Aug 18, 2013
VILLANOVA, Pa. - The 2013 season will be a mix of old and new for the Villanova Wildcats under fifth-year head coach John Byford. Many Villanova fans chronicled and followed the off-season developments of the new BIG EAST Conference, which is now fully formed and underway with the addition of three new opponents in Butler, Creighton and Xavier, but the Wildcats are quietly putting together what could be the most experienced squad in the conference for the upcoming season as they enter their 31st year of varsity soccer later this week.
In 2012, the Wildcats returned to post-season play for the first time since 2009 when they made the first round of the BIG EAST Championship and hosted DePaul at the Villanova Soccer Complex. Despite falling to the Blue Demons to conclude the season, Villanova put together a terrific run highlighted by the defeat of two ranked opponents in Rutgers and Georgetown. That run, coupled with a young squad gaining valuable playing time at every position has put the Wildcats in prime position to make some noise with their season opener against Radford just days away.
Villanova returns an astounding 10 starters and 19 letterwinners in total this season all while strengthening the team with five newcomers to the active roster. The incoming class gives the Wildcats a chance to begin the season with the most depth and interchangeability they've had in recent history.
Head Coach John Byford states, "Last year, a lot of our starters who got experience were freshmen and sophomores. Now, they have a little bit of experience, they're a little bit wiser and we probably have the deepest and strongest squad we've ever had. We have a lot of good players. Preseason has been good. We have a really good group of girls and the freshmen have integrated well. It's been a lot of fun."
Villanova was chosen to finish third in the BIG EAST Preseason Coaches' Poll which was released two weeks ago. Powerhouses Marquette and Georgetown were chosen for first and second place, respectively, while the Hoyas swept the Player of the Year categories for offensive, defensive and goalkeeper of the year. Villanova's Taylor Houck (Chalfont, Pa.) and Emily Damstrom (Short Hills, N.J.) were chosen as Preseason All-BIG EAST selections after both had outstanding seasons in 2012. Despite missing out on the top team preseason spot, the Wildcats have plenty to look forward to as they start the year.
"Our goal is to win the BIG EAST Tournament. It's been 10 years since we won it and it would be a nice 10 year anniversary to do it again. Obviously there are some good teams that remain from the old BIG EAST and there are some unknown qualities in the three teams that have joined. We've got a preseason ranking of third which has given our players some incentive to say `alright, let's go and prove that wrong.' But there's going to be some good games. We're confident that we're going to do well."
Perhaps the biggest internal challenge for Wildcats will be replacing Heidi Sabatura, who concluded her collegiate career tied for second all-time at Villanova with 28 assists. Over the course of her career Sabatura tallied 24 goals and 28 assists for 76 points and earned a host of awards and accolades throughout her tenure on the Main Line. Despite the loss of the playmaker, Villanova looks to move ahead with a trio of young apprentices looking to make their name on the collegiate stage. First on that list is freshman Katie Martin (Dallas, Texas), the 2013 Texas Gatorade Player of the Year.
"From what we've seen so far we're really excited in what we see in Katie Martin. She scored an awful lot of goals for her club and high school and she's done well so far. She's got a nose for the goal and has the mentality to get into a situation where you got to sacrifice your body," Byford states.
Martin led her high school team to a 4A state championship and was the two-time leading goal scorer for the Sting 95 ENCL team. She'll look to create scoring opportunities alongside a duo of sophomores in Christina Camassa (Freehold, N.J.) and Reanna Marino (Massapequa, N.Y.).
"Reanna and Christina have both had good springs. Kendra [Jones] is back fit now after an ACL tear and has been playing wide forward. Emily Damstrom and Victoria Gersh are interchangeable and both can play up front or in the back."
Camassa and Marino combined to play 970 minutes last season while Marino registered one goal in the season opener against American in 2012. The Wildcats will also have the ability to interchange several players between the midfield and attack with plenty of versatile and athletically-gifted student-athletes at their disposal.
A trio of players in senior Stephanie Myers (Frisco, Texas), junior Victoria Gersh (Silver Spring ,Md.) and sophomore Emily Damstrom (Short Hills, N.J.) will be called upon to anchor the Villanova midfield as all three came on strong in 2012. The group returns as the top three point scorers from last season and combined for 21 points via eight goals and five assists. Myers, one of the Wildcats co-captains, can play both a central midfield role and push forward while Damstrom, a preseason All-BIG EAST selection, has the same capability and a nose for the goal. Gersh is the top returning scorer from 2012 and has a keen playmaking ability to create and generate offensive opportunities.
Byford states, "We got a number of girls who can play that central midfield role for us. Stephanie Myers has been very successful over the past few years so I see no reason why she shouldn't be a major contributor. Victoria Gersh can play in there. Emily Damstrom played a majority of the season at midfield last year but moved up front towards the end of the season. We got Hayley Wilson a lot of minutes there last year. We have a couple of freshmen who have shown that they can play at that level. Amanda Penkrot started last year against Penn State and had a concussion, but she had a good spring. We have a lot of options and a lot of good players."
Sophomore Hayley Wilson (Leonardstown, Md.) appeared in all 19 games and made 15 starts for Villanova in 2012 and tallied one goal and three assists for five points. At 5'9" she has the ability to win balls out of the air and adds a good physical presence for the Wildcats on set pieces. Junior Amanda Penkrot (Wilmington, Del.) is one of the Wildcats tri-captains this season and appeared in six games last year before a concussion sidelined her for much of 2012. Both players will look to make a steady impact.
Villanova will also likely see plenty of time from senior Kendra Jones (Hershey, Pa.) and junior Caitlin Forte (Selbyville, Del.). Jones moves into a more offensive role after playing most of 2012 as a defensive back while Forte appeared in 15 games while making four starts as a sophomore. Combined, the duo registered three goals and one assist for seven points in 2012. Sophomore Shannon Rhodes (Brooklyn, N.Y.) also had a successful spring and will push for minutes this upcoming season as well.
Additionally, Byford has the option of using three freshmen in Caroline Brown (Raleigh, N.C.), Callie Duliba (Kintnersville, Pa.) and Caitlin Bucksbaum (Falmouth, Maine) at the midfield. "Bucksbaum has pleasantly surprised us. She absolutely blew our fitness test away and got the record by a mile and is the 2012 and 2013 Maine Gatorade Player of the Year." Byford states, "Caroline Brown we know is great on the ball. Never gives the ball away and that's what she's shown. Callie Duliba also is good, she's versatile. She can play in the midfield and she can play out the back."
Byford continued, "That's the key, not necessarily saying who's our best 11 players but what groups work best together. That's part of preseason and the early games is working that stuff out. We've got a lot of players that are good players and who work well together. We can rotate people around and when you're playing two games sometimes in the space of two or three days it means they're not getting super tired and you can maintain a level of play."
Byford has a very solid backline returning for 2013 that allowed just 22 goals in 19 games a year ago. Returning as Villanova's central defender will be senior co-captain Taylor Houck (Chalfont, Pa.) who earned All-BIG EAST Second Team honors in 2012. She was also the lone Wildcat to appear in every minute of every game last season and was the go-to player on set pieces for the season, registering 15 shots and 10 shots on goal for the year.
"Taylor is a very, very competitive kid," Byford states. "She had an excellent season last year as a defender. She's very good on the ball and a good tackler. She's a great organizer and that's kind of her nature. You want strength up the middle and with Jami [Kranich] and Taylor we have not just strength but experience too."
The Wildcats also return juniors Kathryn Rayner (Needham, Mass.) and Kaitlin Hogman (Center Valley, Pa.) who became mainstays on defense in 2012. Rayner is perhaps the Wildcats best marking back while Hogman settled into a starting defensive role for 14 games following the VCU contest last season.
"Kathryn just has a defenders mentality and without a doubt she's one of our best marking backs. She doesn't want to get beat and will just throw her body in front of shots and corners. She's just a defender that loves to defend. She loves to compete."
Sophomores Rhea Barghash (Bridgewater, N.J.) and Renee Hart (Bethesda, Md.) will also see plenty of time this upcoming season. Barghash transitioned from midfield to right back midway through her freshman campaign while Hart tried out defense during the offseason. Both are highly capable players that give the Wildcats depth and options while the duo combined for two goals and one assist for five points in 2012.
"Rhea can keep the ball and play the ball out the back. She's also tough minded. She has the defender's mentality. We tried Renee during the spring as an outside back. She has that right mentality and she's so fast. She can recover back after a run better than anyone. She has all the attributes you need to be an outside back, she has the speed and she's scrappy."
Byford also has reliability in junior Katie Campbell (Highlands Ranch, Colo.) and sophomore Michelle Wiese (Syracuse, N.Y.) who will compete for minutes. Wiese appeared in three games for Villanova last season as a freshman and both add physicality and size to Villanova's defense.
Senior goalkeeper Jami Kranich (Hamden, Conn.) is back for her senior season and has been the starter in goal for Villanova the past three years. During that time she has played over 4,000 minutes while starting all 45 games she's been available for after missing the beginning of 2012 with the U.S. U-20 Women's National Team for the FIFA U-20 World Cup. Her appointment on the national team marked the first player in Villanova history to participate in a World Cup event while still an undergraduate.
Byford states, "They don't take people on the national team if they don't have something. Jami brings organization, she can stop shots. She gives confidence to the entire team. It makes a big difference. We only let four goals in the regular season in seven games that Jami was in last year."
Kranich certainly has the stats to back up her outstanding play and has tallied 188 saves in her career while holding a .718 save percentage. She'll be relied upon to anchor a stellar defense of returning players.
"Emily Meyer made a couple of good saves in our scrimmage. She's a good goalkeeper. Her feet are good in terms of her movement; she's comfortable with the ball at her feet. And unusual for a freshman she's confident enough to organize the people in front of her which is sometimes difficult when you're trying to organize upperclassmen."
Villanova opens the year at home against Radford on August 23 and will travel to nationally-ranked Maryland (Aug. 26) during the opening long weekend of the season. The non-conference schedule also features home games against Lehigh (Sept. 1), Richmond (Sept. 8) La Salle (Sept. 12) and Saint Francis (Sept. 15) while the Wildcats face Drexel (Aug. 30), James Madison (Sept. 6) and Rutgers (Sept. 20) on the road.
Regular season BIG EAST play opens with a pair of home games against Butler (Sept. 26) and Marquette (Sept. 29) before the Wildcats hit the road for three away contests versus Xavier (Oct. 3), DePaul (Oct. 6) and St. John's (Oct. 12). The Wildcats have a balanced conference schedule with five home games and four away contests. Villanova also plays Creighton (Oct. 17), Georgetown (Oct. 27) and Providence (Nov. 2) at home and will travel to Seton Hall (Oct. 20) for the conclusion of regular season BIG EAST action.