WWU was 11-4-3 in 2013, finishing third in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference with a 9-2-3 mark. Sixteen letter winners return from that squad, including five who earned all-conference recognition.
"We have more guys who understand how we want to play," said second-year coach Greg Brisbon. "Last fall, everything was new to everybody, now we have older players who can help our younger ones by doing things the right way when we train."
The experience starts at the back, where senior goalkeeper Keegan Rogers (Vancouver/Portland Christian) was a third-team all-West Region pick by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America and a second-team all-GNAC selection. Rogers ranked 13th nationally in goals-against-average at 0.67 and posted seven shutouts. A three-year letter winner, his 1.13 career goals against average enters the season as the best in school history, and his 13 career shutouts are tied for third most.
"He's had success, yet he's the most motivated I've ever seen him, he wants the team to have a good year," Brisbon said of Rogers. "He's a shot-stopper. He makes saves other guys don't."
There's also experience among the defenders. Junior Uche Ugwoaba (Burien/Highline), a three-year letter winner, was successful enough in moving from the midfield to center back that he earned second-team all-GNAC recognition. Brisbon says Ugwoaba is one of the best center backs in the West Region.
On the flip side, sophomore Troy McCarty (Snohomish), a first-team all-conference pick as a central defender, might see time in the midfield this year. Sophomore Derek Zimmerman (Pasco), who saw action at NCAA Division I St. Mary's, is also an option at center back.
The most experienced outside defender is senior Pat Cole (Bellingham/Sehome), although he is recovering from an off-season knee injury. Junior Trevor Bartels (Seattle/King's), who can play center back, also was a part-time starter last season, and freshmen Garrett Barber (Mount Vernon) and Marcus Tinsley (Federal Way/Todd Beamer) will also contribute.
"We learned to defend better in the spring," Brisbon said. "Our defending was good last year, but it's even better now. We'll be difficult for teams to get goals."
There is a wealth of experience in the midfield. Juniors Jeremy Wentzel (Edmonds/Edmonds-Woodway) and Kurtis Pederson (Puyallup/Bellarmine Prep) both earned conference recognition last season, Wentzel, who had four goals and six assists, was a second-team all-GNAC pick, and Pederson, who is likely to play in a wide role, received honorable mention. Also back is senior Gabriele Zaccagnini (Olympia/Capital), a three-year letter winner who had four assists in 2013.
"Jeremy is probably our smartest player, his best spot is in the middle right underneath the forwards," Brisbon said. "Gabi is very versatile and can play any of the midfield positions, and I like Kurtis's attacking ability, he knows when to get wide and he serves the ball well."
Juniors Caden Sowers (Ferndale), who returns after missing last year with a knee injury, and Matt Temple (Beaverton, OR) provide even more experience, and Brisbon said McCarty's most natural spot is in the midfield.
A number of combinations are possible up front. Senior Tye Hastings (Mill Creek/Jackson) has six career goals, the most of any returnee, including three last season. Junior Leonard Kusina (Fairbault, MN/Shattuck-St. Mary's) is perhaps the squad's fastest player.
"Both of those guys are super athletic, they have intangibles you can't teach," said Brisbon. "Tye was our leading scorer in the spring and he has the ability to score in big games."
Junior Dan Anderson (Sandpoint, ID) and sophomore Chad Radulovich (San Ramon, CA/California) will also figure into the attacking positions.
The Vikings will play their home games at the new Robert S. Harrington Field at the south end of the WWU campus, which could provide WWU with its most partisan home atmosphere for soccer since it drew playoff crowds of close to 1,000 people to the old Viking Field in the early 1990s.
"It's exciting to be in our new home," Brisbon said. "We now have a nicer facility to play and train in, and the games will have a different environment to them and that can only help our chances."
The Vikings will be tested early. They face Cal State L.A. and UC San Diego on a California trip to open the season, then return home for non-conference contests against Cal State East Bay and Notre Dame de Namur before opening GNAC play on Sept. 20, hosting Simon Fraser, which has reached the NCAA Division II national semifinals the last two years and is ranked as high as No.3 nationally in one pre-season poll. The Vikings beat the Clan, 3-0, in the final game of the 2013 regular-season
"We'll know after those first five games where we're at," said Brisbon. "Three of the teams we face were in the national tournament.
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