Sunday, August 31, 2003

Longtime friends help NKU succeed


Soccer program turns its head to defense

By Shannon Russell
The Cincinnati Enquirer

When the Northern Kentucky University women's soccer team graduated a standout senior class in 2002, coach Bob Sheehan - and his opponents - harbored doubts about the program's immediate future.

"When they left, I guess the perception was 'That'll be that for NKU,' because that class was so good," Sheehan said.

The Norse went on to earn a 20-1-2 record and a fifth straight Great Lakes Valley Conference title and advanced to the NCAA Division II national quarterfinals.

Thanks, in part, to super defenders Becky Schnieders and Robyn Withers.

Critics were right about the Norse's offense, which produced only 60 goals in 2002. It had scored 118 goals the season before.

But the offensive vulnerability revealed a stringent defense engineered by Schnieders, an All-GLVC and All-Region marking back, and Withers, an all-conference sweeper.

Opponents scored a school-record-low 11 goals against the Norse, and goalkeeper Megan Zalla (Notre Dame Academy) averaged less than one save a game.

Sheehan said Schnieders and Withers were a big part of the team's 13 shutouts ... not that they'd agree.

"We usually know from previous years what players did last year and how to defend them," said Schnieders, a four-year starter. "But (Robyn) and I always have good communication, too. We always know how to play with each other."

Their career has been years in the making. Schnieders and Withers have been teammates since they were sixth-graders at St. Lawrence in Price Hill, and they anchored Seton's program for three years.

Withers said it has been difficult adjusting to the limelight because NKU's offense had been heralded for years. There are certain milestones she's proud of, such as holding Division II national champion Christian Brothers (Tenn.) to three shots on goal in a 1-0 NKU win last September.

"We don't think the things we do (defensively) are a big deal. As long as we do our job, that's what's important," Withers said.

Speed, she added, was the

defense's forte last year. This season, the seven returning Norse have organized weekly sprints to get back in similar shape.

Under Sheehan, NKU has evolved into a powerhouse Division II program with a 108-22-7 record in six seasons. The Norse, who are 40-0-4 in conference play, began the season ranked third in the NCAA Division II preseason poll and No. 1 in the GLVC.

The Norse won their season opener Friday, defeating Saginaw Valley State 4-0 in the John Toebben Labor Day Weekend Classic in Wilder.

The NKU defense allowed only one shot on goal.

"Two years ago we were winning games 5-1 and 5-0. Last year we were winning 1-0 in the 80th minute," Sheehan said. "We'd never been thought of as a defensive team, but (Becky and Robin) are a very important part of that success."

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E-mail srussell@enquirer.com




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Longtime friends help NKU succeed

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