Ashland head men's soccer coach Jon Freeman prefers to live in the moment. Thinking play-by-play, game-to-game, he has the mindset of many a college coach. Which is why it must have been frightening when, following the Eagles' heartbreaking defeat in the first round of the NCAA tournament last fall, Freeman looked at the roster and saw that many of his team's key players would not be returning.
Amongst those missing when Ashland takes the field Sept. 1 will be Louis Clark, James Livingston, Michael Kennedy, Tom Rankin, Adam Spannbauer, Brian Ruhaak and Eric Albani. All eight of those players had a significant role in the Eagles' 13-5-3 season, GLIAC championship and run to the NCAAs.
As a freshman, Clark (a native of Brighton, England) led the conference with 15 goals and transferred to Division I Syracuse following the fall semester; Livingston, Kennedy and Rankin (all from England as well) graduated and continued their soccer careers in the semi-pro ranks; Spannbauer graduated; and Ruhaak and Albani transferred, neither with the intention of playing soccer.
"It's going to be a different team than we had last year," Freeman said. "I think it's a bit scary when you lose as much experience as we did from an outsider's perspective, but I'm looking at it and I'm pretty confident in the team that we've got here now."
The team he has here now has its sights set on raising the lofty bar that they set last year even higher. Led by senior Kenny Hewitt (Brighton, England) and a slew of juniors that saw time last year, the team's goals are to repeat as both regular season and GLIAC champions and make it past the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Hewitt shares his coach's game-to-game outlook. "Individually, my goal is just to stay fit and healthy," he said. "Senior season you always want to try to play as many games as you can and be a part of the team. As a team, just take it one game at a time; win our first game, the home opener; and try to do well in the GLIAC again like we've done the last couple of years."
Defender Jamie Dollar and goalkeeper Justin Nolan, both juniors, will anchor the back line for the Eagles.
"I just think more leadership from the back; that comfort in the back to let us worry about other parts of the pitch that we really need to focus on so we can go forward and score goals," Nolan said of what will be expected from the pair this season.
Returning to join Hewitt, Dollar and Nolan will be juniors Danny Lusheck and Mitch Deyhle and senior Andrew Iden. The trio combined for seven goals and seven assists last season. With only six veterans returning, the key will be how the old guys mesh with the talent that has been brought in.
The new guys include transfers J.P. Lytle (a senior from Wooster who played at Valparaiso in Indiana) and Zaan Janse (a junior from Wellington, New Zealand who played at Roanoke College in Virginia) along with freshmen Alex Kemp (Huddersfield, Eng.), Patrick Pearson (Hobe Sound, Fla.), Adam Mitchell (Brighton, Eng.) and Buster Meaney (Rochford, Eng.). Freeman expects the newcomers to make big contributions if Ashland is able to make a successful run.
"We're experiencing the growing pains, of course, like any team does, and we've got a long road to go," he said. "It just takes time. I'm really pleased with the talent level though, the talent level's good. The tough thing for our players is that they're like me; they wanted it yesterday, they want it now. If we have a good attitude and a good work ethic, I think good things will happen."
Freeman is never satisfied. Last year was his first as the head coach at Ashland, and it was a good one. The team's GLIAC tournament championship was the first in the program's history and they were a staple in the top 15 of the NCSAA's weekly rankings. Freeman is determined to make sure that the success was not a case of beginner's luck.
"It ended sooner than I think most people wanted it to end, and it's left a few players very hungry for this year," he said. "You always want to do better than the year before; that's part of being a competitive person. It's part of being a competitive team. You're never happy with second place."
Freeman certainly does not want to see his team finish third in the GLIAC, which is where it was picked in the conference's preseason coaches' poll, behind Tiffin and Ohio Dominican. Of the teams at the top, Ashland is by far the youngest.
"In a way it's exciting and in a way it's scary, but I'm excited for it. I'm ready to go; I'm ready to see what this team can do," Freeman said.
The Eagles will certainly be tested early on. They open the season at home Sept. 1 at 7 p.m. with a game against Slippery Rock, a team that beat Ashland in overtime last season. Three days later, another team that the Eagles owe from last year rolls into town, the Northern Kentucky Norse. NKU is ranked No. 1 in the NCSAA's preseason rankings. The Eagles are ranked No. 20.
"Getting an opportunity to play the No. 1 team in the country is fantastic. You don't get that every year and our guys need to relish it," Freeman said.
Those two games are the start of a five game home stand that includes games against Tiffin Sept. 9, Findlay Sept. 11 and Lake Erie Sept. 14. After that, the Eagles will play seven games away from home before they return to Ferguson Field Oct. 14.
Whether the Eagles accomplish their lofty goals or not, the team is sure to provide plenty of the excitement when they step on the pitch this fall. Should the Eagles learn to play together, the only coach who will be afraid of their roster is the one facing them next.