SALISBURY, Md. – First year head coach and Salisbury alumus Alex Hargrove looks to usher in a new era of Salisbury University men's soccer as he inherits a strong group of returners and a handful of youthful talent for his inaugural season.
Though his first season at the helm, the 2016 season marks Hargrove's 11th season with the program as he was a four-year player and spent six seasons as an assistant coach for the Gulls.
"Getting a chance to build on the foundation that this program has set, such as the strong winning tradition is something we look forward to carry on and I'll look to put my stamp on it," Hargrove said. "I am going to take what's been built and try to apply my personality in a way that is best for the program moving forward."
Last season, Salisbury went 13-4-3 and was ranked as high as No. 8 in the nation. Boasting a stout defensive group, the team posted a 0.62 goals-against average, good for 18th in the nation.
Down the stretch of the 2015 season, Salisbury captured its eighth Capital Athletic Conference title after going undefeated in regular-season conference play and defeating St. Mary's College of Maryland in the championship game.
The CAC title gave the Gulls their 13th NCAA tournament berth where they travelled to Montclair State University and fell in a closely contested match with Tufts University.
Banking off last season's success, and the fact that the team returns 17 players from their 2015 NCAA tournament team, the coaches in the CAC have picked the Gulls to finish first in the conference for the 2016 season.
"This team's identity is going to be one that is blue collar, requires a relentless work ethic and a competitive fire," Hargrove said. "This team is going to be defensively stout and also attacked minded, and wanting to be on the front foot to dictate the pace and tempo of the game. Those are areas that have been established before and we're just going to look to keep building on them."
Up top, Salisbury brings back a highly-skilled group that includes the team's top two scorers from a season ago and will look to match last season's output.
Senior Leslie Umunna garnered first team All-CAC honors last season after leading the Gulls in scoring with seven goals and one assist for 15 points last season. An exciting player to watch due to his ability to create separation in tight spaces, Umunna's inaugural CAC season last year has made him a man to mark in the league in 2016.
"Umunna was our leading scorer last year and we will definitely look for continued production out of him," Hargrove said. "He's the guy that most teams know about when they come in here and that might make it tougher for him this year."
With the added attention to Umunna, junior Brooks Zentgraf should have plenty of opportunities as his running mate. A favorite target of his teammates in the air, Zentgraf scored four of his six goals last season via headers.
"Brooks has put in tremendous work this off season," Hargrove said. "Physically and technically he's elevated his game from a season ago and it's exciting to see."
The midfield unit as whole is a fast-paced group that is going to control the tempo of games and supplement the forwards in their scoring efforts throughout the season.
"We return a lot of experience in the midfield," Hargrove said. "In addition to the experience we have the depth that allows us to be dynamic in the middle and a lot of these guys have a nose for the goal."
The unit is headlined by center midfielder and senior captain Brad Martinelli who has been a mainstay for the past few years. Martinelli will join Justin Lee and Daniel Kim as established presences up the middle.
Martinelli was third on the squad in assists last season with three, while Lee added one of his own. In 2015 Kim was the lone freshman to appear in every contest and was able to notch a goal for the Gulls.
The Salisbury backs are the most intact group to return for the 2016 season as three of the team's four starters from last season come back for this season.
"In the back we are fortunate to return the players that we do," Hargrove said. "In addition to the three starters coming back we have a veteran guy and a transfer who will all being seeing time there."
Eiben earned a bevy of awards last season, including a first-team All-CAC nod for his 2015 campaign. Not only a defensive player, Eiben was third on the team in points as he scored four goals and added an assist for nine points as he did much of his offensive damage off set pieces.
Miller, a senior captain, is a strong player who, despite only getting one assist a season ago, sparked a lot of offense by his ability to barrel down the field and draw the attention of opposing teams.
The other returner for the backs is newly minted captain, junior Mike Kramer who played in and started 19 games last season as a sophomore, one of only two sophomores to start a game all season.
Waiting in the ranks and developing over his time in the maroon and gold, Nicholas Carrington will be in contention for one of the wing back positions as well as junior college transfer Colby Fell, who has the ability to play any position on the backline.
Following the departure of All-American Drew Staedeli, an open competition has formed in the early stages of training with three keepers being on the roster.
"There's always question marks when you lose a three-year starter," Hargrove said. "However we are fortunate to have the guys we have now that make up a strong group of goalies."
Returning for his senior season is Robert Fiackos who has been with the team since his freshman season and played limited minutes a season ago.
Salisbury's 2016 slate features 17 contests, including eight at the friendly confines of the SU Soccer Complex.
"We always try to make the schedule as competitive as we can," Hargrove said. "In addition to the out-of-conference schedule, the CAC is a conference where anything can happen and we are going to take it a game at a time and never look past any team because on any given day you're going to get the best out of any team."
September 2 marks the season opener as Salisbury welcomes Wilson College as a part of the annual Elmer Lord Soccer Classic.
On day two of the Elmer Lord Soccer Classic, Salisbury takes on its first of two 2015 NCAA tournament participants of the season as it hosts Rutgers University-Camden before travelling to Eastern University on September 20 as the last out-of-conference game before the CAC schedule opens up.
CAC play starts on September 24 for Salisbury as Southern Virginia University comes to town.
The last conference home game will be October 19 when Christopher Newport University comes to the SU Soccer Complex, then October 25 at Wesley College marks the last scheduled game of the regular season for Salisbury.