Men’s soccer is young, promising

When is a rebuilding year not a rebuilding year? For followers of men’s soccer, the losses of offensive powerhouse and franchise player Alex Blake ’03, defensive standout Dylan Smith ’03 and the wily Perry Kalmus ’03 would seemingly not auger well for a strong season from Head Coach Mike Russo’s men.

But not all is rotten in the land of Williamstown, nor is all rotten in the world of men’s soccer. Russo’s squad may boast a record 12 first-year members and two true standouts, including one absolutely irreplaceable player may be gone, but this year’s team has far more going for it than may first meet the eye.

Lest anyone forget, Russo can still pencil the reigning NESCAC Player of the Year, Khari Stephenson ’04, into his starting lineup every day, along with seven other starters from last year’s team. Though the team will depend upon Stephenson more than anyone else to fill the void left by Blake’s absence up top, Russo is hopeful that this year’s offensive attack will be more team-oriented and less dependent upon the abilities of any one player.

“When you’re faced with replacing an Alex Blake, I just don’t know that you can do that,” Russo said. “In my mind he was probably the best player in the country, who happened to be a forward who could score a lot of goals so it’s a big loss and it’s very difficult to replace.

“It was natural for the team to look for Alex and now on the attack we can’t look for one player we have to look for three or four players, I think in that sense we’ll show more diversity in the way we attack. Without him in there, I hope we can get more balanced scoring. . . we need guys like Josh Bolton [’06], Sky Riggs [’05] and Jesse Dungan [’04] to step up. If they can do that I think we can get a little more balanced on the attack.”

Russo also stressed the importance of the contributions Ryan Olsen ’04 would make to the team’s attack. A tough and physical player, Olsen was the team’s third leading scorer last year behind Blake and Stephenson.

On the defensive end, the Ephs will slide captain Bryan McCoy ’04 in to fill the boots of the departed Smith. Joining him in the backfield will be Matt Aronson ’05 and Andreas Boye ’04, along Ned Castle ’06 in the final fourth slot. Returning in net is last year’s rookie standout Nick Armington ’06, who in Russo’s opinion “was the best keeper in NESCAC last fall and should improve even more this season.”

While the midfield figures to be one of the team’s strengths, with the likes of Bolton, Stephenson and the now-healthy Barrett Belair ’05 all more than capable players for the Ephs to send out on the pitch, Russo is still hoping that one of the first-years will step up and demand the starting job: “We’re still waiting for one or two of these freshmen to step up and make us say, ‘Hey, we can’t keep him off the field,’” he said.

Make no mistake, though the Ephs will return a sizeable portion of last year’s starting squad, the team will depend upon members of the first-year class to raise their level of play and emerge as capable players who can start or serve as substitutes. To that end, Russo and McCoy both suggested that the most important thing for the freshmen would be to get acclimated to the college game.

“It will take the younger guys a while to adapt to the college level,” Russo said. “Whenever a player makes the jump from high school to college there’s a major adjustment that needs to be made; some players make that adjustment quicker than others and we’ve just got to hope that some of our younger players can get their game up to the necessary level as quickly as possible.”

To that end, McCoy likes what he has seen thus far.

“The freshman class is essentially half the team right now,” he said. “And sure, a lot of the team has a lack of experience, but all the frosh have looked pretty solid so far, and we didn’t lose that many starters from last year so there’s mostly a lot of inexperience coming off the bench.”

Though McCoy’s point is well taken, there is no doubting that the Blake-less Ephs are a much different team in 2003 than they were in 2002, no matter how many starters they return. When half of your team is comprised of first-year players, it may seem only natural to assume that the team is in a transitioning, rebuilding phase.

Indeed, Russo himself let slip his belief that “the team in a year or two will be very good.” In spite of that, both coach and captain were sure to issue a vote of confidence in this year’s squad, which to its credit has performed well in its two preseason matches, a 1-1 tie against Harvard and a 1-0 loss to Dartmouth. In both matches the team was without Stephenson and had only a hobbling Olsen.

“Since I’ve been at Williams, we’ve lost some great players every year,” McCoy said. “We’ve lost all-NESCAC, even all-American type players and still we’ve never had a rebuilding year. I’d be hesitant to label this a rebuilding year; as a matter of fact I wouldn’t do it – it’s still a team capable of going a long way.”

“I really think it is anybody’s league title,” Russo said. “I know the players out there on the other squads and it should be exciting – you just never know what’s going to happen when we meet those [NESCSAC] teams. I’m quietly confident, I think we’re going to be dangerous and I think it’s going to take a lot to beat our guys.”