By Justin Woods, For The Miami Student
With a blend of experience, depth and 11 fresh faces, the Miami University women's soccer team is well equipped to keep things rolling along in 2014.
The RedHawks have claimed the Mid-American Conference East Division title two years running and return 11 letterwinners, including 8 starters, from last year's squad. Toss in a talented group of newcomers, and head coach Bobby Kramig has reason to be optimistic.
"Certainly we're deeper this year than we have been in a number of years," Kramig said. "The freshmen are doing great. Our older kids have done a great job pulling them in and teaching them about what it means to be a part of this team."
Miami was picked to finish second in the Mid-American Conference East in Coaches' Preseason Poll, behind only Kent State University.
Among the host of returning starters is the entire defensive line, which proved stout last season en route to 12 shutout performances in 21 games. Senior defender and team captain Courtney Zanotti expects the defense to be strong again this season.
"It looks good. Everybody from forward to the back line has been working hard on their defense," Zanotti said. "It's not just a matter of the back four - our whole team defense is looking good."
Miami was hampered last season by a slow start, losing six of its first nine games. While avoiding a similar early struggle this season is key, Kramig is excited for the challenges awaiting his team in non-conference play.
"You can't be afraid to test yourself. You can't be afraid to push the limits a little bit - that's how you get better," he said. "This year we've got Purdue, Butler, Northwestern and Louisville to start. We have a lot of good teams to play, but our kids are ready for it."
Though past success and an influential group of veterans naturally set expectations high, Kramig doesn't believe anything will come easy this season.
"The MAC is crazy competitive right now," Kramig said. "There's an awful lot of teams that can win the league this year, and I think we're one of them. A lot of it's going to depend on consistency. You have to show up every day."
Zanotti understands taking care of business in the MAC is the first step, but she also hopes for a taste of the NCAAs, one she remembers from two years ago.
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"Hopefully we can advance into the NCAAs," Zanotti said. "We were able to do that my sophomore year. We want to keep going and push past that."
Pre-season preparations took a creative turn last week. The RedHawks took a few days off to go whitewater rafting and camping.
"It was awesome team bonding time," Zanotti said. "Being terrified on a raft in the water helps you get to know your teammates. You start to rely on each other and work together."
Kramig thinks the trip will serve the RedHawks well down the road.
"It's important that the kids spend time with each other away from soccer," Kramig said. "It tests them physically and mentally in a completely different environment. Cell phones don't work in a gorge, which is a great thing because they had to talk to each other."
The RedHawks notched a 1-0 victory against Radford in an exhibition game last week and wrapped up exhibition play Sunday afternoon, drawing 1-1 against Northern Kentucky.
Miami opens regular season play this weekend at the Boilermaker Challenge Cup in West Lafayette, Indiana. The 'Hawks will face Purdue Friday and Butler Sunday.