When is it a disappointment to finish a season with a .500 record in conference play and a trip the the conference tournament semi-finals?
The answer is easy. For the Toledo Rockets, it is when you have won more Mid-American Conference tournament championships in the last seven years than the rest of the league combined.
As he began his 12th season, Rockets' head coach Brad Evans knew that he would have to replace some cogs very important to the Toledo machine. Headed into the 2012 season, the team was without Vicki Traven, who is perhaps the most decorated goalkeeper in Rockets history. Traven is the team's career leader in wins with 51 -- one more than the combined total for the next two players on the career wins list. Evans also had to replace 19 goals and seven assists lost through the departures of Nicole Gyurgyik and Kristen Lynn.
What ensued was Toledo's first losing season since 2004 and their first non-winning season in the MAC since 2005. Given the loss of Traven, you might assume that the Rockets this was due to more goals scored by opponents, but that was not the case -- in fact, opponents scored only one more goal against Toledo in 2012 than they did in 2011. The decline was due to offense. In 2012, the Rockets scored fewer than half the goals they did the previous year, just 21 compared to 44. Not only did they lose Gyurgyik and Lynn, but their leading scorer from 2011, Rachel MacLeod, scored only five goals and three assists compared to 11 and nine in the previous season.
Now the debate begins. Is Toledo in decline, supplanted by emerging powers like Miami, or will 2012 be remembered as just some fluky blip on the radar?
First, let's briefly look at the players who will not be back for 2013. Evans must replace five of the team's full-time starters from 2012, and that group accounted for eight of the team's 21 goals last year. Chief among these losses is Natalia Gaitan, who scored four goals in 2012 and was perhaps the team's most experienced and dependable defender. Also not returning are midfielder/defender Megan Blake and midfielder Kristen Mattei, both of whom scored two goals in 2012. The other two starters lost are defender Rachael Kravitz and Jaimie Morsillo.
Despite the decline in goals, senior forward Rachel MacLeod is the most important player returning for the Rockets in 2013. Despite starting only 14 games in 2012, MacLeod managed to lead the team in goals (five), assists (three), points (13), shots (42) and game-winners (two). Most importantly, of her 14 starts, most came at the end of the season, when she started the final eight games. A huge key for Toledo this season is which Rachel MacLeod they will get this year. Will it be something akin to the 2011 MAC Offensive Player of the Year performance, or will it be what we saw last season?
Only one returning player started all 21 games last season, and that is sophomore Angelica Hernandez. Hernandez scored two goals in 2012, both against Bowling Green, but her primary role will be as a defender. With the loss of Gaitan, Hernandez's role in her second season will certainly expand and become much more important.
Three other players with significant starting experience return for the Rockets this season -- junior defenders Kirsten Catloth and Rio James, as well as junior midfielder Meghan Topolewski. Those three combined for three goals and three assists in 2012. In addition, Evans will have eight other returning players who logged minutes in 12 or more games last season.
Both goalkeepers who saw game action in 2012 will return for this season. Senior Kelsey Borowitz played in 16 games and started 15, compiling a 5-8-2 record, in 2012. She allowed 19 goals (1.38/game) and had 43 saves, although she did post three shutouts. Sam Tiongson, who will be a sophomore in 2013, played in ten games and started six. She posted a 2-4-1 record, with one shutout. Tiongson allowed eight goals (0.99/game) and saved 23 shots.
Toledo's schedule shapes up rather well, even if it is ambitious, as they have half of their non-conference slate at home. The Rockets begin the year in Minneapolis, Minn., against Minnesota and Belmont, before traveling to Youngstown State. Beginning on September 1st, they host five out of six games. That stretch begins with Kentucky, followed by a road trip to Pittsburgh. After visiting the Panthers, they host Pepperdine, Indiana State and Dayton before beginning their MAC slate with a home match against Western Michigan.
After going to Ypsilanti to face Eastern Michigan, Toledo continues MAC play with home games against Buffalo and Akron. Then comes perhaps their most difficult stretch of the season, with four consecutive road games. The first three are against Central Michigan, Bowling Green and Ball State, and the gauntlet concludes with a match against defending MAC champion Miami. The regular season concludes with home games against Ohio and Kent State, followed by the season finale against Northern Illinois.