The collective experience of 10 returning starters combined with the leadership of eight seniors and the raw talent of 11 newcomers translates into big aspirations for the Ohio State women's soccer program in 2002. The mission is clear: a Big Ten title and a berth in the NCAA tournament. The successful completion of that mission, however, will require more than the confidence that comes with big wins.
Consistency will be the Buckeyes' weapon of choice in their quest to carve their niche on the national scene. 2001 Big Ten Coach of the Year Lori Walker, in her sixth year at the helm, believes a commitment to consistency not only will help her squad advance to the next level but also will help them stay there.
"Our program has proven year in and year out to be capable of huge wins," Walker said. "Experienced, seasoned teams make their mark through consistent preparation and consistent performance. Our offseason was tailored toward championship success. Consistency will be our standard for excellence."
The resolve of this team to strive for consistency is only part of the equation if Ohio State is to achieve success on the national level in 2002. Experience in each third of the field constitutes another part; a highly-touted recruiting class still another. But by far, the most important element in the Buckeyes' becoming consistent and achieving their goals is hard work.
"We've developed a team motto of 'Zip it. Do the work,'" Walker said. "In other words, let's be so good no one can count us out. The only way you establish consistency is to be committed to training all year round. I feel our program has reached a new level where the core of our team is keeping themselves fit and going out and doing the extra work."
In 2001, the Buckeyes' focus was on team defense. A year later, the focus still is on developing the defense with the idea that it starts up front with the forwards and midfield players. Walker believes she has the right mix of personalities to excel in the transition game.
"We set a goal a year ago to be the best defensive team in the Big Ten and that's going to continue," Walker said. "We want to minimize the goals and corner kicks we're giving up, but being the best defensive team starts on the front end. It's more of a holistic soccer approach that our forwards and our midfielders are just as responsible for defending as our defenders. If we attack together and defend together, we're going to win the ball in better positions and create more transition opportunities. Our transition game absolutely is key."
Seniors Set The Standard
Guiding the transition from one end of the field to the other are seniors Jen Miller and Lindsay Eckles, considered legitimate All-America candidates by the coaching staff. Both were All-Big Ten selections and have started since their freshman year.
Miller, a co-captain at center back, returns to organize a seasoned Buckeye defense. The team most valuable player and most valuable defensive player in 2001, Miller also took home All-Big Ten and all-region honors in her junior season. She logged the most minutes of any field player in 2001 and finished fifth in scoring with a goal and three assists for five points.
"Miller continues to set an example for the rest of the team by virtue of her work rate and leadership," Walker said.
Eckles once again assumes her role at the front of the attack. Her size, strength and mobility make her unpredictable and difficult to contain and she should continue to dominate Buckeye statistics with her target playing abilities. Despite missing five matches with a concussion in 2001, during which the Buckeyes went 1-4, Eckles scored seven goals for 14 points and was named to the All-Big Ten Second Team. Eckles also is poised to set multiple school records in 2002. She needs just five goals to become Ohio State's all-time leading goal scorer and 17 shots to take over the lead in the shots category.
"Eckles has worked diligently to improve her game on both sides of the ball and prides herself on being the most fit and aggressive forward when we're are on defense," Walker said.
Serving as Miller's wingmen in the backfield are 2001 Coaches Award recipients, senior Sarah Lanham and Becky Broering, a fifth-year senior and co-captain. Lanham is back in the lineup after suffering an anterior cruciate ligament tear in the 2001 Big Ten Championship semifinal. The day prior, Lanham had recorded her only goal of the season, the overtime gamewinner in the quarterfinal vs. Purdue to help the Buckeyes advance to the semis. Broering's leadership and versatility made her an excellent addition to the squad in her first full year of competition after transferring from Purdue in the spring of 2000.
"Lanham carries the torch as the Buckeyes' fastest player, while her uncanny ability to change direction leaves her opposition in wonderment," Walker said. "Broering's leadership, maturity and intensity, coupled with her tremendous athleticism make her a deadly option as an attack-minded back."
Kiley Enmark sits just in front of Miller, Lanham and Broering at defensive center midfield. The Buckeyes will look to Enmark to dominate in the air and establish the team's rhythm as a primary playmaker. Shelley Besson, Kara Brant and Anna Mitchell complete the Class of 2003. Besson has fulfilled a variety of roles, mostly shifting back and forth from front to wide midfield depending on the team's formation. Brant has been a tremendous asset during training sessions and has seen occasional action over the past three seasons. Mitchell enters her final season determined to compete for starting rights in net.
Jackie Shirer, the lone junior, has seen limited action high and wide as both a forward and a flank midfielder but should play a more significant role this year after a confidence-building performance during the offseason.
A nine-member sophomore contingent provides the 2002 Buckeyes with outstanding depth at every position.
At the front of the pack and sharing offensive duties with Eckles is 2001 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, forward Lisa Grubb. After leading the team in every offensive category as a rookie-points (25), goals (10), assists (five), shots (62) and game-winning goals (three)-Grubb is poised to make an even bigger mark in her second season. The team most valuable offensive player, Grubb also was an All-Big Ten, all-region and Soccer Buzz Freshman All-America selection in her inaugural season.
"Grubb's work rate and passion for the game are infectious," Walker said. "When you watch us train or play you can't help but notice No. 25."
Defender Erica Nollen, one of only two Buckeye freshmen to start in all 20 matches in 2001, has returned to form after tearing her ACL in December during the Disney Soccer Showcase in Orlando, Fla. An apprentice to Jen Miller at center back, Nollen completes arguably the top backfield in the Big Ten.
Goalkeeper Jen Heaney had a tremendous rookie season, exceeding all expectations by earning the starting spot in net. She is a fantastic shot stopper who has demonstrated poise and maturity in big games, registering upsets over nationally-ranked Connecticut and Penn State. Heaney finished with 81 saves and a 1.33 goals-against average and will continue to battle for starting rights this season.
Midfielder Liz Mumley joins Nollen as the only freshmen to start in every match during the 2001 campaign. Mumley specializes in transitional and combinational play, serving as the catalyst that links the midfield with the forwards.
Rounding out the sophomore class are Heather Miller, Paige Harrison, Emily Gilbert, Tammy McCarroll and Emily Haynam (Westerville, Ohio).
Following a stellar offseason, Miller will battle for starting rights in the defensive midfield position. Harrison, the "fifth man" in the Buckeye backfield, will figure into the defensive rotation again this season. Although Gilbert spent the majority of the offseason fighting injury, she hopes to return to midseason form quickly and can contribute in the back or at midfield. McCarroll's ability to predict play and organize others will provide depth at the center back position. Finally, Haynam is a two-sport athlete at Ohio State and joins the women's soccer program following a successful sophomore campaign with the OSU women's basketball team. An all-state goalkeeper in high school, Haynam will add competitiveness and depth to the netminding position.
The newcomers to the squad this year will face much less pressure to perform right away than incoming classes have in the past. Walker is confident in the skills and experience of her returning players and looks forward to welcoming an incredibly gifted group of freshmen to the program.
"We're in a unique position in that we have a mature, experienced team returning," Walker said. "Having started six freshmen last year, we can slide them into the role of being seasoned. I think for the first time we're in a position where we don't need the freshmen to step in right away. Any impact they have will be a bonus. That takes a lot of the pressure off the freshmen and puts it on the shoulders of the players who are mature enough and experienced enough to handle it."
Walker considers the Class of 2006 to be the top recruiting class in the history of the program. The 11-member class boasts one national All-American, three regional All-Americans and 10 high school all-state award winners. Members of the incoming class have won an impressive 41 club and high school state championships.
Eight hail from Ohio-Kristen Clark (Columbus), Danielle Dietrich (Cincinnati), Colleen Hoban (Strongsville), redshirt freshman Jen Kaperak (Mentor), Molly Kiggins (Kettering), Melissa Miller (Cincinnati), Shannon Neely (Dublin) and Kelsey Thornton (Dayton)-further demonstrating Ohio State's commitment to insuring the best talent in the state stays close to home.
Out of state standouts Nicole Braman (Niwot, Colo.); Kristin Rhyne (Alpharetta, Ga.); Kristin Sawchak (Roswell, Ga.) and Chelsea Van Horn (Underhill, Vt.) complete the class.
Strength of Schedule
If marked with success, a strong, well-balanced schedule should render Ohio State worthy of NCAA tournament selection. Meetings with the Big East, Pac-10, West Coast Conference, Big 12 and Conference USA powerhouses Cincinnati and Marquette highlight the 2002 slate.
The Buckeyes begin the season Aug. 21 with an exhibition match on the road versus West Virginia, a contender for the Big East crown. Ohio State then will attempt to make its mark on the opposite coast, opening regular-season action Aug. 30 at the Cal Invite vs. host Cal-Berkeley. Sept. 1, the Buckeyes will take on another Top 10 program from 2001 in St. Mary's.
Returning to Ohio, the Buckeyes head to the UD Invitational at Dayton Sept. 6-8, where they will face top regional opponent Marquette and Big East up-and-comer Georgetown. The home schedule kicks off Sept. 13-15 at beautiful Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium when Ohio State plays host to its own tournament featuring Missouri, Pittsburgh and Bowling Green.
A grueling Big Ten schedule begins on the road with Northwestern (Sept. 22) and features home matches with Purdue (Sept. 27), Indiana (Sept. 29), Iowa (Oct. 11) and Illinois (Oct. 13) and trips to Michigan State (Oct. 4), Michigan (Oct. 6), Wisconsin (Oct. 18), Minnesota (Oct. 20) and Penn State (Oct. 25).
Penn State and Michigan enter the season boasting strong senior classes and multiple All-Big Ten honors in 2001, and will attempt to dominate the conference yet again. Illinois is looking to make a statement and neighboring Purdue traditionally has been a strong opponent for the Buckeyes. New leadership at Iowa and Indiana will yield new styles and challenges. Finally, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Northwestern no doubt will create some waves as the Big Ten looks to make its presence known to the nation.
The Buckeyes close out the season at home, playing host to instate rivals Kent State (Oct. 30) and 2001 Sweet Sixteen participant Cincinnati (Nov. 2) before heading to East Lansing, Mich. for the Big Ten tournament Nov. 7-10.