By Chris Mackowiak
Following a 2015 Capital Athletic Conference (CAC) Championship in the last season under Coach DiBartolo, the Salisbury University men’s soccer team hit a rough patch in 2016. The team recorded their fewest number of wins since 1990. It was a surprising result to a season that featured a team that included ten seniors.
Now in 2017, the Sea Gulls return with a very new cast, with 16 new players on their roster. The 2017 team exudes youth within talented players, but a few upperclassmen also are highlighted as leaders in the 30-man squad.
“It’s just about an even split of returners and new guys as we return 14 guys from last year’s team and have a lot of new faces. There’s definitely some guys that showed really well between some of our returners that made great strides from last year and certainly some of these new guys coming in that we expect to make a pretty immediate impact,” SU head coach Alex Hargrove said.
Hargrove comes into his second season at the helm of the team. As a former first team, all-conference Sea Gull and a former assistant Salisbury coach, he strives to return the program to the ‘promised land’ of a conference title and NCAA Tournament berth.
This journey may start with solidifying in the close games. Part of a 7-8-1 record including a 4-5 CAC record was an unfavorable record in overtime matches. The Sea Gulls were 0-3-1 in overtime games and had seven one-goal losses on the schedule by year’s end.
“Certainly we’re trying to score more goals. If you look across the last couple years and go back to the 2015 CAC Championship season, we were down [in 2016] in terms of the category of attacking opportunities. That’s a large area of focus for us this year and of course we want to continue to be defensively stout,” Hargrove said.
“I think those were learning points. It helped us so now we know not to give up at all. Play until the final whistle and keep going,” senior right back Nick Carrington said.
In 2016, the Sea Gulls averaged 13.9 shots-per-game. In 2015, that same category was at 15.1. It is a small difference but is a small indication among many factors which Hargrove is considering.
Foremost among the key returners on the offensive side is senior forward Brooks Zentgraf. Zentgraf’s tenure as a Sea Gull has stretched across a few strong Salisbury attackers such as Matt Greene and Leslie Umunna. With 13 goals in his 53 career appearances, his name will be called upon more to spur on the production. Zentgraf sees chemistry as a key to that success.
“We all have to be on the same page. We all have to have great team chemistry: working off each other, communication, all that stuff in practice will make it happen,” Zentgraf said.
Alongside Zentgraf will be a talented core of young midfielders to join in on the attack. Sophomore midfielders Ryan Spadin, Dolph Hegewisch and Matt Hawkins all made great strides in their freshman campaign. Spadin struck for three goals in 15 appearences. Hawkins contributed two assists in 12 appearences.
Hegewisch returns as an expected catalyst for the midfield. His six goals and three assists were both either best or tied for first on the team. The Crofton, Md. native also was the only Sea Gull to appear on either of the top all-conference teams with his All-CAC Second Team selection.
“I’m just taking the same approach I did last year. I came in with a hard-work mentality. I know myself and the [sophomore] midfielders are looking to do the exact same thing. I can’t wait to see what we can do this year to build off of last year,” Hegewisch said.
Another telling sign for Hegewisch’s contributions is his switch to the No. 10 jersey, a classic selection for starting center attacking midfielders. He sees ‘playing forward’ as a key to offensive success.
“We’re trying to move everything forward. We’re always looking for the forward pass before we’re looking back. We’ll have numbers going forward. I think that the formation this year is appropriate for us to score as many goals as we can this year,” Hegewisch said.
One sector of Salisbury men’s soccer that seems to always be a strength is defense. The team took an unexpected turn in the sector with a 0.4 increase in goals-against average from 2015 to 2016. After finishing the season at 1.03 in the category, the back line will be looking to send the value under one.
At the top of the defensive formation will be junior Robbie Budd at a defensive midfield role. The midfielder saw increased time on the field last season with four starts in 16 appearances.
At center back, seniors Colby Fell and Mike Kramer return as known commodities at the position after making 13 and 14 starts last season respectively. Sophomore defender Chad Rickards has also appeared during scrimmages recently with key time at the center back spot.
At the wing back spots, senior Nick Carrington will once again occupy the right side of the field after a break out season in 2016. Including a three-for-three tally on penalty kicks, the right back scored five goals and tallied one assist during the season. He will be encouraged to run forward with the offense.
“[The 2016 experience] helps me to help the young guys out; give them encouragement, show them that it is possible to break through into the starting 11,” Carrington said, who says he worked a lot on conditioning this offseason.
With former left back Kevin Miller departing in 2016, the spot is open to a newcomer. That man might be junior defender Tyler Quincy who started in the role during a recent scrimmage against Frederick Community College, his former team. The junior college transfer recorded six goals and 11 assists over the course of 28 starts for FCC.
Behind the known commodities on the back line are the unknowns inside the goal. It will be a surprise for both opponents and fans come opening day as to who claims the starting goalkeeper job. So far, the preseason has welcomed a tight competition among three players.
While Dan Brennan and Robert Fiackos controlled the starting jobs as seniors in 2016, they could part wisdom onto then-freshman Samuel Roy. Roy now returns to the fold in 2017 as the lone returning goalkeeper.
Coming into camp though as a key competitor was JUCO-transfer Trevor Brookhart after his two years at CCBC Essex. While there, Brookhart recorded a 1.09 GAA in 26 starts. The third player is true freshman and Archbishop Curley graduate Benjamin Gentry.
“That’s going to be a competitive spot all year. We return Sam Roy who had a great freshman year and really got a lot of confidence underneath his belt. He’s looked sharp this preseason. We’ve got three new players coming in from a great pedigree,” Hargrove said.
Even members of the backline do not see much separation.
“All three of the goalkeepers are doing really well this year. It’s a real competition this year. There’s not a real standout,” Carrington said.
Seniors and Unknowns
Despite 16 new faces to the team, one thing is certain: Hargrove has full confidence in his five seniors as leaders.
“With those five, their leadership this past spring and summer has been fantastic, and those guys have put in a lot of quiet work over these last three years. This is their team now, and they’ve stepped up from the first session and are leading it as such,” Hargrove said.
For Nick Carrington being a senior means continuing the great traditions of the program.
“Leadership. Helping the younger guys. Leaving the jersey in a better place. Help everyone out. Make sure we end on a high note,” Carrington said.
For Salisbury in 2017, a successful turnaround from the previous season could be determined by the new faces on the team. While familiar faces paint pieces of this year’s squad, much is to be learned about the other half of the squad and what they will or may need to contribute this season.
“The squad’s strength right now isn’t any individual player, it’s the depth of those 31 guys,” Hargrove said.
Based on their recent scrimmages, the team also plans on adjusting to new formations and offensive tactics to play to their skill sets and find those offensive chances the squad is in search of. One item to watch early on is to see how the team finds chemistry in the final third and while in possession of the ball; that could determine how the season goes this time around.
That mission starts Friday afternoon in the newly renovated Sea Gull Soccer Stadium at 2pm vs. Capital University. The two-day Elmer Lord Memorial Tournament continues Saturday when Salisbury faces Gettysburg College at 3pm.