Building Blocks – Spartans seek continued momentum

Building Blocks – Spartans seek continued momentum

The signs are there.

A 4-3 record in the program's final seven matches of 2016 spotlighted by a victory over Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference postseason qualifier Rose-Hulman … A spring filled with opportunities to continue to learn and gel together for the future … A returning trio featuring seniors Courtney Hersick (Plymouth, Inf.) and Kelsey Ropp (Freeland, Mich.) and junior Maranda Birmingham (Kouts, Ind.) that held down the top scoring categories.

The list goes on and on.

"I'm really looking forward to getting started," Manchester University head coach Christine Johnson said. "Myself and (assistant coach) Katie (Beal) like what we see coming in. It's a strong group of returners added to a good freshman class. It is hard to tell right now but if the players come in fit, on paper, it looks this team has the possibility of having serious success.

We really want to build off what last year's team did down the stretch and how much we continued to progress (in the spring)," she added. "The end of 2016 sent a loud and clear message of where this program wants to be. The expectation (for 2017) is to resume the momentum we have in place."

The second-year head coach and her staff will not have to go far for leadership. Birmingham, Hersick, senior Jenny Pudlo (Crown Point, Ind.) and fellow senior Maggie Carpenter (Connersville, Ind.) were selected as captains by a vote of their teammates.

"I think, for the most part, this group will stand out and do a good job in front (of the team)," Johnson noted. "We did some leadership training with them, and the entire team, off the field with a book club which we look to continue this season.

I hope the players take the opportunities we give them and work them into their lifestyle," she added, reflecting on the off the field applications of yoga and so forth to promote healthy choices. "Katie and I understand that teaching them the techniques on the field readies them for competition, but there's another side. If they learn anything in the four years (they're in the program), I want it to be the promotion of a healthy lifestyle."

Looking around the field, Johnson pointed to the following …

On offense, the two-headed attacking monster of Birmingham and Hersick was one of the conference and region's best a year ago. Hersick, a first team all-league selection, had a breakout campaign scoring 11 goals on 35 shot on goal attempts, a sparkling 61.4 percent conversion rate, while adding three assists for 25 points to lead the team in all three statistical categories. Birmingham, a second team all-league pick, ranked second on the team in goals (nine), points (18) and shots (41). Ropp adds to the returning attributes after contributing a pair of goals and assists in 12 matches played.

"Obviously, Courtney and Maranda set themselves apart in this area," Johnson said. "There are a couple of freshmen coming in that can add (to what they did), so we feel the offense will be pretty solid.

We want to be direct (in offensive opportunities)," she added. "Getting goals early in matches sets the tone, so we don't want to mess around."

A strong defensive unit adds to the Black and Gold's strengths. The four-person group of Carpenter, junior Isabella Zoog (Brownsburg, Ind.) and seniors Jaclyn Scialdone (Noblesville, Ind.) and Abbey Krupp (Grand Rapids, Mich.) provide a difficult task for opponents who find themselves in front of Manchester University's net.

"As long as they come back fit and healthy, they will hold the anchor (back there)," Johnson said. "They each developed a good understanding of what we wanted last season and into the spring. This is vital for us, as we can spend time in developing a young midfield."

Behind the defensive bedrock is a goalkeeper battle going into the preseason that features juniors Cami Holford (Valparaiso, Ind.) and Caroline Smith (Mason, Ohio) as the early leaders. Smith played in 11 matches with nine starts, and Holford got into three matches a year ago.

As for the midfield area, things are up in the air, according to the Spartans' coach.

"It's a question mark," she said. "There is a balance of newcomers and veterans available. The rotation will be determined on what develops from the preseason.

Overall, team fitness is a big key," she added. "If we aren't as fit as we'd like to be right away, our successes can still be there but probably not until later (in the season). Katie and I want to get this rolling right away, as we feel this group can be very special."

Seeking more signs that add up to program success.