ASHLAND, Ohio – When the Ashland University men's soccer team opens its season Thursday (Sept. 1) at Ferguson Field, it will be wearing the same purple and white it always has. But the team will have a different look.
For the first time in several years, the Eagles will enter a season with more question marks than certainties. AU lost six starters off last year's squad, including all-region performers James Livingston and Louis Clark and former All-American Adam Spannbauer. This season, new faces will join experienced ones, and according to second-year head coach Jon Freeman, it doesn't change the team's goals.
"This team is going to be creating their own identity in comparison to some teams in the past," Freeman said. "It's going to be a different year, a different team, but the expectations aren't changing."
Those expectations include putting together a strong season in the GLIAC. The Eagles have won three consecutive regular season titles and won their first GLIAC Tournament championship last season when they were 13-5-3. AU has also advanced to three straight NCAA postseasons for the first time in school history.
The Eagles were picked to finish third by the league's coaches this season, but are the only team in the conference with a preseason national ranking. AU is 20th in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America poll.
"Some people ask (about being picked third in the GLIAC), 'doesn't that steam you up a bit?'" said Freeman. "People can say what they want, but rankings at the beginning of the season don't really mean anything, it's who's standing at the end.
"Hopefully that's a little fuel for the fire for the guys. Every game's going to be a dog fight and we're going to have to gut out some close wins if we want to be standing at the end."
The Eagles' returning captain, senior left wing Kenny Hewitt (London, England/Longhill), will be counted on to add more depth in the attack to account for the loss of the some of the goal-scoring from last season. Freeman indicated Hewitt could also play in an attacking midfield role, as well as on the left side.
"Kenny's been playing very well," Freeman said. "He's provided some scoring punch and the ability to deliver some good balls into dangerous areas."
Hewitt currently ranks third on AU's all-time assists list with 18 and was named to the all-region second team last year. He also has 10 career goals.
Also returning are several key components on the AU back line, including junior goalkeeper Justin Nolan (Medina, Ohio/Highland), who was terrific net last season. He stopped 64 shots, had a 1.16 goals against average and earned five of Ashland's nine clean sheets.
Also on the back line is junior sweeper Jamie Dollar (Perrysburg, Ohio), who can apply pressure on opposing forwards with his 6-foot-4, 210-pound frame. He was an all-region second team choice last season and helped the Eagles allow just 24 goals in 21 games. As a team, AU allowed just 4.7 shots on goal per game.
"I think in terms of experience on the back line, that helps the players in front of them," Freeman said. "It gives them a sense of confidence when we are being attacked. It's like a rock that you can depend on. It gives the team in front of them some security."
Former GLIAC Freshman of the Year Mitch Deyhle (Cincinnati, Ohio/La Salle) will stabilize the left back position and enable Hewitt to be a bit freer down the left side.
"Mitch is a constant threat and he's playing as well as he's played the last three years," said Freeman. "He can get up and down the left side providing an offensive punch as well."
With the loss of some of the old faces, Freeman said his team will be experimenting with some new groups of players, especially in the central midfield.
"In the center of the park is where we've had to figure out who is going to fill those roles," said Freeman. "We're still developing those relationships and once we get those relationships developed, we're going to be a bit more solidified in the middle."
The Eagles added freshman Alex Kemp (Huddersfield, England/Holmfirth) and Valparaiso transfer J.P. Lytle (Wooster, Ohio) to handle some of those duties in the middle. Senior Bryan McCausland (Akron, Ohio/St. Vincent-St. Mary) will also see time in the defensive central midfield.
"The middle of the park is the engine of your team – they're attacking, they're defending," said Freeman. "The luxury of the last couple years is that we had a lot of experience in those roles so it was easy to come into preseason and know what to expect. This year it's been a little bit of an unknown."
In the attacking third of the field, the Eagles lost 65 percent of their scoring punch from last season. AU will rely heavily on senior Andrew Iden (Marysville, Ohio) to provide some of that production at the top.
"Andrew is a solid player and if you give him a chance, he's going to get the ball on frame and that's what you want," said Freeman. "Iden's also really strong in the air, so if you can get a ball across, he can put it on frame."
Freeman said the Eagles will have to play a more blue-collar style with the inexperience in the midfield until the unit begins to gel. With that, the Eagles will have to rely on more than just the forwards to provide the scoring.
"Set pieces are going to come into play a lot and we can be dangerous on those," Freeman said. "At 6-foot-4, if you put a ball in the box for Jamie Dollar, he can go get it. It's going to cause other teams problems."
The Eagles will not have any breaks in the schedule once the regular season starts. The Eagles host Slippery Rock on opening night (Sept. 1, 7 p.m.). The Rock scored two late goals against visiting Ashland to beat the Eagles, 2-1 in overtime, last season.
After that, Ashland will play top-ranked Northern Kentucky – the defending national champion – on Sept. 4 at Ferguson Field. The teams have played some hotly-contested battles in the past, but this will be the Norse's first visit to Ferguson Field, which the Eagles opened up last season.
"As far as I'm concerned, if you want to be the best, you've got to play the best," said Freeman. "It's a situation as a team that you need to relish. Is it tough, yes. But it's tough every year."
The Eagles then open the conference schedule against Tiffin at home on Sept. 9, which was picked to win the GLIAC by the league's coaches in the preseason.
The Eagles' first five games are all at Ferguson Field. Ashland does not have to play a road game until Sept. 16, when it travels to Columbus to play Ohio Dominican. The teams last met in the GLIAC Tournament championship game, which the Eagles won on penalty kicks.
With the home games early in the season, including two night games, the Eagles will have plenty of motivation to protect their home field where they were 8-1-2 last season – the lone loss coming against Tiffin.
"This is our home crowd and you don't want anybody to come into this place and push us around," said Freeman.
This year, the Eagles will play four night games at Ferguson Field.
"There's pride playing at home and the boys love playing on our home pitch and love playing under the lights," said Freeman. "I think we've got some good fans to cheer us on. It means a lot to us when the stadium's full. It gives you a boost, almost like a 12th man."