By CHRIS MACKOWIAK
Featured photo: The SU players celebrate a goal vs. Misericordia last season. Emma Reider photo
Now entering his third season, Salisbury University head men’s soccer coach Alex Hargrove took over the program ahead of the 2016 season. While that fact alone brought its own challenges, an additional variable was thrown into the mix considering the talent departing SU from the 2015 Capital Athletic Conference (CAC) champions.
SU had eight seniors graduating after the 2015-16 campaign, all seeing key time and starting opportunities. That meant retooling the program, which was displayed by a 10-player freshman class in the 2016-17 season. As upperclassmen now, that class from two years ago is now leading the program’s charge back toward conference title contention.
Of that 10-player class, eight players remain with the team for the 2018 campaign. Four of those players started during the team’s opening Elmer Lord Memorial Tournament over Labor Day weekend. That number could have pushed to five if not for a spring injury to junior midfielder Dolph Hegewisch.
The impact of this now-junior class is felt across the squad as shown by its share of the starting line-up. This class has seen progress as well. After not seeing the conference playoffs in Hargrove’s first season, Salisbury made it to the CAC semifinals last season alongside a slightly increased win total.
“I think last season we got off to a rough start, but this season, we’re looking better,” junior midfielder Ryan Spadin said. “All of the little pieces are coming together. There’s just a lot of work to do.”
Now, in 2018, that class looks to lead SU back to their promised land in the conference despite being currently picked to finish fifth in the CAC’s preseason poll. Among those looking to prove the conference wrong will be junior center back Alex Eiben, who features as a key leader on the back line this season.
Eiben followed in the footsteps of his brother Nate, joining the ranks of the Sea Gulls in Hargrove’s first season. The Jefferson, Md. native was a starter on an SU three-man back line last season, but this time he is without the likes of veteran backs Mike Kramer and Nick Carrington.
“He had a great opportunity last year and took full advantage of it,” Hargrove said. “He got a chance to learn how to lead from the back last year and has logged the most minutes of anyone back there.”
Returning to the Sea Gulls this season is another player from Hargrove’s first class, now-sophomore right back Kyle Munson. The Forest Hill, Md. native started the first two matches of the season at right back. He will pair with sophomore left back Alton Walker as the younger players on the back line.
Alongside Eiben, an upperclassman not from the initial recruiting class fills the void, as junior defender Trent Hofmeister transferred into SU. He recently started 38 times over two seasons at CCBC Essex and saw two starts in SU’s opening week. Senior midfielder Cam Wilson will also see time at center back after making 14 appearances in the defensive midfield last season.
“We’ve been trying out a couple different formations with people in different spots,” Eiben said. “I think we’ll be solid throughout the season.”
Backing up the defense is once again senior goalkeeper Trevor Brookhart, who sported a 0.96 GAA and 79.6 save percentage across all 20 matches in 2017. Behind Brookhart to begin the season is junior Sam Roy, who remains from the initial Hargrove recruiting class.
The midfield is where the connections to 2016 really appear. For the first time, junior winger Matt Hawkins should see a consistent starting role for the Sea Gulls on the right side. The Eldersburg, Md. native scored one goal in 20 appearances and seven starts in 2017.
The central midfield is projected to be a strength in the season ahead as Spadin returns to his starting role, where he produced three goals and three assists last season. In the attacking midfield, Spadin was typically adjacent to Hegewisch, but now the Delmar, Md. native will adjust to new pairings.
Joining in the central attacking midfield is senior Robbie Budd, who is now the last remaining Sea Gull from the 2015 conference-winning squad. Missing some games last season, Budd appeared in 14 games, while starting in six. This season he will adjust to a new attacking role away from his previous defensive-minded one.
“In high school and club, I was always attack,” Budd said. “It’s a little different of a transition to the college speed of games. It takes a little bit to get used to, but it’s easy when you have good players around you that make you a little bit better.”
Aiding Budd and Spadin off the bench will be Peter Gutoskey, scoring once in 11 appearances in 2017. Sophomore Beau Johnson completes the central midfield in the defensive slot a season after he saw time in 19 games including seven starts.
The left wing and forward spots feature other members of the younger classes. Cameron Ament saw two starts over the weekend at the left-wing spot after making 14 appearances in 2017. The striker position is an even deeper area of the 2018 squad, showcasing the sophomore talent.
“We return four sophomore forwards. Some of those guys saw significant minutes last year and worked hard this past spring to refine their game,” Hargrove said.
Kevin Eriksen gained both starts in the opening weekend, scoring once in the win over Moravian College. Josh Woozley and Dylan Parks are other known commodities that may fight for time as well. All five of Woozley’s shots over the weekend were on goal.
“I think we have a lot of different player identities up there and any given game we’re going to have one or two guys be able to make a difference for us,” Hargrove said.
Between Hargrove’s juniors and sophomores, this 2018 season truly marks the first campaign in which Hargrove’s Sea Gulls nest on “the island.” After making progress within the CAC during his first two seasons, that 2016 freshman class will now play a major factor in determining how far Salisbury does go.
“Last year we were one of the youngest teams in the conference,” Johnson said. “Now that we have a lot more experience under our belts, I think we’ll be doing much better coming up this season.”