MARQUETTE - Bigger.
Northern?Michigan?University junior defender Kim Rietveld (21) looks to make a pass up field during an exhibition game against the Allouez Stride on Sunday at the NMU Soccer Field in Marquette. The Wildcats open the season on the road Thursday at?Minnesota Duluth. (Journal photo by Jenna Thompson)
That's how Northern Michigan University senior defender Kaylagh Hollen described the competition faced by the women's soccer program during a two-week preseason tour of Europe, which included exhibition games in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.
According to Hollen, it was like playing eight-time defending GLIAC champion Grand Valley State over and over again.
"They're all Grand Valleys. Every game was a Grand Valley game," Hollen said.
"Playing over there, we played against some really, really good girls. They're physical and basically beat the crap out of us. We just have to learn for this up-and-coming season that we need to play much faster."
The Wildcats accomplished every thing they set out to do and more during a two-week, self-funded overseas trip, according to head coach Matt Granstrand.
The 'Cats toyed with formations, jumbled the lineup, played people in places they normally aren't, integrated a freshmen class of six and even saw a few sights along the way.
The result is a program that is leagues ahead of the one that finished 4-13 overall and 3-10 in the GLIAC a year ago.
"Normally it takes me four or five games into the season to know maybe who fits where, but now we already know that," said Granstrand, who is heading into his 10th season at NMU.
"It's all stuff you normally couldn't do in a preseason. You normally end up doing it in the regular season, which is obviously a lot more dangerous.
"The trip was fantastic. It was perfect."
The revamping and recharging of a Wildcats soccer program that previously had no losing seasons under Granstrand begins in goal where 2012 backup goaltender Nicole Musi returns to her natural position on defense.
Last year's No. 1 keeper, sophomore Shelby Conard, is being challenged by a pair of freshmen - Alexandra Simmons of Gaylord and Caroline Glantz of Malmo, Sweden - after posting a 2.52 goals-against-average (14th in the GLIAC) in 16 games as a freshman with three shutouts (tied for seventh).
Granstrand said Conard has improved from a year ago, but his two incoming keepers are strong.
It's given him more confidence in the position than a year ago, something junior center defender Kim RieTveld also shares.
"If you have a good goalie, you're not nervous when the ball gets up there or when someone shoots the ball," Rietveld said. "You know your goalie can stand their ground and stop those shots."
Rietveld and fellow junior center defender Haley Boroughf of Marquette anchor a defensive group that is improved over last season by just getting healthy.
Hollen is one of those key defensive returners. She only played in five games last year after appearing and starting in 18 as a sophomore.
KC McCary is also back for her senior season after taking 2012 off for personal reasons. She will play as a defensive midfielder after starting in 16 of 18 games in 2011.
"(Defense) was a weakness last year mainly because of injuries," Granstrand said. "This year it is not. In the goal and on the back line, it is a pretty strong team."
Granstrand said besides McCary as a defensive midfielder, the rest of the group is "up in the air."
True freshmen Wynona Maravilla out of Sturgeon Bay, Wis., and Carmen Villarruel of De Pere, Wis., are talented enough to crack the lineup according to Granstrand, who brings back the likes of sophomore Gabreilla Garza and junior Tevun Sellers.
"It's just a great mix trying to piece it together," Granstrand said. "I think we're 15-16 deep that could start. So now the battle will continue, which is the way it should be."
Sellers led NMU with four goals in 17 games last year and Garza, who played all 17 games as a freshman, had two, as did Rietveld.
Offense was a struggle for Northern, which scored 19 goals and was shut out 10 times.
Granstrand rattled off a list of seven names that could help improve the team's scoring, including Garza, Maravilla, Villarruel, Sellers and defender/midfielder Tiffany Trembly.
Also in that list was junior forward Taylor Smith, who finished second on the team in goals with three in 13 games before injuries derailed her season.
Granstrand said true freshman Paula Hafner of Sweden has been strong up top, and she too could help cure the Wildcats' offensive troubles.
"I'm expecting a much better offensive performance, and formation-wise we're capable of being a little more offensive than we were last year."