Deep, talented soccer squad faces heightened expectationsAugust 25, 2005 · MT Media Relations
The Blue Raiders are 25-11-4 over the past two seasons, and are coming off a season in which they not only won the Sun Belt Conference championship, the first conference title in the school's soccer history, but also set a school record for wins in a single season with 13. But the outlook for this season depends greatly on how well a host of newcomers mesh with some talented veterans.
Middle Tennessee welcomes 10 newcomers in 2005, and several of them enter fall camp expecting to make a move on the depth chart. Whether they are able to step in and contribute immediately could make a big difference in the team's success. It's a class rated number 1 in the Sun Belt and among the top 55 nationally by SoccerBuzz.com, and it's a deep and talented group that fills many of Rhoden's needs.
While the Blue Raider newcomers have great credentials, the backbone of the Middle Tennessee team remains its veterans, and Rhoden returns several proven players as the team attempts to defend its conference title. Two-time All-Sun Belt performer Claire Ward is one of three seniors who will be counted on for leadership. Classmates Danielle Perreault and Melissa Wellman join the 2003 SBC Newcomer of the Year as the trio of seniors. Rachel Holmes is a junior in eligibility but the consistent and steady contributor will be entering her final season as a Blue Raider; as she will graduate in December and pursue a law degree.
Jenna Capitena, Katy Rayburn, Rebecca Rodriguez, and Sara Wohlhueter are returning juniors who have seen a wealth of playing time in the previous three seasons, while Kaley Forrest and Holly Grogan had breakout rookie seasons and look to be even greater contributors this season.
Middle Tennessee will have to replace a tremendous amount of its firepower from a season ago: some of the most prolific and talented players ever to wear the Blue Raider uniform had their eligibility expire. Gone are Laura Miguez and Danielle LaDuke, the top two scorers in program history. Miguez graduated as the all-time leader in goals, assists and points. Debs Brereton, who became the first player in Blue Raider soccer history to earn Player of the Year honors, had the greatest single season of any Blue Raider in history on her way to shattering the single-season mark for goals (19) and points (47).
All told, Rhoden must replace more than 50 percent of the team's offensive production from a season ago, and his team will have to do it against one of the most daunting schedules in school history. Middle Tennessee plays Georgia, Clemson, and Vanderbilt this season, as well as Missouri Valley foe Evansville, Memphis of Conference USA, and 2004 NCAA Tournament participant Birmingham Southern. Following is a position-by-position breakdown of the players who head into the season looking to overcome all the challenges:
Rodriguez, Holmes, and Grogan all return at the forward position for the Blue Raiders. Newcomer Kala Morgan is expected to have an immediate impact and will add some diversity to an already potent and experienced attack.
"Kala is a very skillful and tricky player who can unlock defenses with her dribbling and passing abilities. She is a consistent goal scorer and deadly on set pieces," Rhoden said.
Juniors Rodriguez and Holmes look to lead the Blue Raider offense this season. Rodriguez had a significant impact on the team's success last season despite playing injured for the majority of the time. The diminutive but crafty forward has the ability to terrorize defenders with her skills and well-timed runs in and around the box. Holmes played extremely well last season and will look to dazzle defenders with her dribbling skills and services in the box.
Grogan scored the most goals of last year's freshman class and looks to continue her scoring punch this year.
"Our attack will be more balanced than that of last year. Each of our forwards brings something different to our attack. The versatility of this group will provide us with greater attacking flexibility," Rhoden said.
The Blue Raiders' midfield will be very strong this season and boast a wealth of talent and experience. Seniors Ward and Wellman look to lead the squad in midfield this year and will be joined by freshman sensation Katie Daley and sophomore standout Kaley Forrest.
Wellman is now more focused than ever and played well throughout the spring. Ward, a Scottish International and All-Sun Belt Conference selection, had a great spring season and is now fully acclimatized. Her leadership and creativity in midfield will be an asset to this year's team.
Forrest had an outstanding freshman year and played in all games last year, scoring key goals against Western Kentucky and Tennessee Tech. Rhoden also expects freshman Katie Daley to make an immediate impact. "Her experience at the national team level will be an asset for our program. Her versatility will make us a much better and less predictable team," Rhoden said. "We have a strong mixture of personalities in central midfield. This group will consist of a few defensive-minded players and several extremely creative players. We will be able to play several different systems because of this group's versatility."
The outside midfield position will see several persons vying for playing time. Freshman Australian International Nenita Burgess and Franklin native Jordan LeFan will battle for playing time.
"Capitena saw time as a defender for the last two seasons but really impressed as a wide midfielder during the spring," Rhoden said. "Her accurate and well-timed crosses will be an asset to a front line that will be talented in the air. LeFan becomes the fourth Franklin High School player now playing for the Blue Raiders. She brings good awareness and versatility to the outside midfield position. Burgess is the most versatile of the group, having played outside mid and outside defender at a very high level. Her experience and leadership at both the club and national level will be an asset to our team."
Holmes and Grogan will also double as outside midfielders and will challenge this group for playing time.
"The outside midfield position is much like that of last year but much more talented and versatile," Rhoden said. "This year's group has both speed and skill. The versatility of this group will allow us to play several different systems and as such make us a less predictable team."
The Blue Raiders return several key defenders from last season's team, which set a school record for consecutive shutouts.
Rayburn and Wohlhueter lead the way for the defensive unit this season. Rayburn had a stellar spring season and Wohlhueter is looking forward to a great season having missed the spring with an injury. A great recruiting class including Norwegian International Ingrid Christensen, Ohio natives Elise Hutter and Lauren Fox, and McKinney High School's top defender Caitlin Reeves, will join Rayburn and Wohlhueter at the defender position.
"Hutter is an attacking defender and can play several different positions. Fox is a more tenacious and hard-nosd defender with excellent passing range," Rhoden said. "Reeves is strong in the air and loves to go forward. Christensen reads the game extremely well and is very solid on and off the ball and is a very versatile defender.
"We now have depth in our defense. Several of our young players have grown more confident and will now be solid contributors to the team. This group is more flexible than that of last year's team and has a much better understanding of defensive schemes."
The Goalkeeper position will most likely be the most competitive position on the Blue Raider squad this year. Perreault will compete for playing time with freshmen Courtney Fortner and Brittany Buford.
Perreault missed most of last season and the spring with a dislocated shoulder and is once again ready to prove she is the Blue Raider's number one choice in goal. Freshmen Courtney Fortner and Brittany Buford are both coming off strong club and high school seasons and are both ready to step into the number one position.The keeper position will be one of the biggest battles in preseason camp, with the competition most likely continuing into the early part of the season before Rhoden settles on a starter.
"Last year we only had two keepers and with Danielle hurt we took a risk every time we stepped on the field with one keeper," Rhoden said. "It's great to finally have depth at this position. With three very solid keepers we should see increased competition for playing time. The position is wide open and a good showing in preseason by any keeper will earn her early playing time and a possible starting position."
The 2005 schedule will prove to be even tougher than previous years. With a tough Sun Belt Conference schedule and an extremely competitive nonconference schedule, the Blue Raiders will be tested in every match this season. The Blue Raiders' nonconference games include in-state rivals Vanderbilt and Memphis, as well as ACC powerhouse Clemson and SEC opponent the University of Georgia. Other top nonconference games include NCAA participant Birmingham Southern College, Evansville University, East Tennessee, Belmont, Lipscomb, and Alabama A&M. The Blue Raiders also play Sun Belt powers Denver, North Texas, and Florida International at Blue Raider Field.
"We had a strong showing in the Sun Belt Conference during the 2004 season but should have done much better," Rhoden said. "Our team goals are much higher this year. If we are going to be successful in the Sun Belt conference and the Central Region, we will need to consistently play tough opponents. Our 2005 schedule is very ambitious but I'm confident our players will rise to the challenge."
With a strong returning class and a top-ranked recruiting class, the Blue Raiders will strive to remain at the top of the Sun Belt Conference this season. The 2005 team will have much better depth than any of the previous teams and will be more versatile. The team's success will rely largely on how quickly new players can adjust to the speed and physical nature of the collegiate game. It will also depend largely on the team's ability to finish scoring chances. As with all previous teams under Rhoden, the Blue Raiders will play an attacking style of soccer and will be very exciting to watch.
"I'm very excited about the prospects of the upcoming season because of the hard work our players put forth in the off-season," Rhoden said. "We had a very good spring and we not only enjoyed some success but also improved both individually and as a team. I believe those attributes, combined with a talented recruiting class, will give us an opportunity to compete at a high level in the Sun Belt."
Follow the Blue Raiders on Twitter @MTAthletics for continued updates.
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