Women's title contenders are all loaded with explosive attacks

1. NORTH CAROLINA. Gone is 2006 Soccer America Player of the Year Heather O'Reilly. Ali Hawkins, part of UNC's sensational '06 freshman class, is out for the season with a knee injury. But 20 other letterwinners return, making the Tar Heels the favorites to win their 19th NCAA title.

Besides Hawkins, six other freshmen started in the second half of last year's 2-1 win over Notre Dame in the Women's College Cup final.

First-team All-Freshman picks Tobin Heath and Casey Nogueira are coming off sensational summers with the Jersey Sky Blue of the W-League and the U.S. Pan-American team.

There is more to UNC than just its sophomore class, however. Junior Yael Averbuch is coming off a breakout season during which she scored 16 goals and earned Soccer America MVP honors. Seniors Robyn Gayle (headed to the Women's World Cup with Canada) and Jessica Maxwell provide plenty of leadership in the back.

Junior transfer Allie Long (Penn State) joins an already-deep midfield.

2. NOTRE DAME. No team matched the Irish for the firepower they possessed up front last season. In only two seasons, Kerri Hanks has already set 47 Notre Dame scoring records. The 2006 Hermann Trophy winner is coming off 28-15 and 22-22 (goals-assists) seasons.

Soccer America Freshman of the Year Michele Weissenhofer joined the Irish with a reputation for her flip throw-in, but she proved to an productive goalscorer and setup player, finishing with 18 goals and 17 assists.

Britanny Bock, from Weissenhofer's hometown of Naperville, Ill., gives Notre Dame a physical presence up front. The Irish began to click in the second half of the season when senior Amanda Cinalli (31 career goals) was moved to midfield.

Cinalli and Hanks scored in Notre Dame's 2-2 tie with North Carolina in a preseason game that drew a record South Bend crowd of 3,412 despite soggy conditions at Alumni Field. Notre Dame finished with a 14-7 edge in total shots and a 6-4 margin in shots on goal.

The key for Notre Dame, which lost four starters behind the frontline, could be the return to form of junior defender Carrie Dew from knee surgery.

3. UCLA. With a healthy Kara Lang back after playing for Canada at the Women's World Cup, the Bruins could give Notre Dame a run for the nation's best attack. Lang missed last season with a knee injury but looked great with Canada's national team at the Pan-American Games in mid-July.

Danesha Adams and Lauren Cheney saw time with the U.S. women's national team in preparation for September's Women's World Cup. Cheney was sensational as a freshman with 19 goals in 21 games. UCLA's most exciting player, though, could be junior Tina DiMartino. The 5-foot-2 playmaker led the Bruins with seven assists in 2006.

Besides Cheney, sophomore Lauren Wilmoth and freshmen Kylie Wright and Lauren Barnes were all on the silver-medal winning U.S. team at the Pan-American Games.

4. PORTLAND. After its 2005 national championship season, its 2006 record of 17-4-3 would seem to indicate that Portland slumped, but three of the losses were to final four teams -- North Carolina, Florida State and UCLA -- and the fourth was to WCC rival Santa Clara.

On paper, no team can match the Pilots for their depth of talent. UP has the nation's top defender, Stephanie Lopez, who won a starting job on the U.S. women's national team headed to the Women's World Cup. Angie Woznuk (13 assists in 2006) could be the nation's top playmaker.

Otherwise, the Pilots return their top five scorers Michelle Enyeart (16 goals), Megan Rapinoe (10), Kendra Chandhoke (10), Natalie Budge (9) and Rachael Rapinoe (9), though Megan Rapinoe is coming off a knee injury suffered last fall that has required two operations.

A pair of '06 redshirts, Kelsey Davis (UCLA transfer) and Sophie Schmidt (Canada national team), should fit in nicely, in goal and midfield, respectively.

5. SANTA CLARA. Santa Clara awarded Coach Jerry Smith with a seven-year contract extension after he led the Broncos to their ninth WCC title and he collected his seventh WCC Coach of the Year award.

Last year's season ended in disappointment with a 1-0 loss to USC in the first round of the NCAA Tournament that snapped a string of 11 straight appearances in the quarterfinals.

The Broncos' offense will get a boost with the return of Tina Estrada, who sat out the 2006 season with a knee injury and joins All-WCC picks Kiki Bosio and Meagan Snell. Courtney Lewis, another 2006 redshirt, rejoins the SCU backline that lost U.S. international Marian Dalby and Lauren Zealear to graduation.

Injuries were the Broncos' curse in 2006 and they are again taking their toll in 2007. Dani Potts, the lone holdover on defense, suffered  suffered a foot injury that will keep her out for the entire season. Also lost are former U.S. U-20 national team standouts Jordan Angeli and Amanda Poach, who will both miss the season due to injury.

6. TEXAS A&M. The Aggies were the only team to beat North Carolina in 2006, but the Heels gained revenge with a hard-fought 3-2 victory in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament that ended A&M's bid for its first-ever appearance in the Women's College Cup.

This year, the Women's College Cup returns to College Station, and the Aggies have a legitimate shot of making the final four. All 11 starters from the second Carolina game return, including All-Big 12 picks Amy Berend and Emily Peterson. Ashlee Pistorius gives A&M one of the nation's most dangerous forwards.

Sophomore Kristin Arnold is one of the top young goalies in college soccer.

7. FLORIDA STATE. Mark Krikorian led FSU to back-to-back Women's College Cup appearances in his first two seasons in Tallahassee, but he faces some major work in leading the 'Noles back to the final four.

Stars India Trotter (who spent the year with the U.S. women's national team) and Kelly Rowland have graduated, and Australian star Selin Kuralay chose not to return for her senior season.

On the plus side, Japanese midfielder Mami Yamaguchi was sensational in spring practice. Yamaguchi and German Katrin Schmidt are the only returning players who scored more than one goal in 2006.

The 'Noles have gotten help in the form of transfers Erika Sutton (San Diego State) and Lauren Switzer (UCLA), both versatile players, and a big freshman class led by Sanna Talonen, who played for Finland against the USA last Saturday at the Home Depot Center, Canada U-20 goalie Erin McNulty and U.S. U-17s Amanda Da Costa and Marissa Kazbour.

8. TEXAS. The Longhorns won their first Big 12 tournament title under Coach Chris Petrucelli and earned the highest seeding in the program's history, claiming one of four No. 1 regional seeds.

They return a quartet of stars, including Kasey Moore and Stephanie Logterman, two of the nation's top defenders. Moore, a 2006 Soccer America MVP, is one of the best headers in women's soccer, while Logterman and fellow Longhorn Kelsey Carpenter were named to the U.S. U-21 national team that traveled to Finland for the Nordic Cup.

Senior Caitlin Kennedy is UT's top threat in midfield, where she is joined by Houston transfer Courtney Gaines (21 points in 2006).

9. VIRGINIA. It was a struggle at times for the Cavs in 2006, but they came alive in the NCAA Tournament, beating West Virginia and Wake Forest before falling to Texas A&M in the round of 16.

Virginia has just about everyone back, including leading scorer Jess Rostedt. Becky Sauerbrunn and Nikki Kryzsik are two of the ACC's best defenders. Shannon Foley, who was injured and red-shirted in 2006, is only three assists away from tying the school record. Redshirt freshman Chantel Jones should step in right away in goal for Coach Steve Swanson.

The Cavs will certainly be challenged, though. Besides its ACC opponents, Virginia will face nonconference foes West Virginia, Colorado, Arizona, William & Mary at home and Stanford and Santa Clara on the road.

10. COLORADO. The Buffs made their first trip ever to the Sweet 16 in the 11-year history of the program, and they could go as far in 2007.

Nikki Marshall (17 goals) was one of the country's top freshmen in 2006. Three of Colorado's other top scorers return: Alex Cousins, Nikki Keller and Michelle Wenino.

Coach Bill Hempen has added two talented transfers. Tennessee's Genna Gorman and Arizona's Gianna DeSaverio were both all-conference picks as sophomores.

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