Salisbury, Md. - The 2015 season is finally upon us as Head Coach Gerry DiBartolo leads his squad into the year looking to capture their eighth Capital Athletic Conference title and their 13th NCAA tournament appearance.
Last season, the Sea Gull's talented roster was on full display as they scored almost two goals a game, while allowing only 0.66 goals per contest. The 2014 season came to an end with Salisbury losing in the first-round of the NCAA tournament to the University of Rochester. At the conference level, Salisbury won the regular season title but was ousted in the CAC semifinals by Christopher Newport University, which would go on to win the CAC and advance to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament.
The 2014 campaign saw Salisbury ranked as high as No. 9 in the country, but that was then. Salisbury comes into the 2015 season looking to show that it can succeed in winning another CAC championship and go on to make a deep run into the NCAA tournament.
Depth and pace of play are going to be the keys to success for DiBartolo and the Sea Gulls this season. He feels that he has a team in 2015 where anyone on the roster can step up and contribute.
"We can make lots of changes (in personnel) and never really see a drop off in play," DiBartolo said. "If we need (a player) for 15 minutes in a half, they have to give us 15, then that next guy has to be ready."
This mentality is looking to foster the fast pace of play that Sea Gull fans have grown to love over the past several years. DiBartolo stressed the importance of his team pushing the ball and working to their strengths, which is going to take the depth of all 32 members of the team to accomplish.
"There aren't many teams that we are going to play who I believe can stay with us if we keep that pace and tempo up for that full 45 minutes in each half. There might be teams with some better players than we have…but overall in terms of pace of the game and forcing people to have to work hard…I think our players are going to be committed to do that as much as they can."
At the start of the 2015 season, DiBartolo sits at 398 career victories. With two more wins, DiBartolo will be only the 37th coach in any division of NCAA men's soccer with 400 wins and the 11th coach in men's NCAA Division III soccer to accomplish the feat.
Returning 20 players from a NCAA tournament team has the Sea Gulls optimistic for the season ahead. Salisbury was picked by the coaches to finish the 2015 season second in the CAC, including receiving a first-place vote.
Last season the forward corps took a major hit when senior Matt Greene went down with an injury. However, with a medical hardship waiver, the Rockville, Md. native and Sea Gull captain is back for his fifth season and looking to lead a deep group of forwards into the season.
In just seven games for Salisbury last season, Greene posted five goals and five assists for 15 points. To go with those numbers, three of Greene's goals were game winners and he was shooting at a .333 clip at the time of his injury.
"Matt was on an incredible run when he went down last season, creating lots of opportunities, and he became the player that opponents had to mark out in the game because he was so dangerous," DiBartolo said.
Coming into the season, Matt Greene sits on the cusp of etching his name into the Salisbury record book in several categories. With 10 points he would move into 10th all time for points, with one assist he would crack the top 10 for assists, and with six goals he would enter the top 10 for the Salisbury record book in goals.
In Greene's absence, DiBartolo noted that sophomore Brooks Zentgraf and senior Chris Kittelberger stepped up and contributed alongside the other forwards to make for a potent group. Zentgraf is the second-highest returning scorer behind Greene, as he put home four goals and added an assist for nine points in his rookie season. Zentgraf's nine points were the most by a Sea Gull freshman since 2011 when Matt Greene put up 20 points in his first season.
Kittelberger started 10 games at forward last season and tallied two goals. DiBartolo pointed out that Kittelberger was someone the Sea Gulls used to, "get us in dangerous positions, to take on defenders, and help us in terms of getting the ball in the right positions."
As with the whole team this season, DiBartolo sees a wealth of depth at the forward position. Junior Tyler Andrus is a versatile player who could see time at both forward and midfield. Joining the returners, DiBartolo brought in three freshmen who will push the veterans and look to get on the field if called upon. Those freshmen are Christian Diaz-Delgado, Ryan Gruss, and Gabe Wenke.
This year's midfield unit epitomizes what DiBartolo is looking for within his squad. From top to bottom, each of them is skilled and likes to push the pace of play.
"We have several center midfield players that are all very good," DiBartolo said "we also have some wide-midfield players that are really competitive getting forward."
DiBartolo is counting on his midfielders to be a reliable and effective part of his team, hoping that the midfielders can be a smooth link between the back line and the forwards.
Part of the reason the midfielders will be counted on so much is the amount of veterans who have been solid contributors for the Sea Gulls over their careers. Seniors Dennis Runikera, Jr., Michael Feeney, and captain Taylor Groginski will look to push the pace all season and give opposing teams trouble dealing with the speed of the Sea Gulls.
Others who saw the field last season and are coming back to the midfield are juniors Nathan Mattola, who started 18 out of 20 games last season, Brad Martinelli, who also started in 18 games a year ago, and Justin Lee, who played in 14 contests during the 2014 season. Sophomore Matt Zimmerman also comes back as an outside midfielder who has quick feet and the ability to get behind players.
DiBartolo also brought in some fresh faces at the midfield position. Daniel Kim enters the season as the lone freshman midfielder and is a high skilled player. Junior Colie Daniels is an outside midfielder who is a great shooter. Rounding out the midfield newcomers are three transfers who have shown great promise in juniors Leslie Umunna and Nathaniel Hand and sophomore Kendrick Michel.
Last season Salisbury's 0.66 goals against average was good for second best in the CAC and 26th best in the country. Anchoring that defense were two menacing senior center backs in Logan Becker and Kyle Westbrook
"The biggest thing we have to replace from last year is our defenders" DiBartolo said "we have the personnel there; it's just a matter of finding the right combinations."
With their departure, the Sea Gulls will look to players they have developed to fill the void left by two tremendous defenders. While Becker and Westbrook are gone, DiBartolo sees tremendous upside from the players that are vying to not only take their place on the field, but contribute at a similar level as those two did.
Returning as the veteran member of the defense for his senior year is Cy McNeill. Over the last two seasons, McNeill has played in 40 games and logged 34 starts for the maroon and gold. Other returners who could see serious minutes defending the Sea Gull's back line are sophomore Mike Kramer and Nicholas Carrington, juniors Kevin Miller, Nathaniel Eiben, and Steven Botto, and senior Zach Johnson, who all saw the field in extended periods last season.
In addition to the experienced players the defense returns, DiBartolo has early praise for freshmen Joshua Lord and Robbie Budd. Lord, who has a large frame could develop into a reliable defender with some seasoning. Budd comes in as a quick and disciplined back that will look to see the field this season.
After starting all 42 games over the last two seasons for the Sea Gulls, newly minted captain, Drew Staedeli returns for his senior year between the pipes. Last season Staedeli earned All-CAC second team recognition after posting an .824 save percentage and a goals against average of just .64.
Staedeli sits 29 saves away from entering the top 10 for Salisbury's all-time saves list. Also, if he maintains his career goal-against average of 0.58, he will stay as the seventh best GAA of all-time for a Sea Gull goalkeeper.
With the departure of most of the team's starting defense from a year ago, DiBartolo will be looking for Staedeli to have an added leadership and communication role in managing the back line.
"The goalkeeper is the eyes and the ears of the defenders in front of him, yes, he has to be a good ball stopper and he has to be good in the air, but a good goalkeeper is really somebody who is directing those people in front of him," DiBartolo said. "(Drew) is going to have to help with that group in front of him getting solidified and having confidence within eachother."
Joining Staedeli, the rest of the goalkeepers are junior Robert Fiackos, sophomore Matthew Russell, and freshmen Craig Wishart. Last season, Russell saw just over 20 minutes of play time in net. Russell is not the only goalie who has seen gotten called upon by DiBartolo however, as during his freshmen season, Fiackos kept a clean slate in the time he was called upon to tend the Sea Gull net.
Playing one of their toughest schedules in program history, Salisbury opens up its season on September 1 at the McDonogh School in Owings Mills, Maryland against Susquehanna University. Salisbury then returns home to host the annual Elmer Lord Soccer Classic on September 5-6. Its first game is against United States Merchant Marine Academy before taking on Rutgers University- Camden the next day.
After the Elmer Lord Soccer Classic, Salisbury goes on the road to play two games in a row from September 12-13 at St. Mary's College of Maryland, where they will take on Virginia Wesleyan College and Bridgewater (Va.) College.
Salisbury then goes for a four-game home stand where it opens up CAC play against York College of Pennsylvania on September 26. Also in the home stand, Salisbury takes on two NCAA tournament teams from the 2014 season in Neumann University and Catholic University of America.
CAC regular season play wraps up on October 28 when they host Wesley College. Notable games for the Sea Gulls will be October 10 when they host Penn State University- Harrisburg, which was the only CAC team to defeat Salisbury in regular season play last season and October 21, when they play at Christopher Newport University.