The Samford University soccer team was predicted to finish second in the annual Southern Conference preseason poll, which was compiled from a vote taken of the conference's 12 head coaches and officially released by the SoCon league office. In only their third season as a member of the talent-laden SoCon, Wednesday's second-place prediction was the Bulldogs' highest to date. In previous seasons, Samford was predicted to finish fourth in 2008 and third in 2009.
"I think that any time you are respected by your peers it is something that every coach and every program wants," said Samford head coach Todd Yelton. "Obviously, the rest of the coaches in this league rated us as a quality side and this is a very tough league, but I am far more concerned with where are team is listed at the end of the season than where we are before the season."
The Bulldogs' junior goalkeeper Alyssa Whitehead was named to the elite 11-player preseason All-SoCon Team on Wednesday. Whitehead, who is one of Samford's seven returning starters this season, finished the 2009 campaign as the No. 1-ranked goalkeeper in the nation in goals-against average (0.31) and third in the nation in save percentage (0.91).
In 18 matches a year ago, Whitehead only allowed a total of six goals on 169 shots faced and received First-Team All-SoCon accolades. She also played a major role in the Bulldogs' defense that finished the season ranked first in the nation in both goals-against average (0.31) and save percentage (0.92).
Whitehead, Samford's 6-foot-3 native of Hattiesburg, Miss., helped lead the Bulldogs to a school-record 12-1-5 overall record and a semifinal appearance in the 2009 Southern Conference Tournament. Additionally, she earned Third-Team National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA) All-Southeast Region honors.
"I think Alyssa is not only the best goalkeeper in this league, but I think she is one of the top goalkeepers in the nation," Yelton said. "Her résumé pretty much speaks for itself, especially after she was picked as the best goalkeeper of the W-League this summer. She has definitely come a long way during her time here at Samford and she is a fantastic player. She definitely deserves this honor."
UNC Greensboro was again tabbed as the preseason favorite to win the SoCon championship. The Spartans are looking for their fifth consecutive SoCon regular-season crown, which would equal the longest streak in league history. UNC Greensboro earned 9-of-12 first-place votes and 119 total points to lead the balloting.
The Spartans claimed a league-high four members on the preseason all-conference team, including 2009 Co-Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year Tabitha Padgett at forward. Joining Padgett on the squad were midfielders Jenn Partenheimer and Nicole Danford, as well as defender Cat Barnekow.
"UNC Greensboro is definitely the team to beat," said Yelton. "You have to pick them first. They've done so many things over the long haul in this league, so they'll be the top team in the conference until somebody knocks them off. There are no easy matches in the league and it will be demanding for us to play every time we stop on the field this year. That's how talented this conference is as a whole."
Samford, which tied for second in the regular season a year ago, was predicted to finish as runner-up again in 2010 while capturing a pair of first-place nods. Coming in third place in the preseason poll was College of Charleston with 95 total points. Under the direction of new head coach Christian Michner, the Cougars boasted senior defender Annie Pease on the preseason all-league team.
Davidson, the 2009 SoCon Tournament champion, claimed the final first-place vote and 93 total points to earn the fourth slot in the preseason. Midfielder Allison Drutchas earned preseason All-SoCon accolades, along with defender Amanda Flink, the Most Valuable Player of last season's conference tournament.
Elon (85 points) grabbed the fifth spot and was followed by Furman (71), Western Carolina (57) and Appalachian State (49) in the sixth through eighth positions, respectively. Chattanooga (36), The Citadel (34), Wofford (31) and Georgia Southern (15) closed out the poll.
Other individuals named to the preseason all-conference team included forwards Donna-Kay Henry (Chattanooga) and Martha Hall (Furman) along with defender Claire O'Keefe (Elon).
Coaches were not permitted to vote for their own team or players in the balloting.
The 2010 regular season will begin Friday with nine of the conference's 12 teams in action. The 2010 SoCon Women's Soccer Championship will feature the top eight teams in the final regular season standings with the final four facing off in Cullowhee, N.C., on Nov. 5 and 7.