Clarksville, Ark.-The tradition-rich men's soccer program didn't miss a beat under new head coach John Cossaboon in 2009 as the Eagles qualified for the playoffs and posted their tenth straight winning season.
And, now in year two, Cossaboon hopes to expand the program to even greater heights. The Eagles, who owned an 10-match unbeaten streak during the season, welcome a playoff experienced group that includes a large junior class. Ten players return who started in at least one match a year ago.
“Our goal is to better last year,” said the veteran coach. “We want to make the playoffs, win the playoffs and then get to the national tournament. That was on our mind last year and it is on our mind this year. The ultimate goal is to get in there and win the national championship. That thought needs to be at least entertained and trained for.”
The Eagles displayed a strong resiliency last season in a number of matches. They pulled off an upset of nationally ranked Mary Hardin-Baylor on the road and impressively overcame several first half deficits. The Eagles either trailed or were tied eight different times at the half before rallying for a win or tie each time.
“I think early in the year we were disconnected,” said Cossaboon. “I think we had a lot of different ideas on who we wanted to play. It was a situation where there were new players and new coaches. There was an adjustment period. But as the year went by, I think we figured out as a coaching staff and as players how we wanted to play. The thing we did have and the thing that we still have is that ability to fight and come back. When we got to the playoffs we were playing our best soccer. I’m excited about this season. We just have to see what we have early and then not take anything for granted.”
Fueled by their never-say-die mentality, the Eagles surged to a 12-5-3 record and advanced to the semi-finals of the American Southwest Conference Tournament. For the Eagles to better last season, a trio of talented forwards will likely lead the way. Ozarks will rely on Scott Janders, Francisco Garza and Guido Salas to pace the Eagles’ attack up front.
“I think we will have an amazing attack,” said Cossaboon. “We have a lot of guys coming back. We lost some seniors, but up front we have guys like Scott, Francisco and Guido. Those three forwards in addition to some other guys are a dangerous attacking group. I think what we will be is a real aggressive, exciting attacking team.”
Janders was voted the ASC Offensive Freshman of the Year and was the only rookie player to earn First Team All-Conference. Although just a sophomore, Janders is carrying the expectations of a veteran. He produced a team-best nine goals, four of which were game-winners, and took 33 shots in 14 starts. Garza notched seven goals and four assists, while Salas recorded four goals and four assists.
“They are all fast and quick,” said Cossaboon. “They can beat you and they can get around you and they can finish. Their success is a combination of speed, skill and having a nose for the goal. Last year we didn’t have all three working together at the same time. So it will be exciting to see how they go.”
Cossaboon believes the trio of forwards has different strengths on the pitch.
“Scott is not the tallest, but one of the best headers of the ball I have ever seen,” said Cossaboon. “He is dangerous with the ball at his feet and he is dangerous getting on the end of head balls. Francisco is dangerous in the air and dangerous going at you. He is a bit bigger and stronger so he can hold off and fight off players. Guido is more of the fluid, crafty, quick player. He thrives going at the defender, beating the defender and then doing something off of it.”
In the midfield, juniors Tony Santoro, Travis Murnan and Tanner Holman form a solid foundation for the Eagles. Santoro was a starter in 18 matches. He contributed one goal and four assists. Murnan had a pair of goals and assists, while Holman provides another scoring punch with his four goals and two assists.
“We are solid through the midfield with guys like Tony, Travis and Tanner,” said Cossaboon.
In goal, junior Neil Thompson won a two-player battle last season and improved as the season progressed, according to Cossaboon. Thompson finished with a 9-4-3 record and a 1.54 goals against average. Thompson also posted three shutouts. Junior Christian Ridings started in five matches, and ended the year with a 2.10 gaa and a 3-1-0 record.
“At the back, Neil finished up the season real strong,” said Cossaboon. “I think a lot of it is how hard he worked with assistant coach Matt Torok. Christian Riding is there, too. At the beginning of the season Neil and Christian split time, but Neil had a game where we felt like he turned the corner and was amazing for us. I hope he takes off from where he was and becomes even better.”
Incoming freshman Hugo Cardenas is also expected to raise the level in goal. Cossaboon feels he has a strong corps of freshmen who could challenge for time on the pitch.
“At least a number of them will have to contribute immediately,” said Cossaboon. “We have a variety of players coming in. These guys will have chances to play early. I’m hoping two or three can really step up and contribute in terms of time.”
The starting goalkeeper will receive help from captain Logan Hornback in the back. Hornback’s soccer acumen was evident last season as he started in all 20 matches and was one of the team’s field generals. Junior Devon Utley returns as another option as a defender. He saw action in 15 matches.
“Logan will anchor the defense,” said Cossaboon. “Some people just appreciate the goal scorer or that type of player. But as a coach, I enjoy the guys like Logan. He is the type of player that gets you into the playoffs and beyond. I thought a lot of what he did on the field and off the field and that is why I made him the team captain. We will have to find a couple other defenders.”
Behind a potent offensive attack, the Eagles ranked second in the league in goals (55), but ranked near the bottom in goals allowed (35). Cossaboon hopes his team can play better defense as a unit while continuing to create offensive opportunities from pressuring the ball.
“Defensively there is one most important position on the field every second and that is the guy nearest to the ball,” said Cossaboon. “Whoever that is must put pressure on the ball. When he applies pressure, then everybody else feeds off that. When pressure causes mistakes, whether it is the guy applying the pressure or one of the supporting players in the area, they work together as a unit. We need to have guys looking for the opportunity to step up, win the ball when a mistake occurs, and then we must have everyone else looking to balance the dangerous space between the ball and our goal. It is a thinking process. Having said that, our immediate goal is to get out of that space and attack any one of a variety of ways.”
Attacking remains a consistent theme for Cossaboon even when discussing his defensive philosophy.
“We have to keep the ball out of our net,” said Cossaboon. “We have to be organized defensively. We have a lot of defensive spirit and defensive understanding. We have to make everything solid defensively. That doesn’t mean become a defensive team. That means when we lose the ball we want to focus on high pressure and work hard to get the ball back and do the things we want to do which is attack.”
The expectation of making the playoffs remains high within the program. The Eagles have qualified for the ASC playoffs ten straight seasons. But, Ozarks last ASC title came in 2003.
“I don’t think there is a guy on the team other than the incoming players that hasn’t been to a playoff every year,” said Cossaboon. “So, that tradition is two-fold. Everybody expects it and everybody demands it. Everybody knows what it takes to get there. It is important that we don’t take it for granted and that we educate the younger players and the inexperienced players on how to win games at crucial times. These games, home or on the road, are never easy. Staying up with this tradition that has gone on for so long is important. I would like to see us get through that and win the conference tournament.”
Ozarks faces a challenging non-conference schedule that includes one NCAA I opponent in addition to what is expected to be an improved conference.
“I don’t think you gain anything by going out and walking over a bunch of soft teams,” said Cossaboon. “I was able to schedule NCAA I Centenary, who will be joining our conference. They still have their scholarship players. They have all the remnants of a Division I program. Our non-conference schedule should do well for us going into conference play. Within the conference, I’m expecting the ones that were strong to continue to be strong and I’m expecting some of the others that weren’t to make a big jump.”