Clarksville, Ark.-A 2003 American Southwest Conference Championship has the 2004 Ozarks men's soccer team wanting more.
The Eagles, who finished the 2003 season with a 13-8-1 record, appear primed for a repeat of their championship performance of a year ago. The squad returns nine starters, five of their six leading scorer’s from last season, and a defense that returns intact. "We have a legitimate chance to win the conference again and return to the NCAA tournament, but I think there are several other teams in the ASC that have that equal chance," said head coach Dave De Hart, who is 59-25-2 over the last four seasons at Ozarks. "It involves a lot more than just stepping out on the field. We will have to work really hard to obtain our goal of winning the conference title. And we can’t have any other goal than that." Last season, the Eagles won the ASC post-season tournament with a 3-0 win over McMurry in semi-final play and a 2-1 victory over UT-Dallas in the championship match. Ozarks ended the season with a loss to top-ranked and eventual NCAA III national champion Trinity University in the first round of the NCAA III national tournament. "Once you get a taste of success, it’s inherent that you want more," said De Hart. "So, I don’t think being hungry is a problem for this group. I think everyone wants to re-do and re-experience the success we had last year. The drive and motivation and the how to is always difficult because young people don’t necessarily understand what it takes. We want, as coaches, to reemphasis what it took last year." Scoring shouldn’t be a problem for De Hart’s 2004 squad. Junior All-Conference performer Ron Hogsett returns at one of the striker positions after finishing fifth in the conference in points (29) and goals (11) while leading the team in both of those categories. In just two seasons, Hogsett has quickly earned the distinction as one of the league’s top offensive threats and already ranks third at Ozarks in career goals (24) and fourth in career points (60). And, the team’s offensive production doesn’t end with Hogsett. Senior midfielders Will Brahic and Justin Goodman proved to be two of the league’s best players. Brahic’s 19 points, including six goals, ranked him third on the team last season. Brahic earned ASC All-East division second team honors while Goodman received All-ASC and All-East division first team citations. Goodman finished with 15 points and a team-high 56 shots. He earned the Most Valuable Player honors at the American Southwest Conference tournament last season after scoring the game-winning goal in their 2-1 win over UT-Dallas. The physically gifted duo will be counted on to give Ozarks a powerful 1-2 punch in the midfield. Lettermen Jared Gordon (5 goals), Ryan Skelly (5 goals) and Malcolm Williams (2 goals) gave Ozarks an offensive spark a year ago and will be expected to provide stability at the offensive end. "The central midfield with Will and Justin provides us with experience and offensive power," said De Hart. "We bring back Ron, who is a proven goal scorer, and we have a whole group of guys ready to step in and give us offensive production." Defensively, the Eagles are stout as well. The defense produced eight shutouts last year, third-best in the league. Senior goalkeeper Chris Schultz returns in goal for Ozarks after maintaining a 1.35 goals against average last season. Schultz recorded 106 saves in his 22 starts. Junior defensive aces Lars Nyberg and C.J. Smith each were named to the ASC All-East division second team last year and provide the Eagles with an imposing defensive presence. Both anchor a defense that allowed just one goal in last season’s ASC tournament. Brothers Ryan Pierson and Aaron Pierson, both defenders, have started 99 career games between them. Sophomores Nathan Abbott and Lloyd Poku will be expected to carry some of the defensive load, too. "I’m confident of our defense overall," said De Hart. "I’m exited about the returning defense. I always like to start with defense first and we will put a proven defense on the field. It seems to be a stalwart with us." "Lars gives us good leadership and confidence at the sweeper position. C.J. gives us a physical presence. Chris is a three-time all-conference player. And as the story goes, being his senior year, he is supposed to have his best year and we are hoping for that." The team’s improved depth and overall playing experience are major strengths of the team, according to De Hart. "I feel most comfortable about our experience and our overall depth of the team," said De Hart. "They have been in a lot of situations over the last three or four years. Each position on the field has experience and our depth is more than it has ever been. The 2001 team was an outstanding team, but I think from top to bottom, this is the most talented and experienced I’ve had here. But I also think the conference is better now than it was in 2001. I’ve won championships with my best teams, but I’ve also lost championships with my best teams. There are a lot of factors." There will be a major difference in the schedule this season. There is no longer an East and West division as all twelve teams will be combined to form one division. The top six teams (excluding UT-Tyler) will earn a spot in a three-day six-team post-season-tournament. "Combining the East and the West divisions made our schedule more difficult," said De Hart. "Our five toughest matches in the conference are all on the road. I think the whole season will be a dogfight. I feel like we can beat any of the teams, but I also believe any of those teams could beat us. That’s how close the competition will be. And that’s a big concern." "We need to improve our general soccer. With the level of our team, we need to refine things a bit. And we have some question marks out on the flanks. But we have high expectations and it’s exciting to know we can compete in every game." The Eagles open the season September 1 in Memphis, Tennessee, against Rhodes College.