Early Season Games to Challenge Young Lady Spartans (Games 1-7)

A young Spartan women’s soccer team finished the 2013 season with a record of 9-8-2, but this season a more experienced and eager team is ready for the challenge that lies ahead of them, especially in Big Ten play.

“It’s going to be a great challenge, and I think with 14 teams now, competing not only for the Big Ten title, but eight slots in the (Big Ten) tournament, I think the ratio there might be the most difficult challenge in women’s college soccer,” head coach Tom Saxton said. “I don’t think anybody else faces that kind of set of numbers. It will be incredibly difficult and yet it will also be very rewarding to make it through to the postseason.”

Michigan State only lost one player from last year’s team – senior midfielder/defender, Kelsey Mullen– who started in 14 games for the Spartans in 2013.

In the 2013 season, 27 of the 29 players saw playing time, with only goalkeeper Nicole Pond and defender Emily Paymer not seeing any time.

The team will return four seniors, 10 juniors and 13 sophomores, and bring on seven freshman in 2014.

“There are some core veterans that we expect to be out there, but we’ve got a lot of new talent coming in in our freshman class,” Saxton said. “Unfortunately we have some lingering injury issues to some of the players that had some severe injuries in the last year, so there is some uncertainty with the health of our team going in — but with the depth that the freshman class will provide, we’re going to create great competition in preseason and it’ll sort itself out.”

The Spartans return their leading goal scorers from 2013, redshirt junior defender Mary Kathryn Fiebernitz (six goals) and junior forward Allyson Krause (five goals).

University of Virginia Cavaliers

Aug. 15

1 p.m.

Maple City, Mich. 

For the third time in 14 years, the Spartans will play the Cavaliers in an exhibition game before the start of the regular season.

The previous two meetings between the two teams have resulted in two ties, but this is the first time that the game will be played in Maple City.

“Maple City has a very nice soccer field, and the background there is that Virginia’s coach (Steve Swanson) has brought his team to that area because his wife’s family is from up there and they have a connection there,” Saxton said. “There’s a nice facility at the Leelanau School for the Boys. That’s kind of that preseason camp mode that they have been going to for years.”

In 2013, the Cavaliers made it to the Final Four in the NCAA Tournament and lost to the eventual champions, the UCLA Bruins.

The Cavaliers return their leading goal scorer from 2013, junior forward Makenzy Doniak. Doniak scored 20 goals last season, which was tied for sixth in the NCAA in 2013.

“I do think it’s the best returning team in the country, but I think we have to be excited about getting an early measurement, and I think like all preseason exhibition games, we are going to have to play lots of people,” Saxton said. “So we have to recognize that this game is not going to be scripted like a normal competitive game would be in the regular season, but certainly in that first half-hour, 45 minutes, we’re going to get a chance to see what our main playing group can do against I think the nation’s best team going into the season.”

San Diego State University Aztecs

Aug. 22

10 p.m.

San Diego, Calif. 

The Spartans will open up the season in San Diego, as they return the favor for playing the Aztecs in East Lansing in 2013.

This is the second time that the teams will face each other in their programs’ history, and each side is looking for their first win after a 1-1 draw last season.

The Aztecs have won the Mountain West Conference the last two years and have made the NCAA Tournament three times in the past 14 years.

San Diego State returns their top goal scorer in 2013, senior forward Hannah Keane. Keane scored 13 goals for the Aztecs last season.

As far as difficult opponents go in 2014, the Aztecs will play three teams that made the NCAA Tournament in 2013: the University of Michigan, the University of Portland and Colorado College.

California State University, Fullerton Titans

Aug. 24

7 a.m.

Fullerton, Calif.

The Spartans’ last stop on their California road trip will be against the Titans who were 8-8-7, won the Big West Tournament and lost to Stanford University in the NCAA Tournament in 2013.

This is the second time that these teams will meet in the history of the two programs. Cal State Fullerton defeated Michigan State 1-0 in East Lansing in 2012.

In 2014, the Titans will play two teams during non-conference play that made the NCAA Tournament in 2013: Brigham Young University and the University of Denver. Both teams finished in the top 30 in 2013.

 Eastern Michigan University Eagles

Aug. 29

2 p.m.

DeMartin Stadium

Despite being the Mid-American Conference regular season champs and going 12-7-2, the Eagles did not make the NCAA Tournament in 2013.

Michigan State and Eastern Michigan have met 15 times in their program history and the Spartans are 11-1-3 in those 15 matches.

Since 2000, the Spartans are 9-0-3 and have outscored the Eagles 23-6.

Eastern Michigan returns their top goal scorer, senior forward Angela Vultaggio. Vultaggio scored 13 goals, which tied for 48th in the country last season.

The Eagles will play two tough non-conference opponents along with the Spartans in 2014: Indiana University and Texas Tech University. Both teams made the NCAA Tournament last season. 

Oakland University Golden Grizzlies

Sept. 2

7 p.m.

Rochester, Mich.

The Spartans are 10-2-2 all-time and 7-0-2 since 2000 against the Golden Grizzlies.

Oakland’s record against Michigan State may not be good, but when the Golden Grizzlies played in the Summit League from 1999-2012, they won seven regular season titles and eight conference tournament titles.

Since 2000, Oakland has also made the NCAA Tournament seven times.

Two players led the team in scoring for the Golden Grizzlies in 2013, forward Meghan Reynolds and forward Kyla Kellerman. Both scored eight goals last season, but only Kellerman returns in 2014.

This season Oakland will play five non-conference teams who made the NCAA Tournament last season: The University of Notre Dame, Western Michigan, University of Illinois, Colorado College and Saint Francis University Pa.

Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne Mastodons

Sept. 5

5 p.m.

DeMartin Stadium

Since 2000, the Mastodons have had two winning seasons and are 71-164-17.

Michigan State has played IPFW twice and are 2-0-0 and have outscored them 11-0.

In 2014, the Mastodons will play one team that made it to the NCAA Tournament last season: University of Denver.

Western Michigan University Broncos

Sept. 7

1 p.m.

DeMartin Stadium

After going 12-6-5, winning the Mid-American Conference Tournament and upsetting a two seed, Marquette University, in the first round of the 2013 NCAA Tournament, the Broncos look to continue their success in 2014.

Despite their success last season, Western Michigan has struggled to beat Michigan State, going 2-10-0 all-time against the Spartans.

Since 2000, Michigan State has owned Western Michigan by going 9-1-0 and outscoring the Broncos 23-5 in those ten games.

Western Michigan will have to replace midfielder, Rachel Chaney, this season after she led the team in scoring in 2013 with eight goals.

The Broncos only play one team in 2014 that made the NCAA Tournament last season: Illinois State University, who defeated the University of Louisville in the first round and then lost to the University of Michigan in the second round.

Brooks Laimbeer is the host of Corner Kick for Impact Sports

Photo: Jonathan Yales