August 30, 2009

Spartan Men's Soccer Preview: The Quest For Postseason Play

Aug. 30, 2009

Spartanburg, S.C. - The USC Upstate men's soccer team, led by 15-year head coach Greg Hooks and in its third season playing on the NCAA Division I level, begins its first quest for postseason play as a Division I member this season.

The 2009 season is one marked with optimism and a fresh outlook as Upstate says goodbye to its provisional status in NCAA Division I and says hello to full DI membership. The soccer program, along with the softball program, was chosen by the University to be fast-tracked into NCAA DI membership when the school announced the transition of its athletics program to DI play in 2006. As a result, the men's soccer program had to only spend two years playing as provisional members of DI and now enters a new phase in the evolution of the program with the opportunity for posteason A-Sun and NCAA tournament play.

That's part of the good news as Upstate enters the 2009 campaign looking to be one of six A-Sun teams to qualify for the conference tournament and a chance to play for the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. The other good news is that a solid core of returning players will take the field to lead a crop of 14 talented, yet young and inexperienced, newcomers. Pat Regna was the team's top goalkeeper a year ago until a serious infection ended his season prematurely after 11 games. Nick Buxton also returns for his fifth year in the program. Buxton's season was ended after just three games due to a serious leg muscle injury. With Buxton, the leader in the back, gone for the better part of the season, Upstate was forced to play with young players on defesne which resulted in Regna and the goalkeepers having to face a lot of shots. With Regna and Buxton returning to the unit, as well as other experienced returnees and newcomers, the defensive unit should be much more solid this season.

Hooks and assistant coach Gary Lynch looked to improve every spot on the field in recruiting while working with the returning players to become more consistent. The result is that every position on the field is either more experienced, more talented, or both. How that relates to success in 2009 is obviously a question mark.

"I like what I have seen on the field so far," said Hooks during preseason workouts. "I like how hard they are working and the improved talent level we have shown. What that means for the regular season is unknown. We have some returning players who are talented and have some experience, but we will have to rely on new players to make an impact as well. What we are looking for is progress in the quality that we put out on the field as we try to build the team into a competitive Division I program."

In addition to Regna and Buxton, Hooks will rely on returning starters Ben Brannan (defender), Timo Foerster (midfielder), Colin Francis (midfield), Hakeem King (midfield/forward) and Erkan Yildirim (forward) to lead the team and lend stability, something that has been drastically needed the last two seasons. Brannan is an experienced senior, while Foerster, Francis, King and Yildirim are sophomores who benefitted from significant time on the field a year ago. While the team will still largely be young, the core players have experience on the pitch.

Now for the bad news... half of the team has never worn a Spartan jersey. Adjusting to Hooks' system and to each other is going to be crucial for the newcomers in order for them to make an impact, something Hooks has said is vitally important to the success of this year's team. On a positive note, several of the newcomers are expected to push for significant playing time on the pitch, an illustration that the program is moving in the right direction as Hooks builds a Division I program.

Leading the group of new players are Maurice Beggs (forward), Isaiah Ferguson (midfielder), Porter Massey (defender) and Kareem Richardson (defender). All are expected to battle for starting positions while lifting the level of talent on the field for the Spartans in 2009.

Injuries took its toll on Upstate in 2008 and while not the only reason the Spartans finished with a 2-15-1 overall record and a 1-7-1 mark in the A-Sun, it was significant. In all, Regna, Buxton, Peter Davis (goalkeeper), Jason McCabe (goalkeeper) Chad McCoy (forward), Chris McCoy (defender), and Philipp Soppa (defender) were sidelined or hampered with injuries throughout the season. While the Spartans have addressed needs for depth, Hooks cannot afford to have the misfortune of similar injuries to strike the team this season.

As Upstate enters the season, there isn't one area that the Spartans can claim is the strength of the team. Hooks has a fairly level amount of talent from position to position. However, with seniors Regna, Buxton and Brannan on defense, the unit could be the first to assert itself. With Division I soccer so tough and the margin of victory so slim, the defensive unit is one that can make or break the season. Last year, Upstate lost four games by a single goal and seven by two goals or less. The key to 2009 is turning those close games into wins or ties instead of losses.

"Division I soccer is so tough and the margin of error is so small that you have to be prepared to have all 11 guys on the field play every second of every game," said Hooks. "Making the transition from Division II to Division I is a process and we are building our program."

Upstate will once again play a regionally tough schedule. The Spartans open the 2009 season like it ended the 2008 campaign, playing at Clemson. However, the game at Riggs Field is an exhibition game this year. The Spartans will face a difficult A-Sun schedule, one that will see Belmont, Florida Gulf Coast, Lipscomb and Stetson come to Spartanburg to play at County University Soccer Stadium. Upstate will hit the road in conference play at Campbell, East Tennessee State, Jacksonville, Mercer and North Florida.

One difference from last year's schedule is that the Spartans play four of their eight non-conference games at the friendly confines of County University Soccer Stadium. Gardner-Webb, Georgia Southern, Georgia State and cross town rival Wofford will make appearances on campus, while the Spartans will travel to play non-league games at Davidson, High Point, UNC Asheville and Presbyterian.