OXFORD, Ohio – With the Miami University women’s soccer team returning all but three players from last year’s Mid-American Conference regular-season and tournament championship team, expectations are high for the RedHawks in 2013. Miami has garnered several preseason accolades both individually and as a team, including being picked to repeat as MAC champions in the league’s preseason poll released Wednesday.

After finishing 2012 ranked No. 27 in the final NSCAA national poll, thanks in large part to a win over No. 20 Tennessee in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, Miami enters 2013 ranked 34th in the NSCAA preseason poll. With 10 starters and 14 letterwinners coming back, including a quartet of All-MAC performers, it’s easy to understand why the RedHawks are attracting so much attention.

“We really haven’t talked about it at all. It’s a distraction and it has absolutely nothing to do with a team’s performance going in to the season. We haven’t played a game yet,” said reigning MAC Coach of the Year Bobby Kramig on the preseason honors. “That said, I think it’s important for us to realize that we’re going to get everybody’s best shot. We enjoyed a lot of success last year. We’re certainly not going to sneak up on anybody this year, especially with all the players we have coming back. The rankings and stuff like that only sort of adds to that and we need to be prepared to deal with the fact that we are going to get everybody’s best game. We’ve talked to our kids about it. I think it’s a lot harder to repeat as a champion than it is to win it the first time.”

Last year, Miami set a school and MAC record with 20 wins, finishing 20-3-1, which included an 11-match win streak and 16-match unbeaten streak, both of which were also program bests. In league play, the ‘Hawks went unbeaten at 10-0-1, becoming just the second team in MAC history to go through the regular season without a loss. Despite all of the success and players coming back, the RedHawks still brought in a talented group of 10 newcomers, who will challenge for playing time on the pitch.

“We’ve got a good freshman class. They’ve done well. They’re talented and they can play. There’s no question about it,” said Kramig, who enters his 17th year at the helm of Miami’s program. “But at the same time we have an awful lot of talented kids coming back. Kids who know our system and understand what their roles and responsibilities on the field are. And just as important, they understand our team culture. That’s where the freshmen aren’t quite up to speed yet. A lot of our freshmen are struggling to learn our system and I think in some cases struggling to come to terms with our team culture; that this is really hard and people are competitive and serious about this.”

The one starter Miami lost from last year is forward Jess Kodiak, who was a Third-Team All-American and MAC Offensive Player of the Year last season after serving as team captain and leading the team with both 12 goals and 12 assists. Looking to fill the leadership role in 2013 will be senior midfielder Katy Dolesh, who is this year’s captain, and junior defender Courtney Zanotti, who is vice-captain.

“The transition has been good. I’ve been having a pretty easy transition thanks to Kodiak,” Dolesh said. “She taught me a lot, and even before her, the other girls that were here. It’s just finding my voice this year, because, like I’ve said in the past, I’m the leader by example. Finding my voice, I’ve been able to do that, especially with ‘The Program’, so I’m thankful for that.”

The Program is a military-style bootcamp the team endured early on in training camp, which helped the team come together and give different players the chance to be a vocal leader. Thanks in part to ‘The Program’, Kramig is confident leadership will not be an issue in 2013.

Katy Dolesh is arguably the best role model that I’ve ever had as a captain here. She does everything right on and off the field. She’s a brilliant player,” Kramig said. “She set the tone early for us on the first day. She comes in, a kid like her who’s been all-conference since she got here and all-region. Dolesh has nothing left to prove and all she does is go out and set personal bests in her fitness tests. Our freshmen can learn a lot by watching her and listening to her.

Courtney Zanotti is one of the smartest kids we’ve ever had. Tactically one of the smartest kids we’ve  ever had. Again, our kids would benefit greatly by listening to what she has to offer both on and off the field,” the head coach continued. “I think our leadership is strong. We’ve got good rising leadership coming up through the ranks. I think we’re well-positioned there.”

While replacing Kodiak’s leadership shouldn’t be an issue, replacing her production on the field could be. Junior Hailey Pleshakov is the front-runner to serve as Miami’s lone forward up top. She started at forward in Miami’s 3-0 exhibition win over Xavier last Saturday and appeared in 19 games, all as a substitute, last year. Pleshakov has shown her ability to rise to the occasion though, scoring the game-winning goal in the MAC Tournament championship match last year to break a 1-1 tie against Central Michigan.

“We’ve just been helping P (Pleshakov) along,” said junior midfielder Kelsey Dinges. “She’s been working in that position for three years now, so she knows what it’s about and knows everything that goes on with the position. We just need to help her along and work well around her to help her out.”

Freshman Jenna Weiner will challenge Pleshakov for the starting role at forward. Although playing a bit out of her normal position, Weiner has adapted well and showed promise against the Musketeers. The RedHawks had five forwards coming out of their spring season, but due to injuries to senior Sydney Busch and redshirt freshman Sydney Neal, Miami’s depth at forward is a bit thin.

“I think that it’s helpful with all the freshmen we have coming in,” Dolesh said of competition for positions. “We know they can play. With Xavier, they scored one more goal than we did, so there’s people behind you that are trying to win your spot. It’s kind of a fire behind everyone to work harder and keep their position.”

One position that Miami is very strong at is in the midfield. The RedHawks return all five starting midfielders from last year, four of which earned All-MAC and All-Great Lakes Region honors. Dolesh, Dinges and senior Kayla Zakrzewski all garnered First-Team All-MAC honors, while sophomore Haley Walter, the 2012 MAC Freshman of the Year, landed on the second team. All four ranked in the top 10 in the MAC in goals, assists and points a season ago, led by Dinges’ 11 goals and seven assists. Walter and Zakrzewski, who fly up and down the flanks for Miami, combined for 19 goals and 20 assists from their outside midfield position, while Dolesh chipped in nine goals and eight assists. Sophomore Jess Bronke, a defensive midfielder, completes the quintet of returning midfielders, as all five started all 24 matches a season ago.

“When you’ve got four of them that were All-Great Lakes last year, that’s tough competition for any new players coming in certainly, but you can always get better,” Kramig said of his midfielders. “We need to get better technically in the midfield, and get a little bit sharper with some of our organization in the midfield. But I’d probably say that’s a fair comment that the midfield is the strength of our team.”

Although the starting midfielders appear to be set, a few freshmen have shown promise in earning playing time. Taylor Jackson was impressive in the exhibition against Xavier, scoring a goal while also adding an assist from her wing position, where she caused problems for the Musketeers much of the night. Stephanie Dillon and Rachel Marble have also looked sharp in practice and proved themselves against Xavier, with Marble assisting on Jackson’s goal. Sophomores Katee Wensinger and Katie Mazurek will also give Miami depth in the midfield, as each played in 21 matches as a reserve as a freshman. Wensinger will likely see time out on the wings while Mazurek gives Miami a strong defensive midfield presence.

“We attacked pretty well,” Dinges said of her unit against Xavier. “We were pretty persistent but we need to put the ball in the net a little more. Stop hitting the post and just find the back of the net. I guess that we just need to talk a little more and work together better because Illinois State’s a big battle (to open the season) and it’s close to home, so I really want to win.”

One position that should be improved from last year is on defense. After being hampered by injuries and a lack of depth in 2012, Miami appears to have plenty of options in the back this year. Leading the way will be Zanotti, who played in 20 matches last year, making 12 starts, while battling through injury. At the other center back position will be senior Sam Parrish, who has played in 57 matches in her career, including starting all 24 last year. Those two will anchor a defense that allowed just 1.00 goals per game last season.

“It’s a lot about organization and shape. If we can keep everyone pushed up, everyone on their marks and everyone organized it makes team defending easier,” Zanotti said. “It makes it easier to trap them (the opponent) and then from that we can attack together.”

At outside back Miami has several options, starting with sophomores Lauren Kelly and Lauren Mathews. Kelly played in all 24 games as a rookie, starting 16, while Mathews transitioned from the midfield during 2012 as Miami’s defense became depleted, starting the final eight games on defense, while she played in all 24. Sophomore Olivia Horner, who transferred from Pitt, will also challenge for a starting spot at back, as she was on the field to start the Xavier exhibition.

“I saw a lot of energy, a lot of good attacking. People were willing to go forward and make runs,” Zanotti said of the Xavier match. “Something we need to work on is keep practicing, keep working on our shape and our endurance and I think we’re going to be set for the season.”

Backing up Zanotti and Parrish at center back will be junior Olivia Evans, who enters her second year at Miami after transferring from UNC Charlotte, and freshman Dana Miller. Evans got a good feel for the RedHawks’ system last year, as she started 16 matches while appearing in 22. At outside back, freshmen Casey May and Emma Schneider, along with senior Ariana Kulinczenko, will likely compete for playing time in a reserve role after playing much of the second half against Xavier.

“It’s super important (to have depth) because last year we had injured people running themselves into the ground more. Now everyone’s coming back, starting to recover. We’ve got extra legs in us and that’s going to keep us fresher and keep us faster during the game,” Zanotti said. “It’s interesting to see the different combinations because they (the freshmen) all bring something different to the table. It’s about finding the people that work best together – the best pairs. Left side, right side, who can go forward. It’s just a lot of different talent than what we’ve had in past years.”

Kramig echoed Zanotti’s comments.

“I feel a lot better about our situation in the back now than I did last year. By the end of last fall season half our  back line wasn’t even allowed to practice they were so beat up and I don’t think that will be the situation this year,” he said.

Backstopping Miami’s defense will be senior goalkeeper Allison Norenberg, who has started all 42 matches the last two seasons after she redshirted as a freshman. Norenberg posted a 1.00 GAA and .762 save percentage last year, while tying the school record with eight complete shutouts and combining for two more. She has 12 shutouts in her career, four shy of tying Miami’s career mark.

“Our goalkeeping situation compared to what it was a couple years ago has improved dramatically. A lot of that credit goes to (assistant coach) Matt (Ward), who has worked very hard with our goalkeepers that we have on our team,” Kramig said. “Allison Norenberg, the level of commitment and the improvement she has shown over the last couple of years is incredible, and it speaks very highly of her work ethic and the training program that Matt’s put together for her.”

Backing up Norenberg will be junior Danielle Wiseman and freshman Vic Maniaci. Wiseman appeared in one match last year, helping complete a shutout that Norenberg started. Kramig called Maniaci the keeper of the future, saying she has good presence in goal. All three keepers split time in the exhibition at Xavier, combining for the clean sheet.

With Miami looking to make a splash on the national level, the RedHawks 2013 schedule sets up much tougher in the non-conference than last year. Miami faces a pair of conference tournament champions from last year in Illinois State (Missouri Valley Conference) and Milwaukee (Horizon League), as well as 2011 Sweet 16 participant Louisville and Big Ten foe Purdue, with the latter three games all in Oxford.

“We needed to up the schedule. We knew that going in. It certainly starts with Illinois State, who are a very good team,” Kramig said. “The schedule’s tougher, we’re going to have to be tougher. We’re going to have to be physically tougher; we’re going to have to be mentally and emotionally tougher. And I think this team is ready for that. That’s one of the reasons we brought ‘The Program’ in here. We wanted to make that point to our kids early, this year’s going to be really hard and you need to be able to deal with that. We’re going to have to raise our game, there’s no question about it. I think we’re up for the challenge though, I really do.”

Miami opens the 2013 season Friday, Aug. 23 at Illinois State with kickoff set for 5 p.m. ET/4 p.m. local time in Normal, Ill. After eight non-conference matches, the RedHawks then begin MAC play Sept. 27 at Akron.