After claiming their first Mid-Continent Conference regular season and tournament title in school history, the lofty goal of repeating the feat and returning to the NCAA Tournament is on the minds of the Valparaiso Crusaders heading into the 2006 season.
With 16 letterwinners returning, including eight starters, head coach Stephen Anthony has built a balanced team with a combination of talented defenders and potent scorers. Couple that with eight newcomers and a schedule which sees the Crusaders play eight home matches at Eastgate Field and you have a team that appears poised to make a run at another league crown.
Between the posts Anthony returns junior goalkeeper Erin Murray, who has already set numerous school marks in her first two seasons with the Brown and Gold. A First Team All Mid-Con selection as a sophomore after earning Second Team accolades as a rookie, Murray set a single season school mark with a school-best 1.35 goals against average while posting a .786 save percentage in 2005. Her 11 career shutouts are most in Valpo history as well.
Valpo's backline has been a major reason why the Crusaders have had success the past few seasons. Sophomore Jackie Thomas was a First Team All Mid-Con defender as a freshman last season, and will help to anchor the Brown and Gold's defense. Thomas, along with classmate Laura Murphy, started every single match as a rookie in 2005.
The sophomore duo will be joined by junior Courtney Rahrig, a member of the Mid-Con's All-Tournament Team last season. Rahrig has started every match of her two-year career, and scored the match-winning goal in the Mid-Con championship last season against Oakland.
The experienced backline is capped by Liberty Ziegahn, a three-year starter entering her senior campaign. Ziegahn was a Second Team All-Conference pick as a freshman, and has been a vital part of the Crusader defense each of the past three years.
In the midfield, youth and veterans will need to blend together to help the Crusaders be successful in the transition game. Sophomore Dana McGlone started 19 matches in her freshman season and tied for second on the team with four assists.
Juniors Britta Zewers and Sonney Ziegahn each have seen a great deal of action on the field during their first two seasons wearing the Brown and Gold and will be called upon more heavily heading into 2006. They each have tallied a pair of assists early on in their careers.
Redshirt-junior Lauren Cooper also has been a major part of the midfield for the Crusaders since recovering from a knee injury that sidelined her during her freshman campaign. Cooper has appeared in 39 matches over two years, making 11 starts already for the Brown and Gold.
Sophomore Reva Van Aartsen saw the field 13 times last season for the Crusaders, and will make a push to make more of an impact heading into season two. Senior Jen Wegehaupt also returns for Valpo and will add depth to the midfield, giving the Crusaders the balance they need for both the defensive third as well as the attacking third.
A talented group of scorers should help the Crusaders continue to find the back of the net. After setting a school record with 36 goals in 2005, Valpo returns five forwards which are capable of scoring.
Sophomore Kendall Brown was a Second Team All Mid-Con selection during her rookie season after finding the back of the net ten times, tying for third on Valpo's single season scoring list. Her 24 points as a rookie included three match-winning goals.
Fellow sophomore Lori Johnson scored six times for the Crusaders as a freshman, including a pair of match-winners, giving Valpo a talented duo on the frontline. Johnson, like Brown, was a Second Team All-Conference pick, and started 14 times for the Brown and Gold.
Junior Brittany Derksen has tallied six goals over her first two seasons, including a hat trick last year. Senior Jen Bartels also adds depth at forward for the Crusaders. She will look to return to the same form she had in her first two seasons, when she scored six times and tallied 17 points for Valpo. Sophomore Tiffania Giusti will also look to break into the lineup after gaining a year's experience with the Crusaders.
Valpo's schedule is designed to help the Crusaders succeed as they move into Mid-Continent Conference action. After opening the season on the road August 25 at Indiana State, the Brown and Gold will return to Eastgate Field for three straight matches, including the home opener against Loyola (Chicago) on August 27.
A four-match roadtrip follows, including the Mid-Con opener in Macomb, Ill. again Western Illinois. Valpo will return home to face Oral Roberts and Evansville before against hitting the road for three more contests, and five of its next six.
The Crusaders also have home non-conference tilts slated against Cleveland State, Akron, and Lewis.
Valpo will close out the regular season at home against IUPUI and Southern Utah. The 2006 Mid-Continent Conference Women's Soccer Championships is slated for November 2 and 4 in Rochester, Mich. where the top four teams in the league will battle for the league crown and the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
The pieces are there for Valpo to attempt to repeat the success of 2005. Solid goalkeeping, an experienced backline, a balanced midfield, and key scorers should help the Crusaders remain near the top of the Mid-Continent Conference. With the rest of the league looking to defeat the defending league champions, now is the time for Valparaiso to step up and respond. If the Crusaders can, the Brown and Gold could be looking to hoist the trophy once again in 2006.