OXFORD, Ohio – Success breeds expectations and the Miami University soccer program is expecting plenty during the 2014 season.
The RedHawks are coming off their second-straight Mid-American Conference East Division title and return seven starters from a squad that finished the 2013 campaign on a 12-match unbeaten streak (8-0-4). That veteran experience, combined with 11 talented incoming freshmen, has head coach Bobby Kramig enthusiastic for what’s to come this fall, his 32nd season with Miami (17th as head coach of the women’s program).
“This is one of the deepest teams I’ve ever coached,” Kramig said. “There is not one player on the roster that I wouldn’t feel comfortable with putting into a game. I think some of the toughest competition we see all year is going to be in practice each day as players try to separate themselves in the lineup. There just is not a lot of drop off from our top players to our reserves and it is exciting.”
The resume over the past two seasons speaks for itself. After missing the MAC Tournament in 2011, the Red and White are a combined 31-9-5 over the past two seasons, including an astounding 17-1-4 in MAC play. In 2012, the RedHawks won their second regular season MAC title in school history and their first since 2002 when they went 21-3-1 with a 10-0-1 league ledger. MU claimed its fourth conference tournament crown that year, also its first since 2002, and proceeded to upset Tennessee for its third NCAA Tournament win in school history.
Last season, the Red and White defeated eventual MAC Champion Eastern Michigan early in conference play and ultimately finished second in the overall league standings at 11-6-4 overall and 7-1-3 in the MAC. After dropping their conference opener in Akron by a 2-1 count to fall to 3-6-1 on the season, Miami kicked it into another gear from there and did not lose another match the rest of the year.
While the team finished one point behind EMU in the regular season standings, an emphatic 3-0 victory over Northern Illinois in Oxford gave MU the look of a team that could go on the road and punch its NCAA ticket once again. The RedHawks did not lack for opportunities in the semifinals as they outshot Ball State 34-9 over four periods of play, but the contest remained scoreless after 110 minutes and the Cardinals outlasted the Red and White in penalty kicks to end their season short of their goal.
While First-Team All-MAC selections Katy Dolesh and Kayla Zakrzewski have graduated, Miami is optimistic that it has plenty of talent both experienced and new to fill the void that they left on the field. Those two combined for 33 points on 12 goals and nine assists, but MU still returns three other players that posted at least 11 points last fall.
“I think it will be awhile before the MAC sees players like Katy Dolesh and Kayla Zakrzewski again,” Kramig said. “You don’t look to replace them, but the nature of college athletics is you move on. We have a good freshman class coming in and a good team coming back. I think we’ll be just fine with what we have.
Observing from the exhibition season, it appears sophomore Rachel Marble (Midland, Mich./Midland Dow) will get the first crack to be the RedHawks’ target forward after scoring a pair of goals during her freshman campaign. She had a hand in both MU goals during its 1-0-1 exhibition slate, scoring the game-winning goal at Radford and dishing out an assist against Northern Kentucky.
Among the returners, senior Kelsey Dinges (Smithton, Ill./Althoff Catholic) and juniors Jess Bronke (Downers Grove, Ill./Downers Grove South) and Haley Walter (Cincinnati, Ohio/Kings) form a decorated core on the attack. Dinges was a Second-Team All-MAC performer who recorded a team-best 20 points (7 goals, 6 assists) a year ago while Bronke earned a spot on last year’s MAC All-Tournament Team after posting 12 points (5 goals, 2 assists).
“We lost some offensive punch over the last two years. We still have Kelsey, who is one of the most dangerous offensive players in the conference. Haley has been a good goal scorer for us over the past two seasons and Jess really stepped up at the end of the season. One of the things we need to do is spread our scoring out a little bit more across the team, which I think we can do.”
“I’ve been impressed with the team since the first day of training,” Bronke said. “The newcomers have picked things up fast and that has challenged us to step up our level of play. We’ve flashed some good finishing ability so, which we actually haven’t worked on a lot yet.”
Walter is a former MAC Freshman of the Year back in 2012, when she also earned Second-Team All-MAC recognition. She also netted five goals and added an assist for 11 points last fall.
“I was pleasantly surprised with how well everyone is working,” Walter said. “The effort and intensity at each practice is solid across the board. This year, we have found our rhythm more quickly than in years past. Personally, I feel more confident and more prepared than my first two years.”
The RedHawks’ 11 freshmen got extended playing time during their two exhibitions and were impressive as a group. That group was treated as a second-string unit of sorts during the preseason, but it is becoming clear that the majority of them will create some difficult decisions for the coaching staff as they press for expanded minutes during the season.
“The thing that has struck me about this team is the level of competition there has been in practice thus far,” Kramig said. “I haven’t seen such parity on a roster here before. Everyone is battling day in and day out for playing time. To be able to match up some of our freshmen against our experienced seniors helps everyone.”
While there are some shifting parts on the offense, the RedHawks’ defense is stocked full of familiar faces that formed a successful unit over the past two seasons. The Red and White return three of their starting defenders from last year’s team that set a school record with 12 shutouts and recorded a league-best 0.51 goals against average during MAC play.
MU’s defense is anchored by senior Courtney Zanotti (North Royalton, Ohio/Lutheran West), who earned Second-Team All-MAC honors last fall after playing a team-high 1,928 of a possible 2,004 minutes on defense. She is joined by junior Lauren Kelly (Manhattan, Ill./Lincoln-Way Central) and sophomore Shannon Stearns (Orland Hills, Ill./Carl Sandburg), who combined for 34 starts a year ago. Also getting a crack at a starting role is sophomore Dana Miller (Wheaton, Ill./Wheaton Warrenville South), who played in all but one contest off the bench a year ago.
“You have to start from the back line,” Kramig said. “If you don’t have things put together defensively, it destroys everything else you’re trying to do. To have an experienced back four coming back provides so much more confidence for the players in front of them to focus on doing their job. Courtney was an obvious choice for team captain and she’s done a terrific job so far. She has good radar and knows what is going on with the team. I don’t think there is anything that gets by her, I have great trust in Courtney as captain.”
“I’m excited for this season,” Zanotti said. “Everyone wants to do well for each other. We’re excited to hopefully surpass what we did last year and advance further like we did two years ago. I think it’s great to have. I think it’s great to have the same faces next to me. We know how each other plays and having a solid back line really helps propel our offense. Everyone is working hard and we’re all comfortable playing with each other.
“I haven’t seen a preseason as intense as this one. Everyone is going hard at each practice at all position. We feed off each other’s energy and feed off each other to get better.”
Like the group up front, there are minutes being fought for on defense as the newcomers are hot on the trail of the veterans. While the starting unit seems more settled than other areas of the team, competition at camp has been intense and that extends to the back line.
As far as the last line of defense, the RedHawks are replacing record-setting goalkeeper Allison Norenberg, who left with the school record in wins and shutouts. Senior Danielle Wiseman (Canton, Ohio/Jackson) has seen limited action over her first three seasons, but started both exhibitions without allowing a goal.
Freshman Alexis Carpenter (Westlake, Ohio/Westlake) split time in goal with Wiseman during the exhibition slate, allowing just one goal in roughly 90 minutes of play. The RedHawks also have sophomore Vic Maniaci (Chesterfield, Mich./L’Anse Creuse North) in the fold. Maniaci served as the team’s backup goalkeeper in 2013 and posted a shutout in her lone appearance last fall.
“You cannot overstate the value of having an Allison Norenberg on your team when it comes to leadership,” Kramig said. “Danielle is a senior who is really a role model for the rest of the team. We need people that put their teammates first and she gets that. Vic is one of the most talented goalkeepers we’ve brought into the program and I look forward to getting her some game time. Alexis is a bit new to the position, she only has a few years of experience in goal. She is an athletic kid who has a good future with us in store.”
In preparation of for the rigors of MAC play, the Red and White open the season in the Boilermaker Challenge Cup to face Purdue (Aug. 22) and Butler (Aug. 24), starting a challenging seven-match non-conference slate that pits Miami against two NCAA Tournament teams from 2013. The end of the RedHawks’ season-opening four-match road trip ends with trips to Northwestern (Aug. 31) and perennial NCAA Tournament qualifier Louisville (Sept. 7). From there, the Red and White play their next seven at home, closing out the non-conference portion of their schedule against IPFW (Sept. 14), Marshall (Sept. 19) and NCAA Round of 32 qualifier Illinois State on (Sept. 21; Senior Day).
“This is probably the toughest non-conference schedule that we have played in quite some time,” Kramig said. “We have our work cut out for us, but I think the team is up to the challenge. We played several of these teams last year and I think we know what we’re in for. We have to be mentally tough and play well in those games. I don’t think there is any lack of confidence in our ability to play at that level.”
The RedHawks were picked to finish second in the MAC East Division in the league’s preseason coach’s poll. Miami’s first two conference weekends are at home against Eastern Michigan (Sept. 26), Bowling Green (Sept. 28), Toledo (Oct. 3) and Central Michigan (Oct. 5). After a brief trip to face Kent State (Oct. 10) and Ohio (Oct. 12), the Red and White play their final regular season home matches against Northern Illinois (Oct. 17) and Western Michigan (Oct. 19). The regular season concludes with road tilts at Akron (Oct. 24), Buffalo (Oct. 26) and Ball State (Oct. 30).
From there, the MAC Tournament begins with the top four regular season finishers hosting quarterfinal contests on Nov. 2. The highest remaining seed host the semifinals (Nov. 7) and championship (Nov. 9) to determine one of the spots in the NCAA Tournament.
“Coming back as I look at our lineup, two of our four defenders in my mind are the best at their position in the conference. I think two of our midfielders are the best at their position. We have a lot of talent coming back, the players are there. Our job is to get them organized and get everyone on the same page as best as we can.”