilding the UConn women’s soccer program for eight years.
The Huskies had always been a powerhouse since the inception of the Women’s College Cup in 1982, just one year after Tsantiris began coaching in Storrs. He posted winning season upon winning season and reached the national championship game four times in his first 25 years. It wasn’t until 2008 that he presided over his first losing season as a head coach, a stunning setback for a program that reached the Elite Eight the year before.
It took him five years to get back to the NCAA Tournament after missing it in 2008, but his 2014 squad broke through and claimed an automatic berth by winning the American Athletic Conference tournament championship. The Huskies were finally back.
Now, the 2015 season proves Tsantiris has almost climbed the ladder all the way back to fielding a national championship-caliber team in Storrs.
UConn started its season outside the top 25, but finished the year with a regular season title in the American Athletic Conference and a run to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament. The Huskies finished with 19 wins, the highest win total the program has seen since 2002.
Only three teams managed to beat this year’s UConn squad: No. 9 Rutgers (twice), No. 22 South Florida and a Cincinnati team that shocked the Huskies in the American Athletic Conference tournament semifinals.
The Bearcats, though, went on to defeat South Florida in the conference championship game. That certainly played a role in preserving UConn’s strength of schedule.
Ultimately, the Huskies finished with the eighth-strongest record in Division I competition before the start of the NCAA Tournament. Despite this fact, UConn was not one of the 16 seeded teams in the tournament – a snub of the Huskies and the American Athletic Conference.
While they might not have had the favorable matchups a seeded team would have received, UConn blew the doors off Siena in a 5-0 first-round win and surprised No. 10 Notre Dame 2-0 in the second round.
The Huskies fell in the third round to Rutgers, a team that went on to advance past No. 1 Virginia in the Elite Eight to reach the Women’s College Cup this weekend. Scarlet Knights goalkeeper Casey Murphy proved too much for the Huskies in the Sweet 16 and for the Cavaliers in the Elite Eight. I would not be surprised if this Rutgers squad brought home a national championship this season. They’re just that good.
Had UConn been placed in any other part of the bracket, I’m convinced the team would have been in the Women’s College Cup as well.
Tsantiris gives much of the credit for this year’s success to the goal-scoring prowess of junior forward Rachel Hill, who recorded her second-straight 16-goal season. She will enter her senior year 19 goals shy of setting an all-time program record in goals scored.
But just as much credit goes to the defense, led by junior goalkeeper Emily Armstrong. Armstrong posted a career high 77 saves this season on 0.94 goals allowed per game. Overall, the defense allowed 0.91 goals per game, one of the best percentages in the nation.
The most significant challenge in 2015 proved to be scoring at a high volume, as the team averaged only 1.96 goals per game. While Hill did her part to bolster the offense, she had to fight through two five-game scoring droughts.
Looking down the roster, senior midfielder Samantha McGuire scored the majority of her seven goals in a brief stretch toward the end of the regular season. She could not extend her hot streak into the postseason.
Junior forward Stephanie Ribeiro also added seven goals, but did so on 96 shots of which only 29 were considered shots on goal. For comparison, Hill scored her 16 goals on 88 shots.
Senior forward Andrea Plucenik had four goals while freshman forward Kim Urbanek had three, but neither were game-changing players on the offense. That will likely change as Urbanek continues to develop. Tsantiris is confident Urbanek can play at the highest level and has had that confidence since the season began.
Urbanek and others will need to step up next season and beyond, as the Huskies are set to graduate 33 percent of their offense in terms of goals scored.
Furthermore, UConn will lose senior defenders Gabriella Cuevas and Annie Wickett. However, Tsantiris had already spent most of this season relying on freshman Liane Keegans and sophomore Sabrina Toole in his defensive scheme. Given the level Keegans was able to play at in her first season at UConn, there is no doubt that the coaching staff has the ability to coach a smooth transition on the back line.
Despite Tsantiris’ overtures about a leadership vacuum in the coming season, there is no reason to doubt these Huskies will succeed in 2016. The team has six TopDrawerSoccer.com three-star recruits joining the ranks of the seasoned veterans in Storrs next fall.
These are exactly the kind of players Tsantiris succeeds with. He takes the mid-to-upper-level high school recruits and turns them into collegiate-level talent. That’s how his system has always worked.
It would be foolish to predict now who will win a national championship in 2016 before this season’s champion is even crowned. But there is no doubt one of the top contenders is in Storrs, with a group of rising seniors determined to finish the job they were tasked with upon arriving at UConn in 2013.
I certainly wouldn’t bet against them.