Featuring a core of veteran returning players and an infusion of talented freshmen, the Case Western Reserve University men's soccer team will be aiming to take a step forward during the 2018 season.
Overall, 19 players return, including seven starters and an additional seven players who started at least one match in 2017.
"Last year, the team showed that it can play with anyone in the country and over the last two years we've also showed we're capable of winning big games," said Head Coach Brandon Bianco. "We have been in every game, which should give the group confidence. With the large number of returners that we have, we need them to draw from that experience and push everyone to be just a little bit better."
The Spartans finished at 7-9-2 last season, including six opponents throughout the year that were nationally ranked at the time of the contest. CWRU also played seven teams during the season that went on to qualify for the Division III NCAA Championship Tournament.
One of the highlights of the year for CWRU was a 1-0 win over then fourth-ranked Lycoming College on September 23rd. With that victory, CWRU has now defeated two-top-five ranked teams in the past two season, with the other coming against then second-ranked Kenyon College on September 27, 2016.
Headlining Bianco's roster is first-team All-UAA senior defender Christian Lytle, who played a major role on the Spartan defense this season. He aided the team to four shutouts and also helped the defense hold opponents to 6.6 shots on goal per game. Also contributing offensively, Lytle recorded one goal and one assist for three points.
In addition to Lytle, two more All-UAA selections return in senior forward Alex Besl and junior midfielder Zachary Senft. During his junior season, Besl contributed a team-high five assists and scored four goals for 13 points. Senft finished his first season as a Spartan with a team-leading 15 points on six goals and three assists. He also ranked first on the team in shots (45) and shots on goal (18).
"Our best players must play well and do so in the biggest moments," said Bianco. "Christian, Alex and Zach we will be guys we need a lot from. However, if everyone else defers only to them we won't achieve what we desire to. Everyone must be assertive on and off the field to do the little things right."
In addition to Besl and Senft, the front line will feature sophomore Seldon Magruder. Magruder finished tied for first on the team with six goals during his freshman campaign.
The midfield is loaded with experience, with the likes of returning seniors Brady Daulton and Josh Wargo, juniors Marques Manta, Chas Novitsky, Garrett Winter and Brian Woo, and sophomores Matt DePeppe, Connor Weber, Nevo Ziv and Maximillian Klemm.
Winter started 14 games and tallied two goals for four points, while Weber played in all 18 games and tallied four assists. Woo registered three points on one goal and one assist.
The defense will feature sophomore Nathan Ekberg, who played in all 18 games and made 17 starts last season. In addition to Ekberg, the defense is set to return senior Reed Kurtenbach, and juniors Nicholas Bertrand and Kyle Lewis.
In net, the team returns sophomore goalkeeper Andrew Engelmeyer, who appeared in one game during his first year as a Spartan.
In addition to the returners, the Spartans are set to welcome 9 freshmen to the team, including goalkeepers Jakob Dunn and Charlie Fink, defenders Brendan Murray and Justin Rehklau, forwards Jacob Hall and Tye Williams, and midfielders Sean Atwater, Henry Barnes and Peter Dernelle.
"Our depth is pretty good," said Bianco. "We have a nice mix of returners and newcomers that will push the group."
The Spartans open the season with two of their first three matches at home, including the home opener against Marietta College at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, August 31. The team will then be on the road for its next two games, including a key away in-region match against 24th-ranked John Carroll University at 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday, September 12. CWRU will then play four-straight home games at DiSanto Field, which includes a match against 22nd-ranked Kenyon College on Wednesday, September 26.
"The health of the group and depth is important early," said Bianco. "As we come out of preseason we need to make 'freshness' a priority to tackle our first two weekends while continuing to learn and improve in each training session."
The UAA portion of the schedule, which features four nationally-ranked teams in the United Soccer Coaches Preseason Poll, begins on the road with a Saturday, September 29 match-up against fourth-ranked Brandeis University. Following a non-conference match against Hiram College on October 3 at DiSanto Field, the Spartans play a crucial three-match conference stretch at home against New York University, Washington University (Mo.) and the third-ranked University of Chicago.
"The UAA will be another fun challenge we're all looking forward to," said Bianco. "The seniors know what it's like to be a team near the top and this group is capable of beating anyone."
The regular season will wrap up with three-straight matches on the road, including matches against the ninth-ranked University of Rochester on Friday, October 26 and against eighth-ranked Emory University on Sunday, October 28.
"If our group is locked in each day in training, has a great attention to detail, and is tougher than we've ever been; we'll put ourselves in a position to be where we want to be," said Bianco.