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Strong start may not guarantee success for women's soccer

September 1, 2014
<p>Junior midfielder Kirsten Evans and Eastern Michigan defender Chanel Vani fight for possession of the ball on Aug. 29, 2014, at DeMartin Stadium at Old College Field. The Spartans defeated the Eagles, 3-0. Aerika Williams/The State News</p>

Junior midfielder Kirsten Evans and Eastern Michigan defender Chanel Vani fight for possession of the ball on Aug. 29, 2014, at DeMartin Stadium at Old College Field. The Spartans defeated the Eagles, 3-0. Aerika Williams/The State News

The women’s soccer team has gotten off to a strong 3-0 start, remaining undefeated after last Friday’s win over Eastern Michigan.

With three wins over very difficult teams, MSU has jumped out to encouraging results. Early season success has not been uncommon in recent years, however. Head Coach Tom Saxton has had the team well-prepared for early season competition, but a trend has emerged over the last two years.

In 2013, MSU jumped out to a fiery start and went 6-0-2 in non-conference games. They rolled into Big Ten play but struggled mightily, dropping eight of the eleven conference games and ending the season with a 9-8-2 overall record.

The 2012 season featured much of the same, as the team started 6-1-1 in the non-conference schedule, before losing eight of the eleven conference games. MSU finished 2012 with a 8-9-2 overall record.

This early season success is understandable. From 2012-14, including the two games this year, the Spartans have played one ranked team in non-conference games. The intention of these games is to prepare the team for a rigorous Big Ten schedule, and to expose any weaknesses that must be addressed.

“We really want to gain confidence in these games. They’re tough games to prepare us for the Big Ten,” Saxton said of the non-conference calendar.

Entering Big Ten play has been a problem the past two years. Playing in a very difficult conference, MSU competes with some of the best teams in the nation. This year, the Big Ten currently features three highly ranked teams, with No. 8 Penn State, No. 10 Michigan, and No. 19 Wisconsin holding spots on the NSCAA/adidas College Soccer Women’s Top 25 Poll.

Penn State has been a force in the conference for years and has won 15 of the last 16 Big Ten women’s soccer titles. The Nittany Lions have also made 19 straight NCAA Tournament appearances.

There are clear obstacles in the Spartans quest for Big Ten success. Injuries are always a factor, and, last year, the Spartans were derailed by them.

“Hopefully, we can try to stay healthier. We were hurt by untimely injuries, but we should be much deeper this year,” Saxton said of the team’s health struggles last year.

MSU’s three games so far have shown flashes of what is needed to get through the challenges that lie ahead with new freshmen faces emerging and experienced upperclassmen taking over.

Freshman forward Jamie Cheslik, junior forward Allyson Krause, redshirt junior defender Rachel Van Poppelen, and redshirt senior goalkeeper Courtney Clem had huge impacts in the first three games. Cheslik scored twice and added an assist, Krause scored once and assisted three goals, Van Poppelen scored twice, and Clem recorded 22 saves and posted two shutouts.

Although three non-conference games is a small sample size to work with, it appears as though MSU is progressing smoothly and is working to avoid further Big Ten struggles. MSU’s season-opening 3-1 victory over San Diego State looks even better, after SDSU defeated No. 10 U-M on Sunday.

A winning foundation is being built, and if the impact players can keep up their level of play, MSU can find its stride going into the conference schedule.

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