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Your Complete 2021 Big Ten Women’s Soccer Preview, Part 4

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Plus, get J.J.’s preseason predictions for how the conference will shake out

NCAA Football: Big Ten Football Media Day
Who will win the Big Ten conference this year?
Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

The sun is in the sky, burgers are on the grill, and the Mets are entering a mid-season collapse. It’s that wonderful time of year we call summer again. And summer means only one thing: it’s time to hit the beach film room to discuss the impending Big Ten soccer season!

With pre-seasons around the Midwest well underway, I figured it’s time for me to unleash this behemoth of a Big Ten women’s soccer primer on the world. In here you’ll find previews of every team in the conference- from summaries of last season to key players for the next, this article is your comprehensive guide to anything you might want to know about the best soccer conference in the country.*

For the sake of only allowing complaints about my own predictions to anyone who actually managed to read all of this nearly 12,000 word monstrosity over the next four days, I’ve divided up the team previews by rough geographic region. My personal prediction for the conference standings will be at the end of the fourth post on Thursday (that’s today!). Today’s post will be the two, uh, leftover teams in the conference: Iowa and Nebraska.

And with that, let’s break down some Big Ten soccer!

*do not fact check this with anyone but me

Iowa

Last season’s Cinderella story was about ten minutes away from taking down UCLA and advancing to the national tournament third round, and they’ll hope to continue the magic in the fall.

The surprise of the late spring, Iowa proved to be at their best when it mattered most in 2020. Coming off an impressive 2019 season that saw the Hawkeyes compete in the NCAA Tournament but with an extensive amount of graduating talent, the regular season looked to be a standard one for a young team rebuilding a new core.

They won only two games, and scored a total of three goals across eleven games, earning the No. 12 seed overall and the bottom seed in the West region of the Big Ten Tournament. But come tournament time, the team found form. Ripping off four straight wins, the Hawkeyes dispatched, among other teams, top seeded Penn State and No. 4 Wisconsin to take home the B1G title and clinch a tournament berth.

In the NCAA Tournament, they kept their hot streak going- taking down Campbell 1-0 and then taking an early lead against UCLA before conceding a pair of agonizing, late goals.

In 2021, Iowa is looking to keep the momentum rolling, hoping their impressive finish to the spring will provide a boost as the team launches their bid for a third straight national tournament bid. The schedule offers no favors- their three toughest tests based on last season’s final standings will likely all come on the road- but the Hawkeyes experienced core has already proven that they can win anywhere. Iowa is battle-tested and ready to extend their late season run across a full season. If they can settle in and impose their physical game on opponents, there’s no team that will want to come up against the Hawkeyes on a cold fall day.

MVP: Macy Enneking

Macy Enneking only made her first start in late March of 2020, but her impact on the team was immediate and significant. Prior to her first start in net, the Hawkeyes were 0-1-6 on the year. After she assumed the starting position, they ripped off a 7-3 record to end the season. She finished first in the conference in goals against average, save percentage, saves per game, and third in shutouts per game.

In summary, of the goalkeeping statistics kept by the Big Ten, she finished best in the conference in three of the four and top three in the other one. That’s about as good as you’ll get for half a freshman season. She’ll get her first full season in net this fall as just a sophomore, and it’s a safe bet that few teams in the conference are excited about it.

Key Players: Meike Ingles, Riley Whitaker, Sara Wheaton

Meike Ingles: The team’s leader in both goals and points in 2020, Ingles displayed a knack for goal when it mattered most- she scored in four of the six postseason games the Hawkeyes played in the spring, with three of her four goals being game-winners. If Ingles, now a sophomore, can find a way to maintain her incredible tournament form to the 2021 regular season, there’s little doubt she’ll lead Iowa in goals once again.

Riley Whitaker: The biggest addition to the Hawkeyes this fall will likely be Whitaker, who returns from a knee injury that kept her out all 2020. Iowa’s 2019 defensive player of the year, and a two year starter at the back, Whitaker will be a major boost to a defense that was already rock solid in the spring. Now a senior, the Ankeny, Iowa native should provide invaluable experience in her return to the pitch in 2021.

Sara Wheaton: The Hawkeyes’s 2020 defensive player of the year, Wheaton was instrumental in Iowa’s run of four straight shutout victories that spanned their Big Ten and NCAA Tournament winning streaks. A natural threat on set pieces, Wheaton scored the winner against Campbell off a corner kick scramble, and also added a goal against Rutgers from the penalty spot. Yet another senior on an experienced Iowa backline, Wheaton has started every game of her college career and is set for at least another eighteen starts in 2021.

Breakout watch: Maggie Johnson

The forward line should be the portion of this Hawkeye team with the most minutes up for grabs in the fall, and sophomore Maggie Johnson hopes to become the next member of Iowa’s 2020 recruiting class to establish herself as a full time starter.

Johnson made six starts in nine games before she missed the back end of the season due to injury, but she’ll get plenty of chances to work her way back into the rotation come fall. She’ll have competition for minutes to spur her on as well, as head coach Dave Dilanni added a pair of experienced graduate forwards in Courtney Powell and Alyssa Walker to supplement the attack.

Powell in particular will be another name to watch, as she comes across the Hawkeye state from Iowa State after leading the Cyclones in goals and assists in 2019.

Nebraska

Nebraska got positive results against Wisconsin and Rutgers at home last season, and took Michigan to double overtime, but struggled to pick up points outside of big games. Can the Huskers find consistency in 2021?

Nebraska never seemed to find their level last spring. They punched above their weight against some of the hardest teams in the conference- earning draws against Rutgers and Wisconsin, and coming within five minutes of drawing Michigan- but also suffering some embarrassing setbacks, like the 4-0 drubbing they took at the hands of Northwestern, and a 2-0 defeat to a Michigan State side that would finish second to last in the conference.

The one consistent trend in their results was that away games were not kind to the Huskers- they managed just one draw and no wins on the road, losing all three of their other matches by multi-goal margins.

The 2021 schedule looks to be an interesting one for the Huskers. Though they’ll be heading off to New Jersey to play Rutgers this season, they keep their two other tests against the Big Ten’s top tier in Lincoln. They also draw home games against two of the three teams that finished below them in Iowa and Michigan State, as well as the squad that only finished one spot above them in Purdue.

Add in a trip to Maryland and there’s plenty of winnable games on the docket- it’s not unreasonable at all to envision Nebraska closing out the season somewhere in the middle of the pack. But such a finish is contingent on the Huskers remaining as strong against the best of the best at home as they were in 2020.

MVP: Grace Brown

Nebraska only scored six times across ten games last season, so a rock solid defense was vital in keeping the Huskers in games. Brown was the anchor at the back for Nebraska never leaving the field in the spring, putting out fires and helping to keep Makinzie Short’s job between the sticks as uneventful as possible.

A three-year starter who’s now in her fifth season of posting regular minutes for this Husker squad, the senior’s influence and leadership in defense will likely be critical to Nebraska’s 2021 success.

Key Players: Makinzie Short, Dakota Chan, Elanor Dale

Makinzie Short: As alluded to above, goalkeeper Makinzie Short’s task in 2020 was not a small one. With the team only scoring in four of their ten games, Short needed to keep clean sheets whenever possible to give the Huskers a fighting chance at a point.

And on more than one occasion she did just that against some of the Big Ten’s best attackers- holding both Wisconsin and Rutgers to shutouts in two of Nebraska’s biggest results of the spring. She’ll be back in net for the Huskers in 2021, and her performances are likely to be just as vital.

Dakota Chan: A two year starter for this Nebraska squad, Chan offers experience both in attack and the midfield. In each of those two years starting the senior has finished second on the team in points, an accomplishment only enhanced by the fact that an injury sidelined her for the second half of the 2019 campaign.

In the spring campaign, Chan was one of just two players to record both a goal and an assist for the Huskers.

Elanor Dale: An alum of the English youth academy system, Dale offered a much needed new threat to the Husker attack following the graduation of 2019 leading scorer Meg Brandt to the ranks of German professional football.

Dale’s two goals in her rookie season last spring accounted for a third of Nebraska’s total production, and no matter how you slice it, leading a team in both points and goals as a freshman is an impressive feat. She’ll look to add to her account in the fall with her first full season stateside ahead of her.

Breakout watch: Reagan Raabe

Partnering Dale up top will likely be her fellow sophomore Raabe. Despite missing a pair of games late in the season Raabe was the only player aside from Dakota Chan to notch both a goal and an assist in the spring for the Huskers. The Omaha, Neb. native finished tied for the team lead in assists as well as second on the team in points, and is primed for an even bigger season now that she’s fully healthy and ready for 2021.


MY OFFICIAL BIG TEN PREDICTION

  1. Rutgers
  2. Penn State
  3. Ohio State
  4. Wisconsin
  5. Michigan
  6. Indiana
  7. Iowa
  8. Northwestern
  9. Minnesota
  10. Purdue
  11. Illinois
  12. Maryland
  13. Michigan State
  14. Nebraska

The honest reality is the Big Ten is incredibly difficult to ever properly figure out or predict. Any one of the top five teams could very realistically take home the title. And after the top five, you could make a very solid argument for any of the teams in slots 6-10 finishing in sixth OR tenth.

And, as Iowa showed last season, any of the teams thought to be at the bottom can make a push for the championship as well. But nobody ever had any fun by saying “it’s too hard to predict this,” so let’s get into my best guess!

Let’s start with the obvious. Penn State is probably the smart money pick to win the conference as the reigning regular season champs, but I really feel like this might be the year for Rutgers.

Amirah Ali is on her last ride, and she still hasn’t gotten her hands on a Big Ten title. Frankie Tagliaferri gives the Scarlet Knights elite statistical production from the center of the park as well as intangibly important experience amongst a midfield unit that was one of the youngest in the country last season. And they add an absolutely loaded recruiting class to the mix as well. If there ever was a year for Rutgers to bring home their first Big Ten title, this would be it.

Michigan may well make me look silly for putting them at five, but it’s simply too difficult for me to put the Wolverines ahead of the likes of Wisconsin (who will be hungry after they missed an NCAA Tournament berth) and Ohio State (who looked like a title winning team for significant stretches of 2020). The talent for a run at first place is very much there, but the production (or lack thereof) from last season is impossible to ignore until they start proving otherwise in the fall.

Northwestern and Minnesota remain where they were last season- the true neutral of the Big Ten. They’re capable of giving any elite team a solid run, but are unlikely to actually prevail, and they don’t struggle beating the teams they should theoretically be beating. Thank you for making my job easier, Wildcats and Gophers. I definitely see legitimate top-half potential in these two teams, particularly Minnesota, but I simply think for both of them a real breakout season is probably another year away.

Nebraska is a relatively bold choice for last place, and it’s a selection that’s less about the Huskers regressing and more about the teams that I have passed them. I think Maryland will be a much improved squad assuming they avoid the injury bug that plagued their 2020 campaign, and I expect Jeff Hosler to take some legitimate steps forward in his first year with Michigan State.

And that’s my full 2021 Big Ten women’s soccer season preview! If you made it this far, a gold star to you. If you just waited for Thursday’s post to look for your favorite team, a gold star to you as well, and best of luck this fall!