MARQUETTE - Northern Michigan University head soccer coach Matt Granstrand had two goals for his 2013 Wildcats.
The first was to return to the GLIAC tournament after a one-year absence and the 'Cats did just that as the No. 6 seed. They lost at Ashland in the opening round 1-0.
The other was to become, in Granstrand's words, "a respectable, competitive team again," after finishing 4-13-0 overall and 3-10-0 in the league in 2012.
Northern Michigan University senior defender KC McCary passes the ball up field against Michigan Tech on Sept. 12 at the NMU soccer field in Marquette. McCary was an All-GLIAC honorable mention this season and will be a key loss for NMU this offseason on defense. (Journal file photo by Matt Wellens)
Wildcats freshman forward and midfielder Paula Hafner runs down Michigan Tech’s Lindsey Van Rooy on Sept. 12 in Marquette. Hafner, an All-GLIAC first-team pick and the GLIAC Freshman of the Year, will be a key component next season as NMU attempts to return to the upper third of the GLIAC. (Journal file photo by Matt Wellens)
According to Granstrand, the Wildcats are back to being "respectable" and "competitive" after finishing 5-10-3 overall and 5-4-3 in the GLIAC in 2013.
"I think it was a really good year," Granstrand said. "I think its putting us back to where we normally are which is in the top third. I think next year we'll be right there.
"I think next year is the year you get back - you're first, second or third in the conference. I'd be shocked if that didn't happen."
Freshman forward and midfielder Paula Hafner of Malmo, Sweden was a big part of the Wildcats' resurgence this year with eight goals and seven assists to lead the team in scoring.
Those numbers put her tied for sixth in the league in goals, tied for third in assists and tied for fifth in points with 23, which is why she was named the GLIAC Freshman of the Year and an All-GLIAC first-team selection at forward.
Forward is not Hafner's natural position, however, according to Granstrand. Midfielder is, which is why she was still so potent when the Wildcats dropped her back because opponents were marking her up front.
"Paula is great at assisting," Granstrand said. "She's great at holding the ball and getting other players involved, yet we're playing her at a position that normally you would say we want you to go attack and dribble against that player. That's not her strength. It worked for us this year because she talented."
As talented as Hafner is, Granstrand isn't calling his program the "Paula Hafner Show" for the next three seasons. Hafner is only as good as the players around her, he said.
"I think Paula is fantastic, but I hesitate to ever ... we're a team and it takes the team and she's a part of it," Granstrand said. "There's a bunch of them around her as well.
"She's surrounded by players that do a good job in what we ask them to do off of her."
Junior Nicole Musi moved back out of the goal to defense. She finished as the Wildcats' second-leading scorer with four goals and an assist.
Sophomore midfielder and forward Ashley Katers was right behind Musi with three goals while her fellow De Pere, Wis.-native, freshman midfielder/forward midfielder Carmen Villarruel, had a goal and five assists.
Granstrand was also high offensively on sophomore midfielder Gabriella Garza (one goal, three assists), freshman midfielder Wynona Maravilla (1-1) and junior forward Taylor Smith (2-1), who Granstrand said has become a very dangerous forward.
"Really the challenge for this team is - and that's my job - for us to be more tactically aware of movement and where to play the ball," Granstrand said. "Paula playing at a high level reads the game quicker than some of my players so the challenge is to get the other players in the offseason to have a quicker thought process as to what they should be doing."
Defensively, Northern will have to replace seniors KC McCary and Kaylagh Hollen, with McCary being the hardest to replace, according to Granstrand.
"She wins every ball on the field," Granstrand said. "How do you replace her? I'm not sure. We'll put two people in her spot. I don't know."
Granstrand said he is excited about what the Wildcats will have back on defense next year still with Kim Rietveld and Haley Boroughf back, plus both freshmen goaltenders in Caroline Glantz (1.96 goals against average) and Alexandra Simmons (1.51).
"Goaltending is an absolute strength," he said.
"I like our defense next year. Love it this year. I think next year it will be even better."