MOUNT PLEASANT – The 2012 Central Michigan women's soccer team, loaded with strong veterans and promising freshmen, has its sights on earning the Mid-American Conference regular season and tournament championships for the third time in four years through tenacious defense and an improved offense.
Following a 15-3-3 (8-1-2 MAC) season in 2011 under first-year head coach Neil Stafford, the Chippewas are hungry to reclaim conference supremacy. The second-seeded Chippewas advanced to the MAC Tournament semifinals, where they were defeated by the three-seed and rival Western Michigan, 1-0.
Seven of the 11 starters from 2011 are back for the 2012 academic year, and 15 total players from last season will be returning in a quest to take back the top spot in the conference.
“This is Central Michigan University, and we always go with the expectation of being a winner and being a champion, and it will be no different this season,” Stafford said.
The Chippewas seek excellence not only on the field, but in the classroom. In 2011 the team earned a nation-best 3.7 cumulative GPA, and earned the top GPA in the country for a seventh consecutive season. The program earned its first three Academic All-Americans in Bethany Allport, who played her final season in 2011, and current seniors Stefanie Turner and Bailey Brandon.
The Chippewas open the season Friday, Aug. 17, at Detroit, and return home for the first match of 2012 at the CMU Soccer Complex on Sunday, Aug. 19, against Evansville.
Tough Early-Season Schedule
In addition to an always-formidable MAC schedule, the Chippewas will face significant early-season tests, including four teams in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America preseason top 25 rankings, that will prepare them favorably for a late-season run for a MAC title.
“No game is bigger than the next,” Stafford said. “We're going to play great competition and we're really excited about that. What we really need to do is to learn from those games, and as long as we get what we need from those games, the results are almost secondary.
“For us it's about a good performance, it's about learning, and coming home healthy. If we can do that, we'll be well-prepared for the MAC, which will be super difficult with all the great competition we'll face there, too.”
Beginning with a neutral-field match against No. 20 West Virginia at Penn State on Friday, Aug. 24, the Chippewas have a three-and-a-half week stretch that includes No. 9 Penn State, preseason vote-earner Dayton, No. 16 Marquette, Texas State, No. 14 Texas A&M and Purdue. Check the schedule page for full details.
Facing the top teams in the country is nothing new for the Chippewas, who just last year defeated Wisconsin, Louisville and Pittsburgh, tied Michigan and narrowly lost to Kentucky.
The match-up against Marquette will the a rematch of the opening round of the 2010 NCAA Tournament, when the Chippewas lost a close 1-0 game to Marquette.
The Chippewas will open the MAC schedule at home against Kent State on Friday, Sept. 21. The schedule will feature trips to Western Michigan and Toledo, who figure to be among the top teams in the conference.
The Best Offense is a Good Defense
As has been customary of the Chippewas in recent seasons, a relentless defense will lie at the core of the team's success.
The 2011 Chippewas were nationally prominent at protecting their goal, allowing a miniscule 0.41 goals against average – the fourth-best mark among NCAA Division I squads.
In terms of goals allowed, the Maroon and Gold fielded the best defense in MAC history, permitting only seven regular-season goals. The mark bested the previous conference record by five goals.
The defense was even more potent at the CMU Soccer Complex, where the Chippewas allowed just one goal in eight contests. Success at home is nothing new to Central Michigan soccer, which has not lost a match in Mount Pleasant since 2008 for an overall record of 29-0-3.
The Chippewas will be without 2011 MAC Defensive Player of the Year Liesel Toth and defender Bethany Allport, both of whom finished their outstanding CMU careers in 2011. Taking over the reins as leaders of the defense will be senior defenders Bailey Brandon and Katie Slaughter, and senior goalkeeper Stefanie Turner.
Brandon is a three-time All-MAC selection and the 2009 MAC Freshman of the Year, and she has split time between the midfield and the defensive backfield, but was named first-team All-MAC as a defender in 2011. She has started 63 of 66 games since arriving in Mount Pleasant, and has been instrumental in the Chippewas' defensive success all the while. She is also tied for eighth place on the CMU all-time assists list with 11, and scored two goals in 2011. A standout defender on the field, Bailey is also a top-flight student, having earned Capital One/CoSIDA third-team Academic All-American and Academic All-MAC honors in 2011.
Turner enters her second season as the starter in goal for the Chippewas. She posted an 11-3-2 record in 17 games, with four shutouts and a .54 goals against average. She made 47 saves, and prevented 85.5 percent of the shots on goal against the Chippewas in her appearances from finding the back of the net. Like Brandon, Turner excels in the classroom and was named third-team Academic All-American and All-MAC.
Slaughter has also contributed heavily to the CMU defense since her enrollment in 2009. She started 19 of 21 games at defender in 2011, and was one of four to start all 22 matches in her sophomore 2010 season. During that season, the Chippewas led the league with 12 shutouts and posted a league-leading .52 goals against average. She tallied two assists during the 2011 season.
Juniors Estee Outcalt, who scored the second-most goals on the team in 2011 with three, and Meghan Caldwell will also figure prominently into the defensive success of the team in 2012 as upperclassmen. Sophomore goalkeeper Grace Labrecque, a MAC All-Freshman Team selection in 2011, will also be waiting in the wings to spell Turner. The Chippewas also have five freshmen who could see time in the defensive backfield.
Returning Veterans Boost Offense
The timely CMU offense combined with the defense in 2011 to produce a 28-9 goals scored to goals allowed ratio, which was the best in program history. Despite losing two of its top four point scorers from 2011 in forward Chelsi Abbott and midfielder Claire Horton, the Chippewa offense has the potential for improvement with the return to fitness of key veterans forward Laura Twidle and midfielder Autumn Hawkins, and the development and maturation of the younger players who stepped up in 2011 in their absences.
Twidle, now a senior, was limited to an assist in just six games in 2011 due to injury following a 2010 season in which she scored eight goals and assisted on two more for 18 points, and was named first-team All-MAC. In 2009 as a freshman she led the team with 16 points and seven goals to earn MAC All-Freshman team honors. She is currently eighth all-time at CMU in goals scored, and needs two to move into seventh place.
The scoring void left open by Twidle's absence was filled primarily from the midfield, as Hawkins and Ashley Mejilla, both of whom are seniors in 2012, combined for eight goals. Hawkins netted three in the first 12 games of the season before also succumbing to injury for the remainder of the season, and Mejilla led the team with five.
Through just 12 games Hawkins had already eclipsed her previous career-high in goals three times over, and had scored more points in her first 12 games of 2011 (seven) than in her first 31 of her career (five).
Mejilla scored three goals following Hawkins' injury, including one in the Kent State game in which Hawkins was injured. Mejilla was on the cusp of a breakout season, having scored five goals for the second consecutive season dating back to 2010. In total, 16 of her 30 shots were on goal for a .533 shots on goal percentage, the highest mark of any returning player who had 10 or more shots on goal in 2011. She also is the top returning player in terms of 2011 assists (three) and game winning goals (four).
Also figuring prominently into the midfield success will be junior Kaely Schlosser, who despite not scoring a goal in 2011, created offensive chances with a team-leading 40 shots and an assist. Junior Tory Kinniard and sophomore Emily Cooksey will also see time in the midfield for the Chippewas.
Junior forward Jennifer Gassman and sophomore forwards Laura Gosse and Morgan Wilcoxon also stepped up in Twidle's absence in 2011 with eight combined goals between the three. Gassman and Gosse each recorded three, while Wilcoxon scored two. The forward position is deep for the Chippewas with seniors Samantha Brenz and Charlese McLemore, and junior Nicole Samuel. Samuel scored four goals in her freshman 2010 season, and McLemore netted three in 2010, including the game-winner in the MAC Championship game against Western Michigan.
The Chippewas have six freshmen who could see time in the midfield, and one freshman forward.