Aug. 25, 2005
Coming off one of Ohio State's best seasons in the 52-year history of the program, the Buckeyes return many of the components that went into building last year's NCAA Sweet 16 squad and Big Ten regular season co-champion. However, duplicating its 2004 campaign is not the goal for Ohio State in 2005 - improving on it is.
Answers are more plentiful than questions as ninth-year head coach John Bluem, the 2004 Big Ten Coach of the Year, enters the fall with 17 returning letterwinners and nine starters back from a team that went 12-7-2, tied eventual national champion Indiana for the Big Ten regular season title and won the school's first two NCAA tournament games.
The departure of four seniors, all four-year starters, from last season generates the questions, however, with the biggest one being how the Buckeyes will fill the void left by forward Justin Cook, the 2004 Big Ten Player of the Year and a third-team All-American. While the Buckeyes return four-fifths of their Big Ten leading defense and a surplus of talent and depth in the midfield, Bluem knows he must replace Cook.
"We are going to be extremely strong defensively and we're so deep in the center of our midfield, but we need someone to put the ball in the back of the net for us to be successful," Bluem said. "Last year we had a good postseason run and played very well at the end of the season and had a great All-American scoring goals for us and leading us. People need to step up and take that role and take that responsibility."
Bluem, who became Ohio State's all-time wins leader last season, must also replace his back left defender, Eric Schwebach, and his two starting flank midfield players, Peter Withers on the left and Sammy Tamporello on the right. First-team All-Big Ten defender Kyle Veris, second-team goalkeeper Ray Burse Jr. and second-team midfielder Taylor Korpieski are all back among a talented and experienced group of veterans that will line up alongside a heralded recruiting class that is ranked No. 14 in the country.
The Buckeyes return one of the Big Ten's best goalkeepers, senior Ray Burse Jr., who posted a 0.87 goals-against average and six shutouts last season on his way to earning second-team All-Big Ten honors. Backing him up is a talented sophomore, Casey Latchem, who started seven games and had a 1.64 GAA a year ago.
Annually one of the Big Ten's best defensive units, the 2004 Buckeyes were no exception, allowing only two goals in the Big Ten regular season. Prior to a season-ending loss at Duke in the Sweet 16, Ohio State had allowed only four goals in its previous 12 matches.
The loss of Eric Schwebach on the left side was the lone departure from the back, while returning starters in the middle include Veris and junior Dustin Kirby, while junior Jim Fisher returns on the right side. Kirby and Fisher rarely came off the field last year as sophomores, ranking first and fourth, respectively, on the team in minutes played. Returners include senior Reid Traeger and sophomore Ben Oliver, while newcomers include sophomore transfer Eric Brunner, who helped lead Maryland to the College Cup last season, and freshmen Tim Gabel and Geoff Marsh.
In the midfield lies depth and versatility, which Ohio State will need in order to fill the shoes of the departed Peter Withers and Sammy Tamporello, who occupied the flank positions the last four years.
"We are not at a lack of people to play in our midfield, but the question mark there is on the outside," Bluem said. "But we think with Ryan Kustos on the right side and Kyle Retzlaff, Scott Marguglio, Eric Brunner and even Taylor Korpieski, on the left side, we'll have a lot of choices."
Kustos was Tamporello's chief backup last year and came through with five goals, including the game-winner in the second-round win at No. 9 Notre Dame, and an assist in limited playing time.
No doubt Ohio State opponents have been waiting for the day when they do not have to defend against the likes of Justin Cook. The Chicago Fire draftee left Ohio State with 33 goals scored and 17 assists in his career and became the first player in Big Ten history to earn the conference's freshman of the year award and later be named the player of the year.
"Kevin is a natural goal-scorer and scored the tough goals to lead his club team, Team Dayton, to the national championship," Bluem said. "We need Kevin, Xavier, David Bauer and Eric Edwards to score goals and do all the other little things, too, the defending and the play-making."
The confidence gained from a successful season naturally spills over into the anticipation of the next, but Bluem has already singled out his first task to address when the Buckeyes report for preseason camp.
"We have to remember that we were 12-7-2 last year, not 17-3-1," Bluem said. "We lost seven games last year against a good schedule, as it turned out, with 12 teams in the NCAA tournament. We went 6-6 against those 12 teams, so we need to be better than that. That's the challenge before the players. We just had a good year. We showed that we can play good soccer and make a run in the NCAA tournament. Now are we going to be able to reproduce the same kind of effort?"