Florida State has experienced a season like no other. It has been a rollercoaster. There were the highs of a third national championship combined with the disappointment of the resignation of perhaps the best coach in the sport.
FSU has been a certifiable juggernaut. The record speaks for itself. FSU has made the NCAA Tournament 22 straight years. In 19 of those years the Noles have made the Sweet 16. In 16 of those years FSU has appeared in the Elite 8 and in 12 of those years they have made the College Cup (Final Four). The Seminoles were national runners-up in 2007, 2013 and (spring) 2021. The Noles were national champions in 2014 and 2018 and (fall) 2021.
FSU has been extremely successful in the competitive ACC as well. Florida State won the ACC regular season crown in 2009, 2012, 2014 & 2020. The Seminoles won the conference tournament in 2011, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2018, 2020 and 2021. This is an astounding accomplishment as the ACC is perennially one of the top conferences in the nation.
Last year FSU finished 22-1-2 (9-1-2 ACC including post-season games). The Seminoles won the ACC Tournament. After earning a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament Florida State advanced to the National Championship Game and defeated BYU in a penalty kick shootout to win the program’s third national title.
Since that huge triumph on Dec. 6th there has been quite a bit of upheaval. However, there remains a wealth of talent in Tallahassee. New head coach Brian Pensky will be tasked with getting the most out of this group.
Let’s take a closer look at the Seminoles.
Olivia Garcia (Freshman, Las Vegas, NV)
Summer Denigan (Freshman, Union, KY)
Onyi Echegini (Senior, London, England, transfer, Mississippi State)
Sophia Nguyen (Freshman, Pensacola, FL)
Heather Gilchrist (Freshman, Boulder, CO)
Olivia Lebdaoui (Freshman, Panama City Beach, FL)
Melina Descary (Freshman, Candiac, Montreal, Canada)
Alyssa Stadeker (Transfer, Georgia)
Kristina Lynch (Transfer, Notre Dame)
Jaelin Howell (Graduated)
Taya Hjorth (Transfer, Kentucky)
Kirsten Pavlisko (Out for the season with injury)
Gabby Carle (Graduated)
Gianna Mitchell (Graduated)
Megan Morgan (Transfer, Miami)
Emily Madril (Graduated)
Yujie Zhao (Graduated)
Olivia Smith (Transfer, Penn State)
Mackenzie Smith (Transfer, West Virginia)
My goodness, that’s a lot of talent out the door. However, this team still has a lot of talent remaining. The ACC will be the best conference in the nation this year and yet according to Top Drawer Soccer, Florida State has more top 100 players (5) on the roster than any other team in the loaded ACC - Lauren Flynn (9), Clara Robbins (28), Cristina Roque (53), Jenna Nighswonger (61) and Beata Olsson (83). FSU also has a league high three players on the preseason all-ACC team (Roque, Robbins and Nighswonger). This is still a talented roster. However, as we will discuss there is one major concern.
Let’s examine the roster in more detail.
The two goalkeepers are Cristina Roque and Mia Justus (currently on national team duty in the U-20 World Cup). These two keepers alternated games in the regular season and then Roque took over in the postseason. Roque started 17 games and posted a .56 goals against average. Justus started eight games and earned a .38 goals against average. Roque’s goals against average was ninth in the nation last year and Justus’ goal against average would have led the nation (easily) if she had played more games. In short, FSU is well positioned at goal keeper. Either of these players are championship caliber.
The challenge for Florida State is right in front of these two talented keepers. The backline has undergone a complete overhaul. In a recent article I wrote the following passage:
In last year’s championship run the Seminoles finished third nationally in goals against average. The players responsible for this tough defense were Kirsten Pavlisko (ROB), Emily Madril and Lauren Flynn (CBs), Gabby Carle (LOB), Jaelin Howell (HMF), Cristina Roque and Mia Justus (GKs). Of those players only Flynn and the keepers return and Flynn and Justus are currently in camp with the U20 United States national team preparing for the World Cup.
That sums it up.
However, the games will go on and FSU will have players on the backline. Of course, when Flynn returns she will take her normal role at center back. Until her return the Seminoles will probably feature Ran Iwai, Heather Gilchrist, Heather Payne and Sophia Nguyen on the back line. Yes, you read that right. The Noles are set to have a pair of true freshmen starting on the backline. Losing all of that talent combined with Pavlisko’s injury has forced the coaching staff to make tough decisions. Gilchrist and Nguyen are talented but a team with FSU’s pedigree isn’t used to starting freshmen on the backline. The good news is that the Noles are deep, talented and experienced everywhere else. If the backline can just be average this team has enough everywhere else to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
Florida State returns quite a bit of talent in the midfield. Team captain Clara Robbins will anchor things and she will be joined by LeiLanni Nesbeth and Jenna Nighswonger. Nesbeth will take over for the departed Jaelin Howell at the holding midfield spot. The Noles can also bring the likes of Emma Bissell and Maria Alagoa in off the bench. Even with the loss of Howell and Zhao this remains a formidable group.
The Seminoles are also loaded up top. Onyi Echegini joins the team from Mississippi State and she looks great from all accounts. Beata Olsson and Jody Brown remain. Olsson scored an eye popping 14 goals last year. This will be one of the top front lines in the nation. Amelia Horton and Kaitlyn Zipay provide quality depth of the bench.
In a bit of a controversy, Florida State has been named the preseason #1 team in the Coaches poll. Whether the Noles will be able to live up to that lofty ranking (or come close) will be determined by the performance of the backline because FSU is national championship quality everywhere else.
The schedule is challenging as usual. FSU starts the season at (12) South Carolina. However, the ACC slate is where it gets really tough. No. 2 Duke, No. 4 Virginia, No. 10 North Carolina, No. 16 Notre Dame and No. 25 Clemson all appear on the schedule. FSU is set to play every ACC team ranked in the preseason top 25.
As discussed, there is still quite a bit of talent on the roster but the Seminoles will have to avoid injuries. Florida State only has 21 players on the roster. Even with all of the departures and the questions on the backline the team is way too talented to fall too far. This will be an NCAA Tournament team unless ravaged by injuries. In fact, if the backline can come together there is so much talent everywhere else that a return trip to the College Cup is not out of the question.
The season starts tomorrow night against (12) South Carolina in Columbia, SC. The game is scheduled to kickoff at 7pm and will be broadcast on the SEC Network.
As always, the comments are yours.