Aug. 29, 2007
When Ohio State head coach John Bluem says he sees an inner strength in his 2007 Buckeyes, he is not just talking about the resolve of his team to again challenge for a Big Ten title and erase the memories of being denied what would have been a third-consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament.
Bluem, who is Ohio State's all-time winningest coach, is also referring to the fact that of Ohio State's seven returning starters, one is in goal, two are in the central defense, one is in the central midfield and two are center forwards. Combine those six with a returning flank midfield starter, the Buckeyes will be strong up the middle as they seek to replace six seniors from last season.
Overall, Ohio State has 13 letterwinners back from its 2006 team that went 11-7-3, played in the Big Ten championship game and finished with a final RPI of No. 28, but was surprisingly not selected for the NCAA Tournament. It would have marked the first time the Buckeyes went to the big dance three years in a row, that coming after a Sweet 16 appearance in 2004 and a first-round exit at Santa Clara in 2005.
"All of our returning players have discussed that not being selected for the NCAA Tournament last year did not sit well," Bluem said. "We definitely want to return to the NCAA Tournament and to the Big Ten championship game. We return enough of our key players that we will be strong enough to compete for a Big Ten title."
Among the veterans is a pair of first-team All-Big Ten selections in senior central defender Eric Brunner, who is on the Hermann Trophy watch list, and senior forward Xavier Balc. Those two and senior goalkeeper Casey Latchem comprise Ohio State's tri-captain group for 2007.
Also back are junior midfielders Danny Irizarry and Geoff March. Add in two more returning starters, including junior Tim Gabel in the central defense and senior Ryan Kustos at forward and it is easy to see why Bluem is very optimistic about his 11th season with the Buckeyes.
Midfield was hit the hardest by graduation with four departures. Gone are four-year starters Taylor Korpieski and Brent Rohrer, as well as Rob Strachan and Antonio Garcia. Two defenders also graduated, including Jim Fisher at right back and Dustin Kirby in the middle who was selected by Real Salt Lake last January.
Those six seniors helped the Buckeyes to win totals of 12, 11 and 11 the last three years, leading Ohio State to the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten Championship in each of those seasons. The returning players and 10 newcomers begin the season with the Wolstein Classic in Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium.
A group of four goalkeepers will patrol the pipes for the Buckeyes in 2007. After playing behind third-round MLS draft pick Ray Burse Jr. for two years, Latchem had a terrific first year as a starter in 2006 when he played every minute in goal and collected seven shutouts and a 0.91 goals-allowed average.
"Casey has proven to be a very solid, technical goalkeeper," Bluem said. "We feel very safe with him behind our team. He is a good leader and we look for him to take on more leadership this year."
Backing Latchem up will be sophomore Byron Neal, redshirt freshman Corey March and true freshman Ryan Dalton.
Of Ohio State's seven MLS draft picks since 2003, the fact that three were defenders and one was a goalkeeper shows that the Buckeyes are used to being strong in the back. That trend will continue in 2007 thanks to Latchem and two tall, strong central defenders in Brunner and Gabel.
"As has become a tradition here for the last few years, we will again have a very strong defense this season," Bluem said. "Having Eric Brunner and Tim Gabel on the inside give us a combination of central defenders that I would put up against any two in the country."
Other holdovers include junior Patrick Roan, sophomores Doug Verhoff and Kyle West and redshirt freshman Adam Tenhundfeld. That group will be joined by freshman Paul Zagorski.
IN THE MIDFIELD
The Buckeyes have more depth in the midfield than any other position, and they will need it as they search for two new starters. Back are Irizarry and Marsh, two talented athletes who will step into leadership roles, while three reserve midfielders are back and are joined by seven freshmen.
"We were hit hard in the midfield by graduation," Bluem said. "Overall we may lack a little experience in the midfield, but not depth. We are very solid with Danny Irizarry and Geoff Marsh, so we just need the others and some of the six freshmen to help."
Irizarry, who is a natural central midfielder but has played on the flank, was the team's second-leading scorer last season with two goals and two assists. Marsh has played in all but one game in his career and owns five and three assists. Competing for the two open starting positions are seniors Kyle Retzlaff and Steven Traeger, junior Scott Marguglio and six freshmen.
All four forwards return this season for the Buckeyes from 2006. That group, which includes Balc, fellow seniors Ryan Kustos and Eric Edwards and sophomore Andrew Magill, combined to score 12 goals and dish out 13 assists last year, with six of those goals and seven of the assists coming from Balc.
"Those guys were our first, second, eighth and 10th leading scorers," Bluem said. "We all know what Xavier can do and we'll have a good year if he can equal that and get the others to contribute a couple goals."
Balc is already Ohio State's all-time leader in assists with 21 and owns 15 goals. Kustos owns nine career goals and six assists, while Edwards owns two career goals. Magill had two assists and will compete for playing time with freshman Nowa Thiam.