By Brad Rudner
Q: After the graduation of all-time leading scorer Rachael Mack, who steps up to score goals?
That's the big question, isn't it? Mack, a four-time All-American (the only player in the history of the program to do that), was an offensive machine during her time in Ann Arbor, scoring nearly one goal per game (73 goals in 86 career matches). You could certainly make a compelling case that she's the best player to ever wear the Maize and Blue. With such big shoes to fill, who will step up? That's what head coach Marcia Pankratz has to figure out, now in her 15th year as head coach.
It's no secret that last season was a disappointing one, as the group missed out on the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010. But in the wake of that disappointment rose a motivated group, one that worked extremely hard in the offseason to ensure that the upcoming campaign isn't like the one they just got done with.
A good place to start is with a quartet of upperclassmen, all of whom were starters on last year's squad: Ainsley McCallister, Leslie Smith, Lauren Thomas and Shannon Scavelli. McCallister had a productive season last year (six goals, eight assists) en route to being an All-Big Ten pick, same as Thomas. Smith was second on the team in points last year (28) and was an All-Big Ten selection two years ago as a sophomore. Together, the four are a big part of the team's execution on penalty corners and should continue to see a fair share of the team's scoring chances.
The defense should once again be very strong and filled with experience between Thomas, Smith and Sammy Gray. The group will be counted upon to keep the workload light for whoever it is that replaces Haley Jones in the cage. That job will go to one of two internationals, either redshirt sophomore Chris Lueb (Netherlands) or freshman Sam Swenson (England), the latter of whom is a current member of England's Under-21 team. The freshmen class, in general, is highly regarded and expected to contribute immediately, from midfielder Veerle Lubbers (another international) to homegrown players like Morgan Malone and Katie Trombetta.
Looking for a wildcard? It's not a player, but a place -- the newly renovated Ocker Field. The Wolverines sport an incredible record when playing on their home field, going undefeated last season (8-0) and dropping only six home contests since the start of the 2010 season. This year, Michigan will play host to several intriguing match-ups, including perennial power and new Big Ten member Maryland (Sept. 26). Beyond that is a three-game stretch in October where U-M will look for redemption against Stanford (Oct. 12), Northwestern (Oct. 17) and in-state rival Michigan State (Oct. 26), a trio of teams that defeated it a year ago. The Wolverines also host the 2014 Big Ten Tournament from Nov. 6-9.
More than a lot of others, every win matters in this sport. Only 16 teams get into the NCAA Tournament at the end of the season. With the home slate and the past history of success, there are ample opportunities for this group of Wolverines to reach that goal and ensure that last year was an aberration.
Key Player: Shannon Scavelli. She flat out knows how to score goals (135 in high school). Though nagging injuries have slowed her down a little at the college level, Scavelli will have the opportunity to step up and help fill the void left behind by Rachael Mack.
Key Competition: Sept. 26 vs. Maryland. Between the re-dedication of Ocker Field and playing under the lights for the first time ever, expect this game to have a great atmosphere.
Key Number: 10 -- the number of home games on the schedule. The Wolverines went undefeated at home last year (8-0). They'll also host the Big Ten Tournament at the end of the season (Nov. 6-9).
Contact: Leah Howard