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After rough start, 17th-ranked ONU finds way defensively

Midfielder Megan Breier is one of five freshmen who have played in all 11 games this season. (photo/ ONU Sports Information)

Heading into this season, the Ohio Northern women’s soccer team had goals. Lofty ones.

They wanted to win the OAC regular season for the second straight year, and were predicted to do so easily by conference coaches in this year’s preseason poll (they received all nine first-place votes). They wanted to win the OAC Tournament after losing in the finals the last two seasons, and they wanted to make it back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five years.

MORE: Women’s soccer looks to bridge gap, make NCAA Tournament in 2017

But on opening night, those goals seemed rather wide of the mark.

Against a team in Albion (Mich.) that hasn’t won their conference since 2002, and currently boasts an underwhelming record of 6-4-1, the sky-high Polar Bears sunk

They lost 4-0, and it wasn’t much of a game -- Northern trailed 3-0 at halftime.

“Right off the bat, in the beginning of that game, you could tell there was just a lack of effort overall,” senior defender Hannah Reich said. “Not much desire, I suppose.”

While there would be many challenges facing the team this season -- integrating 11 freshmen into the roster, replacing their leading scorer of two consecutive years, slaying the mental obstacles associated with losing the conference tournament title and missing the national tournament two years in a row -- facing the Albion Britons did not seem to be one of serious rigidity.

But after the loss, head coach Mark Batman told his team about the 2009 season, when ONU made it to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history. Long before finishing 15-5-2, Northern fell 3-0 to Calvin (Mich.) on the first weekend of the season.

“I think that they were psychologically in a good place, but they just needed to understand that it’s not always going to work out the way you want it,” Batman said last week on Sportsbeat 94.9’s The Pep Talk. “All we did after the first day is just ask them to respond and they’ve responded extremely well.”

Since that first weekend in Michigan, ONU has looked like a different team -- like the one they expected to be. Defensively, the 17th-ranked Polar Bears have gone from porous to air-tight, having allowed just two goals in the 10 games since Albion.

Northern has recorded eight shutouts in their 11 games this season, giving them the eighth-highest shutout percentage in the country.

Batman said that his coaching staff tinkered with the lineup after that first game, trying to find combinations that would work well together on the field.

“It took us a couple of games of outside competition to figure that out,” Batman said. “Now it seems like it’s been fairly successful.”

Several freshmen have played key roles in the team’s early success, with five having seen action in every game this season. Freshman forward Jenna Fuller is second on the team in goals scored, while fellow newcomer Sydney Leshnak has started every game as a defender.

Along with personnel changes, Batman has also altered the team’s defensive scheme to lend more help to the back line. Due in part to injuries, Batman shifted the team’s formation from a 4-3-3 to a 3-5-2 -- this means that there are three defenders, five midfielders and two forwards.

By doing this, the outside midfielders are able to drop back and help the defenders deter shots at the goal, making things more congested for opponents. This style differs from the 4-3-3 formation, where the defenders would traditionally receive less help.

“It forces us (the defenders) to sit back more so we aren’t allowed to get forward as much, but it allows us to be more defensive in that sense, by using the support of those outside mids,” Reich, the four-year starting defender, said.

This defensive strategy has put less pressure on sophomore goalie Meagan Grierson, who garners quite the state line; while she has allowed the fewest goals in the OAC (6) and recorded the most shutouts (8), she also has the fewest saves (26).

But that’s not to say that Grierson has had it easy in the goal this season. The returning OAC Freshman of the Year has simply made the most of her save opportunities following the wakeup call at Albion.

“She’s saved our butts a few times,” Reich said. “It hasn’t been easy for her, but it hasn’t maybe been as difficult as past years. And when it does get to that point, she’s really come in clutch for us which has been really nice.”

The Polar Bears improved their record to 9-1-1 on Wednesday with a win over Otterbein, who had lost just one game all season before coming to Ada. That followed a win last Saturday against Mount Union, who ONU lost to in overtime in the OAC Tournament final last year.

Aside from a tie with 22nd-ranked Carnegie Mellon, ONU has won every match since their opener at Albion, which now seems like it occurred ages ago. With a 2-0 conference record and seven OAC games still on the schedule, Batman is preaching a certain mentality with his players.

“If you’re in front, which we are right now, it’s that mentality of, ‘Don’t get caught,’” Batman said. “I know there’s some things the girls want to accomplish in October, but they also know it’s not going to be easy.”

Ohio Northern travels to Capital on Saturday, facing the team that beat them in the OAC Tournament finals on penalty kicks two years ago. The Polar Bears and Crusaders are the only two teams who have yet to lose in conference play.

With the defensive intensity that ONU has been playing with recently, this could be the year that they break through and make it to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012. And even though Batman knows that it is crucial to focus on the game at hand, he also recognizes that there is something bigger at stake for this group down the road.

“They talk about it, and they also know that the things you enjoy the most are the things you work the hardest for -- and I think they’re really taking that to heart,” Batman said. “So that’s definitely something that’s on their mind, and they know if we continue October like we did in September, we’ll be playing in November.”