A year after qualifying for the Mid-Continent Conference Tournament for the first time in four seasons, the Valparaiso University men's soccer team will look to continue its climb up the Mid-Con standings as the 2003 season unfolds.
Thirteenth year head coach Mis' Mrak returns nine letterwinners from last season's squad that finished the year 5-10-2 overall and 2-2-1 in the Mid-Continent Conference, placing third in the league.
Between the posts, the Crusaders return sophomore goalkeeper Jeff Oleck. As a rookie last season, he stepped up to the challenge of being the team's number one backstop, starting 15 matches and recording four shutouts, while posting a 2.04 goals against average.
Three players will enter the season fighting to back up Oleck. Junior Brandon Aylward has been with the program for two years, while a pair of freshmen, Sean McGinnis and Andrew Gensch will also vie for playing time between the posts.
The defensive half of the field will be young for the Brown and Gold in 2003, with just three players having seen significant playing time on defense or in the defensive midfield.
Seniors Oliver Sanders and Josh Peacher will be looked upon to anchor the backline for Valpo as the season opens. Sanders is a well-rounded individual that can transition the Crusaders defense into offense. Peacher has been a consistent force in the back for the Brown and Gold since he arrived on campus as a freshman.
Sophomore Nate Hyde also returns on defense for Mrak's squad this season after having a stellar rookie campaign. Hyde earned Defensive Player of the Week honors last season, and should help to solidify the defense this year. Chris Butler is the only other defender to have seen action last season for Valpo, appearing in just two matches.
Chris Goss returns to the team this year after recovering from a medical red-shirt and will look to make an immediate impact in the line-up, while freshmen Henrik Turk and Mark Wolka will compete for playing time along with sophomore J.D. Groff.
On the offensive side of the ball, Valpo returns several players with on the field experience. Adam Newell is the lone senior returning on the offensive half of the field, but juniors Owen Hoyt, Mark Korba, James Flugstad, and Mickey Miller II are all ready to provide support.
Newell played defense last season out of necessity, but returns to forward this year. Hoyt saw significant action last season as a junior, after playing in a limited role his freshman season. Korba is the team's top returning scorer, tallying five goals last season after posting three his freshman year.
Flugstad stepped up and played in 12 matches as a sophomore, and his skillful abilities will help lead the team in the offensive midfield. Miller can create plays off of the dribble and scored his first collegiate goal last season, something Mrak hopes to see more of this year.
Sophomore Nate Balfanz gained a little experience in match action last season and will be looked upon to produce more this year up top. Valpo also gained the services of Tim Bowington in the off-season. Bowington already has collegiate experience under his belt, having played for two years at Texas Christian.
A host of newcomers will all fight for playing time with the Crusaders offense when the season begins. Jeremy Stacy, John Allendorf, Sean Marshall, Greg Gibson, J.J. Eschenburg, Brad Johnson, Jon Brighton, Sean Jesse, and Jason Richards will all hope to impress Mrak during the season and get the opportunity to see match action during the year.
The Crusaders will open their season at home on August 29 when the Brown and Gold host Southwest Missouri State at Eastgate Field. Like usual, Valpo has put together a difficult non-conference schedule in hopes of preparing for Mid-Continent Conference play.
Three teams from the Big Ten, Ohio State, Michigan State, and Wisconsin are all Crusader opponents this year, with the Spartans traveling to Valpo on September 26, while the Brown and Gold will face the other two on the road.
Mid-Con play will begin on October 3 with a visit from UMKC, while the Brown and Gold will complete the home portion of their schedule on November 2 against Western Illinois before traveling to Wisconsin for the regular season finale six days later. The Crusaders will then hope to be a part of the Mid-Con Tournament November 14-16, this year hosted by Oakland.
With the Mid-Con as balanced as ever this season, Mrak will look to blend veteran play with a host of newcomers this season, in hopes of making a run for a Mid-Continent Conference title, which has alluded the program since 1998.