OGDEN, Utah – Following a fifth-place finish on the bubble just outside of qualifying for the conference tournament, the Northern Arizona soccer team was voted in a tie for fifth in the Big Sky Conference preseason poll released today by the conference. The Lumberjacks received 50 points, including one first place vote, to sit in a tie with Sacramento State, who also received 50 points in the poll conducted by the league's head coaches. Coaches were not allowed to vote for their own teams.
The conference's four qualifiers for the postseason tournament a year ago are the top-four teams going into the season. Last season's regular season co-champion Portland State is at the head of the poll with 68 points and two first place votes. Northern Colorado, the other co-champion and host of last season's conference tournament, collected the most first place votes – four – and is right behind Portland State in second with 66 points. Montana, last season's Big Sky representative in the NCAA College Cup after clinching the conference tournament title, was voted third with 64 points and two first place votes, while the tournament runner-up Weber State was fourth with 58 points and the remaining first place vote.
"Preseason polls for the most part are a reflection of what a team did the previous year," said head coach Andre Luciano. "If you look at the rankings this year, you have the same top-four teams with us and Sac State tied for fifth. I would rather be in the top-four at the end of the season than at the beginning of the year, so it's up to what we do during the year that will justify where we'll be at the end of the season."
The Lumberjacks, who were predicted to win the Big Sky in last season's preseason poll after three consecutive league titles (two tournament and one regular season), are coming off a 3-9-7 campaign in 2011. NAU did post a 2-2-3 mark in conference play, but finished with nine points in the standings, just one point behind Montana for the fourth and final spot in the Big Sky tournament.
With their eyes on returning to the conference tourney after a one-year absence, Luciano returns 14 players led by All-Big Sky Honorable Mention selections, sophomore Sarah Tarver and junior Lauren Weaver. Seniors Georgia Foltz and Laura Johnson will also be counted on to mentor an extremely young team featuring 21 underclassmen, 15 of whom are newcomers to the squad this year.
"I don't know what to expect from anyone in the conference," Luciano said. "It's hard to figure out what anyone in the conference will be. If you look at the number of players and starters we graduated last year and the players we have coming back, maybe (fifth) is a fair assessment of us. However, the conference is always wide open and very rarely does a team start at number one and end at number one."
Conference holdovers Idaho State and Eastern Washington were seventh and eighth respectively in the preseason poll, while the new additions to the Big Sky, North Dakota and Southern Utah, rounded out the poll in a tie for ninth. This is the first season that the conference will feature 10 teams following the expansion of the Big Sky.
The top four teams at the end of the regular season will once again qualify for the Big Sky Championship tournament to be hosted by the regular season champion from Nov. 1-4. The tournament winner will then earn the conference's automatic bid into the NCAA College Cup.
The Lumberjacks kick off the 2012 season on Aug. 17 in Las Vegas against UNLV at 7 p.m.
2012 Big Sky Preseason Poll (First Place Votes in Parentheses)
1. Portland State – 68 (2)
2. Northern Colorado – 66 (4)
3. Montana – 64 (2)
4. Weber State 58 (1)
T5. Northern Arizona – 50 (1)
T5. Sacramento State – 50
7. Idaho State – 39
8. Eastern Washington – 23
T9. North Dakota – 16
T9. Southern Utah – 16