SALISBURY, Md. – The season is finally back and the No. 19 Salisbury University men's soccer team is set to take the pitch in search of the program's eighth Capital Athletic Conference title and a berth into the national tournament for the 12th time since 1999.
Head Coach Gerry DiBartolo and the Sea Gulls concluded last season with an overall record of 18-4, a perfect 8-0 record in the regular-season conference schedule, and a trip to the CAC title game for the 17th time. Although falling in the championship game, 1-0, to long-time rival York College of Pennsylvania, Salisbury earned an at-large bid into the national tournament.
Hosting the opening two rounds of the tournament, the Sea Gulls came out gunning in their first match, ending Greensboro College's season with a 4-0 shutout. The next day, Salisbury's 2013 campaign would come to a close after a hard-fought battle against the reigning national champions, Messiah College, resulted in a 3-0 victory for the Falcons. Messiah went on to win the national title last season.
"I thought we played them really well," said DiBartolo about the Messiah match. "We didn't sit in against them, we tried to attack them. Other than a 10-to-15 minute stretch where they got us a little disorganized, I thought we played very well against them. If we would have won that game, I believe we would have went pretty deep into the tournament."
Entering his 33rd season at the helm of the program, DiBartolo knows exactly how to piece together a great team. Needing just 13 more victories to reach the 400 milestone in his career, DiBartolo is feeling optimistic for another great season for Salisbury.
"I think we return some very key players from that team, lost some pretty important players, but I think the core is there," DiBartolo said. "Hopefully, we can make another run to the conference championship, get into the NCAA tournament and make it deep into the tournament."
Returning 22 players of the 32-man roster from last season, the Sea Gulls are experienced. With five All-CAC selections back in the line up, two of which were selected as National Soccer Coaches Association of America All-Region players, the reigning CAC Coach of the Year will look toward his eight seniors for leadership and the underclassmen to step into contributing roles in 2014.
The front line looks rather promising entering this season, as the Sea Gulls return four of their five leading scorers from last year. Headlining the attack is senior Tanner East, who led the team in points and goals with 19 and eight, respectively. Of the eight finishes, four were game winners, which led the Salisbury attack as well.
"All three of them are very different players, all three of them are good around the goal, and they all have a nose for the goal," DiBartolo said about the three senior attackers. "The combination of those three guys and moving them around into different spots I think will make it difficult for teams to defend against us."
Along with the three strong, experienced seniors, several others will add depth and different speeds to the front. Juniors Chris Kittelberger and Josh Burdin, sophomores Nathan Mattola and Nicholas McCrea, and freshman Brooks Zentgraf all have showed great strides in preseason and will look to contribute to the offense this year for the Sea Gulls.
After losing two key players to graduation in the central midfield, the eyes shift to the underclassmen to fill big roles. With senior All-CAC selection Stephen Poorman, who recorded seven goals last season, anchoring the midfield, DiBartolo has pieced together a core of players that he feels all have similar talents that make this area of the field quite deep for the Sea Gulls.
"We have some returning players that are giving us some good minutes with Taylor Groginski, Michael Feeney, and Brad Martinelli; they have done a wonderful job," DiBartolo said. "We have a couple newcomers that are vying for playing time in there, both transfers and both giving a nice presence on the field."
Junior Dennis Runikera, Jr., transferred into Salisbury this season from Utica College where he started in 13 of the 20 games played in for the Pioneers in 2013, scoring three times and adding an assist for seven points. Sophomore Justin Lee comes to Salisbury from Eastern University where he played in 19 games, starting in three, while finding the back of the net three times.
"The thing about those midfielders is they are all very similar in terms of what they can bring to the field," DiBartolo said. "We feel we have brought more depth to the midfield with the quality of new players and the returning players than we did last year."
The back four has been nearly impenetrable and will look to carry that trend into this season, as three of the four starters return and a bulk of experience all around. Led by center-back seniors Kyle Westbrook and Logan Becker, the defense was relentless last season, only allowing 9.2 shots per game and a 0.49 goals-against average, good enough for the sixth-best defense in the country.
Starting for the Sea Gulls in all 22 games last season, Westbrook and Becker are a duo that makes it very difficult for opponents to get down the center of the field.
"Kyle and Logan are as good of a pair as any in the country," DiBartolo said. "As for reading the game, understanding and covering for each other, and dominating the center of the field, it makes it really tough to get beat down the middle."
Joining the All-CAC duo are junior Cy McNeill and senior Jeff Byrnes. McNeill transferred into Salisbury last season to make an immediate impact for the Gulls, starting in 16 of the 21 games played in. Byrnes saw a substantial amount of playing time in 2013, playing in 18 games in which he started six.
"Cy and Jeff are both highly-skilled, quick wing backs for us," DiBartolo said. "They have the ability to get forward, they slow down the attack, and we are pretty fortunate to return four backs that have lots of experience from last year."
Adding to the depth of the defense is a handful of returners and newcomers that will look to contribute to the solidity of the back line. Returning to the mix that saw playing time last season are juniors Zach Johnson and Danny Maskell and sophomores Kevin Miller and Nathaniel Eiben.
Starting in net for all 22 games last season, junior Drew Staedeli will look to command the field once again in 2014. An NSCAA All-Region selection last year, Staedeli compiled quite a resume in his first season as a starter. Only allowing 11 goals for a 0.53 goals-against average, ranked seventh nationally, Staedeli recorded 11 complete shutouts with four additional partials. The Ellicott City, Maryland native will look to pick up where he left off this season with his strong communication and leadership of the field.
"It was a battle between Drew and Nial Krach last year for the starting role, and Drew beat him out and had a great year," DiBartolo said. "We expect Drew to have another phenomenal year. He continues to get better each year, but he is only as good as the back four in front of him."
Competing as the first substitute for the keeper position is senior Krach, who saw playing time in four contests last year.
"Nial is a very good goalkeeper," DiBartolo said. "If Drew suffers any concerns, Nial is ready to step in and keep the standard of goalkeeping high as he has done in the past."
Two other keepers, who have been very competitive in the preseason and will vie for more playing time, are sophomore Robert Fiackos, who made an appearance in one game his freshman season, and newcomer Matthew Russell.
The 2014 campaign opens up the same way it has the past five seasons with back-to-back tournament weekends. The Gulls kick off their season Friday in the annual Elmer Lord Soccer Classic, as Patrick Henry College, St. Mary's College of Maryland, and the State University of New York at Brockport all travel to Salisbury. The following weekend the men travel to St. Mary's (Md.) for its annual Seahawk Classic where Salisbury will face off against Baldwin Wallace University and Bridgewater (Va.) College.
"We have been able to do these two tournaments in consecutive weekends with St. Mary's where they come to our tournament and we go to its tournament and we try to find the best teams we can possibly find for them," DiBartolo said. "I think our tournament is very good with Brockport State being a team that almost made the (national) tournament last year, so they are going to be a quality team."
The out-of-conference schedule is a competitive layout this year with teams such as North Carolina Wesleyan College, who has a lot of international players and is very technical and strong, Catholic University, who was an NCAA team last year and a strong team again this year, and William Paterson University, who is very competitive in the New Jersey Athletic Conference.
"We have been fortunate to get an Old Dominion Athletic Conference team to play us in a neutral site the last two years and this year we are playing Roanoke College," DiBartolo said. "They started last year really strong, were undefeated for many of games, had a few hiccups along the way, and by the end of the year were playing really well. I expect that game to very competitive as well."
"I think this conference every year gets stronger and stronger top to bottom," DiBartolo said about the CAC. "We have teams that have perennially been in the national ranking and the NCAA tournament and you're looking at York, Christopher Newport and Salisbury. I think those teams are going to be very strong this year."
DiBartolo continued to say that although other teams have lost some players, recruiting has went really well for them. Frostburg State University, University of Mary Washington, St. Mary's, Marymount (Va.) University, and Wesley College, along with Penn State University-Harrisburg and Southern Virginia University who are building their programs, will all look to make the conference competitive as it always has been.
"I don't think there is a give-me game in the conference," said DiBartolo. "When we show up, we have to be ready to play."
The Sea Gulls are set to kickoff the first game of the year on Friday at 3 p.m., at the SU Soccer Complex against Patrick Henry.
"We are very excited and looking forward to opening the year on Friday," DiBartolo said. "We hope we play an entertaining brand of soccer for everyone. Our goal is to win another conference championship and make another NCAA tournament run. We are ready to go."