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Your Complete 2021 Big Ten Women’s Soccer Preview, Part 2

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Today we hit up Michigan and Indiana to discuss the four teams in those two states.

COLLEGE WOMENS SOCCER: OCT 25 Michigan at Rutgers
Michigan’s Sarah Stratigakis in action a couple of years ago.
Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The sun is in the sky, burgers are on the grill, and the Mets are entering a mid-season collapse. It’s that wonderful time of year we call summer again. And summer means only one thing: it’s time to hit the beach film room to discuss the impending Big Ten soccer season!

With pre-seasons around the midwest well underway, I figured it’s time for me to unleash this behemoth of a Big Ten women’s soccer primer on the world. In here you’ll find previews of every team in the conference- from summaries of last season to key players for the next, this article is your comprehensive guide to anything you might want to know about the best soccer conference in the country.*

For the sake of only allowing complaints about my own predictions to anyone who actually managed to read all of this nearly 12,000 word monstrosity over the next four days, I’ve divided up the team previews by rough geographic region. My personal prediction for the conference standings will be at the end of the fourth post on Thursday. Today’s post will be the teams from Michigan and Indiana: Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana and Purdue.

And with that, let’s break down some Big Ten soccer!

*do not fact check this with anyone but me

Indiana

Returning large amounts of talent from a breakout spring side, Indiana is primed for an even stronger run at the traditional conference powers

Indiana surprised a lot of people last season. Projected to finish eighth in the preseason coaches poll, the Hoosiers enjoyed an impressive spring that saw them end in fifth place in the final conference standings. Along the way they took down Rutgers and Michigan, and gave Penn State one hell of a scare in the regular season before eventually falling in the Big Ten quarterfinals.

Inconsistency was the story of the Indiana season- though they notched major upset wins like the ones mentioned above, losses to lower-ranked squads Northwestern and Illinois prevented the Hoosiers from ever threatening the conference elite and making a run at the Big Ten title.

The good news in Bloomington is that nearly everyone from last season is back for the fall. The one big loss is Bethany Kopel, who will miss what would be her fifth (!) season starting between the pipes for the Hoosiers due to injury, ending an incredible Ironwoman streak in net that goes back to 2017.

But Indiana’s top five point leaders will all return, headlined by the forward partnership of sophomore Anna Bennett and fifth year senior Melanie Forbes, who accounted for almost half of the teams’ goals last season. The defense will likely only improve as well heading into the 2021 campaign, with sophomore Anna Aehling headlining a backline core that should look very similar to the spring international.

Head coach Erwin van Bennekom also brought in a pair of conference transfers to improve his squad further- with graduate midfielder Sydney Staier arriving from Maryland with plenty of bite in the midfield and Paige Webber making the journey south from Michigan State to bolster the attack.

MVP: Whoever Starts in Goal

OK, this one sounds like a joke, but the way I see it Indiana’s goalkeeper, whoever it may be, will be the most vital piece to their sustained success. As mentioned above, Kopel was the Big Ten’s longest running incumbent starter in net, having not missed a game for the Hoosiers in nearly a half-decade. But after sustaining an injury in the final match of the spring campaign she was ruled out for the entirety of this season. Her benefit to the squad was twofold- not only is she a talented goalkeeper that tied for third in the Big Ten in clean sheets last year, she also brought an experienced hand to a position where coolness and trust from other players is vital.

The Hoosiers have a host of options to replace Kopel in net, though Jamie Gerstenberg, a freshman from Germany who got the starting nod in Indiana’s first exhibition of the year, and Amanda Fay, a three year starter at Boston University, who was just brought in through the transfer portal, jump off the page as the favorites. But whoever the starting goalkeeper might be, their performance and ability to pick up where Kopel left off in 2020 will be essential to Indiana replicating their strong spring finish.

Key Players: Anna Bennett, Melanie Forbes, Anna Aehling

Anna Bennett: Bennett enjoyed an excellent freshman campaign last season, and van Bennekom will certainly be looking to get even more production out of her as she further unlocks her potential. Tied for the team lead in assists and total points as well as second for goals, the Holland MI native showed composure in both delivering the finishing pass or goal in the opposing third, an ability that many don’t develop later on in her career. If Bennett can turn some of her best performances from last spring into consistent occurrences, she’ll no doubt be fighting for an all-Big Ten selection by the end of the year.

Melanie Forbes: Last season’s leader in goals is back for a fifth year with the Hoosiers, and there’s little doubt she’ll be a vital part of any success achieved in Bloomington this year. Forbes was a persistent force in the Indiana attack in the spring, and the extended eligibility will offer her another chance to shine before she ends her collegiate career. And as with Kopel, Forbes’ leadership as an upperclassman will likely be vital to a Hoosier front line that will likely see a great deal of inexperience as van Bennekom integrates an attack-heavy incoming freshman class.

Anna Aehling: Another freshman who provided major contributions to the 2020 Hoosiers, Aehling is a marauding fullback who can also offer a stout defensive presence in her own defensive third. Hailing from Coesfeld, Germany, she’s unafraid to constantly communicate and work with other defenders to organize the backline, another trait that shows both experience and confidence beyond her years. The former German youth international earned first team all-freshman and second team all-Big Ten honors as a result of her efforts in the spring.

Breakout watch: Natalie Lunt

Lunt only started two games across the 2020 spring, but could be primed for an uptick in minutes over her senior season. The two time all-academic Big Ten honoree is an option in both the midfield and defense, which might make her a key part of van Bennekom’s plans as he retools his side for the new season.

Lunt’s versatility, as well as her creativity and energy, give her many of the assets of a top level midfielder in the right system- and Indiana will hope she can prove that this fall.

Purdue

Bringing back one of the conferences’ most exciting attacking duos in Sarah Griffith and Nicole Kevdzija, the Boilermakers can compete with the best if the rest of the lineup finds form

Purdue peaked too early last spring. After soldiering through a rough opening stretch in which their only win was a double overtime triumph at home against last placed Maryland, the Boilermakers really turned on the steam in the middle of the season. They went on a four game unbeaten run that included a draw against eventual regular season runner-ups Ohio State and a road win over Wisconsin.

The momentum wasn’t sustained though, and the subsequent four games saw Purdue limp to the finish line and eventually fall to Northwestern in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament. The only point they garnered after March 21 would be a 0-0 draw at home to Indiana.

Defensively, the Boilermakers are about as rock solid as they come. Goalkeeper Marisa Bova only let in ten goals last season, tied for best in the conference. In only two games did Purdue allow more than one goal, one of which they won 3-2. The only problem is those three goals they scored in that shootout against Maryland accounted for a third of all the goals they notched total last year.

The offense is not without firepower- Sarah Griffith is one of the best attackers in the Big Ten, and Nicole Kevdzija shone in her first year of collegiate ball. But that duo accounted for eight of Purdue’s nine goals last season- and while that may be an impressive achievement for their forward partnership, the Boilermakers need to find a consistent third option that can shoulder some of the load up top.

MVP: Sarah Griffith

As mentioned above, Sarah Griffith is about as good as they come at the forward position in college soccer. She’s quick, dangerous on the dribble, and has a clinical finish. Awarded second team all-Big Ten honors, the redshirt senior was on the scoresheet in every one of Purdue’s wins last year. The fact that there wasn’t a single game Purdue scored in where Griffith wasn’t on the scoresheet says it all. She’s the Boilermakers’ most consistent player in the attack, and they’re going to need a big year out of her if they want to compete past the first round of the Big Ten tournament in the fall.

Key Players: Nicole Kevdzija, Julia Ware, Teagan Jones

Nicole Kevdzija: Kevdzija was a revelation for the Boilermakers in her first season of college soccer, notching three goals and an assist (both good for second on the team) for seven total points. The only player other than Griffiths to find the net more than once for Purdue in the spring, the young attacker has plenty of promise and potential for future growth, and in the fall she’ll get her first opportunity to showcase such abilities over a full season.

Julia Ware: Only two players played every minute of every game last season for Purdue: goalkeeper Marisa Bova, and Ware. Having started every game but three in her collegiate career, Ware’s streak is testament to her consistency as a top level defender. The Boilermaker defense only conceded ten goals all of last season- tied for first in the conference with Wisconsin and Minnesota- and Ware will likely play a large role in the continuation of such a steadfast backline in her senior season.

Syndication: LafayetteIN Nikos Frazier | Journal & Courier, Lafayette Journal & Courier via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Teagan Jones: A persistent presence in the Boilermaker midfield last season, Jones started all twelve of Purdue’s games in the spring campaign. Few players provide the same level of hustle as the junior from Cary, Ill., and she can be counted on to bring just as much energy to the side in her final season in West Lafayette, Ind. Last year was her first as a day-in, day-out starter, and she’s primed for even bigger things in 2021.

Breakout Watch: Emily Matthews

Matthews played a significant role in Purdue’s midfield last season, and quietly led the team in assists (though it only took two to achieve such a feat). With neither her nor Kevdzija named to even the conference-all freshman team, the pairing will have plenty to prove heading into the fall. Matthews has the talent and a strong strike force in front of her to put up some serious assist numbers in her sophomore campaign.

Michigan

The Wolverines struggled for form all spring and ended the year in COVID quarantine and far below expectations, but are back and fully reloaded to contend again in the fall.

Few teams suffered more because of the shortened spring season than Michigan. Coming into 2020 considered a very legitimate contender for the Big Ten crown, the Wolverines seemed to sputter all season. They weren’t bad, and scraped their way to a mid table finish, but they certainly never looked like title favorites, or even competitors for any extended period of time.

The offense, jam packed with weapons, did expectedly well- they didn’t set the world on fire but they finished a more than commendable third in the conference in goals- but the defense struggled, conceding 14 goals in just 11 games. The biggest problem was consistency. Michigan only put together one winning streak (of three games) all season, and they seemed to switch from performances like the ones that beat Michigan State 7-3 and Maryland 4-0 to ones that led to a 4-1 loss to Penn State with ease.

The team also struggled in matchups with the conference’s best- against the top five teams in the Big Ten the Wolverines went 0-2-3.

It’s difficult to undersell the amount of talent Michigan has heading into 2021. How many teams in the nation, much less the Big Ten, can boast two full internationals for one of the better women’s teams in the world? While Canadians Sarah Stratigakis and Jayde Riviere both never fully reached top gear in the spring, the pair are game changers who will no doubt play a major role in the fall.

Soccer: She Believs Cup Women’s Soccer-Canada at USA
Jayde Riviere (No. 20) marking Megan Rapinoe in international action.
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Nicki Hernandez is one of the conference’s best attackers and is coming off a 14 point season. Alia Martin was a first team-all Big Ten defender who was in the conversation for the MAC Hermann trophy in the preseason. Sammi Woods was one of the conference leaders in points as just a freshman. Hillary Beal is about as solid as they come in goal. I could go on and on. The question is not whether the talent will be there- it’s to what extent will it show up.

MVP: Sarah Stratigakis

Still not under professional contract yet, Stratigakis will come into the 2021 season with the upcoming NWSL draft in her sights and plenty to prove following a spring where the playmaker, between international duty and Michigan’s streaky form, lagged behind some of the Big Ten’s other elite attacking midfielders in production.

Cameroon v Canada: Group B - FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup Jordan 2016
Sarah Stratigakis in U-17 World Cup action back in 2016.
Photo by Boris Streubel - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

With the Ontario native on the outside looking in for Canada’s Olympics squad, she’ll have the benefit of a full offseason of rest to prepare herself and come out fully fresh for the regular season. A crafty dribbler and creative passer, Stratigakis has all the tools to be a driving force behind a very talented Wolverine team in the fall.

Key Players: Jayde Riviere, Alia Martin, Nicki Hernandez

Jayde Riviere: A freshly minted Canadian Olympic Gold Medalist, there’s plenty of evidence that Riviere is going to be a major piece going forward for the Canucks. The junior defender only played in eight games in 2020, notching just 495 minutes, but make no mistake- she’ll be a game breaker if fully available for Michigan in the fall. Providing bounds of energy at fullback, the Pickering, Ontario product brings a certain electric quality on the ball that very few defenders in the college game can match.

Alia Martin: If there was one consistent piece throughout 2020 for the Wolverines, it was Martin. Tabbed on the MAC Herman watch list at the start of the season, the surefooted defender did not disappoint, leading Michigan in minutes played and hardly ever coming off the field. The anchor of the backline, Martin earned first team all Big Ten honors at the conclusion of the season, and will be a major factor if Michigan looks to bring their defense to the same level as their offense in 2021.

Nicki Hernandez: The second of Michigan’s two first team all Big Ten honorees, Hernandez stepped up in a big way in 2020. With Stratigakis occasionally out of the lineup, and Meredith Haakenson and Raleigh Loughman both struggling to reach the same level as their stellar 2019 seasons, the Wolverine’s three highest point getters from the year before combined for just 12 points in the spring. This could have spelled disaster- but Hernandez stepped in and added 14 points on her own. The senior forward will be looking for another big year in 2021- as a second straight year looking like one of the best in the B1G could lead to some serious NWSL interest.

Breakout watch: Sammi Woods

Alright, I’m going to cheat. Sammi Woods would not in any way be a breakout player. But I committed to three players for each team in the Players to Watch section, and it’s simply unfair to let Woods go without a mention. My only defense is that since Woods is only going to be a sophomore, she could break out and get even better than her rookie campaign showed.

Speaking of that rookie campaign- only one freshman posted more points than Woods in the spring (Ohio State’s Payton McNamara, who also played more games), and she ended second on the team in goals and tied for first in assists. If she takes another step up, this Wolverine squad will be very dangerous come fall.

Michigan State

The other Big Ten team with a new coach on the sidelines, the Spartans will look to improve on a rough spring under new management for the first time in three decades.

2020 started out well for the Spartans. They grabbed an away draw in their season opener against Maryland, before beating Nebraska at home. It was the first time since 2015 that Michigan State came away from their first two games with three or more points. And then things went off the rails- the Spartans embarked on an eight game losing streak, highlighted by a 7-3 pounding at the hands of rival Michigan.

The team would come agonizingly close to escaping the loss column in the final weeks of the season, dropping six straight games by just a single goal (including two in overtime), but for one reason or another every time a trip back to the win or draw column eluded them.

But the new fall season offers a fresh start in East Lansing. Jeff Hosler takes charge of the program, bringing an impressive record of success from Division II’s Grand Valley State. In seven seasons at GVSU Hostler managed five NCAA title game appearances and three championships, as well as a 144-12-6 record and the best winning percentage in any division of NCAA soccer.

Hostler will have his work cut out for him, as he looks to embark on immediate rebuild of a squad he hasn’t recruited players for, but his extensive experience in Michigan soccer and solid returning cast from 2020 might make the fall outlook better than one would expect.

MVP: Lauren Kozal

For the last two years that Lauren Kozal has started in net for the Spartans, Michigan State’s net has seen plenty of action. They conceded 23 goals in 2020, the second most in the Big Ten, but such a number isn’t necessarily on Kozal. She posted 54 total saves, and 4.5 saves per game, both of which were good for fourth best in the Big Ten.

Hostler is familiar with Kozal and has given plenty of praise to her leading up to the season, and it will be a major boost to Michigan State’s chances of competing if she’s at her best between the pipes.

Key Players: Zivana Labovic, Gia Wahlberg, Camryn Evans

Zivana Labovic: To borrow a phrase from earlier in the preview, if you lead the team in points as a defender, you’re doing something right. Only in her freshman season, Labovic’s impact on the 2020 Spartans was significant. Not only was she the team’s leading scorer, notching three, but she was also an important part of the team’s backline, starting all 12 games. With Bria Schrotenboer leaving for Duke, Labovic will likely step into the bigger role she filled for part of last season when Schrotenboer was injured on a full-time basis.

Gia Wahlberg: The team’s leader in goals in 2019 with nine, Wahlberg once again found herself high on the team leaderboard in the spring, finishing second on the Spartans with two. The senior (who lead the team in shots on goal in both 2020 and 2019 as well) will likely be leading the line in East Lansing once again come fall, and she’ll be looking to recreate her conference-record setting performance against Marshall in 2019 in which she scored four goals in just the first half.

Camryn Evans: Joining Wahlberg up front will likely be her fellow senior Evans. Tying for the team lead in assists in 2019, the three year starter will be looking to put up her best numbers yet in her fourth and final season up front for the Spartans. A former track star, the Fenton native adds both pace and creative ability to the attack.

Breakout watch: Danielle Stephan

Despite coming off the bench in every game but two, Stephan led Michigan State in assists with four (no other player had more than one). It’s her second straight year atop the team leaderboard for assists, and this fall the graduate student will hope to re-establish her place in the lineup (she was a full time starter in 2019) as well as catch the eyes of any pro teams who might be looking for a new creative force for their midfield.