Clarksville, Ark.-University of the Ozarks head men's soccer coach Dave De Hart enters the 2008 campaign with nearly the same question marks as he had last season, but those questions were erased as his 2007 team responded with a school-best 11-2-0 conference mark and a regular season conference championship.
The 2008 team hopes to produce those same kind of results behind a talented and tested defensive-minded unit. The question, however, remains who will step up and score goals. The Eagles lost their top three goal scorers from a year ago and will need to fill those roles in order to defend their title.
“That is a question mark for us,” said De Hart, who begins his 10th season with a 121-57-11 career record at Ozarks. “I am not positive where it will come from, but I am positive we have the players to score enough goals to win games. There is a bit of uncertainty. I am confident the pieces will fall into place, but I think it is uncertain how much time it will take. It is just a matter of getting the job done. We will need to put the pieces in the right places.”
As has always been the case under De Hart, the 2008 team will start with defense. And that begins with imposing senior goalkeeper Brian Sarber. The 6-foot-5, 230-pound senior enters the season owning a conference-best 0.81 career goals against average. A three-time All-Conference performer, Sarber is the reigning ASC Defensive Player of the Year and led the league in goals against average (0.67), saves percentage (.869) and shutouts (7) during the Eagles 17-5-0 season a year ago. With Sarber entrenched as the starting goalkeeper, senior Dan De Hart, juniors Jason Owens and Aaron Brueckner and sophomore Clay Johnson shore up a solid group in the back.
“I think Brian is certainly a strength of our team,” said De Hart, who has led Ozarks to five conference championship matches. “I believe Dan and Jason are also strengths of the team. I would include Clay and Aaron as key players defensively, too. I think the majority of our returners are defensive-style players. So we are pretty sure and confident in the back. I always start with defense.”
De Hart and Owens provide the Eagles with All-ASC type players at the defender position. De Hart, who has started in 61 career matches, gives Ozarks experience and leadership in the back. The chiseled Owens looks the part as a defensive stopper. Last season, Owens took the NCAA III goals and points per game leader out of a match as he limited him to just one shot on goal. Brueckner started in seven matches last season, but is expected to play a bigger role this fall.
“Dan brings a tremendous amount of experience,” said De Hart. “He is a team leader for us. He works incredible hard and is a level-headed player. I think Jason is the best man-to-man marker in the league. His experience, toughness and physical prowess is one of a kind. I am excited to see Aaron step up into a more responsible role, too.”
It is Sarber, however, that makes the defense go.
“Sarber’s presence in the goal makes everything smoother for our entire team,” said De Hart. “He makes it easier on our defense and easier on our attack. He is the best goalkeeper in the league. We are going to count on him to uphold that and count on him to be the player he has been the past three years.”
One area that will have new starters and is a bit of an uncertainty is the central midfield, according to De Hart.
“We lost our entire starting central midfield,” said De Hart. “It remains to be seen whether returning players or new players will fill that spot. That is a big question mark. I am confident that we have them on campus, but I am not exactly sure who is going to fill which spot.”
Two players with experience who could help in the midfield are junior Shaun Renfro and Johnson. Renfro led the ASC in assists (9) and scored four goals. He was third on the team in shots (57).
“Shaun is a player we are counting on to move into a new role this year,” said De Hart. “We may move him into the central midfield. He has the ability to play there. The competitiveness he brings always helps us. We will count heavily on Shaun. Clay might step into a midfield role for us also. He is outstanding technically and reads the game well. He has a great demeanor and work ethic.”
Midfielder Dylan Evans returns from a solid sophomore campaign to give Ozarks an offensive punch. Evans started in 14 matches in 2007 and produced five goals and six assists. Evans had a hat trick last season.
“I am excited to see if Dylan will step up and be a catalyst on our team,” said De Hart.
One player De Hart is counting on to score goals is junior forward Matt Engelman. Engelman scored four goals and recorded six assists last season. Junior Philip Johnson is another steady option for the Eagles. Johnson had two goals last year and is expected to continue to fight for playing time up front.
“We return Matt up front,” said De Hart. “We are expecting a big season out of him. I am excited to see what Matt will do coming in with a solid starting position. Philip looks bigger and stronger and fit this year. We also recruited up front and I expect some freshmen to step in and give us quality minutes and score goals for us.”
Sophomore Ryan Cooper provides Ozarks with another offensive option at the forward position.
“Up front there will be five or six kids that will really demand playing time,” said De Hart. “It will be up to us as a coaching staff to use each kid correctly and wisely. I hope the central midfield has that same kind of competition. I am just not as clear in that area.”
The depth of the team will likely come from a large incoming freshmen class, according to De Hart.
“Our depth will come from our freshmen,” said De Hart. “I feel pretty good about our depth. I think we will use our first few matches to get those guys some experience and get a feel for what they can do for us and where they can play. I think our depth is good, but it is untested.”
Tradition runs deep in a program that has posted eight straight winning seasons, and with six returning starters, the Eagles appear battle-tested enough to make another run at a playoff spot and contend for a conference title. But De Hart expects another challenging conference slate to take a toll on his team.
“This conference has gotten better over the last few years,” said De Hart. “There are no breaks. I don’t think anybody will run away with it. It will be bunched together just like last year. The key is the guys need to be mentally ready. It’s a brand new season. We’ve had a great history and we want to continue that. The motivation is to carry out our history and our results we generally have. Last year was a great season, but it is done and gone.”
The Eagles open the season this weekend when they host Central Baptist College on Saturday and Hendrix College on Sunday. Both matches will start at 3:00 p.m.