The Valparaiso men’s soccer program is the very definition of a program on the rise, coming off of a 2009 campaign in which it captured a school-record ten victories and finished in third place in the Horizon League standings. Now, the Crusaders enter 2010 with nine starters and 17 letterwinners in all back from last year’s squad, ready to take the next natural step and challenge for a Horizon League championship.
“This is an experienced team,” said Crusader head coach Mike Avery. “We have a lot of players that are in their third or fourth seasons here with me and that have played heavy minutes during their careers. Our depth is at an all-time high and our reserve team is as competitive as many colleges’ first teams. We have added three transfers and eight freshmen to the program and all have shown well so far. I think we have the potential to be very successful this season, and I know that the future of the program is bright as well. However the season goes, this team will be a lot of fun to watch.”
Avery is entering his fourth season at the helm of the Crusader program as he continues to transform Valpo men’s soccer into a force to be reckoned with in the Horizon League and in the Midwest. Avery led Valpo last year to a school-record ten victories, a third-place league regular season finish and a berth in the Horizon League semifinals. He has guided the Crusaders to a trio of their best defensive seasons in program history, including last season when they allowed the second-fewest goals in a single season all-time.
Avery is assisted by former Crusader standout goalkeeper Jeff Oleck, who enters his second season as a member of the Valpo coaching staff. Cailean Bailey will serve as the reserve team head coach as well as assisting the varsity in his second year, while Phil Ruskin is the squad’s director of soccer operations this year. Joining the staff as a volunteer assistant for 2010 is Donnie Hathorn.
Valparaiso again brings back a very strong 1-2 punch in net, led by a two-time Horizon League Goalkeeper of the Year.
The duo of Ryan Schwarz and Kyle Zobeck have traded off setting and re-setting the Crusaders’ single-season goals against average record the last three years. Schwarz, a fifth-year senior, set new Valpo season records for both GAA (1.07) and shutouts (7) last season while being named the league’s goalie of the year for the second time in his career. He enters his final season as the Crusader all-time leader in GAA (1.57) and has 13 career shutouts, just one off Valpo’s career record.
Zobeck redshirted last season as Schwarz saw every minute in net, maintaining three years of eligibility. Zobeck played every minute in net in 2008 while Schwarz was injured, posting a 1.47 GAA and five shutouts as a true freshman that season as he was named to the league’s All-Newcomer team.
“We are very fortunate to have two of the best goalkeepers in the league in Schwarz and Zobeck, and we are comfortable with either of these two players stepping in and doing the job for us,” said Avery. “Each has their own strengths, and both are wonderful teammates and leaders of the program. They push each other daily, so we know that whomever is playing on a given day is very well prepared because he has won a fierce competition to get the spot. The future of the position also looks bright as Tom Serratore and Tyler Eliasen have both had strong preseasons, and though Blake Reedy has been battling an injury so far this season, he had a tremendous spring last year and looks ready to challenge for the #3 spot.”
A strong and experienced corps returns on the back line for the Crusaders in 2010, including three players who started in the back last season as Valpo allowed the second-fewest goals in program history.
Conner Cappelletti started ten of the 13 matches he appeared in last season on defense for the Crusaders, while fellow senior Ken Perkins played in all 19 matches, starting 16 times and handing out four assists. Redshirt junior JP Lytle missed last year due to injury, but started 13 times out of 18 appearances on defense in 2008.
Junior Chadd Sult saw significant time in the back in 2009 as well, starting ten times while making 17 total appearances. Redshirt junior Kelvin Zelee moves to defense this year after making 13 appearances last season, mainly as a reserve, and sophomore Jonathon Smith earned three starting assignments among 14 games played in his rookie year. Junior college transfers Lior Avisror and Chace Zanaty also add to the Crusader depth in the back.
“We are excited about the return of Lytle, who sat last year with a knee injury,” said Avery. “JP will be a mainstay in our back four and we have a lot of confidence in him. Perkins, Smith, Cappeletti, Zelee and Sult all return as well, so there is a lot of experience in our defending. Zanaty and Avisror have both been great additions as transfers and both have maturity and experience to call on as they work for contributing roles. Whoever ends up playing in the back for us, we will clearly have a strong and athletic group that is able to build the game for us as well.”
As deep as the Crusaders’ set of defenders are, the deepest unit entering the 2010 season appears to be the midfielders, as 73 combined starts from last year return in the center.
Leading the way in the midfield are a pair of All-League Second Team honorees from 2009. Senior Adrian Ortiz has started every match over the first three years of his career and never came off the pitch for the Crusaders last season, scoring a pair of goals in the regular season finale. Redshirt junior Stefan Antonijevic impressed in his first year with Valpo, starting each of his 18 matches and serving as a big presence in the middle, tallying two goals and an assist.
A trio of seniors are also back in the midfield. Roby Del Giudice appeared in every match in 2009, starting ten times in his first season, and registered two goals and three assists, while Jake Freisinger saw action in 17 fixtures last year, starting on three occasions. Fifth-year senior Israel Bisoni sat out last season due to injury after appearing in 18 matches, including five starts, in 2008.
Redshirt juniors Wei Ming Wong and Clayton Lyons also return valuable experience in the midfield. Wong started 15 times in his first year sporting the Crusader kit, while Lyons saw action mainly as a reserve, tying for team-high honors with four assists. Sophomore Jaymie Bullard was honored as a member of the league’s All-Newcomer Team, scoring two goals and starting six times out of 17 matches played as a rookie, while fellow sophomore Kevin Miller was called up from the reserve team midway through the season, appeared in nine matches and tallied a goal and an assist.
“Probably our deepest positional group, we have a lot of options in the midfield,” said Avery. “One thing is certain, though, the midfield will be led by Ortiz and Antonijevic. Combining with these two could be any number of players, and we return a lot of experience with Freisinger, del Giudice, Wong, Miller, Bullard, and Lyons. Freshmen Todd Vervynckt and Charles Barden have impressed in preseason so far and could challenge for time as the season progresses.”
The Crusaders return two of their top three scorers up front for the 2010 season.
Senior Zack Stivers led the way offensively for Valpo in 2009, finding the back of the net six times and also chipping in a pair of assists while starting 15 matches out of his 19 appearances. Redshirt junior Brendan Roth appeared in all 19 matches as well last year, starting 13 times, and contributed four goals and two assists.
Sophomore Sam Haines got some valuable experience off the bench as a rookie, appearing in 16 matches and tallying one goal. Junior college transfer Guy Shabtay also is expected to see some action up front for the Crusaders in 2010.
“Roth and Stivers return as the most experienced front runners we have in the team, and both are very capable of scoring goals and creating opportunities for our team,” said Avery. “We have added Shabtay as a transfer, and he gives us another dimension in the attack that we have lacked in that he is a true penalty box player that can finish in a lot of different ways. Haines and Stipo Zeba also return after good first years, and both could easily figure into things for us this season.”
The regular season kicks off this weekend with a five-game swing away from home, as the Crusaders travel to UNLV’s tournament to face the host Runnin’ Rebels (Sept. 4) and UC-Riverside (Sept. 6). One week later, Valpo will head north to Milwaukee to play in the Marquette Invitational, taking on Santa Clara (Sept. 10) and Florida Gulf Coast (Sept. 12). A road game at IUPUI Sept. 17 concludes the season-opening road trip.
The home schedule begins on Sunday, Sept. 19 when the Crusaders host Bowling Green. Other non-league home matches include meetings with Western Illinois, Western Michigan and Eastern Illinois, while Valpo will also play non-league road games against Big Ten foes Michigan and Ohio State, the latter of which finished the season inside the nation’s top 25.
The eight-game Horizon League schedule features one match against each of the other seven league schools, starting with a home meeting Friday, Sept. 24 against Milwaukee. Valpo will face the league’s NCAA Tournament representatives, Butler and Green Bay, on the road while also taking on Loyola and Cleveland State away from home. Meanwhile, the Crusaders will also host Wright State, UIC and Detroit, with the Nov. 6 home game against the Titans representing the regular-season finale. The top six teams in the league’s regular season standings will make the 2010 Horizon League Championship, which begins Nov. 9. The winner of the league championship will earn an automatic bid to the 2010 NCAA Tournament.
Valparaiso returns plenty of experience in 2010, and the Crusaders add strong pieces in the right places to supplement the returning players. With the strength on both sides of the field, there’s every reason to expect continued improvement from the Crusaders as they look to challenge for the Horizon League Championship.