First class: Once newbies, Tech now an example in fourth season of soccer program

HOUGHTON – The way the Michigan Tech women’s soccer team starts their practice is telling.

As cleats are laced up and shin guards slipped on, the Huskies start arranging themselves into a circle before head coach Michelle Jacob has even arrived at Sherman Field. Chatting, serious, yawning, whatever – they start a game of one-touch keep away with two defenders in the middle of the circle chasing the ball.

Let a defender touch it, and you are out. Take two touches, out. An errant pass, gone.

It is a simple drill, one every soccer team from high school up utilizes in some fashion.

But it also paints a clear picture of the vision reigning GLIAC coach of the Year Michelle Jacob has in mind.

Just three years into the program’s existence, Tech shared the GLIAC title last season with Grand Valley State, breaking up a stretch of dominance for the Lakers that had stretched seven seasons long.

They managed that feat – extraordinary considering the fledgling program is based in the U.P., an area with minimal soccer tradition or recruiting ground – by stressing principles most coaches pay lip service to and few have the courage to execute.

Jacob wants her team to control the ball. She wants possession, she wants to play out of the back and most of all, she wants to be unpredictable.

In a league of long balls and unimaginative direct attacks, this can serve as a breath of fresh air.

“I think we have a big target on our back,” Jacob said. “I think what we have done in the last three years has really forced other programs to take a long hard look at themselves and work harder, get better players and try and advance their game. I think people will be out to get us for sure.”

Picked to finish No. 2 in the conference, behind just the nationally ranked No. 2 Lakers, the Huskies return in their 4-3-3 formation from last season with every starter except for the graduated fullback Melanie Hoffman at the ready.

A look into the stats from last season depict a fully unpredictable team.

Midfielder Lindsey Van Rooy, now a senior, led the team with nine goals and 33 shots on target as the attacking mid excelled at making the late run into the box. Senior forward Katie Boardman followed with seven tallies (and five assists), but came upon her scoring from all three forward positions. Sophomore Lexi Herrewig, likely the most creative of the attacking band, scored four goals herself and led the team with eight assists from a combination of forward and midfield positions.

And if you ask Jacob, her best attacks often were initiated by the fullbacks Hoffman and Jenna Proctor.

There will be more of the same this season for the Huskies, as Jacob has emphasized positional interchange and more one-touch combo play to try and add to a squad that scored just a shade under twice per game last season en route to a 14-3-2 record.

“We do play a lot more aggressively than some people,” Jacob said. “We have no hesitation to send a lot of numbers forward to create shooting and goal scoring opportunities where I don’t think a lot of teams are really comfortable doing that.

“Our big thing is we want to be unpredictable. We want to have a lot of options and we don’t want the other defense to be able to key on just one or two. So you will see a combination of passing and direct, some positional interchange and you see the (fullbacks) getting forward.”

With 10 of 11 starters returning, it would be easy to assume the 2013 Huskies will look pretty much the same as the 2012 Black and Gold, exempting a tweak here or there.

Jacob merely smiles coyly when the question is asked.

Right now, the Huskies are embedded in a full-on goalkeeper battle with incumbent Jenna Phelps and junior MaryBeth Spoehr (who started all 34 games in the first two seasons of her career before missing 2012 due to injury) each battling for playing time. Jacob refused to tip her hand for her plan going forward in goal despite the season beginning today with Minnesota-Crookston coming to Houghton.

As for who is replacing Hoffman at fullback, that will also remain a surprise until the 7 p.m. kickoff.

And will any of the freshmen, redshirt or true, factor into this season?

“We have some really talented kids that have just entered the program,” Jacob said. “We have a big roster (28 players) and there will definitely be competition for minutes. You will just have to see as the season goes along.”