There's a definite air of excitement for Manchester University men's soccer this fall.
A quick glance at the returnees from a record-setting and Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference postseason tournament qualifying campaign of a year ago show proof. Head coach Corey Brueggeman's team brings back eight of 11 starters who helped pave the way to a 10-9 record.
"Yes, we are looking forward to the start of the season," Brueggeman said. "It'll be interesting to see this group of returners rise into roles as juniors and seniors from a leadership aspect [around the field]. With that kind of talent available, the coaching staff feels like most players know what we are expecting so we're looking at some great opportunities this year with big goals set."
No goal is more significant than the prospect of winning the program's first league tournament title.
"It's at the top of our list," the Spartans' third-year skipper said. "The regular season championship would be great, too, but to get back into the top four and make a serious run at winning the tourney is something this team is focused on. We're hoping another tough non-conference schedule prepares us for that, as we'll be tested early on."
Brueggeman noted that the Black and Gold's best chance for success on the Good Field pitch and beyond lies with the defense.
"We have most of our guys returning [back there]," he pointed out. "[Junior Brandon] Renninger [of Fort Wayne, Ind.] and [junior Matthew] Roop [of West Lafayette, Ind.] have played center back; [another junior Nash] Walker [of West Lafayette, Ind.] is returning at left back, and we have three to four veterans and a few others going for right back, We had eight clean sheets last season and are aiming at 10 this year. We made it tough for folks to score on us especially at home, and hope to do so again."
Even with the likes of two-time all-conference honoree Renninger and the other cast of experienced athletes in the back, Brueggeman admitted they would need to find a goalkeeper path and soon.
"[Senior Justin] Meredith [of Shelbyville, Ind.] and [junior Justin] Winterboer [of Indianapolis, Ind.] are two good options, as Meredith has seen time in net, and Winterboer is finally fit and healthy," he said. [Sophomore Manny] Brewer [of Decatur, Ind.] is also back after playing a large amount on the reserve level."
"We might also have two new guys in the mix," he added. "It'll be strong competition, and we may rotate until the conference season begins, so we get different looks of how things will go. I know one thing. They can't come in and try and fill [graduated standout] Brady [Forman's] shoes. They are all different with good qualities which is what we want the focus to be on."
Brueggeman and the Spartans staff hope the strong defensive picture allows more chances for creativity on offense.
"There are some things that we need to work out in preseason camp," he indicated. "I'm hoping all six midfielders and forwards can contribute. [Reigning conference Freshman of the Year Josh] Gonzalez of [Portage, Ind.] and [returning all-conference selection junior Drake] DeWitt of Columbia City are the biggest weapons having combined for seven goals and 24 points last fall."
"Looking deeper, a transfer from Hope College, Jared Wondergem, is a big addition and we're excited to see what he can do," he added. "At the midfield area, [senior Samuel] Tetteh-Quarshie [of Accra, Ghana], [senior Josh] McCoy [of LaPorte, Ind.], [juniors Alex and Max] Baker [of Fort Wayne, Ind.], [senior Nate] Johnson [of Portage, Ind.], [junior Josh] Jordan [of Zionsville, Ind.], [junior Adrian] Mulenga [of Avon, Ind.], [sophomore Nick] Surber [of Hebron, Ind.] and [senior transfer Zach] Schmidt [of Niles, Mich.] give us a lot of depth."
With that resume and what the staff feels is definite potential in the first year class, Brueggeman predicts the 2018 edition could be one of the program's best.
"This is the most talent I've seen our program have even with the reserve program," he noted. "From top to bottom, everyone comes in very equal. Adding in with the hiring of Chad Brooks as an assistant coach and the help of many volunteer coaches, we have the formula for something pretty special."
"Last year, we hit a rut during non-conference play in not confronting issues," he added. "We're hoping the individuals can learn quickly that we can talk things out and have communication all the way around. They need to know they can talk to each other and have to believe we can reach the goals we've set."