Will Third Time be the Charm for Men’s Soccer?
Issue   |   Thu, 08/28/2014 - 17:27
Rob Mattson
Nico Pascual-Leone ’16 had six goals and a team-high nine assists last season. The junior was critical to Amherst’s offensive success and scored three game-winning goals, including one in the team’s home opener against Middlebury last year for a 2-1 overtime win.

Men’s soccer returns to action in 2014 following a team trip to France this past summer and two consecutive Elite Eight appearances. Last season, the Jeffs finished with an 18-1-2 overall record and an 8-0-2 mark in NESCAC play. The team also won the 2013 NESCAC Championship and attained a no. 1 national ranking for the first time in program history.

Although Amherst bested archrival Williams in its two regular season meetings of 2013, the Jeffs couldn’t hold off the Ephs during the Elite Eight in frigid conditions of late November 2013. Their 1-0 loss to Williams also snapped a 40-game unbeaten streak that began at the start of the 2012 season.

The Jeffs will be without the contributions of an extremely talented class of 2014, who finished with a 64-5-11 record, four trips to the Sweet 16 and back-to-back Elite Eight appearances. Despite losing last year’s standout senior class, featuring Max Fikke ’14 and Julien Aoyama ’14, the Jeffs still return a talented core capable of making another deep postseason run this fall. Amherst’s returning players accounted for 84 percent of the team’s overall goal-scoring in 2013, 76 percent of the season’s assists and 81percent of the Jeffs’ total points.

Crucial to Amherst’s lockdown defensive unit over the past two seasons is goalkeeper Thomas Bull ’16, a 2013 NSCAA Second Team All-American. Bull has posted incredible numbers in goal from his first-year debut and onwards, as he has amassed 24 career shutouts, 10 of which came last season, and has saved 79 shots, with 47 saves coming in the 2013 season.

Bull will serve as one of two captains this season, along with senior defenseman Gabriel Wirz. Wirz will help anchor the defense with standout sophomore Justin Aoyama and Bubba Van Wie ’15, among others.

Offensively, the Jeffs will also see explosive firepower from forwards Nico Pascual-Leone ’16, Greg Singer ’16 and Chris Martin ’17, who combined for a whopping 23 goals, 16 assists and 62 points last season.

The squad will also welcome back forward Jae Heo ’15E and midfielder Milton Rico ’16E for the season. Neither player appeared in any games last season, but both have been extremely important pieces for the Jeffs in past years of their collegiate careers. In 2012, Heo scored eight goals and had seven assists, earning NSCAA Second Team All-New England honors, while Rico scored two goals and had two assists as a midfielder in 2012.

The Jeffs, ranked no. 3 nationally headed into the season, are slated to play a 15-game schedule in 2014. Amherst will play six games at home at Hitchcock Field and nine road contests. Ten of the team’s games come against NESCAC opponents. In the first game of the season, Amherst travels to New England College for an 8 p.m. matchup on Tuesday, Sept. 2.

The New England College Pilgrims, who finished with a 10-7-2 record in 2013, also served as Amherst’s first match of last year’s season. Although the Jeffs secured a 4-1 victory last season, the contest was closer than the score suggests. Amherst trailed the Pilgrims early in the contest and took some time to find its stride. However, the Jeffs managed to score four unanswered goals, thanks to an equalizer from Pascual-Leone, a goal by Elliot Cassutt ’17, and a pair of scores from Martin.

“New England College is a good team who is very good at home,” said head coach Justin Serpone. “We were down 1-0 for the first 25 minutes of the game last year, and we need to do a better job of opening the season this year.”

Five days after its opening match, Amherst begins NESCAC conference play, facing Middlebury, who finished with a 9-5-1 overall record and a 5-4-1 NESCAC mark in 2013, on the road at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 7.

Last year against Middlebury, Amherst trailed early after the Panthers converted a penalty kick towards the end of the first period of play. However, Singer added a goal in the second half to tie the score. With the game tied 1-1 after regulation, Pascual-Leone notched a goal three minutes into overtime to lead the Jeffs over the Panthers.

On Saturday, Sept. 20, the Jeffs will welcome Williams to Hitchcock Field in a highly anticipated matchup scheduled for 2:30 p.m. This game marks Amherst’s home opener as well, for the Jeffs start the season with two more NESCAC road games following the Middlebury matchup. Williams has made two consecutive trips to the Final Four, both at the expense of Amherst, as the Ephs defeated the Jeffs in the Elite Eight in 2012 and 2013.

Last season, the 2013 Jeffs received a lot of key contributions and standout performances from first-year players, most notably Martin and Aoyama. Overall, the class of 2017 collectively combined for 31 percent of the team’s 49 goals, 24 percent of the squad’s 46 assists and 28 percent of the Jeffs’ 144 overall points. While it is too early to tell which members of the class of 2018 will emerge, the opportunities for younger players to step up will be present as a result of the void left by the graduating seniors.

“I’m excited to see who steps up in preseason,” Serpone said. “There is a major void that needs to be filled from the loss of last year’s senior group, specifically in the areas of leadership and toughness. I think we have some players that can step up, but it’s going to be a challenge. I expect there to be some great competition this preseason. We’re a pretty deep roster and every single person is battling for playing time.”

To begin this summer, members of the Amherst soccer program traveled to France, which proved to be a valuable learning experience and teambonding opportunity. The team’s France tour this past May marked the third such occasion in program history, as the men’s soccer team previously traveled to France in 1980 and 2005. While on the trip, the Jeffs played against Paris Saint-Germain U19, AJ Auxerre U19 and AS Monaco U19.

“We had a great time in France and got a lot out of the trip culturally and soccer-wise,” Serpone said. “We definitely made some memories that will last a lifetime.”

Although the Jeffs have experienced considerable success during the regular season and in postseason play over the last few years, Serpone believes that performance in past years does not determine the expectations for his 2014 squad.

“Every year is different,” Serpone said. “We’ve had some success in the past few years, but none of that has any bearing on this season. We are 0-0 at this point, and we’re looking to get that first win. Our only goal at this point is to qualify for the NESCAC playoffs. That’s the only thing we are thinking about.”

There are certainly some question marks heading into 2014, but the Jeffs’ wealth of impressive returning talent and experience could allow for another deep run to be made in postseason play this season.