The men's soccer team finished 18-4 in 2008 with an impressive run through the UMAC tournament where, in the finals, they defeated the College of St. Scholastica, a team that had beaten them twice during the regular season. Then, they waited in vain for an at-large bid for the NCAA division III post-season tournament, leaving them to focus on what remains to be accomplished in 2009.
If one were to prognosticate on the Cougars based on returning talent alone, another strong season and post-season bid seems a good bet. Nineteen Cougars (including five all-conference selections) return this year, most of whom saw significant playing time in 2008. Add to the mix a handful of first-year players who will challenge for playing time and the Cougars have as formidable a line-up as you could expect, not only in the UMAC, but maybe all of DIII Minnesota.
An 18-4 record in 2008 told just part of the story of UMM's success. The Cougars outshot their opponents better than 2 to 1 (481 shots to 215) and averaged 2.75 goals a game compared to .67 for their opponents. As games went on, the Cougars grew stronger. The defense yielded only four second-half goals and none in overtime.
In his fourth year with the men's team at UMM, head coach Christian DeVries is cautiously optimistic about his team's chances. But he also knows this is his first season with a completely recruited class and that bodes well for the Cougars this season. DeVries will be joined on the sidelines by veteran assistant Scott Turnbull for a third straight season.
Paced by 2008 UMAC player of the year, senior Brent Diggs of Champlin, the Cougars' front line is characterized by some electric playmaking and the ability to score quickly and often. Diggs led the UMAC with 15 goals while earning additional honors as UMM's first NCAA all-region player.
"He has natural ability with the ball you can't coach," DeVries says, who adds that he expects Diggs to be even more dangerous this season due to the improvement of his front line mates.
Aside Diggs will be "local phenom" junior Mattson Towley of Alexandria, who missed much of 2008 with a sports hernia. If he returns to first-year form, when he was named all-UMAC, "he'll be a major scoring threat up front," says DeVries.
Giving Diggs and Towley invaluable support will be fellow senior Kelsey Duerr of Spring Lake Park, or as DeVries calls him, "Mr. Everything." Duerr played every position for the Cougars last season on his way to a place with the all-UMAC team.
"Kelsey can play defense with the best defenders, but he can also score up front," DeVries says.
Mr. Right Place, Right Time is sophomore Ayano Jiru of Shakopee who, with an uncanny knack for finding an open space in front of the goal, scored four times in just six games last year. He will challenge for time in the lineup.
The all-important midfield will be anchored by team senior captain Patrick O'Connor of Ham Lake, who, in his fourth year, has collected nearly every award possible: three-time all-UMAC, two-time all UMAC tournament team, UMAC tournament MVP, and leading UMAC scorer (his sophomore year). One of three players left from the original men's squad of 2006, O'Connor will be able to focus solely on playing midfield this season.
"[Pat] has adapted to whatever we asked of him in past years," said DeVries. "This year he can focus on anchoring the midfield and leading the team."
Matt Johnson of Colorado Springs, Colo., played several positions in 2008, but this season he'll earn starting role time at midfield, according to DeVries. "He has the ability to outwork anyone. He will work well with Pat"
Additional midfield duties will be shared by a strong trio of players who DeVries says will insure the Cougars are strong across the field. Junior Zach Gilseth of Champlin Park played in all 22 games during his sophomore season for the Cougars, steadily improving from a first year that was cut short by injury.
"Zach is a great change of pace player," says DeVries. "His bursts of speed enable him to close on the ball quickly."
Junior Jeff Lind of Robbinsdale worked as a role player for his first two seasons, filling in where the Cougars needed him. The added depth this season, DeVries says, will allow him to focus on his true position, outside midfield. A chemistry and biology double major, Lind earned academic all-conference honors in 2008.
Sophomore Toby Glaser of Colorado Springs could emerge as a "diamond in the rough," someone opposing teams will have to watch out for this season. DeVries says Glaser had an excellent spring and summer working hard on his striking skills.
From a team that allowed only four second-half goals all season, the Cougars welcome back two goal keepers who saw significant time and all three starting defenders.
Senior Dana Veth of Ham Lake, who DeVries describes as "unstoppable in the air," is coming off an all-conference season and will be instrumental in starting attacks. Veth is also a member of the Bahamas national squad.
Senior Justin O'Connor of Ham Lake functions as the "voice of reason on the field," the vocal leader of the team, he will share captainship of the team with his brother Patrick this season.
Sophomore Greg Borchers of Westminster, Colo. played every minute of every game earning him the title of "Mr. Consistent" from DeVries.
Senior David Reich of Hutchinson is one of three original recruits on the team this season. He will provide relief time on defense.
In the net, the Cougars are led by the Tylers - Tyler Simpson of Broomfield, Colo. and Tyler Weber of Erie, Colo. - who shared goal keeping duties last season with similar results. In an all-conference season, Simpson, who played 1,200 minutes, allowed 0.72 goals per game, while Weber, who played roughly half that amount, allowed just 0.71.
"It's healthy for us that both Tylers will see significant time this season," says DeVries. "They can focus on different games and it will be especially helpful when we play back to back."
Both Simpson and Weber will be pushed by Kevin Daly of St. Cloud, who improved greatly this spring.
The Cougars will field a reserve squad this season, which will provide valuable playing time and development for many players who could see varsity action as well. They include: midfielder Andrew Hoaglund (Baldwin, Wis./Jr.), midfielder Taehaeng Lee (Seoul, South Korea/Jr.), goalkeeper Steven Wesbur (St. Michael, Minn./Jr.), and midfielder Finhas Ogbazghi (St. Paul, Minn./So.).
The Cougars will test their mettle from the start in 2009 when they open the season at home (Tuesday, Sept. 1) against Augsburg College, who advanced to the Sweet 16 in the D3 tournament in 2008 and will likely be a pre-season top 20 team this year.
Other pre-conference play foes include the University of St. Thomas (a perennial top team in the MIAC), national tournament qualifier St. John's University, Macalester College, and Hamline College.
UMAC play begins September 15 on the road at Presentation College.
The UMAC tournament (location TBA) is slated for November 3.