Optimism abounds around the Valparaiso University men's soccer program heading into the 2005 season.
Head coach Mis' Mrak heads into his 15th season leading the Brown and Gold, and returns 14 letterwinners, including eight starters, from last year's squad. In 2004, the Crusaders finished the year 4-11-3 overall and 1-3-2 in the Mid-Continent Conference. This season, Valpo hopes to improve upon its sixth place finish in the league.
The Crusaders return four of their top five scorers from one year ago, and most of the defensive corps is back for another season. Mrak also returns a pair of goaltenders that saw action last season. Five freshman and a transfer also moves into the mix this season, as Valpo looks to once again return to the Mid-Con Tournament.
Offensively, the top two scorers for the Brown and Gold return and look to add fuel to the Crusader attack again this season. Jon Brighton led the Crusaders in scoring with five goals and 11 points last season, while transfer D.J. Catrow made an immediate impact for Valpo in his first season wearing the Brown and Gold. The Second Team All Mid-Con selection dished out four assists and tallied eight points.
Junior Jeremy Stacy had four assists and six total points for the Crusaders while Phillip Dennis came off of the bench to score a pair of goals for Valpo in his rookie season last year.
Senior Tim Bowington returns for his final season at Valpo and should add an attacking presence as well for the Crusaders. Last year, he started all 13 matches he played in after recovering from an injury. Junior J.J. Eschenburg added valuable depth off of the bench for the Crusaders last season, registering a pair of assists, and will look to be called upon even more this season. Greg Gibson returns to the line-up in the offensive half as well for the Crusaders after missing last season as a medical redshirt.
Valpo's defensive line-up may be the strength of the team. Led by seniors Nate Hyde and Nate Balfanz, the Crusaders will look to turn team's aside in the defensive half of the field. Hyde has been a four-year starter for the Brown and Gold while Balfanz has started 34 matches over the past two years. Balfanz also earned Second Team All Mid-Continent Conference honors last season for his work along the Crusaders backline.
Chris Goss has also been a mainstay among the Crusader defenders over the past two years. After missing his freshman season as a redshirt, the fourth-year junior has turned in a pair of solid seasons for the Crusaders.
A trio of juniors will also battle to make a difference in the line-up this year for the Crusaders. John Allendorf, Henrik Turk, and Mark Wolka all played pivotal roles for the Brown and Gold last season. Allendorf, who played on the reserve team as a freshman, appeared in all 18 matches, making ten starts, while scoring a goal and adding an assist. Turk added 11 starts on the backline for the Crusaders, and has seen action in 32 matches over two years. Wolka joined Turk on the backline, drawing seven starts in 2004 after seeing action in just five contests in his rookie season.
Massachusetts transfer Tyler Pagano is the only other Crusader field player to have experience at the collegiate level, joining the squad after starting 18 of 19 matches for the Minutemen last year.
In goal, senior Jeff Oleck has been a mainstay for the Crusaders since he arrived on campus. He has started all 49 matches in which he has appeared during his career, and is second on Valpo's all-time shutout list with nine. He has tallied a 2.14 goals against average for the Crusaders in three seasons. Sean McGinnis will again back Oleck up in the net. The redshirt-sophomore saw action in three contests last year, including one starting assignment.
Five freshmen will also join the line-up this season, looking to make their mark on the program from the beginning.
Mrak has a challenging schedule for his squad this season, with five of the first six matches scheduled away from Eastgate Field. The Crusaders will open the season on September 2 in Buffalo, N.Y. at the Bulls Classic. Valpo will face tournament host Buffalo in the opening match before battling Canisius on day two. The Crusaders also travel to non-conference foes Butler, Eastern Illinois, Western Michigan, and Cleveland State this season.
Valpo's home opener is set for September 11 as the Brown and Gold entertains Northern Illinois. The Crusaders open Mid-Continent Conference action on September 24 at home against UMKC, and also have conference opponents Centenary and Western Illinois visiting Eastgate Field.
The home schedule also sees visits from four other non-conference teams, including IPFW, Detroit, Xavier (Ohio), and Michigan State in the regular season finale on November 6. The Crusaders then look to travel to Kansas City, Mo. November 11 and 13 for the Mid-Con Soccer Tournament.
The pieces are in place for Mrak's team heading into 2005. If everything comes together, with a solid corps of returnees joining a talented incoming class, the Valpo men's soccer team could move back toward the top of the Mid-Con standings.