EAST LANSING, Michigan - The Michigan State women's soccer team will open the 2014 campaign with a pair of games this weekend in California. MSU will take on San Diego State on Friday and then Cal State Fullerton on Sunday.
Prior to heading west, head coach Tom Saxton provided insight on the 2014 Spartans. After a 2013 season that saw many of the team's top players fall victim to injury, the Spartans are beginning to regain health and are looking forward to a fresh start with many key returning players and several talented newcomers.
The Spartans return eight players who have spent time playing up front at some point in their careers. When factoring in the impact freshman, the position may be the strongest and deepest it has been in quite some time. Leading point scorer from a year ago, junior Allyson Krause, will lead the group along with fourth-year players Paige Wester, Lisa Vogel and Rachel Van Poppelen. With an outstanding preseason, true freshman Jamie Cheslik has pushed her way into the lineup and is scheduled to make her first career start Friday. Fellow newcomer and Okemos high school alum Kristelle Yewah has also turned heads during training camp with her strength and athleticism. Yewah adds a new dimension to the Spartan attack, and like Cheslik, will have the opportunity to contribute immediately.
Saxton on the forwards:
"We've got a veteran group of attackers that have been plagued by various injuries. When everyone's healthy this will be a very good group. We have some exciting new impact incomers that have already made their case for early playing time."
With injuries providing question marks in the midfield, the coaching staff has shuffled players within the lineup since training began for this season. Freshman Morgan McKerchie has committed herself to being a full-time midfielder after coming in as a forward. The Flint Powers standout will serve as the holding-midfielder next to junior Sarah Kovan, who has been a two-year fixture in the defensive midfield. Senior Megan Marsack has also solidified her role in the midfield after spending the summer working on her defensive consistency. Sophomores Kelli Timar and Kaylee Phillips along with junior Kirsten Evans, are also all returning contributors from a year ago.
Saxton on the midfield:
"Midfield is an area that we came out of the spring with the most open mind about. Once again we have been affected by injury here, but we have capable players of stepping up into new roles. We also have many returning players that we hope can take another step forward in their development this season."
The Spartans return Second-Team All-Big Ten center-back Mary Kathryn Fiebernitz. The junior is a strong team leader and considered to be the heart and soul of this Michigan State team. Fiebernitz is not only a stout defender but a weapon on set plays, evidenced by her team-high six goals in 2013. To Fiebernitz's right will be senior Nicole Caruso, who has started nearly every game since 2012. Caruso has made the switch from left-back to right-back and will be relied upon to push the attack from her side of the pitch. Rounding out the defense will be Jessica Kjellstrom, who is nearly fully-recovered from offseason knee surgery. Kjellstrom started 18 of 19 games last season for the Spartans as a true freshman. Sophomore Marisa Oleksiak and junior Alex Gjonaj have been combining for playing time at the left-back position. The two have seen extensive game action early in their careers and both offer a powerful left foot. Junior Shauna Stadelmaier and sophomore Kaitlin Johnson provide the Spartans with reliable depth on the back-line, and have come up big when called upon to come in late during games last season.
Saxton on the defense:
"This group features some of the most experienced and skilled players on our team but needs to come together as a unit. There is the expectation that Mary Kathryn [Fiebernitz] will continue to lead this team and provide great defending while also utilizing her offensive skills. We expect an attacking style of play out of our defenders and we think we have the right personnel in our lineup to do that."
Fifth-year keeper Courtney Clem and redshirt junior Gabrielle Gauruder provides the Spartans a solid goalkeeping tandem. Clem, who has been named team captain, has played in 34 games for the Spartans thus far in her career. Gauruder appeared in 10 games last season, posting a 1.13 GAA.
Saxton on the goalkeeping:
"Last year goaltending was an area in which we needed to grow in. It appears that we have done just that with both Courtney Clem and Gabrielle Gauruder playing the best they have in their careers. Both have given the coaching staff confidence and comfort moving forward at that position."
Spartans travel to the Golden State
The team will depart Thursday for a two-game road trip this weekend in California to take on San Diego State Friday at 10 p.m. EST, and Cal State Fullerton Sunday at 7 p.m. EST. Both San Diego State and Cal State Fullerton are the preseason favorites to win their respective conferences. With many new starters at different positions, Saxton says he's looking forward to seeing what his team can do against two very skilled opponents.
"We're looking to see if we have what it takes to put all the pieces together," Saxton said. "It's tough to tell in practice or in exhibition play whether a team is really clicking or not. You just can't match the speed or physicality of a regular season game."
The Spartans played San Diego State to a tough 1-1 draw last year in East Lansing, and are looking to improve on that result this year.
"San Diego State is a very fast team and can move the ball quickly," Saxton said. "We need to keep pace with them early and stay in the game. If we do that we have the offensive weapons to get results."
Michigan State will take on a Cal State Fullerton team Sunday that returns several players from a team that won the Big West tournament championship and advanced to the NCAA tournament in 2013.
"We have an opportunity to really make a statement if we get some results in these games this weekend," Saxton said. "Our team is looking forward to the challenge."