2002 Season Preview
Aug. 14, 2002
How does a team build on its best season in school history? That is the question Head Coach Sam Koch and the 2002 edition of the UMass men's soccer team faces heading into the season. Last year's squad finished with a 15-6-1 record that included its first-ever NCAA Tournament bid and win, a school-record nine-game winning streak and the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament championship.
"We know that every game in the Atlantic 10 is going to be tough for us," said Koch. "We are going to have a bulls-eye on our back, since we made the NCAA Tournament last year. We aren't used to having everyone gunning for us. It will be a challenge."
For starters, the Minutemen welcome back 11 letterwinners, including six starters, from last year's record-breaking season, providing the experience needed. Offensively, UMass returns 90 percent of its goal-scoring punch from last year (44-of-49) and 93 percent of its assists (38-of-41). The top six scorers on last year's squad return in 2002.
"Jeff is a great finisher coming off a great season," said Koch. "Injuries have held him back the last couple of years, but he is such a hard-worker, and we need him to play well this year. We need to keep him healthy to be successful."
Deren will have quite a supporting cast alongside him as three other returnees scored at least 13 points in 2001.
Junior forward Ptah Myers was second on the squad with 21 points (9 g, 3 a). Myers had an especially strong Atlantic 10 season, ranking fourth in the league in scoring with 15 points (7 g, 1 a).
Senior Yuri Morales' performance may have been overshadowed by Deren and Myers, but his 12 assists in 2001 was the second-best mark in school history. He finished with 20 points (4 g, 12 a) and needs just nine assists to break Dave Siljanovski's career record of 26.
"Yuri is one of the most-feared players in the Atlantic 10, according to other coaches," said Koch. "He has the ability to get by people one-on-one, to score goals and to find the open man."
The last of the returning double-digit scorers from 2001 is senior midfielder Derek Rhodes. Rhodes will be the answer to the trivia question, "Who scored UMass' only goal in NCAA Tournament history?" Rhodes scored 13 points last season (3 g, 7 a), and his goal in the 20th minute against Creighton a year ago gave the Minutemen a 1-0 win over the Bluejays for UMass' lone NCAA Tournament win.
"Basically our entire offense is back. If those guys continue to do what they did, we should be very good offensively," said Koch.
Coach Koch is also bringing in a talented freshman class that will only bolster the Minuteman attack.
Tom Kitchell, Ernie Billittier, Marco Tuesta and Jason Scudamore all figure to see significant playing time and Drew Rhodes and Brian Benjamin could also become factors.
"These players could all see playing time for us," commented Koch. "It is an athletic class and they will give us added depth and athleticism."
"It (defense) is definitely the biggest question mark on our squad. We lost a lot of players from last year's team," said Koch. "We need to play as a whole unit. If we can do that and solidify the area, we should play pretty well."
Senior midfielders Dan Colwell, Andrew Eicher and Tiago Moreira all return after having solid junior years. Colwell and Eicher scored nine and six points, respectively, and found the back of the net six times combined. Moreira contributed one assist in 10 games last season.
The Minutemen also welcome back a trio of sophomores in Martin Burwell, Travis Cooke and Gabe Bernard and junior Devlin Barnes. The four players combined for three goals and two assists. Barnes was the only player that saw significant action last season, appearing in all 22 games. For the Minutemen to be as solid defensively as last year, one of the four needs to step up.
"They are all hard workers that know what needs to be done," said Koch. "I have confidence in them all, that they can play well defensively."
The Minutemen will have just seven games of collegiate experience returning at the position. Cooke played the position last season, but has moved to the midfielder position for the upcoming season. Koch is hoping that Zach Bernard, Chris Camerota and Rich Falkowski can step in and provide immediate results. Still, Koch understands that it will be a learning process.
"They are good players, they just haven't had much experience," said Koch. "Zach Bernard has great footwork, and Chris Camerota is very calm and competitive. Rich Falkowski has shown the talent in spring practice. We just need them to step up for us."
Seniors Enzo Altomare, Dave Doucette and junior Colin Burns figure to battle for the starting spot, despite the fact that none have any significant collegiate experience to date. Altomare has appeared in three games in his career. Freshman Lester Melendez, who played on the Nicaraguan Under-23 National Team, could also be thrown into the mix.
"This race is wide open," added Koch. "All of them have shown that they can play well. Altomare has been in the program for three years learning behind O'Quinn. Colin Burns has regional team experience, Doucette has played well over the summer and Melendez has international experience. Any of the four could earn the starting job."
Then comes the tough part: the Atlantic 10 season.
"It is one of the tougher schedules we've had. The non-conference schedule will really prepare us for the conference season," said Koch. "Our goal is to finish in the top four of the A-10. That qualifies us for the A-10 Tournament, where anything can happen. That will be our ticket to the NCAA Tournament.
"This team has the talent to win the A-10. But as coaches, we just want to play well enough to not make mistakes. If we do that, the rest will take care of itself."