Andy Stout figures the time to increase the Manchester University women's soccer schedule strength is now.
"We have a team that we feel is ready to take the steps towards the next level," the Spartans' head coach said. "And, with what we have in front of us, we'll find out soon (if that's correct)."
The Black and Gold, coming off a 2012 campaign in which they qualified for the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference postseason tournament for the first time since 2008 due to the program's first winning season (9-7-3) since 2006, have a trip to Gettysburg College of Pennsylvania for a two-day tournament and clashes with always-rugged Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association member Trine, Ohio Athletic Conference members Heidelberg, Muskingum, Otterbein and Wilmington and National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics' standout Goshen in front of them over late August and throughout September to prepare them for the HCAC slate.
"Hey, the only way your program will get better is to play top-notch teams," Stout said. "The players have set some lofty goals this year, and this type of schedule will hopefully help reach them. The biggest intangible for us will be health, as it seems to be every year.
"We'll need to have things work together (in regards to health and improvement)," he added. "The conference schedule, after that non-conference run, is just as tough. Transylvania, Hanover and Earlham have great tradition, while the remainder of the list you have to be ready for every night. One of the goals is to host a conference tournament match. … you have to be either first or second to do that, so we know what we have to do."
The MU roster shows why the Spartans are thinking big things. With the likes of junior goalkeeper and returning first team all-conference honoree Emily Willmann (Montpelier, Ind.) leading a still youthful defense and five of the Spartans' top six goal scorers back for the offense, the sky just might be the limit.
Willmann's presence with the defense is vital, according to Stout. She and her teammates combined for 10 shutouts last fall as part of a 1.06 goals-against average. The 10 shutouts were the most in a season for MU since 2003.
"We had some key losses in the back, as (former player and all-HCAC honoree Sara) Barker is gone due to graduation and (junior Adrien) Brudvig decided not to play," he said. "(Sophomores ) Kabrina (Hydre-Yusoff) and Allison (Rowe) are the only two returning with playing experience, so Emily's leadership, knowledge and passion for the game will be pivotal. She's going to need to get everyone in place throughout the entire 90 minutes which is something she has already been doing her first two seasons."
Hydre-Yusoff, a native of Indianapolis, Ind., appeared in all 19 matches with 16 starts as a freshman, while Rowe, a sophomore from La Quinta, Calif., had a strong first-year campaign by earning a starting role and all-conference honors. Stout also has other options on defense. "(Junior Ellyn) Sallee (of Bloomington, Ind.), (sophomore Courtney) Young (of Kendallville, Ind.) and
(junior Trinity) Schelich (of Indianapolis, Ind.) could add depth for us as they are each coming back after battling injuries," he said. "I also think a few of the freshmen might be able to help us out, too, including Emily Anderson of Ann Arbor, Mich., who earned all-region and all-state honors."
The offensive end of the pitch could be a sparkling area, according to Stout.
Junior forward Katelyn Barta of Griffith, Ind., is a returning first team all-league honoree after recording seven goals and five assists as a sophomore. Sophomore Brandy Crouse (Cleves, Ohio), coming off a freshman campaign where she tallied six goals is a strong forward option as well, and junior Breanna McLane of Westville, Ind., is available, too, after showing brilliant signs early last fall by scoring two goals and dishing out an assist in four matches before a broken leg kept her out of conference play. Amber Oster of Waterloo, Ind., and Amber Kent of Fountaintown, Ind., form a good midfield combination that played in every game last fall. Junior Sofie Tzortzinis (Ann Arbor, Mich.) played in 17 of 19 matches, too.
"Obviously, looking at the numbers, the offense should be our strength," Stout said. "It starts with our goal-scoring potential, as Katelyn, Brandy and Breanna form a top-notch trio to lead the forwards. The middle, beginning with the two Ambers and Sofie, will add some benefit, too."