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Big Ten women’s college soccer preview

Published: March 8, 2012

Success in the NCAA tournament was elusive for the Big Ten’s women’s programs last fall, as Penn State, Ohio State and Illinois were the only teams to make it past the first round of the tournament.

That, combined with each program’s desire to continue improving in 2012, adds extra incentive to this year’s spring schedule.

“We try to really challenge the players in the spring, we always have a couple players that emerge that had limited playing time during the fall and really come into their own during the spring season,” Nittany Lions head coach Erica Walsh told

Entering 2012, Penn State is likely once again to be considered as one of the contenders in the Big Ten. While Walsh’s side lost six seniors, it still boasts returning talent like Hermann Trophy finalist Maya Hayes, Christine Nairn and Maddy Evans.

penn state women's college soccer player maya hayesMaya Hayes
That leaves other schools like Illinois, Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Minnesota with work to do in order to close the gap. The Badgers in particular are trying to sift out new talent during its spring season, giving players a chance to impress in different roles.

“I think sometimes as a coach you look at things and sometimes get set in your ways and you don’t see what attributes some players have and during this time we’ve seen some different attributes come in,” Wisconsin head coach Paula Wilkins told

The Fighting Illini, who finished second in the regular season to Penn State and return U.S. U20 midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo, captured the Big Ten tournament crown, are also working hard to stay in the mix.

But the Nittany Lions are going to be a tough nut to crack, with the nation’s leading scorer Maya Hayes leading the line. The key focus for PSU is ensuring the experienced players provide the proper on field influence to replace the experience gap.

“We’re doing quite a bit of leadership training right now, working with some guys at the university that do some leadership training, and every other Monday we devote some time to team development and leadership training,” Walsh said.

The search for replacements is a common theme throughout other teams, as it’s also a theme for Michigan State to deal with.

“We graduated 11 seniors and six or seven were in the lineup for most of the last couple of years,” Spartans head coach Tom Saxton told “We’re kind of re-tooling our playing group. Although we’re young, we’re comfortable with our talent level, we’ve got to find the right place to put people and how we’re going to lineup tactically and all that.”

For those programs in transition, the spring provides the platform to tinker, experiment, and see who steps up and is ready to contribute in what is sure to be another extremely competitive Big 10 season.

“We’re going to give everyone an opportunity,” Wilkins said. “The spring for us is more about development and giving people opportunities to do things. The two things I tell them is that they’re competing for a spot, but they’re also trying to build relationships with each other on the field and I think that’s also very important.”

Big Ten Players to Watch

Olivia Stander, Michigan State - Olivia’s now got to take ownership of being our go-to offensive player in terms of finishing for us,” Saxton said. “I’m excited for her, she’s ready, she’s more fit than she’s ever been at this time of year.” Stander bagged 11 goals and nine assists last year, partnering with the now graduated Laura Heyboer. As a senior this fall, the Spartans’ goal scoring responsibilities fall on her shoulders.

Maya Hayes, Penn State – It was an incredible sophomore season for Hayes, as she scored 31 goals, finished as a MAC Hermann Trophy Finalist. Now helping U.S. U20 Women’s National Team through CONCACAF qualifying, what does she have in her for an encore?

Vanessa DiBernardo, Illinois – While PSU grabbed the regular season crown, Illinois returned the favor in the Big 10 tournament, thanks in large part to DiBernardo’s 17-goal campaign. Another big year would help push Illinois to new heights.
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