SALISBURY, Md. – After reaching the Capital Athletic Conference semifinals a season ago, the Salisbury University men's soccer team looks to take another step forward in the 2018 campaign and position themselves to compete for the program's ninth conference championship.
Now in his third season as head coach, Alex Hargrove will look to lead a young Sea Gull squad back to the playoffs. Hargrove knows it will be no easy task, though, as Salisbury returns just three players who started more than 50 percent of the team's games from a season ago.
"Certainly, we've got a lot of different identities to try and fit together, but we know the pieces of the puzzle are there," Hargrove said. "It's just a matter of continuing to move forward and accept whatever role is going to be asked, and I think it's going to take a little time until that right combination is found."
The Sea Gulls finished last season with an 8-9-3 overall record, going 4-3-2 in the CAC. The team boasted one of the best defenses in the conference as it was tied for second with a 0.99 goals-against average.
Despite the success on the defensive side of the ball, Hargrove believes they must excel even more to reach the level of success they want.
"I think for us it's going to be about being more defensively stout and not conceding what I would consider some self-inflicted goals, and certainly we've got to be better on the offensive side of the ball," Hargrove said.
After ranking sixth in the conference with 1.50 goals per game, Hargrove knows the team needs to put more balls in the back of the net to take that next step forward. And that is what the head coach is most excited about heading into the 2018 season.
"I'm most looking forward to scoring goals and being dangerous," Hargrove said. "I'm excited to see our guys score goals, celebrate, and enjoy their time out on the field."
"I think those guys have developed from really understanding the role to now being able to put the team on their back and being the potent finisher that I think we were missing all of last season," Hargrove said.
Parks saw the most playing time among the four, registering two goals and three assists in 17 appearances his freshman season. "He brings a tenacity and presence that I think is difficult for a lot of opponent's backlines to deal with," Hargrove said.
Joining the four sophomores up top is freshman Cullen Myers, who Hargrove expects to see some minutes from this season as he continues to develop and understand the players around him.
Out wide, junior Matt Hawkins returns after appearing in all 20 games a season ago, starting seven of them. Hawkins has proven that he's always dangerous on the ball in the attacking third, helping set up some key goals last season.
Fellow junior Stephen White is back after a four-goal performance last year, which ranked second on the team. White looks to become more involved this season after showing continued consistency.
One of four seniors on the roster, Quincy Tyler brings athleticism to the left side and looks to build off his 2017 season in which he started six games.
Sophomore Cameron Ament, who Hargrove said may be the most improved player from last season, expects to cause problems for outside backs this year.
"With those four guys returning we feel pretty comfortable with our depth out there and our ability to be a little more dangerous than we were last season," Hargrove said.
Freshman Ryan Knaggs will also battle for some playing time and expect to play an important role in the attack with his ability to create on his own and combine with the players around him.
Arguably the most experienced position on the field, the four returning midfielders will be the driving force for the Sea Gulls this season.
Sophomore Beau Johnson started the final seven games of last season, including both playoff matches, and saw quality time throughout the year as he appeared in 19 contests. "His energy and tenacity on top of his distribution skills are going to be a vital asset moving forward," Hargrove said.
Junior Ryan Spadin, who was tied for second on the team last year with nine points on three goals and three assists, will be another key player on both ends of the field.
Playing a little further up the field this year, senior Robbie Budd has embraced his new role and is poised for a great year on the attacking front.
The fourth player joining the fold is sophomore Peter Gutoskey, who notched one goal in 11 appearances during his freshman campaign.
Freshman John Ford, a ball-winning center midfielder, has shown quick progress as he learns from the experienced core of center midfielders.
After the loss of three starting defenders to graduation, junior Alex Eiben has stepped into the leadership role on the backline. Eiben started all 20 games a season ago, contributing two goals.
"For him it's about taking that next step," Hargrove said. "He went from playing alongside some experienced center backs to being the experienced center back. And by all accounts this preseason he looks like he's ready to fill those shoes."
Sophomore Alton Walker came on late last season with some important minutes, starting three of the final five games and appearing in 14 overall. Walker has slotted comfortably into the left back spot and looks to combine with Eiben to provide some guidance to the young core on the backline.
The defense welcomes two transfers in juniors Trent Hofmeister and Matt Mackenzie as well as sophomore Kyle Munson, who returns to the program after being with the team in 2016. All three players expect to challenge for some playing time.
Senior Trevor Brookhart returns for his second season in net after starting all 20 games in 2017. Brookhart ranked second in the CAC with a 0.96 goals-against average and .796 save percentage.
"He had some great performances last year and kept us in a lot of matches," Hargrove said. "Stepping into a captain's role this year we really expect him to be a leader of that backline and continue to build off of the season he had last year."
Salisbury's 2018 schedule features 17 contests, including nine at Sea Gull Soccer Stadium.
The Sea Gulls open the season with the Elmer Lord Memorial Tournament on August 31 and September 1. "We're really excited about the Elmer Lord opening weekend," Hargrove said. "We've got two really great teams from out of state coming down."
Salisbury kicks off the season on Friday, August 31 at 2 p.m. against Hobart College, who lost to eventual national champion Messiah College in the second round of the NCAA tournament last year.
After hosting Neumann University, the Sea Gulls will head to St. Mary's College of Maryland for the Seahawk Classic, where they will take on two Old Dominion Athletic Conference teams in Bridgewater (Va.) College and Virginia Wesleyan University.
The Sea Gulls will then travel to Pennsylvania to face Misericordia University and Arcadia University, which Hargrove expects to be two good tune ups before beginning conference play.
CAC play starts on September 29 as Frostburg State University comes to town and wraps up with the last of seven straight conference matches at York College of Pennsylvania on October 24.