Best Summit League soccer defense uses unique strategy

The South Dakota State soccer team has proven why they arguably have the best defense in the Summit League conference. 

The two-time defending Summit League tournament champions have posted eight shutouts this season and currently rank 26th of 329 teams in the nation in goals-against-average with 0.68.

After losing three of their four starting backs from last year, the Jacks have relied on a mixture of experience and newness on defense this season.

Senior Ashley Adams, a four-year starter for the Jacks, currently ranks No. 1 in SDSU history in minutes played with 6,650.

Senior Lindsee Larson ranks third on the team in minutes played this season with 1,355 and was also named the Summit League Defensive Player of the Week in September.

Redshirt junior McKenzie Wolf has worked her way back into the starting lineup after facing injuries, starting the last eight games.

“Between Lindsee, Ashley and McKenzie, they’ve seen everything,” Head Coach Lang Wedemeyer said. “They’ve been in conference championship games, they’ve dealt with injuries, frustrations, they’ve dealt with hard losses and great wins and I think those experiences have really helped them kind of come together and lead that backline.”

Freshman Alexa Hepner has also stepped up to aid the upperclassmen on defense, starting all 17 of SDSU’s games this season and leading the team in minutes played with 1,530.

In the goal, the Jacks have done something a little out of the ordinary for college soccer. Rather than having one goalie play an entire game, senior goalkeeper Nicole Inskeep and redshirt freshman goalkeeper Maggie Smither have split halves each game.

“It’s definitely different,” Smither said. “I mean, I don’t know a lot of teams that do it, but we definitely make it work.”

Inskeep has played a crucial role in the net the last four seasons. This season, she is second in the Summit League in goals-against-average with 1.02 and has allowed 10 goals this season, which is third in the league.

Smither leads the Summit League in save percentage with .938 and goals-against-average with .26. The freshman has allowed only two goals, which also leads the league, and was named the Summit League Defensive Player of the Week in early September.

Wedemeyer said both goalkeepers were playing at a very high level and he wanted to reward them by giving both goalies the opportunity to play.

“Nicole has been very good for us, obviously she’s won a couple tournament championships for us in her career and has continued to play well and very steady for us,” Wedemeyer said. “Maggie is a player that came in last year and really took a year to learn our system, to grow, to get stronger and understand the game more. She’s just thrived this year from her hard work and from Nicole’s tutelage.”

Though this type of time-sharing is uncommon, Inskeep said splitting time is paying off for both players.

“It’s been good in that we’re both tuned in during every minute of every game,” Inskeep said. “Whereas in the past with sharing time and playing a whole game on Friday and sitting out on Sunday, it’s kind of easy to tune out on Sunday. Splitting halves really keeps us at our peak for every game, whether we’re sitting on the bench or we’re the one in goal.”

Adams said she sees the growth of her teammates in practice as well.

“I feel like this year is the most we’ve ever had the goalies pushing each other,” Adams said. “So every day Maggie gets better because Nicole is pushing her and vice versa.”

Wedemeyer credits much of his team’s success to the chemistry they show both on and off the field.

“They all play for one another and are very much a ‘team first’ mentality, which allows them to work that much harder for each other,” Wedemeyer said.

The Jacks will wrap up the regular season against IUPUI at 6 p.m. on Friday at Fishback Soccer Park.