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2016 Mid-American Conference Nonrevenue Roundup

Pelafas, Hellstrom lead the way as women’s soccer starts conference play

MAC Logo on White Background

We’re about to hit the fun part of fall sports: for Women’s Soccer and Volleyball, it’s time for MAC play. It’s gut-check time for Men’s Soccer teams around the conference; about halfway through the season, is this who you are? With such a small conference, there’s still time to adjust and gel before seeing MAC opponents.

Cross Country teams will start to hit more competitive and prestigious races, and Field Hockey, well I’m still learning Field Hockey. As quickly as I can, but still working on it.

Men’s Soccer

I could shuffle the order week-to-week, but any way you slice it Men’s Soccer is a highlight for the conference this time of year.

This year, it’s not just Akron, though the Zips remain the clear class of the conference despite a few stumbles. The Zips rebounded from the fluky 6-1 loss at UCLA with a string of wins over Oregon State, UC Santa Barbara, and Tulsa before dropping a barnburner to unranked SMU, 4-3. Adam Najem scored twice in just over a minute early in the first half to give Akron a 2-0 lead, but SMU overcame both that and a 3-2 deficit late in the second to force overtime and win.

Akron has just one game schedules over the next two-weeks plus before opening MAC play with Buffalo, who dropped their first match of the season on the road to USF Sunday, 3-0. The Florida Bulls had begun the season ranked but fallen out thanks to an 0-3-2 start, but now enjoy a three-match win streak. UB has three winnable matches before the measuring-stick showdown with Akron and could very will hit the Zips and MAC play with double-digit wins on the season.

I’ve focused on those two teams in weeks past, but others continue to chug along. Western Michigan and Bowling Green each have higher-scoring offenses than Akron right now, and the Bulls if we remove UB’s nonsensical 9-0 win over D-II Daemen. The Bronco’s Brandon Bye is the best MAC player you haven’t heard of — even I’m more inclined to hype keeper Drew Shepherd when thinking about Kalamazoo — and he’s got five goals and four assists on the year, good for top-three in the conference in both stats. In northwest Ohio, it feels like Pat Flynn has been around forever, but he’s always dangerous and has three markers and three helpers for Bowling Green.

On the defensive side, don’t sleep on West Virginia, who had something of a down year last season. Goalie Jose Santos leads the conference in GAA and has needed to make only nine saves in six games.

All three of WMU, Bowling Green, and West Virginia have quietly put together strong resumes while Akron enjoys their usual attention and Buffalo streaks against something of a favorable schedule. Both the Broncos and the Mountaineers have only one loss, and the Falcons can match Akron’s five wins on the season. It’s a shame, as someone brought up last week, that the MAC doesn’t do a double round-robin, because conference play is going to be must-see soccer this season.

Can’t-miss games this week:
Western Michigan in a pair of in-state battles: at Michigan Wednesday, hosting Detroit Saturday
Similar story with Bowling Green, hosting Ohio State Saturday
Buffalo hosting St. Bonaventure tonight shouldn’t be a particularly competitive game, but Russell Cicerone loves playing the Bonnies, and tonight’s his last chance.
Akron is off, and I’ll be sure to keep Northern Illinois from falling by the wayside next week.

Women’s Soccer

With a full twelve teams, Women’s Soccer gets to start MAC play a good deal earlier than Men’s Soccer. I’d say of all the non-revenue sports in the conference, Women’s Soccer is what I know best, and rather than run down the last week, here’s my take on key storylines this year:

How far have Kent State and Central Michigan improved, and how far can Jenna Hellstrom and Alexis Pelafas take them?

The storylines are pretty similar with these two programs, a few years ago middling teams in the conference and now looking like the MAC elite thanks to a pair of offensive dynamos. I had more confidence in Kent during the preseason, but Central Michigan has torn their schedule to shreds. The Golden Flashes have only played five matches, while I’m not all that moved by CMU’s strength of schedule — Kansas State is bad and Michigan State middling — but if you keep winning, you keep winning, and the Chips’ defensive numbers are stellar against any level.

Hellstrom (5G, 2A) and Pelafas (9G, 1A) are the two biggest offensive names to watch in the conference. You could throw Buffalo’s Carissima Cutrona (6G) and Akron’s Chloe Allen (5G) in there, but neither the Bulls nor the Zips have developed a go-to secondary option yet, so we’ll see if they can keep it up.

Who else is in line to claim a home quarterfinal?

Beyond the Chips and Flashes, the conference is kind of muddled. Buffalo, Western Michigan, Ball State, and Miami were the clear top four in the conference through 2014 and 2015, but all have some inconsistency this year and could use a strong start to MAC play to get some momentum going. It will be really interesting to see where things stand two weekends from now.

Looking for a dark horse? Northwest Ohio.

Neither Bowling Green nor Toledo stick out in my memory much from recent years but each is off to a solid start at 5-3-0. I’m a little more confident in the Falcons thanks to veteran keeper Lauren Cadel, who’s seen a lot of shots in her day. Toledo has the same issue as Akron and Buffalo, with Kiersten Johnson carrying a big chunk of their scoring load.

Can’t-miss games this weekend:

We’ll see what the darkhorses are made of, as Kent State visits both Toledo and Bowling Green.
Buffalo has a tough opening weekend on the road, at Ball State and at Miami. Both are likely better than their records. Buffalo might be, but might not be.
What to make of Western Michigan? One of the top programs in the conference a few years running now, their Sunday showdown with CMU should be electric.

Volleyball

Volleyball also sees MAC play start this week and is a conference in transition, which should make for a fun year.

If you followed the last two MAC Championships, you’re used to teams like Ohio, Northern Illinois, Miami, and Western Michigan making a name for themselves. It’s a bit different this year as Ohio and WMU have fallen off — though I can’t speak to their strength of schedule — and Bowling Green, who didn’t even make the last two tournaments, looks like the leader at the turn. They’ve the best record in the MAC, the best hitting percentage, and the best hitting percentage against.

Toledo and Central Michigan are two more teams who haven’t seen the MAC Tournament in a few years and boast winning records heading into conference play.

Can’t-miss matches this weekend:

The two best are both Saturday, with Central Michigan - Toledo (ESPN3!) and Bowling Green - Northern Illinois both kicking off the season.

Field Hockey

Conference play is still a bit off for Field Hockey, but Longwood has stepped out in front of the conference with three straight wins, including a four-goal second half against Liberty yesterday. The Lancers are 6-3 for the first time since joining Division I in 2007 and lead the conference in scoring, with 17 of their 25 goals coming from Edel Nyland and Leonie Verstraete. Miami also has a pair of players, Paula Portugal and Geagy Pritchard, accounting for 16 of their 20 tallies on the season. Only the Redhawks, who sit 3-5, and Longwood has a positive goal differential on the season.

Cross Country

Lots of names and lots of data in Cross Country, and we probably still aren’t seeing anybody’s top showing this early in the season. Once October hits, we’ll have plenty of high-profile races to look at.

The place to be this weekend was Michigan State’s Spartan Invitational, where Eastern Michigan (2nd), Miami (3rd), Central Michigan (4th) and Kent State (5th) made up the Men’s field in addition to Michigan State, who pretty easily outpaced EMU, and Miami, Western, Kent, and CMU made up 2-5 behind the Spartans on the Women’s side.

EMU’s Women had the most impressive weekend, finishing first of twenty-five at Vanderbilt’s Commodore Classic. The Eagles were one of only two groups to place their five scorers in the top 25 and topped Ohio State thanks to a pair of top ten finishes from Jordann McDermitt and Natalie Cizmas in the 261-woman race.