The Maryland women’s soccer team is optimistic.
Perhaps, to some, that is a hard feat given that the Terps have started the season with an 0-2-1 record. Heartbreaking losses to perennial conference bottom dwellers Purdue and Northwestern don’t help. Barely escaping with a tie against Michigan State, ranked dead last in the season in the preseason Big Ten coaches’ poll, definitely doesn’t help.
And yet, they remain optimistic. They remain smiling and ready to espouse love for their teammates, their coach and their school. The character of this team, despite what their record may say, is special.
“Our team chemistry is probably the best I’ve ever been a part of,” said goalie Kennedy Tolson, “it’s just a really loving, caring environment... everybody’s really inclusive.”
Team chemistry holds a large importance, but in a conference as tough as the Big Ten, it’s hard to get by on just character. The team knows that it’s gotten off to a slow start and that without a quick on-field improvement they won’t be able to contend.
“Definitely one thing that we want to work on is just speed of play” said forward Emily McNesby. “We’re working a lot on passing quicker, [moving] more dynamic, and things along those lines.”
One thing working in the Terps’ favor: they finally return to Ludwig Field, home of the program for the last 25 years. The first (real) home matchup of the season, omitting the season opener played in Maryland Stadium, couldn’t come at a better time for the struggling team.
“We have a lot of memories on that field,” McNesby said. “It’s exciting to get back and to start hopefully winning a bunch of games on Ludwig.”
Thursday’s matchup against Ohio State promises a bigger challenge than any of the team’s first three matches. The game will air at 3 p.m. on BTN Plus.
Ohio State Buckeyes (1-0-1)
2019 record: 4-10-4 (2-6-3, Big Ten)
Head coach Lori Walker-Hock is entering her 24th season at the helm of the Ohio State program as one of the most accomplished coaches in the Big Ten. A three-time Big Ten Coach of the Year, most recently in 2017, Walker-Hock has led the Buckeyes’ program to 13 NCAA Tournament appearances and three Big Ten tournament championships.
The Buckeyes’ season last year was a massive disappointment by Ohio State standards. The team failed to qualify for the Big Ten tournament for the first time since 2016 and ended with a .318 conference winning percentage.
By contrast, Walker-Hock’s team has looked sharp to begin this season. The Buckeyes started off with a tie against Michigan, but it was a 3-1 win over defending champion Wisconsin that had Ohio State looking like a real contender.
Players to Know
Sophomore forward Emma Sears (No. 18) — There aren’t many better ways to begin a season than by sharing your first career Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week award. Sears was awarded the title, along with Indiana midfielder Melanie Forbes, after her hat trick against Wisconsin last Thursday.
Sears has scored all four goals for the Buckeyes to begin the season.
As a freshman, Sears didn’t score a single goal and only recorded one assist. Her rapid improvement is something the Terps need to watch out for. The forward is primed for a breakout season and is fresh off the best game of her career, with accolades to boot. She will certainly be hunting for more goals come Thursday.
Junior forward Kayla Fischer (No. 2) — Fischer was the team’s all-around leader last season, finishing with a team-high 14 points, five goals and four assists.
Fischer was named to the Big Ten Preseason Players to Watch List, along with midfielder Peyton McNamara and defender Izzy Rodriguez. She entered the 2021 season as the Buckeyes’ bona-fide top scorer.
This season, Fischer has gotten off to a rocky start. She was forced to miss the team’s game against Wisconsin after being handed a red card in the season opener against Michigan. Before being sent off, Fischer did assist on Sears’ game tying goal.
Fischer is a top tier scoring threat, and along with the emerging Sears, Maryland’s defense will have its hands full come Thursday.
Senior defender Izzy Rodriguez (No. 9) — Mikayla Dayes and Alyssa Poarch will need to be prepared on Thursday for the force that is Izzy Rodriguez.
Rodriguez, a first team All-Big Ten selection in 2018 and a third team selection in 2017 and 2019, is about as sturdy a defender as it gets.
Rodriguez played one of the best games of her 2019 season against Maryland, tallying four shots in the team’s 1-0 win. She recorded one goal and two assists in total last season, an impressive feat for a defender.
Offensive options. Ohio State’s offense boasts the forward duo of Fischer and Sears, as well as the midfield starting freshman duo of Kine Flotre and Peyton McNamara. That’s a lot of top-notch scoring options. All of these pieces means the Maryland defense is going to have to be on-point across the entire field. Otherwise, cracks in the defense will be exploited.
Allowing penalties. Along with Fischer’s red card, the Buckeyes has been booked for three yellow cards this season. The Terps’ offense has struggled at times, but if the Buckeyes allow the penalties to rack up, Maryland could capitalize.
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Maryland rebound from its poor start? The Terps have been a tale of two teams: the cheerful squad that looks past the result and the on-field squad that can’t get the result it wants. Maryland’s poor start can be attributed to bad luck, but at least part of it has to be on the team’s inability to play up to the competition.
Even so, players still believe in this team’s potential.
“We have a lot of fight in us,” Tolson said. “We’re just going to have to keep fighting through until we get our desired outcome.”
2. Who will be in goal? Ray Leone hasn’t been shy when discussing the competition for minutes between Tolson and sophomore Nicole Kwoczka. In the team’s first two games, the goalies split time, each playing a half.
Against Northwestern, however, Tolson played the entire game. Following the loss, it will be interesting to see if Leone decides to keep Tolson in goal or move to Kwoczka.
“I think any of us can be on the field at any point in time,” Tolson said. “It’s just up to whatever the coaches want to do.”
3. Can Maryland’s offense get off shots? Ohio State’s defense, led by Rodriguez, has only allowed one goal in each game to begin the season. Maryland’s offense, led by forward Mikayla Dayes, has only scored three total goals through three games.
The Terps only attempted eight shots against Northwestern. Against Ohio State’s imposing defense, the Terps will need to find more offensive chances.
These two units will clash at a particularly interesting time, as Maryland’s leading goal-scorer from last season, Alyssa Poarch, will see her second game since returning from injury. Poarch looked rusty but showed flashes of brilliance in her first game back against Northwestern. She failed to score but attempted three of the team’s eight shots.
“Her presence on the field is huge for us,” McNesby said. “She’s such an incredible player, and when she gets the ball, teams get scared.”