Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Class of '10 helps bring program to new heights

September 21, 2009

Central Michigan defender Bethany Allport defends MSU sophomore forward Laura Heyboer during a Sept. 6 game at DeMartin Stadium at Old College Field. Heyboer, a top recruit for the MSU women’s soccer program, scored 21 goals last season.

Photo by Angeli Wright | The State News

For much of the past decade, the MSU women’s soccer team has been mired in the middle-to-bottom of the Big Ten Conference.

Before last season’s fourth place finish — tying the program’s best finish since 2000 — the Spartans were coming off two seasons which they would rather have erased from the record books. In 2006, MSU finished 8-9-1 overall and 4-6 in the conference, good for ninth place. A year later, the Spartans had one of their worst Big Ten seasons ever, finishing in last place with a 1-8-1 record.

Those two seasons quickly were forgotten in 2008, however, when the Spartans went 14-7-3 overall and finished fourth in the conference, advancing to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Because of that success, the MSU women’s soccer team — currently unbeaten at 6-0-2 and ranked No. 13 in the country by topdrawersoccer.com — was the preseason pick to finish second in the conference in 2009, behind perennial powerhouse Penn State.

For senior midfielder Lauren Sinacola and senior forward Lauren Hill — sophomore standouts during the difficult 2007 season — the difference in the state of the MSU women’s soccer program between then and now is substantial.

“Especially starting off together our freshman year, just looking back and seeing the difference — the intensity is higher, the competitive drive is there,” said Sinacola, a First-Team All-Big Ten selection a year ago. “We’ll all go in hard for a tackle and we’ll leave it on the field. I think that’s what’s really given our team (an edge). We’ve grown as a team and we’re more competitive, and I think it’ll really show as we go on this year.”

Tom Saxton has been the women’s soccer head coach at MSU since 1991, and served as an assistant coach for two years before that. He said the main difference between his team’s play the past two seasons and in past years is the quality of recruits the program has been able to attract.

That progress started with this year’s senior class — highlighted by Hill, Sinacola and midfielder Megan Brown — and has snowballed the past three years as the Spartans have picked up headlining recruits. The majority of those players have come from in-state, an area Saxton said is pivotal for MSU to dominate if they want to contend nationally.

“The state of Michigan has outstanding girls’ soccer — some of the best in the country — and every year we have to get two or three of the best players in Michigan, as well as other ones from around the Midwest,” Saxton said. “A few years ago when maybe we had some down classes, the University of Michigan was getting those two or three best players and we reversed that trend a few years ago. We’ve still been getting them and I think that’s built the quality of our roster up, quite honestly.”

Robert Ziegler, the managing editor of topdrawersoccer.com, agreed with Saxton’s assessment of the quality of players in the state, also saying it was vital for both MSU and U-M to secure top in-state players if they wanted to compete. He said although U-M — under second-year coach Greg Ryan — is trying to branch its program to different areas across the country, Saxton and the Spartans have spent the past few years focusing on in-state players, which shows in their improved record.

Ziegler said none of those recruits was more important than current sophomore forward Laura Heyboer, who broke out with 21 goals in her freshman season to garner All-American honors.

“In soccer more so (than football), I think the right player could really make a difference immediately,” Ziegler said of Heyboer’s first year. “When she decided to go there and they had that huge jump — I’m not saying she did it by herself — but the program looks a lot more attractive. These recruits aren’t looking at a losing program anymore, but one that could be challenging for national accolades.”

Ziegler said Heyboer’s commitment and freshman season immediately impacted the women’s soccer program in recruiting, as well. This season’s freshman class consists of such standouts as forward Olivia Stander, midfielder Chelsea Peterson, defender/midfielder Kelsey Kassab and midfielder Jordan Mueller — whom Ziegler labeled as, “quite good players — very good players who were very influential players for their club team.”

For the class of 2010, the Spartans have three commitments, all from Michigan — including defender Annie Steinlage, the No. 1 ranked player in the Great Lakes region and the sister of men’s soccer junior goalkeeper Avery Steinlage.

But in a team game such as soccer, can one player really make that big of a difference on the state of a program as a whole?

Ziegler said Heyboer is a player who can, and the MSU women’s soccer program is in shape to continue building upon its recent success.

“(She’s) making a huge difference for that group,” Ziegler said. “I don’t think a lot of the other players are interested in coming if she doesn’t have the impact that she had last year. If you play at a pretty high level you want to feel like you have a chance to contend regionally and in conference, and they’re way beyond that point and are definitely in contention on a national scale.”

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