OXFORD, Oh. – The Miami field hockey team will return to action in 2014 looking to build on the program’s first ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament. The team has shown improvement in each of head coach Iñako Puzo’s three seasons at the helm and will be looking to continue its success after being picked to win the Mid-American Conference by the league’s coaches.

“I think every coach, player and team is excited for the beginning of the season,” Puzo said. “But this team has the ability, skills, fitness and versatility to put us in a good position to start the season in a couple days.”

The RedHawks share the sentiments of their coach and are excited to see what the 2014 campaign has in store as they look to continue their ascent.

“Our main goal is to be playing in November,” senior Gabby Goldach stated confidently. “In previous seasons we’ve come in hoping to play in November, but this preseason we’re planning on getting to NCAA Tournament again.”

To reach its lofty goals the team will mix 14 returning letterwinners with seven gifted newcomers to defend its back-to-back MAC Tournament titles. Keying those efforts will be 2013 All-MAC First Team selections senior Ali Froede and junior Bea Dechant who have seen a huge change in the program during their time in Oxford. 

“The biggest change is the competitive edge on the team,” Froede expounded. “We’ve turned around a team that was lucky to be in the MAC Tournament our freshman year and now it’s something we know we can do and we won’t settle for anything less.”

Puzo is proud of the changes in the program’s expectations and gives much of the credit to Jill Reeve, head coach from 2004-2010, for starting the program’s upward swing. Puzo knows it’s on him to help Miami field hockey continue its climb.

“I took over the program in a good position and my job is to take another step forward and take it to a level where we can compete with anyone,” Puzo continued. “Our goal is to be competitive at the national level and always be a contester for MAC titles.”

In 2013, Froede produced a team-high nine goals and 21 points after scoring five goals. Likewise, Dechant has made a huge impact in her time at Miami. The Mannheim, Germany native scored nine goals in 2012 to earn the MAC Freshman of the Year award and came back last season with six goals to earn All-MAC First Team honors for a second time.

Senior Valentina Neira and sophomores Carla Romagosa and Grace Leeker also return to spark the offense. Last season Neira led the team with eight assists to go with her five goals while Romagosa dished out six assists with two goals and Leeker posted five goals.

Despite all the returning talent, Miami must fill the void left by its three other All-MAC selections Sarah MuellerEmily Gruesser and Alyssa Logan. The graduation of Gruesser, Logan and fellow 2013 senior Jordan Long leaves a hole in the offense as the trio combined for 19 of the team’s 50 goals last season. While the loss of three-time All-MAC goalkeeper Mueller will provide a challenge for the defense.

Puzo said that roster turnover is something that comes around every year, but he never tries to replace players.

“I never try to replace my seniors because I think that every person in unique and every athlete brings something to the table that no one else can replace,” he explained. “I try to keep bringing people in to help grow the level of the program.”

Puzo and the upperclassmen all feel like he has done exactly that with the seven newcomers.

“The freshman class has come in and done a great job stepping up,” Froede said. “I think we’ve done a great job adapting to the changes and are getting used to our new team structure.”

Alysa Xavier and Christina Heston are competing for time at goalkeeper for the RedHawks. Both have the advantage of learning from Mueller, who is now an assistant coach after finishing her career with 13 shutouts. Xavier did not see playing time last season, but is a highly-skilled player that made the 2013 Pan-American Elite Team. Heston, a senior, is in her fourth season with Miami already has a shutout under her belt.

“I believe the goalkeeper position, especially in women’s field hockey, is very important,” Puzo continued. “I don’t want to compare [Xavier and Heston] to Sarah. Sarah had an amazing four years at Miami, but now her role is different as a coach. Now Alysa has to just be Alysa and play her best and the same for Christina.”

The RedHawks will again be well-tested by a strong non-conference schedule featuring six games against teams in the NFHCA’s preseason top-20.

 “We’re playing what is maybe the toughest non-conference schedule in the nation,” Puzo said with tempered excitement.  “I believe that you come to Miami because you want to be challenged. You want to be challenged in the classroom, to be a better citizen and the student-athletes want to be challenged as athletes. That’s the same reason that I am here; I want to be challenged as a coach. The schedule gets us ready for the main part of our season, which is when we are playing MAC games.”

Dechant is excited to see what the RedHawks can do against their tough non-conference schedule knowing it will help the team in the long run.

“I like that we play a lot of good non-conference teams,” Dechant said with a smile on her face. “We started doing that last year with Maryland and others. It helps us prepare for the MAC. We may not win a game, but it will force us to get better. If we don’t do well it gives us a chance to see what our mistakes were and allows us to get better.”

Miami will open the season in Columbus against No. 5 Syracuse on Saturday, Aug. 30 at 4 p.m. before returning home on Tuesday, Sept. 2 at 3 p.m. for its home-opener against No. 14 Northwestern. The team will make its second trip to Columbus on Friday, Sept. 5 to play Ohio State at 5 p.m.

After the RedHawks return trip to Columbus to play the Buckeyes, whom Miami beat 4-2 last season, the team will travel to take on No. 1 Maryland (Sept. 7) and No. 6 Virginia (Sept. 9). The Terrapins won the ACC going 6-0 in their final season in the ACC in route to finishing the regular season ranked No. 1 before falling in the national semifinals. The Cavaliers are coming off a 15-6 season and an appearance in the 2013 NCAA Tournament.

Conference play will open at home against—new MAC field hockey affiliate—Longwood on Saturday, Sept. 13 at 11 a.m. Miami will play No. 2 North Carolina (Sept. 21 in Louisville, Ky.) and at New Hampshire (Sept. 26) to round out the five 2013 NCAA Tournament qualifiers on the schedule. The sixth game against a ranked team comes on Sunday, Oct. 12 at No. 20 Iowa.