Aug. 18, 2006
SPOKANE, Wash. - Optimism abounds in the Gonzaga University men's soccer camp this year, and rightfully so.
The Bulldogs will get their first test of the season Sunday in an exhibition when Trinity Western University of Langley, British Columbia, visits Martin Field for a 2 p.m. contest. The Spartans went 15-4-8 last season and took the bronze in their first inaugural CIS national championship.
The Bulldogs, who went down to the final match a year ago with a chance to claim the West Coast Conference crown, return a strong nucleus off the team that fell 2-0 to two-time defending WCC champ University of San Francisco on the last day of the 2005 regular season to dash Gonzaga's post-season aspirations.
Gonzaga went 7-9-4 overall, 5-5-2 in the WCC, and the Bulldogs return 16 players off last year's team, including eight starters.
And that's what has the Bulldogs optimistic in spite of a pre-season WCC coaches poll that relegated the Bulldogs to the cellar.
But head coach Einar Thorarinsson doesn't see the Bulldogs destined for the cellar.
"Am I surprised? Not really," the 12-year head coach said when asked about the pre-season prognostication. "But I think we're a better team than we're being given credit for. This is a tough conference. We had a good year last year, but when you look at the conference from top to bottom I think everybody is better. But I think we'll surprise some people."
The Bulldogs return All-WCC first-team pick and Player of the Year candidate George Josten, who last year as a sophomore paced the conference in scoring with 29 points and in goals with 12. He became just the second Bulldogs to pace the WCC in scoring, 1997 WCC Player of the Year Jeff McAllister the other. His 12 goals tied him for fifth and his 29 points rank sixth on the Gonzaga single-season lists. His 17 career goals rank tied for fifth and his 40 career points are seventh all-time.In addition to his All-WCC accolades, the native of Idaho Falls, Idaho, also garnered National Soccer Coaches association of America/adidas Far West All-Regional third team honors and 2005 ESPN The Magazine Academic All-America third team recognition with this 3.89 GPA in civil engineering.
"George, obviously, is the nucleus for us offensively," Thorarinsson said. "He has a great feel for the game. He knows when to attack the net and he knows when to pass to a teammate. You can't concentrate on him because of his excellent passing ability. He'll find the open man."
But Josten is far from a one-man show.
Senior defender Ben Sawyer was a second-team All-WCC pick last year. He was a mainstay on the Gonzaga defense that was hit hard by injuries to five midfielders through the early part of fall camp and the season. The product of Spokane's Mead High help Gonzaga record a 1.52 goals-against-average, the lowest since 2001 when the Bulldogs held opponents to 0.85 goals/match.
The defense was also bolstered by midfielders Chris Hoyd and Scott Meslin, a pair of WCC All-Freshman selections. Hoyd hails from Boise, Idaho, while Meslin is from San Diego, Calif. Meslin started 14-of-16 appearances a year ago, while Hoyd appeared in 10 matches off the bench. Both were called on to fill the void left by the rash of injuries. Other midfielders who made major contributions as freshmen were Nick Heinrichs, who started 13 of his 18 appearances, and Bryan Mullaney, who played in 15 matches with one start.
"We asked them to play a lot as freshmen," Thorarinsson said of his group of young midfielders. "They responded to the challenge and gained invaluable experience that will only help them this season."
Senior Mike Babenko, who started all 13 of his starts in an injury-riddled season; junior Grant Lundberg who played in all 20 matches a year ago with 19 starts and tied for second in scoring with three goals and 11 points, and junior Austin Washington, who started all 19 of his appearances after transferring across town from Whitworth College, return a wealth of experience to the Bulldog defense. Senior midfielder Peter Peterson played in 13 matches with six starts last season, senior defender Chris Ness saw limited time a year ago and returns for his senior year and junior midfielder Scott Campbell also saw limited time after being injured early in the season.
"We're looking for big seasons from all of our veterans," Thorarinsson said. "You only have to look back to last season to know your turn could come at any moment. Even though we had to play a lot of younger players last season, it was a blessing in that it helped improve our depth for this season. We have a lot of options."
Higgins, from Kailua, HI, and is another in a long line of Hawaiian Bulldogs, returned to the nets in 2005 after sitting out the 2004 campaign with a viral condition and a knee injury. He responded with a 1.39 GAA overall, but his 1.02 GAA in WCC play ranked third in conference matches only. He posted a pair of shutouts and in three of his seven losses the Bulldogs failed to score, as well as in a 0-0 tie in another match. He was injured late in the season following a collision, missing four starts.
In his absence Thorarinsson turned to Smith, who helped the Bulldogs turn back No. 11 Santa Clara University 2-1 in double overtime to help keep their late-season title hopes alive. Smith played in five matches with four starts.
"I think we have two experience keepers," Thorarinsson said. "The job is probably Vito's to lose, but I think the team has all the confidence in the world in Dade as well. He played well at times last year."
The Bulldogs offense suffered a major blow during the summer when senior forward Luke Miller, who would have been a ninth returning starter this season, suffered a hip injury that required surgery, sidelining him for the season. He had three goals and three assists last year."Luke was really coming on and I was looking for him to team with George to have a big year," Thorarinsson said. "It hurts us offensively, but somebody will have to step up to fill that void."
Five newcomers will vie for playing time this season. Nick Barclay, a midfielder from Centennial High in Boise, Idaho; Ben Funkhouser, a midfielder from Spokane's East Valley High; Tim Muravez, a defender from Corvallis, Ore., High; Tye Perdido, a midfielder from Kula, HI, and Bryce Gary, a defender from Post Falls, Idaho, have joined the Bulldogs.Barclay helped Centennial to back-to-back Idaho State 5A titles and was an All-Southern Idaho Conference selection as a junior and senior. Funkhouser was an All-Greater Spokane League first-team pick, helping EV to the 2005 GSL title. Muravez was All-Valley Conference and a third-team All-State 4A pick in 2005 as Corvallis advanced to the first round of the State 4A playoffs. Perdido, the latest in a long line of Hawaiians to play for the Bulldogs, was the Maui Interscholastic League Player of the year as well as being a thre-time first-team All-MIL pick. Gary did not play high school soccer but played for the Spokane Shadow for four years until the team was disbanded for the 2006 season.
"These young players give us some added depth in our midfield and backfield positions," Thorarinsson said. "Each has the ability to contribute early in their careers."
Thorarinsson, who earned his third WCC Coach of the Year honor in 2005, thinks his squad will be ready for the season."We were in the chase last year, and every match down the stretch was a must-win situation," Thorarinsson said of his Bulldogs who went 3-1 in their last four WCC outings a year ago. "We have to build on that and have it carry over to this season. We grew a lot last season."
Growth translates to optimism, which Thorarinsson hopes results in wins in 2006.