TOWSON, Md. — A quick glance at the sidelines this fall will reveal a dramatic difference in this year's Goucher field hockey squad.
Bolstered by nine incoming freshmen, the Gophers will field a roster of over 20 players for the first time since 2008, and third-year head coach Megan Williams has seen the new additions benefit the program in a wide variety of ways leading up to the season opener at Bethany this Friday.
"I think the returners have definitely felt the pressure of a large class coming in," Williams said. "And they all stepped up their game over the summer. I've been really pleasantly surprised with the way that all of the returners have looked early on."
Besides serving as a point of inspiration for the 15 returners, the 2018 class will also provide a more obvious benefit to this year's team: depth.
"Having the roster size is definitely a component we've been striving for," Williams commented. "And it's not just about quantity, but the quality of the players that's important. There's a big difference between just having someone you can put in for five minutes and legitimately having different lineup options.
"I think the biggest benefit for us is that we're going to be able to change our system of play a bit and legitimately roll through a lot of different attack options, which is going to make us a harder team to defend against."
This year's newcomers will be joining a team that at first glance has posted similar results in the previous two seasons. The 2012 group finished with a 4-12 mark while last year's squad ended the season at 4-13.
Looking deeper, however, it is evident that a significant amount of progress was made last fall. Goucher scored 10 more goals in 2013 while surrendering 23 fewer goals against. The team's improvement was most notable in conference games, where the Gophers narrowed a 38-1 goal deficit in 2012 down to 23-5 last season and nearly came away with a victory over Moravian in the season finale.
A 12 goal season from Justine Ruhlin (Cornish, Maine/Sacopee Valley), the most for a Goucher player since 1995, and a five-goal, eight-assist campaign from 2013 Landmark Conference Rookie of the Year Lizzie Barminski (Ventura, Calif./Buena) played key roles in the statistical improvement. Both players will be back this fall, and they will serve as team captains along with senior Emily Gill (White Hall, Md./North Harford).
"I think it's evident that the Landmark coaches recognized our progress when they nominated Lizzie as Rookie of the Year," Williams said. "We had a large and talented freshmen class in 2013, and there's another large and talented class following them this year. We're moving at a much quicker pace this preseason compared with the other years that I've been here."
Beginning with a pair of games this weekend, the Gophers will look to use the early portion of their schedule to build confidence as they head into conference play. Goucher has seven non-conference opponents prior to their Landmark opener at Moravian on Sept. 27. From that point on, seven of the final nine matches will be in-conference.
"For us, the key to being successful in the conference is going to be to build momentum out of conference," Williams said. "We certainly see some of our toughest opponents during the conference season."
Williams believes that the Gophers have the components necessary this year to take the next step in terms of competitiveness within the Landmark.
"You can look between 2012 and 2013, the stats alone show dramatic improvement in the conference," she said. "Some of that is dramatic skill improvement, but some of that is just mental toughness and confidence improvement.
"For us this year, a mark of success is certainly going to be to collect some of those conference wins," Williams concluded. "This is our time."
After opening on the road, Goucher will host Wells at Noon on Sunday in its home opener from Beldon Field. The full 2014 schedule can be viewed here.