SEASON PREVIEW: Women’s soccer becoming owners in Pelaez’s system

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Marquette women’s soccer celebrates after a goal in 4-3 victory over Central Michigan Aug. 26. (Photo courtesy of Marquette Athletics.)

Marquette women’s soccer’s 2021 6-4 season marked another season that the Golden Eagles missed out on the BIG EAST Tournament. 

However, it was a season that ended on a high note within the program itself.

“Last year was really cool for our team because it was the first time we came together,” redshirt sophomore defender Bonnie Lacey said. “Despite other teams in the BIG EAST underestimating us, we did some pretty cool things against a lot of different odds. That led us to believing in ourselves and I think that’s translating into this season.”

In his first season at the helm of the program, head coach Frank Pelaez led MU to its first winning season since 2017. 

Pelaez said this milestone brought the team’s upperclassman to a cry in their final huddle of the season. 

“That’s when they pulled on my emotional heartstrings,” Pelaez said. “That was a big turning point there. They wanted a winning season more than I do and if that happens, good things are going to happen.” 

Due to the NCAA granting athletes an extra year of eligibility because of COVID-19, the team returns 24 members of last year’s team, including nine starters. 

“Having experience is super helpful,” graduate student and forward Kylie Sprecher said. “One big thing I have noticed this preseason is a lot of us have played together. So we’re learning how one another plays, which makes it easier to read off and play off of one another.” 

Sprecher said that as much as it is an advantage to have experience coming back, it is just as much of an advantage to have youth on the team.

“It’s an exciting balance because us with experience we help people with who haven’t been here as long, but then at the same time I’m learning a lot from some of the freshmen, sophomores who haven’t been here just as much because they have different creative ideas and ways of doing things because they haven’t been in the market system for so long. So I think having both has been great,” Sprecher said.” 

Pelaez said there is still a lot of teaching being done, as he and his coaching staff continue to implement their schemes and philosophies, but a lot of buying in is being done as well. 

Redshirt junior midfielder Rachel Johnson said Pelaez’s analogy of being “homeowners” and not “renters” has served as one of the team’s mottos for this season. 

“That’s been something that’s kind of sat with me a little bit more because he’s like, ‘if you rent a house, you’re not going to take care of it as much, whereas if you’re owning it, you’re going to take care of it more, you’re going to put more effort into it,’” Johnson said. “That was something that he’s been kind of ingrained more to us which will carry forward throughout the season.” 

The nonconference schedule started with home games against Central Michigan Aug. 19 and Notre Dame Aug. 29. Other key games before BIG EAST play include road games at No. 24 BYU and Utah State. 

MU will face Butler in its BIG EAST opener Sept. 23. The Bulldogs were voted No. 2 in the BIG EAST Women’s Soccer Coaches’ Preseason Poll. Butler has taken the last five contests against MU. 

The Golden Eagles were picked to finish eighth in conference, but that doesn’t discourage Johnson.  

“I kind of like being an underdog,” Johnson said. “A lot of these teams do think we are lacking in certain areas and don’t think we will play as fast. They’re going to underestimate us for sure, which is good for us, but we’re going to come out and play hard.” 

Forwards

Marquette will have two experienced returners on the offensive third of the field; redshirt sophomore Alex Campana and redshirt junior Alyssa Bombacino.

“Those two are engines,” Pelaez said. “You need those workers in there. Both have a nose for the goal because they’ve worked so hard … they’re just a nightmare for players that are marking them because they just don’t stop.” 

Redshirt first-year Elsi Twombly also returns to the unit. Twombly earned All-BIG EAST Freshman Team honors last year and finished tied in team goals with three. 

Twombly said the big thing in replicating her production from last year is to help the team’s newcomers play the position and understand what they are supposed to do out on the pitch. She mentioned learning from a player like Campana last season helped her adjust herself. 

First-year Maggie Starker also joins the offense. The Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin native has immediately supplied a spark to Marquette’s offense after scoring a goal with an assist during the season opener Aug. 22 against Central Michigan University. 

Midfielders

Redshirt junior Katrina Wetherell picked up All-BIG EAST Second Team in the 2020-21 season. Wetherell started seven of the teams 10 games and she ended her season tied for third on the team for points. 

Graduate student Elaina Eckert is returning to play her fifth year of soccer after finishing her senior year starting nine of 10 games and scoring the winning goal against Illinois State University.  

Another returner to the midfield is redshirt junior Rachel Johnson.

Johnson —who is coming off her best season in the Golden Eagles’ uniform — started all 10 games, scored a goal and recorded an assist — said she is looking to carry her success into this season as well.

“I have been trying to give it my all every game, any game could be my last. Really putting forth 100 percent effort, giving it all I have every game, every practice is my goal for this season” Johnson said.  

Redshirt first-years Maddie Tabor, Mae Sinclair and Grace Allen, redshirt sophomore Sammi Bugay and first-year Mia Haertle all look to earn some minutes on the pitch from the unit as well.  

Defenders/Goalkeeper

The most experiences come from the defensive third, where three veteran players anchor down the back line, with graduate student Maddie Monticello and redshirt junior Madison Burrier starting at center back and Lacey on the outside. 

Assistant coach Steve Bode mentioned that Monticello’s return is big to the unit. 

“She’s a great leader,” Bode said. “Her speed and endurance helped us a lot back there. A lot of times, she’s covering ground and able to recover and clean things up for us, so that helps a lot.” 

Lacey said one thing the unit is looking to improve from last season is attacking first and forcing the opponent to adjust to them instead of the other way around. 

Sprecher has moved from striker into the other outside back spot on the back line for MU. 

Bode said the move to the backline for Sprecher came last spring during the team’s two-game stretch in the latter half of the season when they were without half of their team due to COVID-19. 

“It’s a cool, eye-opening experience for me because now being on defense, I kind of know as an attacker-type player how attacking players think and how they move,” Sprecher said. “I’m kind of like a sponge right now. Then also looking for those opportunities where I still can attack, send balls in, get up the line and do a little more of what I’m used to.”

Redshirt sophomore Emma Tabor and first-years Caroline Cline and Kate Gibson are all expected to compete for time in the backline as well. 

After earning her second career start against Central Michigan, Tabor said staying in the starting lineup has become a goal for her. 

“It’s about getting your head in the right mindset and doing everything with 100 percent effort,” Tabor said. 

Redshirt sophomore Mikki Easter and redshirt first-year Lauren Schill are expected to share time in the net for the Golden Eagles. 

Easter said the competition among the goalkeepers has been strong all summer. 

“A personal goal of mine is just to prove myself every week and if I get the shot to play and put those gloves on to take every opportunity that I have and make the most of it,” Easter said.

Injured Report

Redshirt sophomore defender Josie Kelderman and redshirt first-year Aeryn Kennedy both suffered early season injuries and will be out for the season. 

This story was written by John Leuzzi, Kelly Reilly and Matthew Valente. They can be reached at john.leuzzi@marquette.edu, kelly.reilly@marquette.edu and matthew.valente@marquette.edu or  on Twitter @JohnLeuzziMU.