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After a rocky 3-12-1 result in 2006 that kept the team out of the inaugural Northern Athletics Conference Tournament, the Lakeland College men's soccer team is looking to move forward with a close-knit group of players and a fresh outlook on the upcoming season.
Although the Muskies roster is relatively small at 15 players, seven of which are returnees, head coach David Madsen believes that the players' positive attitudes and willingness to do what is in the team's best interest can more than make up for what they lack in numbers.
"I think our smaller roster will be an issue at times, but so far our guys have shown a good willingness to take it on as a challenge," Madsen said. "The attitude in the group has been very good, and I think that is going to help us overcome a lot. I don't see it being a big issue, but I'm sure it will affect us at one point or another throughout the season.
"I would like to see us progress this season. I think we started to do that during the spring season and started taking positive steps forward. The guys were getting a grasp on how I want us to play, and so far this preseason I have seen some good things. We're just trying to develop a style of how we're going to play this year and in years down the road."
Among the seven returning players, the squad will look to its three seniors to help lead the team with a mix of extensive on-field experience, vocal leadership and raw talent.
Last season the Muskies found themselves without a goalkeeper, forcing Ryan Condon (Madison/LaFollette) to step between the posts and play out of position. Despite having no prior goalkeeping experience, Condon developed quickly and established himself as one of the most effective keepers in the NAC, finishing second in total saves with 140. However, Condon is thankful to return to his first love of being a defensive force, as the squad now has two goalkeepers on its roster.
Tyler Haug (Milwaukee/Thomas More), will deliver vocal leadership on the defensive end this season, as he started 14 games for the Muskies last fall. Midfielder Zach Buchman (Waterford/Waterford Union), who was named honorable mention All-Lake Michigan Conference in 2005, returns after an injury-plagued 2006 campaign that limited him to three games with one goal scored.
"I think we have a pretty strong, well-balanced group of seniors," Madsen said. "Not everyone is a leader, not everyone is a follower. Ryan Condon is going to be a vocal leader from the back for us this year and he'll be back at his natural position on defense.
"Tyler Haug is going to be right next to him in the middle of the back. Those are the two guys we can build around since they have been around for the past few years and understand the game. I think we can use their experience quite a bit.
"Getting Zach Buchman back this year is also a very positive thing since he has some great abilities and some skills on the field. I look forward to seeing how he takes advantage of that this year."
Lakeland also returns a strong junior class, including midfielder Kevin Fitchett (Green Bay/Preble), forward Carroll Devlin (Lake Geneva/Big Foot) and midfielder Matt Van Drunen (Kaukauna/Kaukauna). Fitchett played a key role in the Muskies' attack last season, tying for the second-highest number of goals scored on the team with four.
"Kevin Fitchett has done a good job of figuring out his role in the group and what we need him to do," Madsen said. "Last year it took him awhile to figure out what I was looking for him to do on the team, but once he did I think he has settled into it quite well. He's a player that has a lot of potential and I'm waiting for him to take steps to get to where I think he can be."
Devlin and Van Drunen also saw significant field time last season, as Devlin appeared in 14 games, starting in two of them, and Van Drunen appeared in all 16 games with 13 starts.
The squad's lone sophomore returnee, midfielder Ryan Malo (Beach Park, Ill., Zion-Benton), secured himself as a fixture in the Muskies' starting line-up last season. Malo earned a spot on the NAC All-Rookie team with two goals and three assists on the season.
"Ryan Malo is also having a strong preseason and has added some more skills to his game that I think will help him out," Madsen said. "He is also getting his teammates more involved, which I'm happy to see."
The other major challenge this season is goalkeeping as the Muskies will turn to two freshmen, Brock Winkler (Fond du Lac/Fond du Lac) and Takumi Yabara (Tochigi, Japan/Sakushi).
"Brock has come from a pretty strong program and had some good experience in high school," Madsen said. "Obviously when you take the leap from high school to college there's an adjustment period, but so far I think he's had some pretty good success. I think he has some abilities to be a strong keeper for us in the conference and I'm excited to see what he's going to do."
A few other newcomers will likely have an immediate impact on the starting line-up, including defender Ben Wempner (Fond du Lac/Fond du Lac), defender/midfielder Brian Knight (Random Lake/Random Lake) and forward/midfielder Casey Schmidt (Plymouth/Plymouth).
"Ben Wempner and Brian Knight will start for us at outside back," Madsen said. "There will be a learning curve for both of those guys, but I think they're coming in with a good understanding of what we need right away, so I'm don't think the adjustments will need to happen as much.
"Casey Schmidt should also be strong up top for us. He's got some quickness and reads the game very well, and that should make him a dangerous player. Not only is he well positioned, but he has the athleticism to get by people as well and makes him tough to defend."
Sophomore transfer Doua Vang (Green Bay/East) will push for time on the defensive line, while forward James Trazile (Haiti) and midfielder YiYun Wang (China) round out the freshman class and will look to earn playing time.
"James has such a calm manner on the team," Madsen said. "But he has been good with being in the right place at the right time for goals in our preseason games, so I'm interested to see how he develops."
The Muskies will also look to improve their scoring this season, as they were only able to connect with the back of the net 21 times in 2006, a number that put them at No. 8 in the NAC.
"We're looking to improve our attack mentality," Madsen said. "We need to be more efficient on our corner kicks and on our free kicks and try to score off of those and give ourselves more opportunities for goals."
Madsen has assembled a tough schedule, including non-conference games against perennially strong UW-Whitewater and UW-Oshkosh and NAC powerhouse Dominican.
"I think our non-conference opponents will provide us with a good balance of schools that usually compete in the top of their conferences or usually compete with NCAA tournament-caliber teams," Madsen said. "We try to schedule tough opponents to make our team better. I think our conference schedule will be tough as well, particularly Dominican, Aurora, Edgewood and Concordia (Wis.). The schedule should be pretty strong overall and it will be a good challenge to see how we stack up against the other teams."
The Muskies were ranked seventh in the NAC Preseason Coaches' Poll, a ranking that Madsen is comfortable with.
"I'm pretty happy with our rank and I think it is something we can use to our advantage and surprise a few teams," he said. "I think Dominican will be the team to beat in conference again this year, and it will be interested to see how the rest of the conference shakes out."
Dominican emerged undefeated from both regular and post-season NAC play last year to claim the first NAC crown before moving on to the third round of NCAA tournament play. Aurora also had a solid season with only one loss in regular-season conference play, while Edgewood and Concordia, Wis., will also look to jockey for position at the top of the NAC.
Overall, the Muskies stand poised to take advantage of the opportunity to re-invent themselves this season with a new focus and revamped mentality.
"I think the attitude of the group is going to be something that carries us this year," Madsen said. "We're kind of starting from ground level right now since I wasn't too happy with some of the attitudes on the team last year, so we had to make some adjustments. I think the guys we have now have a good grasp of where we are trying to go with the program. I think our attacking abilities will be strong, so it will just be a matter of how strong our transition game is up and down the field."