Five burning questions for 2013 season

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Kealia Ohai is just one of the many returning stars on yet another loaded North Carolina team.

Why is North Carolina still the team to beat?

No program repeats the way North Carolina does. Actually, no program repeats but North Carolina in women's college soccer. The Tar Heels are the only program to successfully defend a national championship since the NCAA era began in 1982. When one program wins 21 of 31 national championships, it does tend to limit the repeat opportunities for all the others.

That said, history isn't going to win games this season unless Mia Hamm or Tobin Heath have eligibility remaining. These Tar Heels should be favored to follow in the footsteps of so many of their predecessors for reasons that have everything to do with the present. Namely, this team should be better than last season's.

A year ago, it took North Carolina all season to find championship form. The Tar Heels lost five games before the NCAA tournament and came within minutes and inches of exiting the postseason at home against Baylor in the Sweet 16 (a late equalizer paving the way for a shootout win) and at BYU in the Elite Eight (a goal-line clearance from Brooke Elby extending overtime long enough for Crystal Dunn and Kealia Ohai to produce the winner).

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The Tar Heels earned their 21st national championship last season, and should be even better this year.

It wasn't until the College Cup that they looked the sum of their parts, mostly because so many parts were missing beforehand.

Reliable defender Megan Brigman suffered a season-ending injury in the first game of the regular season. Dunn, Ohai and Bryane Heaberlin missed time early in the season because of the Under-20 Women's World Cup and dealt with the physical and mental burnout of completing a college season on top of that international grind. Summer Green missed time during the season to play in the Under-17 World Cup, a quick trip to Azerbaijan not exactly the recommended way for a freshman to keep her legs and acclimate to college surroundings.

All of those players are around from the start this season, part of an overall continuity that includes the return of eight players who started in the national championship game. An influx of new talent includes Georgia transfer Alexa Newfield, an all-SEC pick who needed about a day in Chapel Hill to earn a place on the first team, alongside Ohai and Green up top; and a huge freshman class dotted with potential impact players like Joanna Boyles, Emily Bruder, Cameron Castleberry and Amber Munerlyn.

North Carolina must settle on a goalkeeper or a goalkeeper rotation without Adelaide Gay. It must replace Amber Brooks and find the midfield flank play that drives the attack. It must make the math of one of its largest rosters work and remember how fine a line it walked last season. Another championship is anything but a foregone conclusion.

But the pieces are in place for this season to be better than last season. And we know how that one ended.

Which teams are best positioned to prevent a repeat?

Stanford: For all that was written above, Stanford could be trying to defend back-to-back national championships had a bit of luck fallen its way in the national semifinals. Pac-12 coaches picked UCLA ahead of Stanford this season, and replacing a senior class that included Alina Garciamendez, Mariah Nogueira and Rachel Quon isn't anything to gloss over. But the Cardinal are a recruiting juggernaut that never lack for fresh options. No Stanford player scored more than 10 goals last season (the team still managed 59), but a full season of Chioma Ubogagu and the arrival of Minnesota transfer Taylor Uhl, who shared the national lead with 21 goals last season, could once again leave the Cardinal offense pushing three goals per game.

Grant Shorin/

After losing several key players to graduation, Stanford will lean on Chioma Ubogagu.

Penn State: Losing Christine Nairn, Erin McNulty and Maddy Evans is undeniably a big hit, but Penn State returns as many starters as North Carolina, and more than Florida State or Stanford among last year's College Cup participants. The Nittany Lions should have considerably more defensive depth than a season ago, thanks to the arrival of Virginia transfer Emily Carrollo and the return of Lexi Marton from injury. Nairn's playmaking will be sorely missed, but Maya Hayes, Taylor Schram, Raquel Rodriguez, Mallory Weber and others mean this remains a potent attacking team.

Duke: Just how young were the Blue Devils when they reached the NCAA title game two years ago? This season's team returns 95 percent of the scoring from last season -- and last season's team returned almost intact from the group that finished second in 2011. This is an experienced bunch of Blue Devils. Among all the returnees, junior Kelly Cobb may be the key to a College Cup return. Limited to just 10 games last season by injuries and Under-20 national team duty, she turns a good all-around team into a good all-around team with a world-class finisher.

Wake Forest: No, this doesn't jibe with the consensus, which finds Wake Forest ranked 15th nationally and picked to finish sixth in the ACC, but there is a lot to like about the team from Winston-Salem. Any list begins, obviously, with All-American striker Katie Stengel, but it isn't just her. Like Duke, Wake Forest retains more than memories from its 2011 College Cup appearance; seven starters from that semifinal game could start this season. Goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe is as good as anyone in the college game, a healthy Rachel Nuzzolese could be a game-changing offensive and set-piece presence and Stengel is around for the whole season after missing time last year for the Under-20 World Cup.

Who are the Hermann Trophy favorites?

Morgan Brian, Virginia: Spending part of your summer playing for the full United States national team is a good way to get an early start on a Hermann run. Brian earned the first of what should be many caps for the U.S. against South Korea in June, and the junior still has two seasons of college soccer left to play in Charlottesville. She is the complete package as a midfielder, capable of dominating games without scoring a goal, but also prolific enough as a finisher and playmaker to pile up double-digit goals and assists in a season.

Crystal Dunn, North Carolina: UNC's versatile All-American owned the NCAA tournament last season. She totaled five goals and five assists for the season, shortened in her case by the Under-20 World Cup, but all five goals and two of the assists came during six tournament games. One complicating factor in Dunn's candidacy is the potential for missed time if she is called into camps with the full national team this fall. Of the three active collegians who have already earned caps with the full national team, Dunn leads the way by a wide margin with six appearances and four starts.

Wake Forest.

Wake Forest's Katie Stengel has already led the powerful ACC in goal scoring twice, and could take home the Hermann Trophy.

Maya Hayes, Penn State: There's a theme running through this list of players, all of whom missed time because of the Under-20 World Cup that coincided with the start of the college season and added a level of physical and mental fatigue for those involved when they returned to their college teams. Even though Hayes had a good season by just about any normal standard, scoring 16 goals in 20 appearances as a junior, there is reason to think she could approach something like the staggering 31 goals she scored in 26 games as a sophomore.

Julie Johnston, Santa Clara: The senior is one of the toughest, most pro-ready defenders in the domestic picture. She anchored the back line for the United States when it won the U-20 World Cup and has already earned two caps as a defender for the full senior national team. A defender isn't going to win the Hermann in a year that features a slew of potentially world-class attacking players, but Johnston's casting as both a midfielder and forward for coach Jerry Smith's Broncos opens the door to a run at college soccer's top individual honor. Limited to 15 games last season, she still led the Broncos in goals.

Katie Stengel, Wake Forest: The fifth U-20 alum here, Stengel has already taken control of most of the goal-related sections of the Wake Forest record book. She is a strong, physically imposing forward, but in her case, those aren't code words to suggest a lack of technical skill or nimbleness. All you really need to know to place her in this conversation is that she became the first player since Mia Hamm to lead the ACC in goals in consecutive seasons, and she did that as a freshman and sophomore. A 20-goal senior season is hardly out of the question.

What does Notre Dame's arrival mean for the ACC?

Cary, N.C., will be the site of the semifinals and finals of both the ACC tournament and the College Cup this year. Which event ends up with a more competitive field could be the subject of some debate.

Notre Dame's arrival in what was already soccer's best league means the current membership of the ACC has claimed 11 of 20 College Cup appearances available to Division I teams the past five seasons. It also means the ACC is home to the only two programs with three or more national championships in Notre Dame and North Carolina, a fact that might be mentioned a few times when they play for the first time as conference foes on Sept. 15 in Chapel Hill, N.C.

For the Fighting Irish, now is as good a time as any to take the plunge. A lineup that leaned heavily on freshmen and sophomores last season and still reached the Elite Eight returns essentially intact, with freshman Morgan Andrews also in the mix after she became the ninth high school athlete in any sport to be named Gatorade National Player of the Year more than once. ACC coaches welcomed the Fighting Irish by picking them fifth in the league's preseason poll, but that's squarely in the thick of things in a conference with so many top-25 teams.

Santa Clara

After sitting out a season, former Nebraska star Morgan Marlborough heads to Santa Clara as the leading active goal scorer in Division I.

The wealth of games between championship contenders is a boon for fans who are guaranteed multiple compelling matchups every week, but everything comes with a cost. One problem with the top of the league growing even stronger is that it becomes more difficult for the teams at the bottom to climb. One of the best things about the ACC in recent seasons is how competition has strengthened its own: the rise of Boston College as the dominant program in New England and Maryland's revival being examples. But at some point the hill is so steep and the summit so crowded that newcomers Pitt and Syracuse, not to mention holdovers like Clemson and NC State, become permanent second-class citizens.

How about four more stories to know?

Amanda Cromwell, UCLA: If not for the entire Notre Dame program up and moving, Cromwell's ascension would be the big relocation news among college soccer's elite. The former UCF coach replaced B.J. Snow in the same position at UCLA when Snow became the second Bruins coach in three years to exit for a full-time position with U.S. Soccer's youth system. Cromwell routinely did much with comparatively little at UCF, including an Elite Eight trip in 2011, but she now inherits a roster stocked with players like U.S. U-20 national team alums Samantha Mewis, Sarah Killion and Jenna Richmond; New Zealander Rosie White; and Canadian Chelsea Stewart. Could she end UCLA's championship drought in her first year on the job?

Kristen Hamilton, Denver: It says something about the times in which we live that Hamilton could earn all-conference accolades in her third conference in three seasons after Denver landed in the Summit League following time in the Sun Belt and WAC. Hamilton finished with 14 goals and seven assists as a junior, including a goal in a first-round win against Colorado College and an assist in a second-round win against Maryland in the NCAA tournament. Along with Becca Wann at Richmond, Hamilton is one of the best examples of why it pays to look beyond the big conferences.

Morgan Marlborough, Santa Clara: Last we saw Marlborough in college soccer, she piled up 59 goals and 25 assists in three seasons at Nebraska. She sat out the 2012 season after transferring, but the goal total means she enters this season as the leading active scorer in Division I (seven goals ahead of Penn State's Hayes). Geography had something to do with recent lean postseasons for the Broncos, who were eliminated by Stanford in two of the past four NCAA tournaments, but they also haven't had a goal scorer like Marlborough to put alongside Johnston and Sofia Huerta.

West Virginia: The Mountaineers are unranked to start the season, which puts them in exactly the same position as BYU a year ago. The Cougars ended up hosting an Elite Eight game and were one goal-line clearance away from the College Cup. Could this year's surprise contender come out of Morgantown? In its first season in the Big 12, West Virginia won the conference tournament and finished second in the regular season. The Mountaineers return most of the scoring from that team, get valuable midfielder Caroline Szwed back from injury and keep their long-running Canadian talent pipeline open with the arrivals of Kadeisha Buchanan and Amandine Pierre-Louis.

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