UC Women's Soccer Poised For Breakout Season
Sr. defender Kelli Pawelko and the Bearcats open the 2011 season Friday vs. Cal-Poly.

Aug. 18, 2011

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By Jeff Geiser

In 2010, the University of Cincinnati women's soccer team recorded an unprecedented start to the year. Three weeks into the season, the Bearcats compiled a 5-0-1 record, including a road win over No. 20 Wisconsin on Aug. 29. It marked the first time in school history UC went unbeaten in its first six matches. The fast start earned the Bearcats a No. 15 national ranking on Sept. 6, the highest ranking in program history.

"It was a compliment to how far we've come as a program," fourth-year head coach Michelle Salmon says. "It was our third season as a staff and it wasn't very long ago when we took over a program that hadn't had a winning season in eight years. For us, that was a great accomplishment. But I remember saying to everyone on our staff, `We're not there yet.'"

Salmon's proclamation proved true. From that point in the season, fate made a turn for the worst for Cincinnati as the Bearcats finished the season with a 3-10 ledger the rest of the way. Their stout defense - which recorded shutouts in four of its first six matches - faltered down the stretch largely due to injuries, including senior goalkeeper Rachel Barnette, who missed the final eight matches after twice earning BIG EAST honor roll recognition at the start of the season.

With last year behind the Bearcats, their focus turned to the 2011 season with the goal to expand upon the early success and promise last season began with. The key to finishing the job in 2011 that eluded them in 2010 is a senior class that will be the first to start and end their entire careers under Salmon.

"We have a great group of senior leaders and all of them have been with me through the start," states Salmon. "All of them have a clear vision of what they want. Since January, they've been setting goals and aspirations for the program and, because of that, this team is more prepared than previous in terms of all of the work they've done off the field. I feel that this year is going to be a breakout year for us."

In addition to a committed group of veterans on the squad, Cincinnati has an influx of talent arriving on campus with a 10-member freshman class expected to contribute and make an immediate impact. Five freshman in particular - goalkeeper Kristina Utley (Castro Valley, Calif./Castro Valley), outside defender Jae Atkinson (Mason, Ohio/Mason), midfielders Megan Cravenor (Cincinnati, Ohio/Lakota West) and Christi Howard (Cincinnati, Ohio/Anderson), and forward Mackenzie Grause (Ft. Thomas, Ky./Highlands) - are expected to be in the starting lineup of Friday's season opener against California Polytechnic State University.

With the freshman class arriving on campus contending to take away playing time from veterans, training camp has produced an ultra-competitive environment. As a result, the Bearcats have developed a surplus of depth on their roster.

"I just look at the depth of this team and know that it's a strength, where it hadn't been in the past," Salmon notes. "The other difference this year is confidence. There is a confidence with this team. When they take the field, they're focused and on a mission to accomplish their goals and take it very seriously. When you go from player one to player 31 on this roster, they all want the same thing. This has been the best preseason I've had in the 12 years that I've coached. "

The 2011 schedule will provide plenty of opportunities, particularly in BIG EAST play, for Cincinnati to once again emerge in the national top 25 rankings. UC will play three conference opponents that are preseason ranked, including No. 1 Notre Dame (Sept. 18 at Gettler Stadium). Additionally, non-conference matches include home dates against cross-town rival Xavier and Big Ten foe Wisconsin, with road contests at Northwestern and College of Charleston.

"Going into this year, we've set a schedule to really challenge our seniors and challenge our freshmen to get better," Salmon says, "because going into BIG EAST play there's no break in our schedule. So our nonconference should mirror our conference schedule. You better bring your top performance every day."

With a challenging schedule and the emergence of a strong recruiting class, combined with a motivated group of veterans, the Bearcats are poised to have a thrilling 2011 campaign.

"When you get down to it, we're looking at a team that is as deep as I've ever coached here," claims Salmon. "As a coaching staff we really did our due diligence to give this senior class a lot of weapons to go into the season with. We're excited to get started."

The following is a position-by-position breakdown of the 2011 UC women's soccer team.

Utley will get the starting job at goalkeeper for UC. Salmon describes the Castro Valley, Calif. native as smooth and fluid in the box with an ability to keep a California-cool attitude without getting rattled. Junior Ashley Daniels (Cincinnati, Ohio/Indian Hill) has earned the No. 2 spot on the goalkeeper depth chart. After starting six matches last season, Daniels has improved her play and has had an excellent training camp. Fighting to take the top backup spot from Daniels are freshman Taylor Elliott (Cincinnati, Ohio/Anderson) and senior Lauren Romanelli (Dublin, Ohio/Dublin Jerome).

There is a big competition for playing time between the center backs. Senior Erin Kaufman (Wayland, Mass./Wayland), who moved from forward to defender last season, and co-captain Kay Young (Doylestown, Ohio/Chippewa), as well as sophomore Kate Schmidt (Sylvania, Ohio/Northview) are vying for the two starting spots. Junior Liz Miller (Cincinnati, Ohio/Anderson) is also in the mix for playing time. Salmon expects all four to receive significant minutes.

The outside back position is anchored by senior Kelli Pawelko (Lemont, Ill.Lemont), who has been a stalwart for the Bearcats the past three seasons. In addition to leading the team is assists in 2010, Pawelko was twice named the BIG EAST Defensive Player of the Week, as well as a CollegeSoccer360.com Primetime Performer.

"K.P. is one of the best, if not the best, outside back in the BIG EAST," says Salmon.

Freshman Jae Atkinson, a two-time all-Ohio first team selection from nearby Mason High School, will lineup opposite Pawelko as the other outside back. Junior Kaylee Dakers (Brampton, Ontario/Heart Lake Secondary School), who is expected to miss the first two weeks of the season, will compete with Atkinson for a starting spot once she returns from injury. Freshman Mollie Williams (Cincinnati, Ohio/Seton) has been a surprise performer in camp and has earned an opportunity to provide a spark off the bench. Howard, a center midfielder, can swing to outside back to add more depth on defense if needed.

Redshirt senior co-captain Logan Ballinger (Cincinnati, Ohio/Seton), who started all 19 matches as a defender in 2010, was moved to midfielder in the offseason. With her ability to both defend and attack, "I feel that Ballinger at the end of the year could get some all-conference nods," states Salmon.

Cravenor has solidified herself at the holding midfield position. "She's fantastic in the air. That linking player was something that we missed last year and I know her teammates are very confident with her in there," says Salmon.

With her defensive prowess and strong worth ethic, Howard is expected to be the third starting midfielder. Sophomore Katie Buczek (Cincinnati, Ohio/Lakota East), who started seven matches as a freshman for UC last season, and highly-touted freshman Elizabeth Wargo (Sagamore Hills, Ohio/Hathaway Brown School), who is returning from an injury, are also in the mix to earn a starting spot.

With the rare blend of experience, athleticism and talent, the forward position is expected to provide plenty of offensive firepower for UC in 2011. Cincinnati returns its top two scorers from last season - fifth-year senior Emily Hebbeler (Park Hills, Ky./Notre Dame Academy) and true sophomore Jazmine Rhodes (Long Beach, Calif./Long Beach Polytechnic).

The highly-skilled Hebbeler (four goals in `10) and super-athletic Rhodes (three goals in `10) will be joined by Grause, who has particularly high expectations from her head coach.

"She is going to be a fantastic player in the BIG EAST and I think she's going to be a player that emerges onto the national scene," Salmon states. "She's the type of player you can build your program around."

Sophomore Alexis Scott (Duluth, Ga./Peachtree Ridge), who played big minutes as a freshman and scored two goals (including the game-winner against Villanova on Oct. 10), and junior Evi Ranson (Golden, Colo./Ralston Valley), who played in all but one match in 2010, will serve as the first options off the bench at the forward position. Wargo and Buczek will see time up top, as well.