Courtesy of Miami University Sports Information
OXFORD, Ohio – After missing the Mid-American Conference Tournament for the first time since 2003 last year and adding 11 newcomers this year, there’s reason to think the Miami University women’s soccer team could struggle in 2012. There’s also plenty of reason for optimism, as the RedHawks return much of their 2011 squad, including 13 letterwinners and nine players who started at least five games.
Despite going 9-8-1 overall and just 4-6-1 in league play to finish ninth in 2011, head coach Bobby Kramig enters his 30th season at Miami and 16th at the helm of the women’s program with confidence.
“A lot of positives came out of last year as well,” said the only head coach in the program’s history. “We had 23 freshmen and sophomores on a roster of 28 last year. We’re a year older, a year more experienced and a year smarter and if that’s what we take out of the 2011 season and it’s made us better, than that’s okay.”
With less than a week of practice under its belt, Miami will get its first chance to show what it learned from a season ago Tuesday (Aug. 7), when the RedHawks travel to Virginia for an exhibition match against Radford at 7 p.m. The Highlanders are coming off a 15-6-1 season which saw them win the Big South Tournament and earn an NCAA Tournament berth.
Miami’s regular-season slate doesn’t get much easier either as the ‘Hawks face two more NCAA Tournament teams from a year ago and a Big Ten squad in Northwestern, while playing six teams in non-conference play they’ve never faced before.
“We felt like we were ready for it,” Kramig said of the tougher schedule. “I think this is a good team we’re going to put on the field this year. The better the team, the higher level competition you want to put them up against.”
Before it’s ready for competition though, Miami will have to blend its mix of youth and experience. With only two seniors on the team, including 2011 First-Team All-MAC performer and 2012 captain Jess Kodiak, all returners will be counted on to set a good example for the newcomers. So far, the freshmen have been adjusting well.
“They’re all very quiet but you can already see how they’re adapting to our system,” Kodiak noted. “It’s a very different system so at times it’s confusing but with each practice and each time they get a go at it you can tell that they’re trying to do new things and play within our system.”
With all the newcomers, however, practice has been tricky at times.
“We’ve had to be careful in our practices to not get too many freshmen in one group and not get too many upperclassmen in the other group,” Kramig said. “Our upperclassmen have done a good job of taking on a large part of the responsibility of educating these freshmen and teaching them how to play and more specifically, how we play and that’s a tribute to their leadership.”
In addition to building chemistry on the field, team unity off the field can be just as important. One way the RedHawks are doing this is by taking a rafting and camping trip down the New River for two days following its exhibition at Radford.
“They’re adjusting really well to this new experience,” junior defender Sam Parrish said of the freshmen. “We’re just trying to be team-oriented and do team-bonding activities to try and get us closer off the field so it will help our chemistry on the field.”
Leading the charge into 2012 will be Miami’s offense, which brings back 84 percent of its goal-scoring (26 of 31) and 77 percent of its points. Kodiak has the most experience on the team, making 47 career starts and playing in 60 career games. She led the ‘Hawks in 2011 with nine goals and 22 points, both of which ranked in the top four in the MAC.
While Kodiak may serve as the leader and anchor of the team, juniors Katy Dolesh and Kayla Zakrzewski are poised to build on strong sophomore seasons which saw both of them earn All-MAC honors. Dolesh was a First-Team honoree in 2011 with seven goals and an assist while Zakrzewski, who mainly plays on the flanks in midfield, was a Second-Team recipient who also potted seven goals and dished out a pair of helpers. Those two along with Kodiak combined for 23 of Miami’s 31 goals in 2011.
“We’re only getting better together,” Zakrzewski said of all the offensive weapons coming back, “so I’m really looking forward to putting it into a game and hopefully our new additions can help out as well.”
Sophomore Kelsey Dinges will be another threat out of the midfield. After notching two goals and two assists in her rookie campaign, she is poised to have a breakout year with a year of experience under her belt and having just played for a national championship with her club team over the summer. Classmate Hailey Pleshakov will see time up top at forward and looks to find the back of the net for the first time as a RedHawk after handing out four assists as a freshman while starting seven matches.
“After just one practice we were connecting like we were in the spring and last fall so it feels good to be playing again with each other,” Kodiak said. “You’ll see this season we have a lot of offensive experience so I’m excited for that.”
Junior Sydney Busch also brings experience at forward, scoring a goal in 12 games last season, and looks to give the ‘Hawks more options on offense. Freshmen Sydney Neal, Morgan Beck and Katee Wensinger could also provide a spark on offense at forward or out of the midfield.
“I think we’re going to offer up a pretty balanced attack. I don’t have too many concerns about that,” Kramig said. “It would be nice to be able to threaten teams offensively with more variety in our attack, that’s the thing I would like. We need to do better on restarts. When we have a corner kick, we need to finish more of those. We didn’t get many goals off of free kicks and corners last year like we have in the past.”
With Zakrzewski holding down one side of the midfield, the other side appears to be up for grabs after Giselle Mangal started 16 games in that spot as a senior in 2011. Junior Ariana Kulinczenko saw action on the flank in her first year as a RedHawk after transferring from Louisville and could fit nicely in that spot with 10 games under her belt. Freshman Haley Walter has also impressed early in the season while playing out wide.
“I think we’ve got a couple of options over there. I think it’s too early to tell,” Kramig said of who could join Zakrzewski on the flank. “We’re still trying to figure out where we can slot people in and who can fill what role. It’s going to take us a little while to settle on a line up. We want to go into the non-conference willing to play players and try players at different positions, that’s what non-conference is for.”
Joining Dinges and Kodiak in the center of the midfield will be Miami’s other fourth-year player, Kelly Sullivan, who played in 13 games as a redshirt sophomore in 2011 while making one start. Two freshmen midfielders have stood out early in practice as well in Lauren Mathews, who hails from nearby Hamilton, Ohio and also played for a national title with her club team this summer, and 5-foot-9 Jess Bronke, who can use her height to win 50-50 balls in the air.
“Jess Bronke has impressed me with her willingness to listen and learn and try different things. You have to like players who are willing to step out of their comfort zone and expand their game and certainly Jess has shown us that,” Kramig said. “Lauren Mathews is just a good soccer player with a good soccer IQ, who doesn’t give the ball away. She’s very steady.”
Redshirt sophomore Sarah Flanders could be a nice boost in the midfield as well. After coming to Oxford as one of the top recruits in the 2010 freshman class, she has yet to see the field in two seasons due to an array of injuries. If she can stay healthy and return to form, her skills will certainly shine.
The most important position for Miami however, is likely at defense, where the RedHawks were thin last year and lost stalwart Haley Clark to graduation after starting all 18 games a year ago. Anchoring the defense this year will be Parrish, who started 16 games as a sophomore at outside back.
“I think it’s going to change a lot,” Parrish said of her role this year. “I used to play outside defender and now I’m going to be playing centerback so I’m going to have to take on more of a vocal leadership role. Last year I was more of an outside defender where I listened to my centerbacks.”
Joining Parrish in the middle of the defense could be a number of players. Sophomore Courtney Zanotti is the incumbent at the position, playing in 12 games and making 10 starts in her first season while battling through injuries, which will also cause her to miss the first half of 2012. Looking to fill in until Zanotti returns will be a pair of freshmen in Katie Mazurek and Shannon Stearns.
“We need to focus on working together and moving off the ball together. There was a lot of separation between the defense and offense last year,” Parrish said of what needs to improve from a season ago. “We need to help out being more vocal on the field and that will help transition up the field and help us work together as a team.”
Kramig said there’s more depth at the outside back positions, led by sophomore Emilee Kaminski, who started the final five games of her rookie campaign after missing the first half of the year with an injury. Sophomore Olivia Evans will also compete for a spot on defense after transferring in from UNC Charlotte last spring, while freshman Lauren Kelly has impressed early on in practice. Kelly and Bronke were teammates on the same club team that won a national title in 2011. Kulinczenko also saw limited time on defense in 2011.
“Lauren Kelly has been terrific as an outside back. I think she has the potential to, one of these days, be the best left back in the Mid-American Conference,” Kramig praised.
Behind every good defense is a steady goalkeeper. Redshirt sophomore Allison Norenberg is the incumbent at that position, starting all 18 games a year ago after not seeing the pitch in her first season. She posted a 1.24 goals-against average and pitched four shutouts while allowing 23 goals. She’s not the only keeper on the roster with experience however as junior Madison Ryan played in eight games and made six starts as a freshman in 2010 before serving in a back-up role last year and not seeing the field. In her limited time, Ryan compiled a 1.25 GAA with one clean sheet while earning three wins.
Sophomore Danielle Wiseman, who did not see any game action as a freshman, and freshman Ashley Hull, will also compete for the starting job, which is still very open for the taking.
“Madison Ryan has impressed me with her fitness and the work she did over the summer. It’s just really a remarkable effort on her part. Allison has always been one of the great competitors we’ve had in this program and certainly she hasn’t lost any of that. Danielle looks like she’s improved her game. I’ve seen her play with a lot more confidence than last year and that’s a great thing to see because athletically she may be the best of the bunch,” Kramig said, handicapping his keepers. “Ashley Hull has done some things. I haven’t seen enough of her yet but from what I have seen she’s in the mix. She’s a different type of keeper, she’s better with her feet than some of the others.”
Even with the offense providing most of the experience, Kodiak knows defense is the key to success.
“It definitely starts with defense, not only with the defenders but with the forwards,” the captain said. “Getting defensive and working hard off the ball are the two key implements.”
Miami hopes its tough non-conference slate will prepare it for the always competitive and balanced MAC schedule. Defending champion Toledo is expected to be a title contender again as is Central Michigan. Western Michigan looks to be on the rise but Kramig said anything can happen during league play. The top eight teams from the regular season advance to the tournament, which is why the ‘Hawks narrowly missed out a year ago – something they definitely want to change this season.
“We’re going to have our ups and downs but we just need to keep our heads up and play positively as a team,” Zakrzewski concluded.
The RedHawks open the regular season Aug. 17 at home against Xavier.