By the time you read this, there will be less than 35 hours to the first kick of the Marquette Golden Eagles women’s soccer season! We’ve already talked about the players on the team, breaking it down to the returning women and the newcomers, where head coach Frank Pelaez has five freshmen and five transfers to work into his rotation this fall.
Today, we’re going to wrap up our preseason preview work by addressing the three biggest questions that I can think of for the Golden Eagles’ 2022 season. Some of this you’re probably thinking about already if you’ve read the roster breakdowns, but hopefully I’m introducing some new ideas to your brain along the way.
Let’s get right to it!
QUESTION #1 — Who’s playing defense for this team, and maybe more importantly, are they going to be better than last year?
As we talked about in the discussion of Frank Pelaez’s returning players from last year’s roster, there’s just one notable returning defender. Bonnie Lacey is going to be the #1 option for running things on the back line along with Mikki Easter minding the net, but after Lacey, it’s wide open as to who might take the other two or three starting defender spots. The obvious favorites are Josie Kelderman and Katie Koker, but both have question marks attached to them. Kelderman is returning from a knee injury at the very start of last season that wiped her out for the year, so it’s reasonable to wonder if she’s 100% back from that. Koker had a great freshman year for Marquette back in 2018, but she transferred to Minnesota after that and for whatever reason, she didn’t play for the Gophers last fall and thus hasn’t been in a live collegiate match since April 2021. Again, like Kelderman, it’s reasonable to ask if she’s going be up to providing the defense necessary for 90 minutes.
After that…. Well. Pelaez and his staff don’t have a lot of options, at least not ones with experience. Emma Tabor and Caroline Cline logged minutes last year, but they weren’t relied on, Grace Allen and Aeryn Kennedy don’t have any on field experience to speak of, and Erin O’Keefe is a freshman. Maybe there’s someone in the midfielder group that can drop backwards and provide what the Golden Eagles need, because if the coaches want to play with four defenders, they still need someone else in addition to Lacey, Kelderman, and Koker.
No matter who the defenders end up being, Marquette has to be a stronger defensive team. So far under Frank Pelaez, the Golden Eagles have finished two seasons underwater on shots for and shots against. In both years, MU has ended their season having attempted just 44.6% of the shots in their matches. Now, to be clear, winning in shot percentage isn’t a 1-to-1 guarantee of being a winning soccer club, as all you need is one shot to go in to win a 1-0 game. However, you can’t shoot and score if you don’t have the ball, and at the end of the day, Marquette hasn’t done enough to win matches. That’s why they’re 15-12-0 overall under Pelaez and a perfectly middle of the road 9-9-0 in Big East contests with no conference tournament appearances.
Credit where credit is due: Pelaez’s two teams have improved on Markus Roeders’ final two squads. Marquette had shot percentages of 42% and 40% in the last two campaigns of the best and longest tenured coach in program history. They were not good, going just 10-22-4. So things have been better, but not better enough to make a difference relative to postseason action for MU. No matter who gets the call to play in those defensive positions, they have to find a way to be better than they have been in the first 27 matches of Pelaez’s tenure.
QUESTION #2 — Can the kids play?
I count seven players that I would project as starters on the Marquette roster listed as seniors for this season. Now, to be clear, we live in an era of COVID-19, and there’s at least a few of those seniors that have another year of eligibility available to them if they’re so interested. That’s not the case for Katrina Wetherell, who is back for her bonus year this fall and is likely to be Marquette’s only all-Big East honoree when that team is announced, and the same for Elizabeth Bueckers, who is at MU after four years at IUPUI.
That COVID bonus year of eligibility cuts both ways, of course. I see three players on the roster that project as starters who are listed as juniors. Two of them — Bonnie Lacey and Katie Koker — are on their fourth season of competition. While one of them “doesn’t count” so to speak, the fact of the matter is that this is college soccer and pretty much everyone’s paying at least something to be enrolled at Marquette. If you’re finishing up your degree and don’t have an interest in grad school, I’m not going to knock anyone for moving on with a year of eligibility remaining.
If you’re counting, there’s a chance that Marquette could be losing as many as nine seniors off this team when the season is over. That sounds an awful lot like Frank Pelaez and his staff need to figure out for sure what they have in the women who will be back next season and make sure those players get the development they need to make an impact.
Of course, the coaches also have to balance that idea out with “winning soccer matches right now is pretty important,” because……
QUESTION #3 — Is this a Big East tournament team?
Don’t you just love those definitive answers?
Marquette has been thisclose to reaching the Big East tournament in both of Frank Pelaez’s seasons in charge on the sideline. In the timeshifted 2020 season, MU went 4-4-0 in league play, which left them in a tie for second place in the Big East’s Midwest division. They lost the tiebreaker to Creighton as only the top two teams from each division went to the semifinals. Last fall, the league went back to the single division format and six teams qualified for the conference tournament. The last three spots in the field went to teams with 19, 17, and 16 points. Marquette finished seventh with 15 points.
Like I said, thisclose. A goal or two here, a save or two there, a lucky bounce maybe, and ta-da, Marquette’s in the semifinals in the spring or in the quarterfinals in the fall. But they didn’t get those plays or that luck. Can they get those things this fall? Can the offense come together to provide pressure downfield and do the defense some favors? Can Mikki Easter guide the defense to close down attacks quicker and make a few more stops?
We’re talking about turning one match in Marquette’s favor. Last year, 6-4-0 and 18 points would have been good enough for MU’s first Big East tournament berth since 2017. It’s not that far away, and quite honestly, if Pelaez is going to be guiding this team back to the title contention spot that they occupied for the first several years of this century, back when he was an assistant coach here, then the Golden Eagles need to take that step forward this year.