LEWISBURG, Pa. -- The Bucknell men's soccer team won 13 games a year ago, the second-most in program history. While that is certainly a noteworthy achievement, for head coach Brendan Nash and his 20 returning players, the lasting memory of 2013 is a tough 1-0 loss at No. 21 Navy in the Patriot League Tournament semifinals. And now as the 2014 preseason training camp is underway, Nash senses that those final images in Annapolis are serving as motivation for this year's squad.
"I don't think it's the 13 wins that we build from, but rather the disappointment of how the way the season ended," said Nash following Wednesday's intrasquad kickoff scrimmage. "We started off the season rough and lost our first two games, but then we got better as the season went along. When we played Navy in the regular season, they were significantly better than us, but when we played them in the playoffs you could see just how much we had improved over the previous month. To lose on an own-goal, and then to watch Navy go on and win the championship, it just showed us how close we really were. You never know when you are going to have a legitimate chance to win a championship, and we felt like we lost a chance there. We told the guys that it was okay to feel disappointed, and to let it fuel us coming into this year."
Nash counts eight starters among his 20 returnees this fall, including a much-heralded junior class and a strong group of seniors headed by team captains Brian Ward and Jonathan Grad. Striker Jesse Klug (10 goals, 3 assists), center midfielder Chris Thorsheim (8 goals, 1 assist), goalkeeper Mike Lansing (0.75 GAA, 8 shutouts), winger Patrick Figgie (team-high 4 assists) and fullback Connor Willings lead that strong junior class.
Third Team All-America defender Mayowa Alli is just launching his pro career in Denmark, and he will be a tough man to replace, both in the back four and for his ability to get forward and score goals, especially on set pieces. Not to be forgotten among the graduation losses are gritty outside back Joe Meyer, who was a two-time Academic All-American, and defensive center mid Josh Butzke.
While Nash will spend a great deal of time during the preseason trying to account for those losses, he says that step one in that process is replacing Alli's leadership as last year's lone captain.
"Mayowa was an All-American, but it was his leadership and how he controlled the locker room and the temperament of the team that we really don't know yet how we are going to replace," said Nash. "But we have plenty of guys who were around Mayowa, and it is going to be more of a committee-type of leadership. Somebody is going to have to step up and fill that void. That's one of the things when you are trying to reload -- not rebuild -- a program, somebody should be able to step into that role. I don't know that we have an All-America center back this year, but as a group we should be able to fill the void.
"Mayowa was such a target on restarts for us, he scored a lot of goals off of corner kicks. So who is going to help us continue to be a dangerous team on restarts and corners. I have no idea what that answer is at this point, but that is what preseason is for."
Wednesday's scrimmage consisted of three 25-minute periods with different combinations. The freshman class played together as a group in two of the sessions, as Nash sought to put them under fire right from day one.
As expected, there were some heavy legs during the evening scrimmage, which was preceded by conditioning earlier in the day. That led to some ragged play at times, but there were also some good goals scored. In the first period senior Pat Plourde finished a breakaway after a nice through ball from Thorsheim. Sophomore Crispin Muessle equalized for the Blue side a few minutes later with a great strike to the far post after stealing a pass from an Orange fullback.
Another giveaway in the back led to a Thorsheim goal in the second period, but then the all-rookie team got the goal back about a minute later on a finish from Ben Derleth. The veterans would go on to win the period 2-1 after Figgie beat his man down the right flank and slotted a pass to Klug for a one-touch finish.
So far the early returns look promising for Boston College transfer Zach Rockmore, another big center back who is a junior academically but will have three years of soccer eligibility remaining. Rockmore was recruited by Bucknell before deciding on Boston College, but Nash is excited to have the Albany, New York, native in the program even if it is a few years later.
"It's a clean slate for Zach," said Nash. "He is a big center back who can also play center defensive mid. Zach was here for the captain's practices, and I have no idea how he played during them, but what I really liked was seeing him walking around campus with the guys. Usually when somebody is enjoying playing soccer they are a much better player. After one day you can see that the guys have already accepted him, and he is already been very vocal from the center back position. We think he has a big upside, but we will have to see how it plays out."
The team is scheduled for another intrasquad scrimmage on Aug. 19, and then on Aug. 25 the Bison will visit Saint Joseph's for an exhibition game at 7 p.m. The season-opener is slated for Friday, Aug. 29 against Binghamton at Emmitt Field, and the team will be home again the following Sunday against Hartwick at 5 p.m.
A more detailed season preview will be posted during the week leading up to the first game.