Now in its fourth season under Head Coach Brandon Bianco, the Case Western Reserve University men's soccer team has the experience and depth to make a run at the University Athletic Association title.
Overall, 19 players return, including seven starters and an additional six players who started at least one match in 2015.
"The team last season had a great year, but this is a new year and there will be new challenges," said Bianco. "This team will have to develop their own personality. What last year did for us was show that we could be one of the best teams in the country. It set a standard for our program on and off the field."
The Spartans finished at 13-4-1 last season, the best by a CWRU men's soccer team since 2011 (15-5). CWRU placed second in the University Athletic Association with a 4-3 conference ledger.
The team also earned appearances in the NSCAA Division III rankings twice last season checking in at No. 18 the week of September 29 then rising two spots for No. 16 the week of October 6.
Headlining Bianco's roster is second-team All-UAA senior midfielder Jacob Grindel, who finished last season with three goals and two assists for a total of eight points for the Spartans, including the game-winning goal against Baldwin Wallace.
In addition to Grindel, two more All-UAA selections return in senior defenders Zach Broujos and Rusheel Shah. The duo led the Spartans defensively, aiding the team to nine shutouts throughout the season. The Spartans defense ranked 11th in all of Division III in goals against average.
"All good teams have seniors who play at a high level," said Bianco. "Jacob, Zach and Rusheel have received some deserved recognition in the past and they are very good players and good leaders. We need them to play at a high level each game, but more importantly we need them to lead at a high level each and every day. We're also lucky to have three other seniors who are all good players and tremendous leaders in their own right. We will lean on our senior class very heavily this fall, as we do most seasons."
On the front line, the team will feature senior Josh Prosser, juniors Michael Balog and Alex Keller-Biehl as well as sophomore Jake Micham. Balog was second on last year's team with six goals and four assists for 16 points, while Prosser played in all 18 games, including nine in a starting role, scoring a pair of goals and assisting on another.
Darmstadter started four games and tallied four goals. Phillips registered eight points on two goals and four assists.
Along with Broujos and Shah, the defense will feature juniors Jack Rademacher, who played in 18 games and made 14 starts, sophomore Alex Besl, who saw action in 11 contests, sophomore Christian Lytle and sophomore Reed Kurtenbach.
In addition to the returners, the Spartans are set to welcome seven freshmen to the team, including defenders Kyle Lewis, Taylor Hosley, and Nicholas Bertrand and midfielders Chas Novitsky, Garrett Winter, Marques Manta and Brian Woo.
"Like most seasons, the depth of our roster will be a work in progress," said Bianco. "Much will depend on our freshman and how quickly they transition. Our freshman will have a chance to help us and the ones who will be those who adjust quickly to the academic and athletic rigor at CWRU."
In the net, the team returns four goalkeepers, including juniors Calvin Boyle and Christian Grimme, who combined to start 17 of the 18 games, and seniors Thomas Nolan and Frank Candau. The four served as impact players for the Spartans allowing their opponents more than one goal only once during the season in 18 total contests, while recording a combined .866 save percentage and a 0.59 goals-against average.
"We're lucky to have four talented goalkeepers," said Bianco. "All of them saw time last year and they all could be starters with this team. The goalkeeping position is our most talented, deepest position. Our expectations for whoever wins the job will be to manage the team from back, control the penalty area and help with our build-up play when we're in possession."
The Spartans open up the season with three of their first four matches at home, including the home opener against the University of Mount Union at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, September 1, and a road contest at Thomas More on September 4, which received votes in the NSCAA Division III Preseason Poll. The team will then be on a four-match road trip, which includes a September 17 match at Ohio Northern University, which also received votes in the preseason poll, before returning to Cleveland to play a key home in-region match against eighth-ranked Kenyon College at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, September 27.
"Getting off to a good start won't be easy so our guys have to know that no one will just give us a result," said Bianco. "Our month of September has us facing five NCAA tournament teams in our first nine games, but I think we're fully capable of starting well. To do so will require us making the most of our time together in preseason and be committed to getting better each day."
The UAA portion of the schedule, which features three nationally-ranked teams in the NSCAA Preseason Poll, begins at home with a Saturday, October 1 match up against New York University. Following a non-conference match away from DiSanto Field, the Spartans play a crucial three-match stretch on the road at ninth-ranked Brandeis University, Emory University, and the University of Rochester.
"The UAA will, as always, be a grind," said Bianco. "We'll have to be tough and disciplined to grind out close results and we'll need to have the confidence to walk into some environments late in the year expecting to win."
The regular season will wrap up with two matches at home against the 23rd-ranked University of Chicago and 24th-ranked Washington University (Mo.), then conclude on the road at Carnegie Mellon University (Pa.) on November 5.
"I have my expectations, but the only expectations that matter will be the players'," said Bianco. "They will set their competitive goals soon and it will be up to them to choose to be committed, disciplined, tough and humble enough to achieve whatever goals they set."