INDIANAPOLIS -- Parity. It helped build the National Football League. It has given baseball nine different World Series champions in the last 11 years. And certainly, as the 2012 Horizon League men’s soccer season dawns, parity is rampant throughout the conference.
The preseason poll reflected just that, as two points separated the top three teams. In fact, the team receiving the most first-place votes, Valparaiso, finished third in the poll. Further reflecting the parity in the League: last year, it was the No. 6 seed, Loyola, becoming the first team in conference history to win the tournament title as the lowest seed.
It was Wright State whom Loyola beat in the championship last year, and perhaps overshadowed in the loss was the complete turnaround of the Raiders’ program. Pegged to finish last entering the 2011 season, Wright State finished second in the regular season before falling in overtime. The Raiders appearance atop the 2012 poll ensures that no one will be overlooking them this season.
Wright State opens the season ranked No. 45 in the Top Drawer Soccer Top 48 poll, and the Raiders return 10 starters from last year’s team, including junior Bryce Rockwell-Ashton, who was named First Team All-Horizon League last season. Also back are sophomores Craig Feehan, Justin Laird and Gustav Svensson, who were each selected to the All-Newcomer Team, with Feehan being chosen as the Newcomer of the Year.
Cleveland State displayed a dynamic offense in its exhibitions, cruising to two victories. Bringing back 11 players who started at least 10 matches last year, the Vikings will look to challenge for their first Horizon League regular season crown. All three of its first team honorees from 2011 - Admir Suljevic, Aaron Adkins and Manuel Conde - return for the Vikings. Senior Brad Stuver, who has earned all-league accolades two of his first three seasons, will anchor keeping duties for CSU.
After grabbing the first regular season title for any Valparaiso program since the Crusaders moved to the Horizon League, Valpo will be back to build on last year’s success, in which it allowed just 14 goals on the year.
The defense will continue to be led by keeper Kyle Zobeck, one of four returning Horizon League postseason honorees this year for the Crusaders. Jon Smith was a Second Team All-League selection as a junior and returns in 2012 for his final season. Meanwhile, both Eric Nieto and Zev Taublieb are back for their sophomore campaigns after earning All-Newcomer Team accolades as freshmen in 2011.
In 2011, UIC enjoyed strong non-conference play before injuries helped overwhelm the Flames at the end of the year. However, with defending Offensive Player of the Year returning in Ivan Stanisavljevic, UIC will once again be a team to be reckoned with. The Flames showed their abilities in their first exhibition of the year, as Stanisavljevic scored the team’s lone goal in a 1-1 draw at No. 12 Indiana.
While UIC excelled in non-conference play, it was Loyola that struggled throughout the year before finding the right combinations and style of play down the stretch to capture a shocking League title. While the Ramblers have always played a possession game, they boast returners who accounted for over 60 percent of the team’s offense a year ago. The biggest key for the Ramblers could be the return of keeper Peter McKeown, who lifted the team to the 2011 League crown, earning MVP honors in the process.
Two of the traditional powers in the League, both Green Bay and Milwaukee will be breaking in new coaches in 2012. In Green Bay, Dan Popik replaces Kris Kelderman, who made the short drive down I-43 to take over Milwaukee’s program after one year with the Phoenix.
Popik inherits a keeper who will go down as one of the tops in Phoenix history in Ryan Wehking. Wehking has started 57 of 58 games throughout his collegiate career with the Phoenix and is currently tied atop Green Bay’s individual career record list with 18 shutouts, one shy of having sole possession of the record.
Green Bay will look to Kirby Allen to pick up the torch left by JC Banks and Tony Walls as the go-to scorer for the squad.
In Milwaukee, Kelderman opens the season trying to retain the Milwaukee Cup in Friday night’s derby with Marquette. There will be plenty of chances for newcomers to make an impression in 2012, as 16 players out of the 32 on the roster will be putting on a UWM uniform for the first time this season.
In addition to the players that have never put on a UWM uniform before, one addition will be welcomed back. Andrew Weidabach returns after a season away. Wiedabach has a resume that includes Horizon League All-Newcomer status as a freshman and then first-team all-league honors in 2010 when he led the team in points (13), goals (4), assists (5) and shots (58).
In soccer, if you’re not strong in the middle, it is going to be a long season. For that reason, optimism is high at Detroit, where the Titans bring back its top two scorers from last year in Pat Lepera and Adam Bedell.
In total, Titans bring back 17 letterwinners from a year ago, including a back line with a combined eight years of experience entering 2012.
With conference play starting on Sept. 14, tensions will run high as only six of eight teams can reach the Horizon League Tournament. But, for the fans, as parity reigns, so too does the excitement.
Tags: Cleveland State - Men's Soccer · Detroit - Men's Soccer · Green Bay - Men's Soccer · Horizon League - Men's Soccer · Loyola - Men's Soccer · Milwaukee - Men's Soccer · UIC - Men's Soccer · Valparaiso - Men's Soccer · Wright State - Men's Soccer