MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — Conference USA hits the reset button in 2023, with a number of schools leaving and a handful of new schools joining the conference. It provides a great time for the programs that remained in the league with a chance to evaluate themselves and reset as the new-look conference gets ready for competition in the 2023-24 athletic year.
One such program that looks to hit the reset button and return to being a bellcow in the Women’s Soccer picture is Middle Tennessee.
“There’s been a ton of unity within the group,” said Head Coach Aston Rhoden. “There’s a level of experience that we’re missing, so having that unity is going to help us. We don’t talk much about last season out loud because it’s in the rear-view mirror, but at the same time I think we all know it’s still in the mirror and everyone has used it as motivation to work hard and continue getting better.”
With the departure of Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Rice UTSA and UAB at the end of last season, CUSA added Jacksonville State, Liberty, Sam Houston and New Mexico State in 2023.
“All the new teams come from different leagues with different identities,” Rhoden said. “I think those identities are different from the existing teams in our conference. These new schools are a lot more athletic, physical and direct in their approach. We’ve seen that before, there’s just more of it now, which will be an adjustment.”
Though the results in 2022 were tough for Middle Tennessee, a bright spot the Blue Raiders had last season was a back line forced opponents into taking fewer shots and shots on goal, and the bulk of that group returns in 2023, including grad student Caroline Manley, who has not missed a start across her career to date.
“Having (49 starts in a row) is something I take a lot of pride in,” Manley said. “It definitely means a lot and I hope I can continue to uphold it throughout the season.”
Aside from Manley, fellow grad student Hannah Suder returns for another season in net. The Jacksonville, Fla. native had no shortage of acrobatic saves in net and kept the Blue Raiders in a number of games last season.
Rejoining Manley on the back line is fellow senior Lauren Spaanstra who started in all 17 matches last year and added three assists to her credit. Jessica Oliveras logged some meaningful playing time as a freshman last year and looks to take a more expanded role this year as a sophomore, even with three upperclassmen in the position group.
The third you ask? A grad student the Blue Raiders added in the transfer portal in Kaitlyn Butcher, who has played in 52 games in her career thus far after coming from George Mason.
“I think as much as we might’ve been older last year, we’re going to add some new faces to the back line to make it better,” Manley said. “We have a lot of talent and I’m excited to see how much we’ve improved this year.”
The area that MTSU looks to take a big step forward in this season is in goal scoring. Coming off a year in which a lot of young players logged minutes in the forward and midfield groups, that experience looks to come to fruition this year, especially with players such as Emma Pettersen and Taijah Fraser. Two of the top freshmen last year, Pettersen showed a real want for the ball, making good decisions both with and without the ball to score a team-high four goals and tied for the team lead with eight points.
Fraser, one of the fastest players on the pitch, made numerous great runs last year to put herself in good position to score, resulting in 359 minutes off the bench last year and a call to Jamaica’s U-20 team this offseason, starting in a win against Panama in the CONCACAF Championships.
The Blue Raider attack will lean heavily on veterans Campbell Kivisto and Elizabeth Slavinsky to return to form after missing time last season.
While Slavinsky missed last season due to injury, she is a player that has scored game-winning goals across her career and is a welcome sight to see on the field for fans in 2023. Kivisto missed some time last year as well, but is back and ready to return to her 2021 form in which she registered career highs in goals, shots on goal, minutes and games played.
The group with perhaps the most on its shoulders in terms of supporting the team’s goal-scoring efforts as a whole are the midfielders, who like the forwards, were a young group last year.
Manon Lebargy, Eleanor Gough, Delaney Thomas and Sascha Nielsen all played big roles last year and made huge strides as the season wore on. Gough, Lebargy and Nielsen all were among the top four in the team in assists last year and look to continue helping keep the ball in the offensive end of the pitch this year.
“As much as we were very talented, we weren’t as experienced, and I think that’s where our goal scoring dried up some,” Rhoden said. “Once we got some experience back on the field, which we did in the spring, you get what we did in the spring in not losing a game, even against opponents we played in the fall. We didn’t give up many goals and scored quite a bit. We’ve worked a lot on efficiency and composure, and I think we’ve done a lot better at that.”
Aside from Butcher, Faith Adje also joins Middle Tennessee from the transfer portal. Adje, a junior forward from UT-Tyler in Tyler, Texas, comes to Murfreesboro with seven goals in two seasons and shows potential to be a boost to the Blue Raider offense.
Overall, the Blue Raiders are still a young group in 2023, with 10 freshmen on this year’s roster.
Hannah Murphy, Kadence Krempges and Skylar Williams will all compete for time with the forwards this season, with Murphy also able to play midfield. The freshman midfield trio of Olivia Norton, Presley Morales and Olivia Ouzounidis will all look to be able to blend in with the talented midfield group from last year through their ability to also make quick reads and distribute while providing excellent support to the back line.
The future of the back line also looks promising with Sadie Sterbenz, Dylan Barnes and Ruby Ryan. The trio all have shown good awareness and the ability to make smart plays to get the ball out quickly in their prep careers.
“I think you can feel the energy and desire to prove that we aren’t what we were last year,” Manley said. “I think we’re going to be a lot better with all the new faces we have now. With the meetings we’ve had and the way we’ve been playing, I think this group is ready to get started and show what we’re about.”
With a day until the exhibition opener in Murfreesboro against Southern Indiana, the time has finally come for the 2023-24 athletic year to get underway. With Blue Raider soccer once again having the honors of kicking us off this year, a much-improved year certainly looks to be on tap with the goal still being to compete for a spot in the conference tournament, where anything can happen for a team that’s hungry to claim a title.
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