July 29, 2005

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Coming off one of Ohio State’s best seasons in the 52-year history of the program, the Buckeyes return many of the components that went into building last year’s NCAA Sweet 16 squad and Big Ten regular season co-champion. However, duplicating its 2004 campaign is not the goal for Ohio State in 2005 – improving on it is.

Answers are more plentiful than questions as ninth-year head coach John Bluem, the 2004 Big Ten Coach of the Year, enters the fall with 17 returning letterwinners and nine starters back from a team that went 12-7-2, tied eventual national champion Indiana for the Big Ten regular season title and won the school’s first two NCAA tournament games.

The departure of four seniors, all four-year starters, from last season generates the questions, however, with the biggest one being how the Buckeyes will fill the void left by forward Justin Cook, the 2004 Big Ten Player of the Year and a third-team All-American. While the Buckeyes return four-fifths of their Big Ten leading defense and a surplus of talent and depth in the midfield, Bluem knows he must replace Cook, one of Ohio State’s best all-time goal scorers, who totaled 12 goals and six assists last season.

“We are going to be extremely strong defensively and we’re so deep in the center of our midfield, but we need someone to put the ball in the back of the net for us to be successful,” Bluem said. “Last year we had a good postseason run and played very well at the end of the season and had a great All-American scoring goals for us and leading us. We need to replace that. People need to step up and take that role and take that responsibility.”

While noting the strength of his defense, Bluem also pointed out his back four are just as versatile as they are good defenders. That fact applies to the entire team, which can only help when it comes to that point in the season when the team will want to be playing its best soccer. “We have a lot of options and I like our versatility,” Bluem said. “Like we did last year when we moved Kyle Veris to the back, we need to figure out who our 10 best players are and perhaps move guys into other positions to get those 10 guys on the field. One of the things about this team, when you talk about groups of players, is that our defense is very strong and very deep and versatile. We have players back there that can play other positions.”

Bluem, who became Ohio State’s all-time wins leader last season, must also replace his back left defender, Eric Schwebach, and his two starting flank midfield players, Peter Withers on the left and Sammy Tamporello on the right. First-team All-Big Ten defender Kyle Veris, second-team goalkeeper Ray Burse Jr. and second-team midfielder Taylor Korpieski are all back among a talented and experienced group of veterans that will line up alongside a heralded recruiting class that is ranked No. 14 in the country.

“We have good players, but we need to make sure we’re not overconfident,” Bluem said. “In the preseason we’ll work on the fact that this is a new year and we have achieved nothing yet. We’ll need to role our sleeves up and go to work. If we develop that kind of attitude early on we’ll have a very successful season. If we think we’re going to the Sweet 16 again this season just because of who we are, it won’t happen.”

The Buckeyes return one of the Big Ten’s best goalkeepers, senior Ray Burse Jr., who posted a 0.87 goals-against average and six shutouts last season on his way to earning second-team All-Big Ten honors. Backing him up is a talented sophomore, Casey Latchem, who started seven games and had a 1.64 GAA a year ago.

“Our goalkeeper position, other than a lack of depth, is very safe,” Bluem said. “We’re very confident that we’ll get good goalkeeping throughout the year. We have two guys who are very capable, top flight goalkeepers; you can pick and choose.”

While their styles may be different, both Burse and Latchem give Ohio State the confidence that comes with having a strong last line of defense, while at the same time being able to use its keeper to help set up the offensive attack.

“Ray is a little more athletic and is so big and strong and can fly through the air, while Casey gets it done by being in the right place and technically chooses the best way to go for the ball and makes the save that way,” Bluem analyzed. “Both are excellent distributors of the ball, so our ability to play through our goalkeeper and have our keeper hit long balls and be an effective attacking player is good.”

The Defense
Annually one of the Big Ten’s best defensive units, the 2004 Buckeyes were no exception, allowing only two goals in the Big Ten regular season. Prior to a season-ending loss at Duke in the Sweet 16, Ohio State had allowed only four goals in its previous 12 matches.

“We return three of our back four, which I think was one of the best back fours in the country last year,” Bluem said. “Going into this season our defense, with another year of experience, should be better than it was last year and is probably the strength of our team. It’s a very confident group that knows it isn’t going to give up many goals.”

The loss of Eric Schwebach on the left side was the lone departure from the back, while returning starters in the middle include Veris and junior Dustin Kirby, while junior Jim Fisher returns on the right side. Kirby and Fisher rarely came off the field last year as sophomores, ranking first and fourth, respectively, on the team in minutes played. Returning depth includes senior Reid Traeger and sophomore Ben Oliver, while newcomers include sophomore transfer Eric Brunner, who helped lead Maryland to the College Cup last season, and freshmen Tim Gabel and Geoff Marsh.

As good a job defending as the back four do, they will work in tandem with the midfield to complete the defense and help set up the offense.

“We have a tremendous amount of depth defensively and we can put out a tall, fast and skillful lineup that can go forward and score goals from the back,” Bluem said. “And when you combine that with the ability of our midfield, because we have great fighters and ball winners there, I don’t think we’re going to allow many goals.”

The Midfield
In the midfield lies depth and versatility, which Ohio State will need in order to fill the shoes of the departed Peter Withers and Sammy Tamporello, who occupied the flank positions the last four years.

“We are not at a lack of people to play in our midfield, but the question mark there is on the outside,” Bluem said. “But we think with Ryan Kustos on the right side and Kyle Retzlaff, Scott Marguglio, Eric Brunner and even Taylor Korpieski, on the left side, we’ll have a lot of choices. We have a lot of depth in the midfield so we can move people around.”

Kustos was Tamporello’s chief backup last year and came through with five goals, including the game-winner in the second-round win at No. 9 Notre Dame, and an assist in limited playing time.

Unless asked to play on the flank, Korpieski, a second-team All-Big Ten selection last year, will return to the central midfield to join returning starter Brent Rohrer and impressive reserves Antonio Garcia and Rob Strachan. Korpieski dished out eight assists last season, just two shy of the OSU single-season record, and scored four goals. Rohrer, meanwhile, started all but one game and ranked No. 3 on the squad in minutes played.

“We think Taylor is best centrally in midfield,” Bluem said, “but if it turns out we need Antonio and Brent on the field at the same time in the central midfield for defensive purposes, then choosing to play Taylor on the left side of midfield isn’t bad at all, because he can have free roll and attack up and down the flank and cause people problems.”

Garcia and Rohrer could also see time in the defense, but however the Buckeyes align, it will be with athletes who are multi-dimensional and provide the crucial link from the back to the front. Freshmen Danny Irizarry and Patrick Roan will also factor into the Buckeyes’ 2005 equation.

“It’s a good group that is creative, can knock the ball around, keep possession and do the dirty work and defend. With the back four we have behind us, it should really free up our midfield to look to get forward and attack. We have a great variety of players who can offer both dimensions of the game, attacking and defending, and some that do both very well.”

No doubt Ohio State opponents have been waiting for the day when they do not have to defend against the likes of Justin Cook. The Chicago Fire draftee left Ohio State with 33 goals scored and 17 assists in his career and became the first player in Big Ten history to earn the conference’s freshman of the year award and later be named the player of the year.

“Up front, that’s the question mark,” Bluem said. “We lost Justin Cook, a third-team All-American and the Big Ten Player of the Year. His 12 goals and six assists – who is going to replace that?”

Bluem did not have to look far before coming up with the answer to his question – senior Kevin Nugent, who has nine goals and an assist on his collegiate resume, but who has played in Cook’s shadow.

“The guy we are going to put up there and stick with him and work with him is Kevin Nugent,” Bluem said. “He is a natural goal-scorer and scored the tough goals to lead his club team, Team Dayton, to the national championship. Kevin has got to be in great goal-scoring form for us and Xavier Balc has to step it up and win that other forward spot. We need Xavier, David Bauer and Eric Edwards to score goals and do all the other little things, too, the defending and the play-making.”

Balc, who split time between the midfield and up top last year, ended the season with three goals and five assists and is one of Ohio State’s most talented ball strikers. The versatile Korpieski could also figure into Bluem’s plans up top.

“Taylor could play up top, too,” Bluem said. “That’s the critical question going into the season. We need to settle on a tandem of strikers who will play well together, set up scoring chances and score when they get those chances and take the pressure off our defense. If that happens, we’re going to be good.”

The Road to the Postseason
The confidence gained from a successful season naturally spills over into the anticipation of the next, but Bluem has already singled out his first task to address when the Buckeyes report for preseason camp.

“We have to remember that we were 12-7-2 last year, not 17-3-1,” Bluem said. “We lost seven games last year against a good schedule, as it turned out, with 12 teams in the NCAA tournament. We went 6-6 against those 12 teams, so we need to be better than that. That’s the challenge before the players. We just had a good year. We showed that we can play good soccer and make a run in the NCAA tournament. Now are we going to be able to reproduce the same kind of effort?”

A challenging schedule will surely test the Buckeyes in their quest. Five opponents on the 2005 schedule were ranked in the final NSCAA/adidas national poll, where Ohio State was ranked No. 16, and eight were among the 48-team NCAA tournament field.

“We have again tried to put together a schedule that will challenge the players,” Bluem said. “Hopefully as the season wears on, the teams we have selected to play will have good seasons so our strength of schedule is very strong. Last year, we were 10-6-2 entering the NCAA tournament and we got an at-large bid. I think this year’s schedule, similar to last year, is such that if we win 10, 11 or 12 games, we won’t have to win the conference to get into the NCAA tournament.”

After exhibition matches at Dayton and against Cincinnati in Crew Stadium, the Buckeyes open the season with three consecutive tournaments. In those six games, Ohio State will face Marquette, New Mexico, Coastal Carolina, Furman, Cal State Fullerton and UCLA.

“Our first six games of the season will be very challenging and will really test us and show us what we need to work on, which is good,” Bluem said. “They should prepare us for the very difficult Big Ten Conference season that we have.”

Following the three tournaments, OSU will enter a difficult stretch of five games in 10 days.

“That week, Sunday Kentucky, Wednesday Butler, Friday at Akron, Sunday at Wisconsin, four games in eight days, will be a very tough stretch for us,” Bluem said. “And if you count Friday at Bowling Green it’s five games in 10 days. But sometimes to get these teams on your schedule that’s the way it happens. Our depth will definitely come into play there.”

The Wisconsin match will mark the start of Big Ten play, where the Buckeyes will face six opponents, five of which were in the NCAA tournament last year.

“The Big Ten is going to be very strong again,” Bluem noted. “All the conference matches, as usual, will be very tough games. Last year we did very well to go 5-1. Certainly we would love to repeat as Big Ten regular season champions.”

After road contests at Michigan State and Louisville, Ohio State will play four of its final five regular season matches at home, marking a reverse of the grueling road schedule the Buckeyes faced a year ago.

“Different from last year when we were on the road for four of our last five, this year we’re at home for four of our last five games,” Bluem said. “That might help us, and after Indiana we have five days off before Northwestern and then we have six days off before Michigan comes in, so we have a nice spacing to the end of the season against some good conference opponents that will hopefully allow us to get ready for each of them and finish up the season strong.”

The Big Ten tournament, which will decide the Conference champion, is where Bluem hopes his Buckeyes will break a recent trend and, at the same time, gain some momentum heading into what could be the program’s fourth trip to the NCAA tournament in the last six seasons.

“Personally for me, something that I think this team needs to set as a goal for itself is making a better performance in the Big Ten tournament,” Bluem said. “We’ve been knocked out in the quarterfinals four years in a row. It would be nice to see this team take on the responsibility of changing that.”

From start to finish, Ohio State’s 2005 season certainly has the potential to be another very memorable one. Come December, it could very likely be that the Buckeyes have climbed another rung on the ladder of success.

### Go Bucks! ###