[PREVIEW: Big Ten Women] Penn State's run of 15 consecutive Big Ten regular-season titles ended with a third-place finish in 2013, but that didn't dissuade rival coaches from making the Nittany Lions the 2014 favorites in a conference that sent seven teams to the NCAA Tournament in 2013.
Penn State completed the 2013 campaign with a 7-4-0 conference record -- the most Big Ten losses in the program’s 20-year history -- but its 15-7-1 overall record was good enough for its 19th straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
The Nittany Lions, ranked ninth in the Soccer America preseason rankings, lost Maya Hayes, whose 71 career goals are third in school history, but they return U.S. U-20 Mallory Weber (7 goals, 8 assists) and Costa Rican international Raquel Rodriguez (6 goals, 9 assists).
While Coach Erica Walsh gets the offense sorted out, the Lions enter the season with an experienced backline that will be led by senior Whitney Church and U.S. U-20 starter Brittany Basinger.
Wisconsin, which checks in at No. 21 in the Soccer America national rankings, was No. 2 in the Big Ten preseason poll. Coach Paula Wilkins welcomes back a ton of experience: 10 returning starters, including 2013 Big Ten Freshman of the Year Rose Lavelle, who starred for the USA at the Under-20 Women's World Cup, and Kinley McNicoll, captain of host Canada's U-20s.
Maryland, which joins the Big Ten from the ACC, was No. 3 in the conference preseason poll, followed by defending Big Ten champion Nebraska at No. 4 and Michigan at No. 5. Both the Huskers and Wolverines, who reached the final eight in the NCAA Tournament, suffered heavy
Besides Lavelle, the only player on the Soccer America Preseason All-American list is Illinois star Jannelle Flaws, the 2013 Big Ten Forward of the Year. Also back is the reigning Goalkeeper of the Year Tarah Hobbs from Minnesota.
The rest of the Big Ten preseason poll consists of Ohio State at No. 6, Illinois at No. 7, Iowa and Rutgers, tied for No. 8, followed by Indiana, Minnesota, Michigan State, Northwestern and Purdue. From this pack, the team to watch could be Michigan State, which returns 10 starters, including seniors Paige Wester and Megan Marsack.
Dave DiIannitakes over the Iowa program after a successful run at Grand Valley State, which he guided to three NCAA Division II national championships. Mike O’Neill takes over at Rutgers after 10 years as the associate coach.