ASHLAND – The Ashland University women’s soccer team is running out of room to reach new heights.
The Eagles soared into this season having already qualified to four consecutive NCAA Tournaments and winning back-to-back Great Midwest Athletic Conference titles – their first two years in the league.
They had a third-year coach in Cayleb Paulino who had settled into a rhythm, leading the program to back-to-back 15-win seasons for the first time in nearly two decades.
They had a lot returning, including two-time All-GMAC forward McKinley Mendenhall, a former Ashland High School star coming off one of the best sophomore seasons in the history of the AU program.
Infuse that with an uber-talented freshman class that features locals Sydney Polen (Loudonville) and Adi Turnbaugh (Ontario), and the stage was set.
Somehow, the Eagles have found a way to exceed the expectations.
Their unbeaten, 17-0-4 record has them hosting the NCAA Division II Midwest Region tournament this week as the No. 2-ranked team in the country.
Their opening kickoff comes 6 p.m. Thursday against eighth-seeded Michigan Tech (8-4-7) at Ferguson Field.
“The one thing that we’ve voiced to them is we want to raise the standard here, the success,” Paulino said. “I think that’s something that we’ve continued to do year in and year out, no matter how many players we’ve lost.”
For the first time in program history, Ashland was ranked No. 1 in the nation, staying atop the poll for over a month into mid-October.
The Eagles captured wins against two Top 10 teams – Grand Valley State and Ferris State – in the season’s first 11 days, then spent the rest of the fall dominating on defense in a way few teams ever have.
Led by goalies Mackenzie Simon and Maddie Dolenga (combined 69 saves with a 0.19 goals-against average), Ashland has shutouts in 17 of its 21 games this season. The Eagles have outscored their opponents 50-4 – allowing a goal once every five games.
“If we want to be on the national stage, we have to be one of the best defensive teams in the country. That’s just statistically how it works,” Paulino said. “The teams that win a national championship and are in the final four are some of the best teams in goals-against average.
“I don’t know if our group really recognizes how much we’ve done defensively, but every time you keep a clean sheet you’re going to give yourself a chance.”
Turnbaugh has been a key to the defensive unit just a year after winning a fourth straight Mid-Ohio Athletic Conference title at Ontario, where she also was MOAC Player of the Year as a defender.
The freshman admitted she didn’t know where she might first play for the Eagles coming into the season. Paulino said Turnbaugh immediately stepped in after senior defender Maddy Grabowski was lost to injury before the start of the season.
“When (Grabowski) got hurt and (Paulino) told me I was going to fill the role, it was a lot of pressure, but I just did what I could,” said Turnbaugh, who also collected 32 goals and 42 assists in high school.
“We have a mix of people (on defense),” she said, “and no matter who goes back there – coming off the bench or (as starters) – everybody just works really hard.”
Amazingly, the freshman has played 100 more minutes than anyone else on the AU roster and is one of six Eagles to start every game.
Paulino said Turnbaugh’s instant emergence on the back line was critical following the injury to Grabowski, a returning All-GMAC first-teamer.
“I think it was kind of, figure it out, throw her in there and see how it works,” he said. “And she’s played almost every single minute for us as a first-year kid on one of the top defensive teams in the country.
“She’s made the most of her opportunity and has definitely been a player for us that we’ve relied on to make sure that we’re keeping clean sheets and making it difficult.”
Another freshman, Polen has been a crucial piece for the AU offense.
The former Loudonville star is one of four Eagles with at least five goals and four assists this season, and the only one of that quartet to do so coming off the bench.
“I didn’t think the season would go as well as it has (individually),” Polen said. “I’ve looked up to these players that I’m playing with now for a long time.”
Paulino said Polen was one of Ashland’s best attackers in its GMAC Tournament championship game Saturday against Northwood, a matchup that saw the Eagles lose on penalty kicks.
The coach said five freshmen played for AU in the overtime periods of that game, a testament to the talent in the class, which he said builds its confidence practicing with skilled veteran teammates everyday.
“Ever since I was a little girl, I always wanted to come here,” Polen said. “Coaches always tell you to pick a dream school and this was my dream school.
“I kind of looked around at other schools, but I knew in my heart I was going to come here.”
It should come as no surprise that Polen is quickly contributing.
The former Mid-Buckeye Conference Player of the Year finished her high school career in the Top 10 in Ohio history in career goals (150), according to the OHSAA website record books, adding 47 career assists to that mix.
“With Adi and Sydney’s experience and their recruiting process, (the discussion was), ‘Hey, we want to be on the national (championship) stage by the time you guys graduate,’ ” Paulino said.
“We’re probably a year ahead of schedule than what we thought, but I think now what we’re learning with a big group of juniors and a big group of first-year kids is, all right, let’s make the most of this experience now because we’re at this level.”
The veteran of the local group is Mendenhall, who has shown every season the offensive flair and ability that saw her score the second-most career goals (69) in the history of the Ashland High School program.
The junior has started all 62 games in her time at AU, positioning herself to potentially become just the second Eagle ever to play in 80 games.
“Where McKinley has kind of paved the way for our program and helped us take that next step is, she was in that first class as a freshman when I got the job,” Paulino said. “This is her third year with us and that class has continued to raise the standard of success since they’ve been here, and McKinley has been a huge part of that.
“She’s the type of kid that’s a leader for our program and helps the buy-in and the belief and the culture of our group.”
Mendenhall was very close with the late former AU women’s coach Danny Krispinsky, growing up around him while coming through the Arrow middle school program.
She committed to play for the Eagles and Krispinsky’s successor, Taylor Clarke, but when he left Ashland shortly before the start of her freshman season, Mendenhall stayed on board and she has thrived under Paulino.
Her sophomore campaign was one of the best in AU history. She led the team in assists (13), goals (tied with nine) and points (31).
Her individual numbers this season (five goals, six assists) aren’t as eye-popping, but Paulino said that is by design.
With a deeper squad – he cycled in 24 players during some games this season – the coach said the Eagles use about as many players as any team in the country.
His largest, most skilled roster so far has led to fresher legs and more efficiency down the stretch.
“I think this has been the best season where everyone’s contributing equally, creating opportunities and being successful,” Mendenhall said. “We have so much talent and so much potential to go far, so our main goal right now is just getting through (Michigan Tech on Thursday) and get to Saturday’s (second-round game).”
Individually, Mendenhall already is in the Top 10 at AU in career points (60) and is sixth in program history in career assists (24). But it’s what the team could accomplish that most excites her.
She said the Eagles have gotten to a point this season where tie scores and even giving up goals in wins feel like losses.
That’s where the standard now is for Ashland as it hits the NCAA Tournament for a fifth consecutive season.
“The last two years, going into the tournament, people were more in the burnout stage of the season,” Mendenhall said. “I think this year, we’re not ready to be done yet – everyone wants to keep going.”