Aug. 20, 2009
After a 2008 season that saw the Spartans record their most wins and score their most goals since 1991, expectations are even higher entering 2009. With the return of 10 starters, coach Tom Saxton and Spartans are eager to begin the ’09 campaign.
“I think we are excited and rearing to go, and the focus from the veterans is as good as I’ve ever seen it,” said Saxton. “It’s certainly attributable to last year’s success and a hunger to go to a higher level.”
MSU got off to its best start in school history last season, winning its first eight games by outscoring its opponents by an astounding 27-3 margin. The Spartans went on to win 14 games which was good for second-most in school history and the most since Big Ten women’s soccer began in 1994.
MSU also earned its third bid to the NCAA Tournament in school history where it advanced to the second round before falling to then-undefeated Notre Dame, 1-0, in South Bend, Ind.
“I think we recognized that we could compete with one of the elite programs in women’s soccer and so that was a huge boost for our confidence,” said Saxton. “At the same time, we did it with a fairly young team so we just have to keep building.”
While the Spartans got contributions from nearly every player on the roster in 2008, their success was due in large part to the breakout season by Laura Heyboer. Heyboer led the conference in scoring and became the first freshman in league history to win Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors.
After finishing the season tied for third in the nation in goals with 21 and fifth in the nation in points with 51, she became the first player in MSU history to garner NSCAA/adidas All-America honors as well as being named SoccerBuzz.com National Freshman of the Year. Heyboer spent part of this past offseason with the U.S. Under-23 National Team in England.
“We were really excited she got to have the experience she did the U.S. U-23 Team this summer and weren’t surprised that she scored a goal in just her second game in international competition,” Saxton said. “She remains a tremendous and humble young person off the field and right now she is playing with an extra edge and confidence that can take her game to the next level.”
The Spartans’ offensive prowess won’t be reliant on Heyboer alone as Lauren Hill, the Big Ten’s second-leading scorer with 12 goals and 33 points in ‘08, returns for her senior season. Hill had four multi-goal games last season and led the Green and White with five game-winning goals. Her offensive abilities as well as her strong leadership will be needed for MSU to make another run this season.
“Lauren has become more of a thinking player and already I’ve noticed that through a few practices,” said Saxton. “That is going to more positive for our offense.”
Another senior that will be just as valuable to the Spartans’ success is senior midfielder Lauren Sinacola. The 2008 All-Big Ten First Team selection led the league in assists and controlled the midfield for the Spartans. Again, she is another senior whose leadership will be as important as her playmaking abilities.
“She is the playmaker,” said Saxton. “Lauren also has a deeper understanding of where she can go on the field to get the ball for us and start our attack. Her passing ability is unbelievable.”
Junior Cara Freeman, who has started all 53 games in her career, is another one of MSU’s returning offensive threats. A second-team All-Big Ten selection, she finished last season third on the team in goals (8) and points (20) and proved to be one of MSU’s most versatile players by making a move to the midfield halfway through the season.
“Cara gives us a great offensive mentality as a converted forward and she is just an unbelievable player in the air,” Saxton said.
Fellow junior Kelsey Tait made 22 starts in the midfield last season and Saxton expects her to help Sinacola and Hannah Peterson anchor the midfield in 2009.
While MSU boasts perhaps the best offense in the league, it does so without sacrificing much – if anything – on defense. Sophomore Katie Chaklos, junior Courtney Shegos and senior Megan Brown each started every game last season and helped the Spartan defense allow just 20 goals which was third-best in the league.
“I like the intelligence we have on the backline,” said Saxton. “Everyone is so good on their reads and cues. Courtney and Megan are both very, very smart and Sam Cook is very good in the air. We’ll encourage Katie Chaklos to have that attacking presence coming out of the back as well.”
Sophomore goalkeeper Jill Flietstra started the final six games of 2008, preparing her for the role of full-time starter this season. Flietstra finished ’08 with an impressive 0.72 GAA, allowing just five goals in nearly 630 minutes of action.
“I’m looking for Jill to make a statement in her sophomore season,” Saxton said. “With making the switch late last season, I think she kind of came in under the radar. What I think is most important for her is to exude confidence and presence back there because that makes everyone that much more comfortable on the field.”
MSU will open the 2009 campaign with five of its first six games at DeMartin Stadium, including the season opener on Aug. 26 against Oakland.
“I think we have a very good home schedule again,” said Saxton. “We are hoping to get a nice fan base developed early in the year when the weather is nice. We have some good regional rivalries and will certainly be tested by some of the tough MAC teams.”
The Spartans will face all 10 Big Ten opponents this season and open the conference portion of their schedule on Sept. 27 against perennial Big Ten power Penn State.
“The Big Ten schedule will make or break our season,” said Saxton. “The conference opener against Penn State will be critical to get off to a good start.”