Fort Lewis College mens soccer is the hunted once again.
For the third time in seven years, Fort Lewis will open the season with the label of defending national champion across its back the biggest bulls-eye in the Division II soccer world.
And the Skyhawks wouldnt want it any other way.
The 2012 side is hoping to go the way of 2006 more than 2010. The 06 team finished second in the nation a year after the 05 team won it all. In 2010, the Skyhawks failed to make the NCAA Tournament field after capturing the 09 title.
But Jordan Alexander, a forward and captain of the 2012 squad, said the way this squad has come together is reminiscent of last year in terms of cohesiveness if not better.
Weve jelled together as a group quicker than I think any group weve had here has jelled, Alexander said.
A big part of that unity was the leadership of the now-departed Fabian Kling, who earned Division II Player of the Year honors last year. That role now falls to captains Alexander and Casey Dean, both juniors, who appear to be relishing the chance to take the reins.
Every captain has a different style of leadership, Alexander said. Hes left a legacy that hopefully we can live up to, and well work together, especially with the rest of the boys. Theres 11 captains on the field at any given time.
Dean, who had 10 assists last season, and Alexander, who had eight goals last year, will be counted on as key offensive cogs as FLC looks to replace 41 percent of its scoring output from last season, including Thomas Hoangs nine goals and 13 assists.
Kosta Kordistos, who had nine goals as a freshman last year and was named the NCAA Tournaments top offensive player, is back in the fold at forward, as is senior Derek Freeman. Dean, Freeman, Alberto Capdepon, Aaron Kloer, Yannis Becker and Zac Lawrence all scored in an exhibition win over Otero Junior College last week, while redshirt freshmen Austin Derksen and Trevor Gibbons added assists, and Kennedy expects plenty from all of them as the Skyhawks seek a repeat.
Theres certain players who can play that role. I think weve got more depth there than weve had in recent years, FLC head coach Oige Kennedy said.
Capdepons continued growth at central midfield after a strong freshman season last year will be critical to FLCs ball-control attack, as will finding him a new partner in the center of FLCs 4-4-2 attack.
Kennedy said Becker and Sameth Al-Basith, a Division I transfer from Eastern Tennessee State, could wind up filling the gap left by departed senior Cory Dean, who was a key component to both the 2009 and 2011 championship teams.
Theres a lot of guys, lot of competition fighting for a starting spot, he said.
While its hard to argue with the depth of a national championship team, the 2012 squad actually might be a little bit improved in the depth department over last season. Plenty of players who came in last year with healthy soccer résumés out of high school or junior college either didnt play much or redshirted, and plenty of them are hungry to illustrate just why the coaching staff deemed them suitable to play for a program with three titles since 2005.
For every position, theres potentially three starters. ... Everyones fighting to get a spot, Dean said.
Defensively, Johannes Sander returns in the middle with Artur Piperkov back on the outside. As for who will join them in the back four, Grant Duke, Stephan Engeln, Mason Zupan, Maik Brandt and Joe Casey likely will battle for the chance to replace Kling and Berekk Blackwell, two cornerstones of last years title team.
In goal, the net belongs to 6-2 redshirt freshman Ryan Schaul, who spent last season as Ryan Wirths primary backup but didnt see action. Schaul provides a big body, and Kennedy said hes quicker and more athletic than he may appear to the naked eye.
Hes deceptively quick as well, and I think people are going to be impressed with him, especially for someone so young, Kennedy said.
For all their recent achievements, including three national championships, the one thing the Skyhawks never have done is repeat as national champions. This squad is hoping to buck that trend.
Man, I mean in a way its kind of nerve-wracking. We dont want to go in and have a year that isnt as successful, Dean said. I think this years different. Were all here earlier ready to play.