Favorites and Early Season Polls
Who Are the Favorites in 2015? Anyone? Bueller?
I spent the last week looking around Division III soccer to find this year’s powerhouse teams. Where to start? I thought last year’s Final Four might be a good place. Tufts is still perfect, but with some bland wins and the NESCAC coming up, who knows. Wheaton (Ill.) was agonizingly close in 2014 and brought back tons of talent, but they’ve already lost. Twice. Oneonta St. and OWU? Combined 0-3-2 in their last five games. Only two of last year’s Elite Eight teams remain perfect (barely, after Trinity (Texas) pulled out a tight OT win). Even Messiah, the one team that always seems immune to rebuilding and off days, has a draw and a loss in only five games.
I think the early theme we’re starting to see for this season is parity. As of today, over half of the D3soccer.com Top 25 has a blemish (loss or draw), including four of the top five from Week One’s poll. Heck, look at my previous Top 10—four lost to unranked teams in the last week.
The gap between the very top teams and everyone else has been shrinking for some time. Three of the last four national champions failed to even win their own conference tournaments. Last year’s Final Four traveled to Kansas City with 10 losses and 10 draws. Soccer’s growth has led to a steady increase in the number of quality players in Division III soccer, and we’re starting to see the effects. The good teams just don’t have the same margin for error anymore. Whereas an “off day” for a top team in the past just meant a close win, now it’s a tie or a loss. It’s been a decade since a team won the national championship with a perfect record, and I’d be shocked if anyone pulls it off this year.
In the grand scheme of things, I think the increased parity means two things. First, conference tournaments will be much more important this year. The lack of elite teams means the at-large (Pool C) bids to the NCAA tournament will be that much harder to come by. If you’re on the bubble—and the bubble is going to be very, very big this year—you’d better win your conference’s automatic berth instead of leaving anything to chance.
Second, the NCAA tournament will be more open than it’s ever been. Right now, I just don’t see an elite team ready to take on all comers. Even the top teams are works in progress. Trinity is replacing several big names (including guys now playing professionally), Kenyon is bedding in a new back line, and Tufts and Loras lost impact players. But, for right now, I’m still waiting for a team to make a statement over the next few weeks and separate itself.
Some Thoughts on Early Season Polls
I know the drastic (and sometimes inexplicable) changes in early season polls throw some people off. My advice? Don’t worry about it. The D3soccer.com and NSCAA Top 25 have absolutely no impact on who makes the postseason. The rankings you’re looking for to see who will get an at-large bid are the NCAA regional rankings, which won’t even be released until mid-October.
So what’s the point? Well, it’s fun. If you’re a player, you love the opportunity to be recognized and see where you stack up. Even better, you want the chance to play another Top 25 team, knowing it raises the stakes and you can get more students in the stands. I’d imagine Wednesday’s game pitting No. 4 Franklin and Marshall against No. 16 Elizabethtown generated more buzz because both teams were ranked. If you’re a coach, the name recognition helps with motivation and (most of all) recruiting. If you’re a fan, it provides a talking point and lets you know what other games might be worth watching. And I promise, if your team keeps winning, they will make their way into the rankings.
Ryan’s Boxscore Top 10
1. Tufts (3-0-0, D3soccer.com No. 3) – Solid start from the defending champs. The schedule slowly gets more difficult, but if the Jumbos can get a bunch of wins on the board early, that will take some of the pressure off the NESCAC season from an NCAA perspective.
2. Trinity (Texas) (5-0-0, No. 1) – Much of this depends on what you think of Brandeis and Texas-Dallas. I think they’re strong teams, and both won NCAA games last year, so give Trinity credit for picking up a pair of very strong wins early on.
3. Kenyon (5-0-0, No. 2) – The Lords get the nod over Loras based on a perfect record and last weekend’s 4-3 win over Carnegie Mellon. Getting Tony Amolo rolling against tougher competition is a great sign too. They might lack some defensive experience, but I don’t see them having issues with a shorthanded Centre this weekend.
4. Loras (4-0-1, No. 13) – In fairness to voters, Loras picked up a blemish over the weekend and were already back at No. 8, so dropping a few spots was unsurprising. After blasting No. 10 Chicago 4-0 this week, I’d expect a big jump in the next poll. Props to the Duhawks for the tough schedule—their opponents are a combined 18-9-2 and they travel to DePauw (4-0-1) this weekend.
5. Eastern Connecticut (6-0-0, No. 8) – The Warriors’ meteoric rise continues. I hope this serves as bulletin board material, but I’m still not quite convinced ECONN is the real deal. Unfortunately, the schedule probably won’t give the Warriors a great chance to convince me. This is a box score Top Ten, however, so the quality of the wins and the perfect record warrant the rank. And if they keep winning, I’ll come around soon enough.
6. Franklin and Marshall (6-0-0, No. 4) – The Diplomats are part of a group of teams—including Kenyon, Brandeis, and St. Lawrence, among others—who have been knocking on the door of the Final Four the last few years. F&M is perfect on the season and every win has been comfortable, including Wednesday’s entertaining game with Elizabethtown.
7. Carnegie Mellon (4-1-0, No. 9) – Tough loss at Kenyon, but you can’t (and I won’t) fault the Tartans for scheduling so well ahead of the UAA. Seems like they’ll continue to score goals and should be great to watch as the season rolls on. Until they drop another game, the win over Messiah keeps Carnegie in the Top Ten.
8. RPI (6-0-0, No. 22) – If it seems like beating Oneonta State is a springboard into my Top Ten, it only reflects the high expectations I had for the Red Dragons. RPI is perfect and has a high-quality win, which keeps them above the large group of perfect teams without any big wins. Count RPI as another team I’m a little skeptical of, especially considering the box score from the Oneonta game suggests RPI may have been a bit lucky. Time will tell.
9. Christopher Newport (6-0-1, No. 5) – At this point, I have clear separation between the top eight and everyone else. That’s not to say the top eight are much better, but I think their resumes and results thus far are much stronger. Having said that, the Captains don’t get docked for a draw with Rutgers-Camden in which they dominated the box score, although rumor has it Camden missed a few breakaways. The schedule sets up nicely for CNU, if they can stay consistent.
10. Brandeis (6-1-0, No. 15) – I could put a number of perfect teams without respectable wins here, but I’ll give the nod to the Judges for recovering from the Trinity loss with four straight 1-0 wins. Brandeis was clearly feeling bold when scheduling, as their next two games feature the defending champs and another 2014 NCAA team in Wheaton (Mass.). Win both of those, and the Judges might push towards the top.
Trending Up: Montclair State, UW-Whitewater, Amherst, Whitworth
Trending Down: Oneonta State, Chicago, Ohio Wesleyan, St. Lawrence
Comments or feedback for the author? E-mail Ryan Harmanis.