Clarksville, Ark.-- Goal scoring may be the biggest void to fill entering the 2007 season, but a variety of potential scoring options and a top-notch defense have the University of the Ozarks men's soccer team eyeing their eighth straight trip to the American Southwest Conference playoffs.
A look at the 2007 roster sees the Eagles return nine starters from last season’s 14-6-1 team that advanced to the semi-finals of the ASC playoffs. The two starters lost, however, scored 23 of the team’s 53 goals last season, thus creating a scoring void going into the season. But, a group of talented players has the potential to emerge into dangerous scoring threats.
As with past years, it is a matter of who will step up to carry the scoring load, according to head coach Dave De Hart.
“I think we have some question marks in regards to scoring,” said De Hart, who is entering his ninth year at Ozarks. “But I think they are on the team. We just haven’t identified them yet. We are confident that a couple of our returning starters will adjust to a more attacking mode. I believe they will be more prominent in our scoring attack than last year. I know we will have some different guys step up.”
Among the candidates expected to fill the scoring void are seniors Darren Clark and Jason Caskey, and sophomores Brandon Cain, Shaun Renfro, Matt Engelman, Dylan Evans and Brandon VanCleave. Clark, Cain and Engelman will see time at the striker position. It was that moved from his defender position after his junior year and produced one goal while ranking second on the team in assists (7) in 2006. Cain, who played in the midfield last season, sparked the Eagles’ offense with four goals and four assists in his freshman campaign. His 2006 shot total (47) placed him third on the team. The gifted Cain earned All-ASC Third Team honors a year ago. Engelman contributed three goals in 21 matches.
“Darren will be a striker,” said De Hart. “He has good speed and creates scoring opportunities because of that. His tenacity was great for us last year. We will probably move Brandon Cain up to striker. That is his more natural position. Having him up front certainly will take care of some of the scoring load. I expect a lot from him. Matt started up front for us at times last year, too. He is a big, strong player.”
Caskey, Renfro, Evans and VanCleave will see action in the midfield. Caskey, Renfro and Evans all scored four goals apiece a year ago. The versatile Caskey earned a spot on D3kicks.com Team of the Week and was named ASC Offensive Player of the Week in 2006. The freshman trio of Renfro, Evans and VanCleave proved to be ready to play at the collegiate level last season. The competitive Renfro added four assists to compliment a productive first year campaign, while Evans produced 10 points in seven starts. The speedy VanCleave added a pair of goals and earned All-Conference honors despite missing five games due to an injury.
“Jason can step in the midfield and make a mark,” said De Hart. “He can perform at a variety of positions. He loves to play and is one of the most passionate players on the team. Brandon VanCleave is a very talented player. We expect him to perform like an All-Conference player again. He pushes the ball forward with speed better than most in the league. Dylan and Shaun started on the outside several times and will be significant factors. I feel pretty good about our returning players in the midfield and some of the young guys we brought in.”
It is probable the backbone of the team will be its defense, which recorded a league-best nine shutouts in 2006. It is a unit that surrendered only 13 goals in league games. Additionally, junior Brian Sarber returns in goal. Sarber, a 6-foot-4, 225-pounder, has established himself as the conference’s top goalkeeper. Sarber’s post-season honors in 2006 included First Team NSCAA All-Region and First Team All-ASC. He led the ASC in goals against average (1.00) and saves percentage (.833). He ranked third in shutouts (4). He had 75 saves, seventh-best in the league.
But the veteran coach knows even the best goalkeeper can’t do it alone, and Sarber should have ample support in the back.
“We have the strongest goalkeeper in the conference and possibly the strongest in our region,” said De Hart. “Our absolute strength right now if you look at areas on the field would have to be goalkeeping. His backup would start for most schools in our conference. Jeffrey Enevoldsen has been invaluable to our team when Brian has had some injuries. I think we will be strong defensively because our starting defense remains intact. Overall, I think we are a well-rounded team.”
Jarod Thompson returns for his final season in the back after helping the team tie a school record in fewest goals allowed in a season (19). The 6-foot-3 Thompson suffered a season-ending injury just prior to the playoffs, but still earned All-Conference honors. Seasoned veteran and All-Conference midfielder Nate Abbott also returns to provide ample support for Sarber.
“Jarod’s experience and confidence are really important to us,” said De Hart. “He adds leadership and is steady. Nate is a fifth-year senior who will play in the defensive midfield. He really came on in the last ten games of the season. He is our most consistent and most solid player in the midfield. He can do so much. Those two give us quite a bit of experience.”
Two-year starter Dan De Hart, along with sophomores Jason Owens and Aaron Brueckner solidify the defender position. Junior defender Brandon Pierson returns after suffering an injury in 2006. De Hart is an All-Conference player while Brueckner, Owens and Pierson add experience on the field.
“Dan has started as a freshman and a sophomore,” said De Hart. “Jason started as a freshman in the back. was a starter before he had a knee injury. And, we have some young guys that will really press all these guys.”
The Eagles brought in 14 new players to campus, some of which De Hart believes could make an immediate impact.
“We have some freshmen that could definitely win a spot or push some of the returners for a spot,” said De Hart. “I have high expectations for so many of them, but it always depends how they adjust to the college game. We emphasized goal scoring in our recruiting efforts and we are excited about the potential we have coming in. We were fortunate to get some quality defenders and midfielders in this class as well. I see a lot of guys coming in and making a positive impact.”
Expectations for the 2007 team are high, but De Hart knows his experienced group still needs improvement in order to extend its league record playoff streak to eight.
“We need to work on our consistency match to match and on a daily basis,” said De Hart. “I think scoring goals may be an issue. I think that will happen, but at this point I don’t know necessarily where that’s going to come from. We need to work on a number of things. We need to be better than we were last year to win a championship.”
The Eagles open the season on the road against on September 1 against Piedmont College and September 2 against Maryville College.