Soccer: Bobcats looking to improve in year two under Rodgers

Alexis Mileski made an immediate impact for the Bobcats. this past season. (Ohio Athletics)

Lexi Milesky made an immediate impact for the Bobcats this past season. (Ohio Athletics)

After having the same coach and defensive style of play for 13 seasons, the Ohio Bobcats underwent a change in not only leadership, but also identity last season.

Aaron Rodgers, a former assistant coach at Kentucky, was tasked with changing the culture of the Ohio soccer program. Rodgers wanted Ohio to keep as much possession of the ball as possible, while also creating chances and turning those opportunities into goals.

He had some success doing that, with the team scoring 26 times last season, but the Bobcats — for the second straight season — lost in the MAC Tournament quarterfinals to finish last season at 7-8-5.

As the Bobcats prepare for the 2014 season without the services of graduated seniors Mattie Liston, Maggie Murnane, Natalie Bechtel and Alex Stec, Rodgers is confident that the team will continue to grasp his concepts and philosophy.

“The girls have demonstrated throughout last season and this preseason that they are learning our philosophy,” Rodgers said. “We still have a long way to go and the players still have to improve individually, but the hard work and dedication is starting to pay off.”

Ohio has two big questions it must answer in a relatively short amount of time: First, how does the team replace the production of striker Holly Harris? Harris tore her ACL in the team’s final spring season game against Malone on April 12, but Rodgers is not short of attacking options. He can call on the likes of second-year striker Alli Cislo, wingers Carly Manso and Liz Finley, and Sasha Haverchak, who battled injury last season.

“It (losing Harris) was pretty hard for the team to take,” senior Gabby Hausfeld said. “She is a great player who has a fantastic work ethic, but with all of the returning players we have, we have options.”

Second, who will be Ohio’s starting goalkeeper when the season starts Friday? Liston gave Ohio four years of stability at the position, but with her no longer in Athens, Nicole Amari and Rachel Fryan are the top two candidates to take over for Liston. Rodgers said Amari is the favorite to land the gig, but he thinks he has enough depth at the position.

“Nicole has stepped up this preseason for us,” he said. “But I have confidence in all the goalkeepers on the team. If they are called upon, I think they can do a solid job for us. Nicole started some games in the past and did really well.”

Rodgers will be counting on four players to lead the team from the middle of the field. Center backs Gabby Hausfeld and Grace Campbell, and midfielders Annie Beard and Leah Sandercock will have to start the attack and contain opponents from creating chances and scoring goals.

“To attack like we want to, we have to be solid defensively,” Rodgers said. “Those four players have all developed into possession-type players.”

Hausfeld, a native of Cincinnati, Ohio, is one of the team captains for Ohio this season. She admits that there will be some pressure put on her to lead the team, but she wants the team to perform as best as it can.

“For me, it’s not about being a team captain,” she said. “It’s about the team, and I hope the team gets the recognition it deserves.”

One player who had an extremely effective freshman season was forward Lexi Milesky. Milesky, a native of Plain City, Ohio, scored four goals and dished out three assists en route to a MAC All-Freshman Team selection. Rodgers is excited to see what Milesky will do for an encore.

“She’ll definitely build on last season,” he said. “She has a tremendous work rate, and when she learns all the nuances of the game, she’ll be even better.”

Hausfeld thinks the team will have a second consecutive season where freshmen will make a valuable impact. Midfielder Megan Niebuhr and forwards Kelley Zebrowski and Allie Curry are just a few of the freshmen who will see significant time on the field this season.

“They (the freshmen) will make quite the difference for us this season,” Hausfeld said.

The nonconference schedule for the Bobcats will provide the team with a challenge. Ohio will play its first four games away from Chessa Field, which includes a game against Kentucky on Aug. 31. Notable teams that will travel to Ohio are Xavier and Detroit.

“We want to play the best competition we can play,” Rodgers said. “I’m confident in this team, and I think we can put teams under pressure.”

Rodgers is hoping to eventually win the MAC regular season and tournament titles, but before the Bobcats can think about winning both of those titles, they’ll have to keep showing improvement in every area of the field.

“Our goal is to finish higher in the table and win a MAC Tournament game,” he said. “If we can do that, it will put the program in a position to get to where we want to be.”

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