Before last season, the preseason outlook had been fairly consistent for years: High hopes, yet moderate results.
With eight losing seasons in the last 10 years, such expectations were the norm.
So what would be causing such a buzz around this year’s squad? To put it simply: last year wasn’t one of those losing seasons.
Not only did the Owls rack up the most wins (13) since 1990, but they also advanced to the Atlantic Ten title game, were they suffered a 3-1 defeat to Rhode Island.
Coach David MacWilliams, in his fifth season at the helm, credits a combination of things for bringing the program full circle.
“Two years ago we lost eight games by one goal, and we were close,” he said. “Had we won a couple of those games, we might have turned it around earlier. But I think it’s the maturity of the team and the character of the team, combined with the fact that we’re getting higher level kids now.”
Despite returning a strong nucleus, including nine of 11 starters from a year ago, MacWilliams stayed aggressive in the off-season recruiting process. Midfielders Kevin McSherry, Mark Rossi and Matt McClain head a strong freshmen class. McClain tallied a goal in both of the Owls’ exhibition games earlier this season.
Also joining the team this year are three transfer students, including Tom Birch, a midfielder who played at Rutgers last season, and two players from Scotland who MacWilliams recruited this summer on a visit overseas. Unfortunately, compliance issues have kept both players off the roster as of right now.
Even with the majority of last year’s A-10 finalists returning, this is still a relatively young group. With such a mix of underclassmen, transfers and now international players, MacWilliams looks to seniors like midfielder Steve Wacker to fill that all-important leadership role as team captain.
“Steve really epitomizes what a captain should be,” MacWilliams said. “He’s our leader on the field and off the field, and he really does a great job for us.”
Forward Nate Webb, defender Andy Watto and goalkeeper Patrick Hannigan join Wacker as the only seniors on the team. Watto and junior Joe Brocker are part of a defensive unit that ranked 22nd nationally last season with a 0.79 goals against average.
Webb, the team’s leading scorer from a year ago (24 points), joins junior Tony Donatelli (16 points), and sophomore Matt Maher (9 points) to make up an impressive offensive unit.
Hannigan, last year’s A-10 Defensive Player of the Year, will be trying to prove that his impressive play was no fluke. Regarded as one of the top goalkeepers in the nation, the preseason all-American candidate ranked 16th nationally with a 0.68 GAA and tied a school record with nine shutouts.
With all of his preseason accolades in mind, Hannigan has had to learn how to adjust to the added pressure.
“I guess that pressure is there, but you want to be a leader on the team and prove to everybody that you’re worthy of the recognition that you got,” Hannigan said. “I’ve been playing this game since I was five years old, and it’s the same game every day. I know that I have the ability, so now I just have to come out and do it.”
While Hannigan is trying to stay focused on the season ahead of him, he admits to thinking about what could lie ahead in the professional ranks after college.
“Over the summer I really thought about it. But I can’t look past anything because that’s when you can screw up during the season,” he said. “If I do have that option after college, then I’m definitely going to look into it.”
Right now the task at hand for Hannigan and his teammates is to have a successful season. Only this year, success means more than just getting back to the A-10 championship.
“We’ll be in the A-10 playoffs, and I don’t see us not winning it this year,” said Webb, who has been nursing a sore lower back. “Anything less than getting into the NCAA tournament would be a disappointment.”
The Owls (0-2) have already faced tournament-like competition in the early going. Last weekend they dropped their first two games to national powers Duke and North Carolina State, by scores of 3-0 and 1-0 respectively.
Next up for the Owls is the Long Island tournament, where they’ll face Hofstra today and Long Island University on Sunday.
Jonathan Campbell can be reached at email@example.com.