Experience can go a long ways, especially in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference. For the EMU men's soccer team, losing only three seniors from last year's 8-11-1 team means there is plenty of experience back and the Royals hope that strength can help them make a run in the postseason in 2013.
Head Coach Roger Mast, entering his 23rd year at the helm, has plenty of practice of his own at understanding the importance of experience.
"Our players have another season under their belt where they gained invaluable experience," he said. "They recognize the competitive level of our schedule and especially within our conference. They also understand the work rate that goes into the outcome of each match. Experience is an important teacher of the game and the core of our team is comprised of juniors and seniors. It is their role to step up their level of play and to guide our underclassmen through the process."
In stark contrast to what Mast returned entering 2012, this fall the Royals bring back almost all of their goals scored, including nine from All-ODAC Second Team forward Christian Rhine (Palmyra, Pa./Palmyra).
"We do return most of our offensive firepower from last season," explained Mast. "Christian had a great year as a freshman. Our hope is that he will continue to be a consistent scorer for us and that we have other players increase their production from last season."
One noticeable change this fall will be at center back, where Ryan Eshleman needs to be replaced. The four-year starter was a two-time All-ODAC First Team honoree. But a healthy "Chris" Joao Downs (Limon, Costa Rica/Cologio de Limon), who transferred in from D-I Old Dominion last year, will help steady the back row.
"There is no doubt that we will miss Ryan Eshleman," Mast said. "He anchored our defense for the past four seasons. Chris has recovered from injury and his injury was not of the magnitude that we had thought. Early indications are that he will play in a central defender role along with sophomore Jonathan Bush (Pottstown, Pa./Owen J. Roberts)."
Seniors Brad Knispel (Sarasota, Fla./Sarasota Christian) and Caleb Golladay (Mt. Jackson, Va./Stonewall Jackson) will again hold down the flank defender positions. Pushing up on the attack, Golladay had a team high four assists last fall. Junior Andrew Yoder (Harrisonburg, Va./Eastern Mennonite) is back for his second season as the full-time start in goal, giving the Royals yet another reason to feel good about their defense.
In the midfield, EMU returns a handful of men who have starting experience, most notably junior Mark Mast (Harrisonburg, Va./Eastern Mennonite). The coach's son finished with three goals and three assists last year and was named All-ODAC Third Team.
With so many starters returning, the incoming class of recruits will simply be improving a team already full of talented players.
"Our depth has improved from last season in all positions," said Coach Mast. "The skill set of our players has also improved. We have very good balance in each of our classes and we have seven seniors on our roster. Those seniors provide us with good leadership. These are key ingredients to a successful season. The final key will be our daily work ethic and desire to improve each day."
In the early weeks of the 2013 campaign, a number of newcomers will get chances to earn more minutes come ODAC season.
"We have several new players who have had a good preseason," Mast said. "Sophomore Jake Lind (Harrisonburg, Va./Eastern Mennonite) will be playing in a flank attacking role, while freshmen midfielders Dylan Polley (Dexter, Mich./Dexter), Tyler Brenneman (Goshen, Ind./Bethany Christian) and Dilmer Martinez (Dayton, Va./Turner Ashby), and defender Kyle Pfohl (Fredericksburg, Va./Riverbend) will likely have the opportunity to impact the team early."
Last fall Eastern Mennonite went 5-6 in league play and took the eighth seed in a very balanced Old Dominion Athletic Conference. The Royals scored first in their quarterfinal game but lost 2-1 to eventual champion Roanoke. Mast knows the margin of error in ODAC play is incredibly small.
"There is so much parity amongst ODAC schools in men's soccer," he said. "You have to be prepared for each opponent because of the slim margin for victory or defeat. With twelve teams in the conference and only eight playoff spots there are good teams that do not make it into the tournament. Experience and depth are only helpful if our players understand and recognize the importance of each conference match. Depth is necessary because of the physically demanding schedule."
An added advantage for EMU this fall will be their new 1,000-seat bleachers on the turf field, and everyone associated with the soccer team is excited for the potential atmosphere at home games.
"I look forward to a venue that will be more fan-friendly," explained Mast, "and the players can't wait to play in front of a home crowd. The new bleachers will give us more seating but those fans who like watching the match from the hill on a lawn chair can still enjoy the game from there."
Mast is also excited to get his team on the field, to see how they respond to a tough schedule, both non-conference and ODAC. The journey starts this weekend with two games at Mary Washington. The Royals will get their first chance to play in front of a huge home crowd when Lebanon Valley comes to Harrisonburg on Sept. 11. ODAC power Virginia Wesleyan then comes in on Sept. 14 to open the conference slate.