Clarksville, Ark.-The 2006 version of the University of the Ozarks men's soccer team will again feature a stout defensive unit, giving the Eagles a chance of returning to the American Southwest Conference playoffs for a seventh consecutive season.
<#IMAGE:1#>Ozarks returns their major components from its 2005 record-setting defensive team. A total of six starters are back, with four of those earning All-Conference honors last season. Defensively, the Eagles allowed only 11 goals in league play and recorded 11 shutouts, tying an ASC record. The team also set a new school record for fewest goals allowed (19). “Defense is our strength,” said head coach Dave De Hart. “We always want to start with defense and I’m comfortable with this area of the team. We have three starters in the back returning, two of which were All-Conference players. Overall this group is experienced and solid.” The Eagles benefit with the return of All-Conference goalkeeper Brian Sarber. Sarber, a sophomore, led the ASC in goals against average (0.82) and finished 13th in NCAA III in that category. He accumulated six shutouts while collecting 97 saves. The 6-5, 230-pounder had an impressive game in the ASC tournament when he stopped all three of Austin College’s attempts in a shootout. “Brian is an outstanding goalkeeper,” said De Hart. “His athletic goalkeeping ability, his experience and confidence are a notch above most keepers. Technically he is sound and he reads the game well. His leadership on the field is outstanding, too. I think he is the best goalkeeper in the conference without a doubt. His ability and presence back there is stabilizing.” While the Eagles are strong defensively, De Hart believes his team needs to improve on the offensive end. “Scoring goals is my biggest worry at this point,” said De Hart, who owns a 90-46-10 record in seven seasons at Ozarks. “We have to put the ball in the back of the net. But, that was my biggest concern at the end of last season. So we made a big effort to address that with our recruiting and I think we have. I expect some of these freshman to score some goals.” However, the cupboard is hardly empty offensively. Seniors Ryan Skelly and Jared Gordon finished second and third, respectively, on the team in points last year. In fact, Skelly is among the top point producers in Ozarks’ history. He ranks fifth in career goals (20), points (51) and shots (136). He finished fourth in the league in shots (65), eighth in points (21) and tied for sixth in goals (9) in 2005. He added three game-winning goals en route to earning All-ASC third team honors. Gordon was hampered by an injury last season, but still finished with four goals and four assists. The 6-0 forward produced three game-winning goals and recorded 27 shots. Gordon has also made his mark at Ozarks. The 2004 All-Conference performer has 48 career points and 19 career goals. “On the flanks, Ryan is certainly solid there,” said De Hart. “He could play in a lot of spots because of his versatility. I’m hoping Jared will step up and have a real good senior year. He’s been a consistent performer each season. We would like to count on him for that again. If we can get a few more bonus goals out of him in his senior year that would certainly help us.” The midfield will see a considerable amount of competition for playing time, according to De Hart. Junior midfielder Jason Caskey started in 20 matches last season and scored two goals and sophomores Wilson Jones and Sebastian Teeling saw plenty of action last season, but have only one combined start among them. Junior Nate Abbott returns to the midfield after playing in just one match due to an injury in 2005. “Nate and a couple other candidates will be able to fill the defensive midfielder role,” said De Hart. “There will be a lot of competition and a good battle to see who steps up in the central midfield and takes on that role. We need someone who can distribute the ball and get forward for us. Jason filled that role quite a bit last year. We think he will be a factor again this year. We need someone present on the team or a newcomer to play on the opposite flank of Skelly.” Other starters returning are defenders Darren Clark and Dan De Hart, both of whom received All-Conference recognition last season. Clark, a junior, is an exceptional athlete and started in 18 matches while De Hart is a deft player who started in 20 matches as a freshman. Clark scored one goal and had two assists and De Hart earned All-ASC honorable mention honors. Jarod Thompson is expected to make a major contribution in the back after starting in 13 matches in 2005. “We may play with three or four back there,” said De Hart. “If we play with three, we are set, and if we play with four, Brandon Pierson could fill that role. Or, we have a couple of freshman that could help, too.” A number of the 12 incoming freshman are expected to make immediate contributions this season. “It’s a good year for them because they will all have the opportunity to contribute right away,” said De Hart. “I’m looking forward to see how they perform. I expect some of them to start or get real significant playing time on the field.” The 2005 Eagles finished with a 13-4-5 overall record and an 8-2-3 league mark and made the ASC championship match for the fourth time in the past six seasons, a feat that De Hart considered successful. “I really felt like getting to the finals last year for that team, under the circumstances that we played, was a big effort,” said De Hart, whose team is aiming for their seventh straight winning season. “I don’t know that we could have asked for more. We want to return to the playoffs this year. We want to take it one step further and win a conference title and be able to go to the NCAA tournament. Our standard goal is to make the playoffs.” Even with a roster full of skilled players, a demanding schedule presents a tough challenge this season. “We need to be able to sustain a 20-game schedule,” said De Hart. “I don’t see a break in our schedule. It is set up to a challenge us throughout the season so I think fitness is one of the keys to our success as is staying mentally sharp. And, we need to get better as the season goes on. In order to be a championship team, no matter where you start, you want to get better as the season goes on.”