Season outlook looks promising for Ohio State

COLUMBUS, Ohio – The 2009 Ohio State field hockey team will look to continue building upon the foundation that led the Buckeyes to a 14-7 season and runner-up finish at the Big Ten Tournament in 2008. Head coach Anne Wilkinson, who is in her 14th season at the helm in Columbus and her 22nd season overall, enters 2009 with nine starters returning from a team that won six of their last seven games.

The 2009 Buckeye squad is deep. Bolstered by a talented freshman class, veteran leadership will be key in ushering the young players to Ohio State’s game plan while the individual talent develops into a team. The squad faces early challenges, but with the right combination of talent and leadership, the Buckeyes will have depth in the line-up to make a strong run at a Big Ten tournament and a berth to the NCAA tournament.

The Scarlet and Gray’s greatest strength lies in a suffocating team defense. A solid core of midfielders and backs collaborated to post nine shutouts in 2008, the most since 1979, to rank third in the NCAA with 0.43 shutouts per game. Ohio State’s seniors Natalia Ciminello, Rachel Hunter, Melissa Palm and goalkeeper Lindsay Quintiliani own a collective 150 starts, and will serve as the backbone of the Buckeye defense.

In addition, junior midfielder Bri Doak and sophomore backs Aisling Coyle and Jenn Sciulli, all of whom had 21 starts a year ago, will again serve Ohio State both offensively and defensively.

Ohio State’s last line of defense held its 2008 opponents to only 26 goals in 21 contests (1.18 GAA). Ciminello and Hunter started 41 and 39 games, respectively, while Doak has started every game of her Buckeye career (39).

Sciulli proved she had what it took to start as a freshman, posting four goals and four assists for 12 points while recording a team-high two defensive saves in 2008. The Palmyra, Pa., native now has the opportunity to use that experience and elevate her game to the next level in 2009. The backline will be bolstered by the addition of freshman Laura Napolitano.

After tallying 17 points and three gamewinners each in 2008, Jena Cacciatore and Aisling Coyle are Ohio State’s top returning scorers. The junior and sophomore duo recorded at least a point in 10-of-14 games a season ago.  A forward from Allentown, Pa., Cacciatore scored a career-best eight goals as a sophomore and has 33 career starts under her belt. Coyle, a second-team NFCHA All-West Region and All-Big Ten selection, recorded seven assists, the most by a returning Buckeye, in 21 starts as a redshirt freshman in the midfield and backfield.

In all, Ohio State has six players returning who have scored multiple goals, including West Vancouver, British Columbia, native Melissa Palm who had seven while adding two assists in 21 starts.

New additions to the forward line in Berta Queralt, Maria Briones and Danica Deckard will add firepower to a potent Buckeye attack. Queralt helped Spain’s Under-18 National team to gold at the 2009 EuroHockey Youth Nationals in July, scoring six goals in the tournament. Add incoming freshman forward in Kelly Beam and the Buckeyes will have lots of speed and enthusiasm up front.

The midfield has been a traditionally strong position for the Buckeyes with Ohio State producing three-consecutive Big Ten Offensive Players of the Year in Yesenia Luces (2006 and 2007) and Linda Haussener (2008). Junior midfielder Aisling McKeon and sophomore Morgan Clark will take the knowledge imparted by Haussener to again show Ohio State’s strength in the midfield.

McKeon increased her viability as a scoring threat with a strong sophomore year that resulted in five goals and 14 points. The Galway, Ireland, native kept Ohio State’s run at the 2008 Big Ten Tournament alive, tallying the gamewinner vs. Michigan (Nov. 6) and followed with the overtime goal to knock out No. 1-seed Penn State (Nov. 7) in the semifinals.

After earning playing time in 16 games, the second most by a true freshman a season ago, Clark gained valuable experience will have the opportunity to expand her role on the team in the midfield.  Adding depth to the midfield will be senior Melissa Hunter.

A boost of healthy competition for the starting goalkeeper position will help strengthen Ohio State in the net. After splitting time between three keepers a season ago, the Buckeyes will look to draw on each goalie’s strength as the season progresses.

Quintiliani started 14 games in the net for the Buckeyes, posting an 8-6 record last year, including three shutouts. The NFHCA National Academic Squad member allowed only 20 goals in 950:54 minutes of play. The Mountain Top, Pa., native owns a career record of 28-20 and has nine career shutouts, good for fifth in the OSU record book.

Competing for a start in goal are sophomore Ally Tunitis, who posted a 6-1 record in 2008, and junior Ali Ristas. Tunitis started her college career off strong, playing 500:56 minutes in the net, making 26 saves while allowing just six goals and posting three shutouts as a rookie.  Ristas earned time in three games a season ago, making two saves and allowing no goals in 86:57 minutes of play.

Eight of Ohio State’s 18 opponents made it to the first round of the NCAA tournament or better in Duke, Iowa, James Madison, Louisville, Michigan State, Penn State and Princeton, with Iowa and Syracuse advancing to the semifinals.

There is no easy going for the Buckeyes as they open the schedule with back-to-back home contests vs. James Madison Aug. 29 before hosting Saint Louis Aug. 30. The Scarlet and Gray then has a tough opening road slate as they head east to play NCAA semifinalist Syracuse Sept. 4 and quarterfinalist Princeton Sept. 5 in Syracuse, N.Y.

Five-of-eight teams Ohio State faces in the month of October made the 2008 NCAA Tournament, making it a critical month for the Buckeyes. First on the list is Penn State as the squad travels to State College, Pa., for its second conference game Oct. 2 after opening league action vs. Indiana Sept. 27 in Columbus. The Buckeye-Nittany Lion contest will be aired on a tape delay on the Big Ten Network at noon Oct. 4.

Big Ten action continues in Columbus Oct. 11 as Ohio State takes on reigning Big Ten Tournament Champion and NCAA semifinalist Iowa. The Buckeyes beat Iowa in regular season play last year and pushed the Hawkeyes to overtime in the conference final before falling, 2-1. The Scarlet and Gray then host Big East rival Louisville Oct. 14 before welcoming Michigan Oct. 17.

League play continues in East Lansing, Mich., as Ohio State makes its second appearance on the Big Ten Network vs. Michigan State Oct. 23 at the site of the 2009 Big Ten Tournament. The Buckeye-Spartan matchup will be shown by the Big Ten Network at 4 p.m. Oct. 25. ACC opponent Duke makes a trip to Ohio’s capitol Oct. 25 for senior day. 

The Buckeyes return to East Lansing, Mich., for the 2009 Big Ten Tournament Nov. 5-8 with the Big Ten Network airing both semifinal games (Nov. 6) and the championship game (Nov. 8) live. The 2009 NCAA Tournament will kick off Nov. 14-15 with first and second round action at a destination to be named before heading to Winston-Salem, N.C., for the semifinals and championships games Nov. 20-22.