July 28, 2006
Ohio State women's soccer head coach Lori Walker approached the Buckeyes during the offseason with a not so novel, although effective concept: Raising the bar for success and breaking the traditional standards of women's soccer at Ohio State not only will make the 2006 squad a contender in both the Big Ten conference and the nation, but will set a precedent for future Buckeyes to look to as an effective standard.
With an emphasis on improving subtle tactics and techniques that will build a solid foundation, this crop of talented and eager Buckeyes already have laid the groundwork to surpass impressive Ohio State bests already positioned in the OSU record books.
In conjunction with the higher expectations is a schedule that pits the Scarlet and Gray against some of the nation's toughest teams. The sizable Buckeye upperclass and a host of freshmen and sophomores will show off the premier standard of excellence against several soccer powerhouses, which for Walker unifies her philosophy, "If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best."
With six seniors in Emily Francis, Lisa Grubb (sixth year), Shannon Neely (fifth year), Michelle Markus, Melissa Miller (fifth year) and Taylor Smith returning to the lineup in 2006, Ohio State boasts significant leadership on and off the field. On tap to continue her unrelenting guidance is defender Francis, who was a 2005 team captain and will resume that role in 2006. Grubb, who also will serve her second-consecutive season as co-captain, will be entering her sixth year of eligibility at forward for the Buckeyes after sustaining season-ending injuries in 2003 and 2005 and currently is the OSU all-time leader in goals with 31. Neely, a natural leader at goalkeeper, will compete for starting minutes in 2006. Defender Markus joined Ohio State as a walk on late last season and will make noteworthy contributions to the team. Also selected as a tri-captain is central defender Miller, who as a two-time All-American fifth-year senior, has started 65-consecutive games for OSU since 2003. Smith will continue her relentless involvement at forward, as she has been a mainstay off the bench, playing in 51 matches over a three-year span. "Having six seniors will help disperse the leadership," Walker, who is embarking upon her 10th season, said. "The leadership will not just be coming from three coaches. We have a wealth of experience and what that provides for us is an opportunity for that extra push when we need it. We need someone to say the right things and help get us over the hump. I believe our leadership is going to be able to do that. At the same time, we are going to bring that element of fun and lightheartedness, which I think every team needs, especially as it gets late in the season."
Joining the seniors in steering the team back into the Big Ten and NCAA tournament is the junior class comprised of Lara Dickenmann, Carla Arbulu, Jenna Greenwood, Keiana Mitchell and Amanda Ball. A part of an upperclass that consists of 11 student-athletes, this group of third-years has become more comfortable with the routine and expectations of OSU women's soccer. As sophomores in 2005, this assembly was the largest class on the team and played in nearly 15 (14.8) of 18 matches as a whole. It also is a class that is taking on dual roles in attempting to not only send the senior class out on top, but also help the freshmen make the critical transition from the club and high school level to the collegiate realm.
"As sophomores, it is still pretty natural to worry about yourself and try to accomplish things that are just about you," Walker said. "Freshmen are just trying to survive, but juniors, they know the routine and they start to make the transition into what is best for the team. They know the team's strengths and weaknesses and are much more comfortable in their own skin."
One of the objectives Walker and the Buckeyes worked on during the offseason was breaking standards and raising the bar of expectations. From deepening the team's overall fitness base to perfecting basic techniques in repetition, Walker believes these core fundamental pieces will collectively make the team stronger. Walker's offense tends to count on a variety of players to find the back of the net, keep possession of the ball and assist in creating a diverse attack in 2006.
"Last year, things were on the shoulders of one or two people," Walker said. This year, there will be some diversity in who will score for us," Walker said.
Organized summer programs also were a part of the offseason regiment for eight of 16 returning student-athletes, including Lisa Collison, who attended residency camp with the Canadian U-20 National Team in preparation for the U-20 World Cup in St. Petersburg, Russia, in August. Collison was the OSU leading scorer in 2005 with 13 tallies, tying Dickenmann's Ohio State single-season record from 2004. Grubb was anxious to receive some competitive game minutes after sitting out 2005 and Dickenmann continues to play for the Swiss National Team, which is currently trying to qualify for the 2007 Women's World Cup.
Walker also praises this group's competitive spirit and identifies it as one of the team's biggest strengths. It is that intangible that Walker, along with assistant coaches Greg Miller (sixth season) and Jonathan Morgan (second season) search for when recruiting. The goal is to sign student-athletes with a strong passion for the game from highly competitive and successful club programs. Over time, the eagerness will guide the team in its pursuit of a national championship.
With more than 40 percent of the team freshmen, Walker is extremely excited about what the rookie class has to offer. However, the 2006 Buckeyes will be forced to pay attention to the little details of what makes a great team because they now are in a position where they cannot take anything for granted with such a large class.
"In some ways we have to start over and start with all the basics and slowly move forward," Walker said. "We have to give everyone a solid foundation and develop roles throughout the season. If we move too fast, we're going to lose some, so we have to start from square one and build through the championships in November and December. We have to maintain consistency over the regular season."
In particular, Ashley Bowyer, Lauren Robertson, Ali Schwach and Lauren Steuer will make an immediate impact on a team that is deep in various positions.
Bowyer, who will see action either in the midfield or wide as a forward, is a crafty player, who has great technical ability and vision to accompany a winning mentality.
A solid competitor in goal, Robertson has the chance to contribute right away. Robertson possesses a lot of experience that allows her foot skills to complement her dynamic goalkeeping style of play. Schwach will make an easy transition to the collegiate ranks and will provide the necessary depth to the team in wide positions.
Steuer will provide depth at defensive midfield and in the back. She poses a ball-winning presence and clean distribution from deep positions.
In 2006, the Buckeyes will match up against seven teams that advanced to the 2005 NCAA tournament - Pepperdine, California, Purdue, Wisconsin, Illinois, Penn State and Michigan State - signaling a season of strong competition. Ohio State's 2006 opposition also is comprised of three teams - Penn State - No. 1, Cal - No. 9 and Purdue - No. 20 - that finished the 2005 campaign in the Top 25 of the final NSCAA/Adidas poll, as well as one that received votes (Michigan State).
Furthermore, the Buckeyes' schedule is complete with squads from eight major conferences in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Atlantic-10, Big 12, Horizon League, Mid-American Conference, Southeastern Conference, Pac-10, and the West Coast Conference.
Most notable is the Scarlet and Gray's home record at The Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium. The Buckeyes own a 79-38-9 record at JOMS, which is good news for a team that will play 10 matches in the six-year-old stadium.
Ohio State will play two exhibition matches at JOMS against ACC opponent Wake Forest and Big 12 regular season and tournament champion Texas A&M Aug. 16 and Aug. 18, respectively, before kicking off the regular season vs. MAC contender Kent State Aug. 25. OSU wraps up the weekend homestand two days later (Aug. 27) against Xavier of the A-10. Both games will be a part of a six-match weekend at JOMS, as the Buckeye men's soccer team will be hosting the Ohio State Classic.
OSU then will make an appearance on the West Coast, as it will participate in the Pepperdine Invitational in Malibu, Calif., Sept. 1-3. The Buckeyes will face two strong WCC opponents in Pepperdine and San Diego during the weekend, before they travel to Lexington, Ky., to face Kentucky (SEC) Sept. 8.
The Scarlet and Gray return to Columbus, Sept. 15-17 to host the Ohio State Tournament, where it will welcome California and Washington, along with co-tournament host Dayton. The Buckeyes will match-up against the two Pac-10 powerhouses Golden Bears and Huskies.
"When scheduling, we try to bring teams to the Jesse that showcase college soccer at its highest level," Walker said. "By hosting teams that are at the top of their respective conference, we will gain both experience in playing various styles and also gain in our strength of schedule. It also will be a fantastic environment for our fans and our seniors to host such worthy opponents."
OSU returns to the road to open its Big Ten schedule against Purdue and Indiana. While in the Hoosier state, Ohio State will face the Boilermakers Sept. 22 and the Hoosiers Sept. 24. The Buckeyes follow their road trip with a weekend homestand vs. 2005 Big Ten Tournament Champion Wisconsin and Northwestern, Sept. 29 and Oct. 1, respectively.
OSU plays its fourth and fifth road conference games of the year when it travels to Iowa City, Iowa, to face Iowa and Champaign, Ill., to take on Illinois. The Buckeyes then will take a break from conference and weekend action, hosting Wright State Wed., Oct. 11.
Ohio State's final road game is vs. 2005 Big Ten Champion Penn State, Oct. 15 and then the Buckeyes will wrap up their regular-season schedule at JOMS vs. Michigan State Oct. 20, Michigan Oct. 22 and Minnesota Oct. 27.
"Big Ten conference play is always a tight race," Walker said. "Many of the top teams graduated large classes last year. Some will be rebuilding and some traditional powers will be exposed by youth as they search for new identities," Walker said.
The Big Ten tournament, which will feature eight of 11 league teams, is Nov. 2-5 in State College, Pa.
"We certainly are comfortable with the Big Ten tournament being at Penn State," Walker said. "If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. There is no better way to test that philosophy and compete than in their house. We must be able to perform at the highest level. Penn State always host a first class event and we are very excited to have the opportunity to compete there."