Panthers On Track To Continue Run In 2011
The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee women's soccer team has the pressure of maintaining a very impressive run in the Horizon League while expanding its reputation beyond the region. But, with 11-straight league regular season championships--the second-longest streak in the nation--and five NCAA Tournament appearances in the last six seasons, that pressure is hardly new.
Head coach Michael Moynihan and his staff have done a tremendous job of maintaining that level for well over a decade and 2011 should be no different.
The Panthers return a five-player senior class that is looking to become the first class in school history to play in four NCAA Tournaments. They also return over 87 percent of their offense from a year ago. The question for this season will be can Milwaukee reload on defense, where five key players graduated after last season.
"The big question mark is that we graduated three of our four starting defenders, so we have a lot of youth back there," Moynihan said. "It will be getting everybody on the same page and figuring out who works best together. I think it's going to be a work in progress and we will get better as the season goes on. Hopefully we can get things organized enough to have an effective start to the season, but I expect us to keep getting better as the season goes on. Even with the youth, though, I think we have potential to have a strong defensive group."
Moynihan is confident in the team's offense, as he should be. He returns 34-of-39 of last season's goals, including one of the nation's top goal scorers from the last three years.
"We have some key individuals returning in our attack, our two leading goal threats--Sarah Hagen and Keara (Thompson). They were our leading point people last year and are coming back off very good, productive summers. Keara played for a very good team in Canada at a pretty good level and Sarah was with the U23 national team, then playing with FC Milwaukee (in the WPSL). They both look great right now. We also have a number of other people, Makenzie Gillaspie, who we didn't have in the spring, is back. Helen Steinhauser has increased her attacking capabilities tremendously and she looks real strong. I feel like, building into the attack, we are going to be a threatening team, no matter who we play against."
Hagen heads up the list of returners, coming off her third-straight season leading the league in goals and a campaign where she was named to the NSCAA All-America First Team. She enters her senior season already the school and league leader in goals and points. She also had a second summer of international competition with the U.S. U23 National Team.
"She is definitely going to be a marked person," Moynihan said. "Whenever you are a physically big player and when you are dangerous, you will attract attention and draw some fouls. People are going to be physical with you. People were very familiar with her, and that only grows. Her reputation has grown. Everyone we play talks about her and, now that she has been playing well with the national team and scoring goals for them, other countries know who she is. She's not going to surprise anybody or sneak up on anybody."
All told, Hagen has scored 67 goals and 151 points in three season, both totals that are tops in the nation in that time. She has also made three trips to Europe with the U23 team, scoring and starting all six games and finishing with seven goals and an assist. Last season, she scored 19 goals for Milwaukee and added six assists. She was among the nation's leaders in goals and points (44) for the third-straight season.
"Sarah is going to be a marked player again so it will be a matter of how do we attack as a team and do we have players that complement each other," Moynihan said. "If we find some other people to be a little more threatening, certainly, that takes away from the ability of other teams to focus solely on her. I think we've got that now. We have a few other good attacking options that will make it different for other teams. The other thing about Sarah is she makes very good decisions with the ball. If she's not scoring, she can hold the ball on the attack and distributes very well. That part of her game is very, very good. Very rarely do you see her make a bad decision in terms of distribution."
Also bolstering the Panther attack will be fellow seniors Thompson and Gillaspie as well as junior Helen Steinhauser.
Thompson had a career year in 2010, finishing second on the team with six goals to go with four assists for 16 points. She has continued to evolve into a dangerous attacking threat out of the midfield. In her first three seasons, she has 12 career goals and 13 assists.
"Keara is somebody who last year had a lot of assists and goals together," Moynihan said. "For her first two seasons, she hit a lot of posts and was very close to scoring a lot of goals that didn't materialize. Last year, she broke through a little bit. If she can increase that by even a couple, I think that would be phenomenal."
Gillaspie and Steinhauser have both been used in the attack and on defense in their careers. Each started out on defense as freshmen before gradually moving higher up on the attack. Gillaspie is one of the team's most versatile players, lending support on the back line while also posing as a scoring threat. She has split her time all over the field but still put in three goals and assisted on another last season.
Steinhauser moved from defense to the midfield as a sophomore and could continue her ascension forward as a junior. She sparked the offense from the midfield in 2010, finishing second on the team with six assists while adding goals in each of the team's two league tournament games to finish with 10 points on the year.
"(Steinhauser) started in the back and moved more into the midfield (in her first two years)," Moynihan said. "We've been using her increasingly in attacking. I think she has become more and more effective as an attacking player and I think she can complement (Hagen)."
The Panthers also return senior Laurel Ragalie and sophomore Sara Stern at forward. Ragalie was limited by injuries last season, but tallied 11 points in each of her first two seasons. She enters her senior campaign among the team's active leaders with 10 career scores. Stern was a spark late in the season, starting all three of the team's post-season games up top. She was named to the league's all-tournament team, scoring the game-winner in the title game, and assisted on an equalizing score in the NCAA Tournament First Round. Despite her strong finish as a freshman, Stern could find herself helping out on defense, splitting time between outside back and forward.
Morgan LaPlant, Emily Scott, Kelly Lewers and Kelsey Holbert will all be in their first year in the black and gold and will each try to make an early impression. LaPlant was the Gatorade Wisconsin Player of the Year as a senior at Madison LaFollette High School. She is quick and put up lofty goal totals at LaFollette.
Scott and Lewers played club soccer together for Windy City Pride in Chicago and are also prolific prep scorers. Scott tallied 47 goals and 24 assists as a senior at Andrew High School and was a four-time all-conference selection. Lewers posted identical goals and assists as a senior at Homewood-Flossmoor and finished her high school career with 130 goals.
"We have a number of new faces. It's too early to tell, but I think a lot of them have very good attacking capabilities," Moynihan said. "They all did a great job preparing for this and came to preseason prepared."
Zawacki is coming off a knee injury that cost her the 2010 season at Marian High School in Michigan. She had earned all-state honorable mention honors as a junior. It is unknown when she will be ready to take the field for Milwaukee. Sammy Vovos, a redshirt junior, could also miss much of the season with a knee injury. She redshirted last season with a similar, but unrelated, injury.
Moynihan considers the midfield to be a team strength, as well as a key to its success. Thompson, Gillaspie and Steinhauser highlight the returners. Junior Demi Price and sophomores Hannah Kaul and Melanie Coderre also return.
Price cracked the starting lineup as a sophomore in 2010, making three starts early in the season. She also picked up her first collegiate goal at Texas. Kaul could take on a defensive midfield role or add support on defense this season. She appeared in 18 games as a freshman in the midfield, but saw an expanded defensive role with the team in spring. Coderre played in nine games during her freshman, but cracked the starting 11 during the spring season.
"Our midfield will be strong with our ability to possess the ball and have good composure," Moynihan said. "We have some experienced players there that I think will have the ability to set the tone and dictate the play. Hannah Kaul has come in pretty well prepared. She's looked strong early on. Kelsey Holbert is someone who, in the early days, has looked very good and I look for her to be contributing right away and making an impact."
Holbert, Vienna Behnke and Emma Worthington are all freshmen that will vie for playing time in the midfield early on. Holbert is another Windy City Pride player who was an all-state selection as a senior at Lyons Township. Behnke was a high-scoring midfielder at Neenah (Wis.) High School, earning all-state honors twice while ranking up 66 career goals out of the midfield. Worthington scored 17 game-winning goals in her career at Moundsview High School in Minnesota.
The defensive midfield position has been a key role for the Panther defense over the years and Moynihan will need to find someone to replace Sarah Talbert, one of four graduates from the defensive corps. Talbert was a two-time all-league first-team selection and an all-region selection, while starting 70 games in the midfield.
"Talbert is a hard one to replace. She did an awful lot," Moynihan said. "While she didn't have a lot of stats, her play there was very important. It's not going to be easy to replace her. Those are big shoes to fill, but we have a choice and I'm confident someone will step up."
Who sees the most action in that position remains to be seen, but Moynihan has several players that can fill that role. Kaul and Steinhauser could be candidates, as could freshman Amy Kauffung. Kauffung was a standout at Hartland Arrowhead High School before graduating early and enrolling at UWM for the spring semester. The all-area prep standout played with the team during the spring season and saw action at both defensive midfielder and on defense.
"I think we have a couple of options, but it's just fitting everything together," Moynihan said. "Amy Kauffung was with us in the spring and we played her there a little bit and I think she did an exceptional job. Hannah Kaul is another one. We have a couple of options, but it will be putting the whole puzzle together."
The back line suffered blows through graduation, most notably in 2010 Horizon League Defensive Player of the Year Nicole Sperl. She anchored the defense for two years and was joined last season by Kelly McGrath and Nicole Hirsch at outside back positions.
One constant on the back line will be senior Mary Wandolowski. A stalwart in the back for UWM, she started 20 games at defender last season and. Gillaspie has also played in the back in each of her first three seasons and could provide a calming influence for what could be a young group. Moynihan will be looking both players to step into leadership roles.
"Mary is somebody who has grown a lot as a player in her time here," Moynihan said. "She's emerged as a leader and, as a senior, we are going to be calling on her for leadership and stability back there and a sense of calm. Kenzie has played everywhere for us and has been effective wherever we play her. She has maturity and knows how to get the job done."
The Panthers have veteran options for defense in Gillaspie and Steinhauser. Both have gotten extended starts in the central defense. Sophomore Caity Bestwina is another candidate to play an outside defender position as she works her way back from an off-season injury. As a freshman last season, she appeared in nine games at outside back.
Several newcomers will have an opportunity to step into starting roles on defense, including Kauffung, Kaul, redshirt freshman Stephanie Condon and true freshman Lauren Jimenez. Condon is returning off injuries that sidelined her last season. Jimenez is in a similar situation, having lost her senior high school season to injury. As a junior at St. Charles North (Ill.) High School, she helped her team to 15 shutouts and third place at the state tournament.
"Steph would have been a starter for us last year, but unfortunately had an injury and had to redshirt," Moynihan said. "She has battled through (some tough injuries) and she's had more than her share of setbacks already. She's battled through it and she's very eager to compete again. She played left back for us in the spring and did a good job. She's very composed with the ball and helps us build out of the back.
"Amy also played back there in the spring. She hasn't played a whole lot of college soccer yet, but has a lot of experience defensively and she's played at a high level. She'll be able to step in back there and do a great job."
The final senior defensive starter lost was Leslie Deebach in goal. She started all 21 games last season, but junior Jamie Forbes returns after having been the starter as a freshman in 2009. That year, Forbes made 17 starts and posted nine shutouts. She will take over the starting position this season after a solid summer playing in the W-League.
"Jamie's coming off a good summer," Moynihan said. "She played with the Chicago Red Stars, which got to the WPSL Championship. She had a great summer, in terms of experience and she got to play a lot. She also has a good level of starting experience behind her, as well as a competitive personality. She plays with some bite. It will be good to have that behind our defense."
Backing up Forbes will be true freshmen Natalie Fettinger and Erin Sullivan. Fettinger played her last three years at Shattuck St. Mary's Academy in Minnesota, but hails from Michigan. Sullivan is a local product out of Pius XI High School in Milwaukee. Twice she earned all-conference honorable mention honors in high school.