Equipped with a mix of experienced veterans and talented newcomers, the Case Western Reserve University women's soccer team has its sights set on a successful campaign this fall.
Now in her 10th season, Head Coach Tiffany Crooks' squad has plenty of experience in place with eight returning regular starters and five additional players that started at least one contest in 2015. Four of the returnees were selected to the All-University Athletic Association Team as the Spartans finished at 7-7-4 overall last season.
The Spartans appeared in the NSCAA Division III national rankings for the fourth time in the last five seasons during the 2015 campaign, checking in at 23rd in October 13th's week five poll.
"Last year was one of our best seasons in non-conference and Great Lakes region play," said Crooks. "We beat then-nationally 10th-ranked Denison in overtime and tied Thomas More, both NCAA tournament teams. As a team, we defended very well and were in every game we played, including our UAA competition. The UAA had one of the strongest years in recent history, and we just couldn't get momentum going in October."
Led by All-UAA Second Team selections in senior Christine Breindel and junior Neha Cheemalavagu, the Spartans defense once again ranked among the best in Division III during the season. CWRU allowed just 14 goals in 18 games in 2015, shutting out its opponent on 10 occasions. The team ended the year ranked 45th among the 431 NCAA Division III teams with a .556 shutout percentage, 54th with a 0.72 goals against average, and 59th with a 0.843 save percentage. The Spartans held opponents to averages of just 4.8 shots on goal per game, and 11.6 total shots per contest.
Adding to the team's defensive strength, junior All-UAA honorable mention selection Elle Zadina, who recorded two assists and a goal for four points during the season, returns after starting 17 matches in 2015.
"Christine and Elle (along with senior midfielder Anne Backlund) were made captains in the spring," said Crooks. "They'll lead us both on and off the field. Neha is one of our most technical and tactical players. She'll be given the freedom to have a greater impact as well."
Crooks also expects senior Madeline Pollifrone, and sophomores Emily Dickens and Toni Alloy to compete for significant minutes on the backline, while returners in senior Emma Hawley, junior Gabby Kiefer, and sophomores Angelina Batty and Megan Masterson will have a chance to make an impact as well.
Offensively, nine different CWRU players scored at least one goal during last season, and 12 players registered at least one point for the balanced Spartan attack. Senior forward Pauline Van Dijck recorded one goal and one assist for three points, while junior Madeleine Harris appeared in all 18 games, starting 12 of them. Van Dijck and Harris will be joined up front by seniors Mahya Krouse and Jennifer Zajic, and sophomore Maggie Tyma.
In the midfield, senior Amy Lindberg returns after an All-UAA Honorable Mention season in 2015. Lindberg totaled three points on one goal and one assist.
"Amy will be playing a new position and have a greater chance to make an impact on every game," said Crooks.
Returning in goal for the Spartans is junior Sarah Newcomb, who played in six games last season, allowing just one goal in 224 minutes and 31 seconds of action for a 0.37 goals-against average. She will be joined in net by freshman Lauren Unterborn.
Crooks will be welcoming five other freshmen to the fold with several expected to contribute this season. Forwards Kimberly Chen and Tori Scheidt are expected to see playing time on the front line, while in the midfield, freshmen Isabel Kazour, Mary Kate Ford and Jennifer Markley could all make an impact during their first season of collegiate competition.
"The freshmen will add immediate depth to the team and the sophomores have been the greatest addition," said Crooks. "A year of experience and a spring in the weight room with Coach Debs has given them confidence and a new attitude. That group has brought a great deal of excitement and energy to our team."
The Spartans 2016 schedule opens with a pair of road matches versus Oberlin College on Thursday, September 1 and Hiram College on Sunday, September 4. The team will then play three straight home games, including the home-opener on Tuesday, September 6 versus Kenyon College on DiSanto Field. On Wednesday, September 26, the Spartans will play at Denison University, which received votes in the NSCAA preseason poll.
"We'll play a lot of players in these early games to find out what our best look and fit is," said Crooks. "There's going to be a great opportunity to grow and to learn about our 2016 team. This group is motivated and focused. They're a blast to coach because they show up with purpose every day. Our expectation is that we get a little better every day in preparation for our UAA competition."
The UAA portion of the schedule begins at home with a Saturday, October 1 match up against New York University. Following a non-conference match against Ohio Wesleyan, the Spartans play a crucial three-match stretch on the road at 13th-ranked Brandeis University (Mass.), Emory University (Ga.) and the University of Rochester (N.Y.).
"The first few games in the UAA schedule will be critical for us to create momentum," said Crooks. "We are focused already on our matchup against New York on October 1. Every team in the league is good at a national level. There's no such thing as an easy game in our league, and we love that about it."
The regular season will wrap up with three-straight matches against nationally-ranked opponents, including two at home against the 21st-ranked University of Chicago on October 28 and second-ranked Washington University (the 2015 NCAA Division III runners-up) on October 30, and then conclude on the road at sixth-ranked Carnegie Mellon University (Pa.) on November 5.
"Competing every day, finding creative ways to improve, valuing the uniqueness and privilege of this experience, and redefining what we know hard work to be," said Crooks. "We do these things on a daily basis, and we will be in a position to win every game we play."