Last season marked the beginning of a new era for the Valparaiso University men’s soccer program. A new coach in Mike Avery, a new league in the Horizon League and even new uniforms awaited the Crusaders. This year, Valpo has a year under its belts, both under the new coaching staff and in the new league, and will look to use experience gained last year to make an impact this season.
Back for his second season on the Crusader sidelines is head coach Mike Avery. In his first year, Avery guided Valpo in its step up to the Horizon League and led the Crusaders to one of the best defensive seasons in school history, as they allowed just 28 goals over their 18 matches.
Joining Avery for his second season will be assistant coach Rick King. King, who works primarily on the field on training and coaching the goalkeepers, guided 2007 Horizon League Goalkeeper of the Year Ryan Schwarz in his first season at Valpo. Rounding out the coaching staff is Andy McCaslin, serving as a volunteer assistant in his first year with the Crusaders.
The last line of defense for the Crusaders, Schwarz has already cemented himself as one of the program’s all-time best keepers through just two seasons in a Valpo uniform. The 2007 Horizon League Goalkeeper of the Year, the junior set a new program single-season record for goals against average (1.57) and finished 17th in the nation with 5.24 saves/match. Schwarz especially stood out in league play, lowering his GAA to 1.02 in Horizon League contests and allowing more than one goal in just one of eight league matches.
Schwarz will be backed up in net by freshman Kyle Zobeck. Zobeck was a two-time All-State honoree in Iowa and earned state All-Star Game MVP honors as a senior.
“I believe we have one of the best goalkeeping pairs in the country,” said Avery. “Schwarz established himself last season as one of the top guys in the college game, and his Horizon League honor speaks to that. Zobeck came to us a very highly recruited prospect and it is easy to see why he was so sought after. Ryan enters the season as the starter, but Kyle is not far behind. We are very comfortable with either in the goal, and hopefully the competition between the two teammates pushes them both to a higher level.”
Plenty of experience returns on the back line for Valpo in 2008, as the Crusaders bring back six defenders, all of whom started at least part-time last season, when Valpo held its opponents to just 28 goals in 18 games.
Leading the way in the backfield is three-year starter Andrew Stewart. The senior has appeared in 52 of Valpo’s 53 matches over his first three seasons, including 49 starts, and has twice been named Valpo’s most outstanding defensive player. Fellow seniors Brett Bermes and Clifton Brown have also started for the better part of three years for the Crusaders, as Bermes made 13 starts last season while Brown was in the starting 11 on 12 occasions.
Also returning on defense is the sophomore trio of Ken Perkins, J.P. Lytle, and Kevin Deitsch. Perkins made 11 starts while playing in every game, while Lytle appeared in 15 matches as a freshman for the Crusaders, starting on eight occasions. Deitsch, who was originially slated to redshirt in 2007, stepped onto the field for the first time late in the season and played in six matches, starting four times. Joining the six returnees in the back is one transfer and four freshmen.
“In defense we want two things - toughness and an ability to play out of the back,” said Avery. “We have a solid core of defenders returning, guys such as Stewart, Clifton Brown, Lytle, Bermes and Deitsch, so I like our experience in this group. We've also had success converting some other players into attacking fullbacks - players like Perkins. Several of our freshmen could also challenge for time, possibly (Chadd) Sult and (Lenny) Young. So as we build the team out of the back, I think there are a lot of good options to fit together a very good back four.”
Six players who saw significant playing time in 2007 highlight the returnees in the midfield for Valparaiso this year.
The most experienced of the returnees is Paul Leitelt. The senior has started 37 matches over his first three seasons with the Crusaders, has found the back of the net nine times in his career and leads all returning players with 22 career points. He is joined by fellow senior Yuuki Guzmán, who earned 12 starting assignments among his 16 appearances as a junior.
Four other midfielders are back for their second campaign in a Valpo uniform. Adrian Ortiz, who started 15 times as a freshman, filled the playmaker role during his freshman season, registering seven assists on the season, tied for the most in the Horizon League and matching the second-highest total in a single season in Crusader history. Other second-year players who are looking to try to crack the starting lineup on a regular basis in 2008 include J.J. Del Castillo (12 appearances in 2007), Jake Freisinger (17 games, 5 starts, 1 assist), and Kyle Gentile (18 games, 3 starts). In addition, two transfers, one redshirt freshman and seven true freshmen are also in the mix in the midfield.
“We have a lot of interchangeable parts in the midfield, and depth is really the buzzword for this positional group,” said Avery. “Newcomers (Rodolfo) Lucas and (Danny) Jeftich will feature, along with returning players like Ortiz, Leitelt, Freisinger and del Castillo. Our freshmen also give us some interesting options in midfield with players like Nathan Fitzgerald and Vasilios Kyriakopoulos. As a whole the group is creative, hard working, and has the ability to link the team back to front in a possession oriented manner.”
The Crusaders bring back four attackers for the 2008 season, while bringing in four newcomers up front as well.
Oscar Lomeli made an immediate impact in his first season in a Valpo uniform after transferring in as a junior, earning Second Team All-Horizon League Honors, as well as being named to the league’s All-Newcomer Team. The senior started 14 matches while appearing in all 18 of Valpo’s contests, scoring two goals while also adding an assist.
Steve Shively continued to shine as a clutch goal-scorer for the Crusaders as a sophomore. Of his team-high five goals, one was a match-winner, giving him five such tallies for his career, while three other goals served as the lone Valpo goal in a 1-1 draw.
Also returning at forward with a year of experience under their belt is the sophomore duo of Jon Obial and Zack Stivers. Obial appeared in 14 matches off the bench for Valpo as a freshman, while Stivers registered a goal and an assist in his 17 games, including four starts.
“Scoring goals is ultimately the name of the game, and I think there are a number of guys that can come in and fill that role for us,” said Avery. “Lomeli, Shively, Lyons and Obial all return and will see time in the attack. Newcomers (Tyler) Sellers and (Kelvin) Zelee will also add some spice to the attack. Both are big and physical attacking guys with good instincts around the box. We need to score more goals than we did a year ago, to be certain, and I think this group of guys will be able to meet that challenge.”
Four games against 2007 NCAA Tournament participants, including two against teams that reached the Elite Eight, highlight the 2008 Crusader schedule.
The regular season kicks off at Eastgate Field, site of eight games this year, against Eastern Illinois on August 29. Highlights of the non-conference season include contests at DePaul and Michigan State, both of which spent time inside the top-25 last season, and a neutral-site match against Bradley, which made it to the Elite Eight in 2007.
The Horizon League slate begins at Eastgate Field on September 26 when the Crusaders host Milwaukee. The Crusaders will also host UIC, which is ranked among the top-20 teams in the nation in multiple preseason polls, Wright State and Detroit; while hitting the road to take on Butler, Loyola, Cleveland State and Green Bay. The Horizon League Championship will begin on November 7, with the championship match to be held November 16. The winner of the championship receives an automatic bid to the 2008 College Cup.
“Depth is really the hallmark of this group,” concluded Avery. “We have such a large array of options to choose from, and all of them are pretty good. We are still not yet a program that has the few special players who change a game with one touch of the ball. We instead have a deep squad of good players. Our organization, our collective energy level without the ball, our depth, and our belief will hopefully combine to set us apart from the Valparaiso teams of old. This group wants to make history, and I think there are a lot of good reasons to believe that they will accomplish just that.”