Bolstered by the return of core offensive players, the men’s soccer team looks to recapture the NESCAC title this season. Led by dynamic attacking players in as Spencer Noon ’13, Jae Heo ’14 and James Mooney ’13E, the Jeffs enter the season ranked sixth in the nation, well ahead of their NESCAC rivals (the only other ranked team is Wesleyan, at No. 24).
Last year, the Jeffs enjoyed one of the best seasons in program history, posting a 16-2-2 overall record. In the process, Amherst won its second-ever NESCAC title. Entering the tournament as the No. 1 seed, the Jeffs defeated Middlebury in a 2-1 OT thriller in the semifinals before dismantling Trinity 2-0 in the championship game.
Having qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the fifth consecutive year, the Jeffs advanced to the Round of 16 before losing 2-1 to Stevens Institute of Technology (NJ) to end the season. Amherst also lost to Stevens in the program’s first Final Four appearance in 2008.
Under the guidance of fiery head coach Justin Serpone, the Jeffs have developed into a legitimate NCAA title contender. Coaches and players attribute the program’s long-term success to the team’s culture — characterized by intensity, hard work, accountability and an undying passion for soccer.
“We feel like our greatest strength is in our team character and culture,” Serpone said. “I believe in this group of players as much as many people I’ve ever been around.”
The team’s pervasive commitment to excellence has translated into stellar performances on the field. In 2011, the Jeffs prolific attack scorched opposing defenses on a consistent basis, scoring 2.50 goals per game. In comparison, no other NESCAC team averaged more than 1.85 goals last season.
Out of the 50 goals Amherst scored in 2011, 49 were scored by players who are returning this season. If all the pieces fall into place, the Jeffs could emerge as one of the most dangerous offensive teams in recent NESCAC history.
Last season, returning forwards Noon and Heo formed the league’s most productive attacking duo, combining for 24 of the team’s 50 goals in 2011. Noon, the NESCAC’s top scorer with 15 goals, was named the 2011 NESCAC Player of the Year, while Heo (nine goals) also earned All-NESCAC accolades.
Other returning attackers include Alejandro Sucre ’13 and Federico Sucre ’13. The Venezuelan twins — both 6’5” — thrived on set pieces, using their height to beat opponents to headers in the air. Alejandro, a co-captain this season, scored six goals while Federico notched four of his own in 2011.
The return of wing midfielder James Mooney should further ignite the Jeffs offense. Mooney was Amherst’s second leading scorer in 2010 (eight goals), but torn ankle ligaments sidelined the speedy midfielder for all of 2011. The following spring, Mooney decided to postpone graduation in large part because of his desire to play a full senior soccer season.
“It’s an incredible feeling to come back to Amherst and have a second chance at a senior soccer season,” Mooney said. “I learned a lot from being on the sidelines all of last season and have a much greater appreciation for the privilege of getting to put on an Amherst jersey and compete.”
While the team returns much of last year’s offensive firepower, the defense remains a bit of a question mark. While blowing away the competition in offensive statistics, the Jeffs finished closer to the middle-of-the-pack in defense, conceding 0.75 goals per game (tied for fourth in the NESCAC). In addition, the departures of goalkeeper Lennard Kovacs ’12 and center defender Sam Kaplan ’12 have left voids in the team’s defense.
“The bottom line is that we need to give up less goals,” Serpone said. “We graduated two important defensive pieces in Sam Kaplan and Lennard Kovacs, so it’s going to be important to get on the same page defensively early in the season.”
The Jeffs will be counting on first-year Thomas Bull to excel as the new starting goalkeeper. “He’s talented, and we expect him to do a great job this season,” Serpone said.
As a possession-based team, Amherst boasts one of the most skilled backlines in the NESCAC. Outside backs Julien Aoyama ’14 and Chris Lerner ’13 routinely join the attack on the wings, while center defender Ben Norton ’14 scored five goals last year. The Jeffs feature a talented midfield as well, with Brendan Caslin ’14, Max Fikke ’14, Casey McNamara ’13 and Milton Rico ’15 all looking to make a significant impact this season.
This year’s team also owns plenty of experience, with nine seniors and 24 returning players, all of whom have bought into Coach Serpone’s disciplined, energetic approach to the game.
“We have a lot of older guys on this team who have great relationships with one another and who know what it takes to be a great teammate on and off the field,” Lerner said.
The Jeffs open the season with two non-league road matches against Colby-Sawyer and Bridgewater State this upcoming weekend (Sept. 8-9). Amherst begins its NESCAC title defense with a road game at Bates on Sept. 15.