Every story starts somewhere.
Before she scored more goals in international competition than any man or woman in history, Abby Wambach helped the University of Florida break into college soccer's upper tier by winning a national championship.
Before the memorable goals that helped fuel England's Women's World Cup run, Lucy Bronze helped the University of North Carolina add to the greatest dynasty in college sports.
Before she packed stadiums in a Women's World Cup held on her home soil, Christine Sinclair dominated college defenders and won titles with the University of Portland.
As a new college season arrives in the afterglow of the Women's World Cup, who are the people and what are the questions that will shape the months, and maybe even years, ahead?
Does Florida State deserve to be the favorite?
The defending champion starts the season ranked No. 1. More often than not that is simply the way voters approach preseason polls, in this case the NSCAA Top 25. That's fine as tribute goes, but it doesn't offer much in the way of a track record for success. Only once since 2001, when North Carolina did so in 2006 and 2007, did a school win back-to-back national championships in women's soccer. And while the Tar Heels once won nine titles in a row, no other school ever won even two.
Yet a skeptical eye should be cast on Florida State, darned if it doesn't deserve the top spot. The Seminoles are still the best mix of talent and system in college soccer.
Although it flew mostly under the radar, one of the developments that shapes the upcoming season was the additional year of eligibility granted to Florida State defender Megan Campbell. Coach Mark Krikorian said it was no surprise to him that Campbell, an Irish international, received the additional season from the NCAA after initially being labeled a junior when she arrived. It is nonetheless a boon to retain not only a tough defender and vocal organizer but someone whose long throw is a game-changing asset.
Her return also serves to highlight, despite some high-profile departures, the overall continuity in Florida State's lineup. Yes, Hermann Trophy finalist Dagny Brynjarsdottir moved on to Bayern Munich, along with the departures of Kristin Grubka, already a regular for the NWSL's Sky Blue FC, and Jamia Fields. But eight players who started in the national championship game return, a list that doesn't even take into account Berglind Thorvaldsdottir, a substitute in name only who scored 12 goals a season ago.
Senior midfielders Isabella Schmid and Michaela Hahn control possession and developed a strong partnership next to each other during the title run. Cheyna Williams supplied speed and a good finishing touch up top in her first season as a transfer from Vanderbilt. Carson Pickett, who had a team-best 13 assists, is a versatile left-sided player who serves a good ball. The newcomers include Krikorian's usual allotment of international players, but Florida native Macayla Edwards drew early praise from the coach, who mentioned her as an option to step in for Grubka in the back line.
There is ample talent on hand. The question mark is the championship presence.
"Dagny brought an element of professionalism that is rare in the college ranks," Krikorian said of Florida State's former star. "It was so clear that every day she trained, she wanted to get better. She came in here with the goal of being the best midfielder in the world. That's a pretty lofty goal; it takes a lot of courage to even be able to say that. But she left here as certainly one of the best midfielders in all of college soccer last year."
The possession Schmid and Hahn build will need to proceed through someone other than Brynjarsdottir. Williams will need to make her runs and play off someone other than the Icelandic All-American. Pickett's services, not to mention Campbell's throws, won't find Brynjarsdottir's head rising to redirect them on goal. But the fact that those players were so good around Brynjarsdottir in Florida State's methodical, fluid possession game suggests they can still be the best without her.
Which teams are poised to take the title away from Tallahassee?
Florida: After some disappointingly early exits in previous seasons, Florida came within a penalty shootout of a return to the College Cup a season ago. There are questions to be answered in a new season, the play of a new starting goalkeeper among them, but special players make good foundations, and Florida returns three of the best in Claire Falknor, Savannah Jordan and Christen Westphal. We'll get to Jordan separately, but Falknor and Westphal, particularly when paired on -- but not tethered to -- the back line, are ideal engines for the aggressive, ball-on-the-ground attacking style Florida prefers.
Penn State: Even more than Florida, Penn State is a returning quarterfinalist that may have been ahead of its time in nearly reaching the College Cup a season ago. Eight starters return from the lineup that nearly upset Texas A&M in that game. Costa Rican international Rocky Rodriguez headlines that list after a summer that began with the Women's World Cup. Freshman forward Frannie Crouse was bundle of strength and energy who scored 10 goals a season ago and should only get better with training. And while the back line took the most personnel hits, former U-20 national team player Brittany Basinger's return from a season lost to injury will presumably help minimize the turnover.
Stanford: The bad news is the last of the players who helped Stanford win its first national title four years ago are gone. The good news is so are the UCLA seniors who propelled that team to wins in the past three meetings between the dueling Pac-12 powers. This shapes up as a year when the balance of power in the conference swings northward. Paul Ratcliffe's roster, while admittedly young, is littered with as much individual talent as any program in the nation. First among the names is Andi Sullivan, by some accounts the national freshman of the year a season ago and a midfielder with instinctive leadership ability.
Virginia: The puzzle team. Forget for a moment the names and deeds of the two people missing, and consider that Virginia returns 13 of the 15 players who were on the field for at least 20 minutes in the national championship game. That includes the entire back line and goalkeeper. The Cavaliers return Emily Sonnett, overshadowed by one of the best all-around defenders in college soccer and prolific goal scorer, Makenzy Doniak. That sure sounds like a title contender. On the other side of the scale: Morgan Brian and Danielle Colaprico are gone. The smart bet is probably on continuity winning out, but it's not an easy bet to make.
West Virginia: Canadian national team coach John Herdman called her the best center back in the world. FIFA recognized her as the best young player in the Women's World Cup, and fans placed her on the team of that tournament. So can we agree that Kadeisha Buchanan is a pretty good cornerstone around which West Virginia hopes to build its first College Cup trip? The Mountaineers crashed out of last season's NCAA tournament far too soon, but in addition to Buchanan and fellow Canadian World Cup returnee Ashley Lawrence, talent abounds. Keep an eye on transfers Yulie Lopez (Florida State) and Kayla Saager (NC State) adding to an attack that includes sophomore Michaela Abam.
Who will fill the Hermann Trophy-sized void left by Morgan Brian?
One of four women to win the Hermann Trophy as college soccer's best player in back-to-back seasons, Brian moved on to bigger and better things with the U.S. national team and NWSL's Houston Dash. Gone, too, are finalists Brynjarsdottir and Samantha Mewis. That's a lot of departing star power. It's also an opportunity for new stars to emerge.
The Hermann Trophy does not have a history of serving merely as a prize for the most statistically prolific players, but there are limits to what voters will reward. Goals, be it scoring them or creating them, still serve as the most convincing campaign material. That means defenders like West Virginia's Buchanan and Virginia's Sonnett, even if equal on talent, face long odds.
Janine Beckie, F, Texas Tech: It has already been a busy year for the Colorado-raised but Canadian-eligible forward. She trained with the Women's World Cup team and played for the team that represented Canada in the Pan-American Games. At the college level, she scored double-digit goals in each of her first three seasons and has the talent to score 20-plus. The Big 12 isn't the ACC or Pac-12, but Texas Tech plays a quality schedule out of conference and could give Beckie the spotlight needed for people to notice a tenacious finisher.
Makenzy Doniak, F, Virginia: Any forward is going to suffer for not having Brian and Colaprico putting the ball at her feet, but make no mistake, Doniak also made her high-profile teammates look good by way of finishing the chances presented. She enters her senior season with 50 career goals, most among players in major conferences.
Ashley Hatch, F, BYU: After a successful but complementary debut, Hatch burst on the national scene with 18 goals as a sophomore. It's difficult to luck into anything 18 times, but high goal totals can admittedly be fool's gold in college soccer. Hatch is the 24-karat variety. Difficult to knock off the ball but fast and nimble, she shows the single-minded focus, distinct from pure selfishness, that goal scorers possess. She can finish opportunistically in the box or from distance. Simply put, she is fun to watch.
Savannah Jordan, F, Florida: The Gators are the only SEC team to win a national title. Jordan has two more opportunities to give the conference its first Hermann Trophy. Only 19 players in Division I history scored at least 80 career goals, a list that includes Wambach, and only six of those reached that mark this century. Jordan sits on 41 goals through two seasons in Gainesville. She plays with an edge that will rub some the wrong way, namely those defending her, but she is a uncompromising competitor.
Rose Lavelle, MF, Wisconsin: How high Wisconsin -- ranked in the top 25 and picked to finish third in the Big Ten -- climbs this season remains to be seen. But however the Badgers fare, it is better than they would without Lavelle. A year after turning in arguably the best American showing in the Under-20 World Cup, she excelled this summer for the U-23 team that competed in the Four Nations tournament in Norway. She's a complete assemblage of midfield skills.
Which familiar faces in new places could shape the season?
Morgan Andrews, USC: Twice the national high school player of the year, Andrews was the star recruit when she signed with Notre Dame. She then led the Fighting Irish in points in each of her first two seasons, even as she was a surprise omission from the American entry in last year's U-20 World Cup. USC, which may also benefit from goalkeeper Sammy Jo Prudhomme seeing the field after her transfer from Oregon State, has a lot of new faces as second-year coach Keidane McAlpine reshapes the program.
Nickolette Driesse, Penn State: One more reason to like Penn State's chances of getting back to the College Cup for the second time under coach Erica Walsh is the addition of Driese from Florida State. Her minutes and production slowed amidst a crowded midfield scene a season ago for the Seminoles, but she showed as a freshman in 2013 that she can affect games. The New Jersey native could be a perfect fit setting up the talent around her.
Emma Fletcher, Cal: If the addition of Andrews adds intrigue to the UCLA-USC rivalry, so does the arrival of Fletcher after two seasons at LSU when it comes to the equally one-sided Cal-Stanford series. The British Columbia native played for Canada in both last year's U-20 World Cup and this summer's Pan-American Games. Her playmaking adds another asset to a deep group of creative Cal attacking players.
Kelli Hubly, DePaul: The team's undefeated regular season was one of the best stories in college soccer a season ago (even if it ended on a sour note with a first-round exit in the NCAA tournament on a snowy field in Wisconsin in a game the selection committee should be forever embarrassed it forced the two teams to play so early in the draw). With many of the key pieces returning, including the three leading scorers, there was already reason to think the Blue Demons could build on their success. But adding Chicago-area product Hubly, a tall, quick senior forward who played at Kentucky, further strengthens the attack.
Katy Keen, Kentucky: It's the ebb and flow of college sports these days that Kentucky and Penn State make this list both for players lost and gained. A transfer from Penn State, Keen strengthens a midfield that already includes a dynamic Courtney Raetzman. In front of an experienced and talented back line, even without NWSL first-round pick and program cornerstone Arin Gilliland, there is a strong foundation for the Wildcats, who added another intriguing transfer in USC's Tanya Samarzich, to thrive.
Three more stories to follow this season
Stephanie DeVita: What kind of career has one of the best players, who most people don't know enough about, put together as she enters her senior season at Furman? In the only season in which she wasn't the Southern Conference's player of the year, she still lead the league in goals and ranked second in assists. She is tied with Virginia's Doniak for the lead in career goals among active players and needed just 64 games to score 50. Along with Valparaiso's Rita Craven, Cal Poly's Elise Krieghoff, Harvard's Margaret Purce and East Tennessee State's Sarah Zadrazil, DeVita makes it worthwhile to look beyond the Top 25.
Portland's attendance supremacy: One of the quietest but most complete dynasties in sports is the University of Portland's reign as national attendance leaders in women's soccer. The Pilots again led the nation with an average crowd of 2,971 in 2014, the 10th consecutive season in which they held down the top spot. Yet for the second season in a row, Portland's average fell below 3,000 fans. Coupled with steady support at Texas A&M and BYU, among the top five in attendance almost every season, and surges from South Carolina and Louisville, that seems to put the title in play. All five schools averaged more than 2,000 fans per game (although Portland's rates are the most expensive, particularly at the upper end, ticket prices at all five schools are comparable).
Katie Vanden Avond: On the theme of prolific goal scorers, none are more prolific than this Division III standout. You may remember Vanden Avond's story. In part because of a high school knee injury, hometown St. Norbert College was the only soccer program that expressed interest in her. She then proceeded to score more goals in her first three seasons than any active player in any NCAA division. Well, she's at it again. After sitting out the 2014 season with a leg injury, she returns for her final season and needs 34 goals to break the Division III career record. That's a lot of goals, obviously, but it's three fewer than she scored the last time we saw her on the field for an entire season. She is worth rooting for.