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For the 2009 Lakeland men's soccer team, it's about quality over quantity. At least that's what coach David Madsen hopes.
Despite fewer players on the roster, the fourth-year head coach believes the team returns the necessary pieces from last year's squad, which finished with a winning record for the first time since 1994.
The 2008 team, 8-7-2 overall and a stellar 4-0-2 at home, finished sixth in the Northern Athletics Conference and earned a spot in the NAC Tournament, and set program records for goals (51) and assists (33) in a season.
"It seems like the returners have come back and set the tone pretty well," Madsen said. "They've got a good understanding of where we are and what we want to do, so that's been pretty helpful that they've hit the ground running in that sense.
"With the roster not being exactly the same size as it was last year, I don't feel like we've lost anything. From a numbers standpoint, we're a couple short, but we haven't really lost much in terms of the level of play at practice, which has actually improved a little bit."
Madsen is also pleased with the leadership from returning players despite the presence of just two players entering their third or fourth season with the program.
Along with seniors Ryan Malo and Ted Cormier, sophomores Adam Benson, Bobby Rublee and Ben Koepsell have each embraced their own leadership roles.
"Adam Benson is someone the guys kind of look to and respect," Madsen said. "He's a strong player, but he just works his socks off all the time, and just wants to win. Bobby Rublee has been strong for us in consistent effort, which I think carries a lot of weight with the guys. Ben Koepsell has done a lot of little things that maybe only coaches notice."
Lakeland, which has been picked to finish sixth by the league's head coaches, returns several of its key offensive players from a year ago, including two of its top goal scorers.
Malo, a Beach Park, Ill., native, was named second team All-NAC last season after posting 10 goals and a team-high six assists. According to Madsen, the midfielder has made drastic improvements to his game over the course of his four years, and, as a result, is a player opponents must plan to contain.
"I think it was last year that he made a lot of his ground in terms of strides he's covered," Madsen said. "It really came back to help him individually, but in the bigger picture of things, it helped our team with what we were able to achieve last year. He's putting a lot more work in for the team, and understands how it's going to help our team play better."
Cormier (Green Bay, Wis.) tied for the team lead with 13 goals, including four by penalty kick, and earned honorable mention All-Wisconsin team accolades by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America. The fifth-year senior forward will be relied on to create scoring opportunities for himself as well as others.
"I think Ted understands the value of the team a little bit more, and I think it's taken him a little bit of time," Madsen said. "He's got talent and ability, but now I think he understands how the rest of the guys can help pick him up. Now that he knows that, I think it will make him a better senior."
Madsen also expects Benson, an Anoka, Minn., native, to create scoring opportunities with his work ethic in the midfield area. Benson registered six goals and three assists last season, starting 16 of 17 contests.
"Adam does a lot of work in the midfield to help create things," Madsen said. "I think that's kind of the role he plays by his hard work, and eventually he gets himself in good position to have chances to score or create assists for guys."
Sophomore Craig Dekarske (Sheboygan, Wis.), who was out for the entire 2008 season with a knee injury, is also a player Madsen sees contributing to the offensive attack.
"Craig has had a pretty good preseason so far," Madsen said. "He's handled it physically very well, and he's picking some things up here and there. It'll be interesting to see how he mixes in with things right off the bat."
A pair of midfielders, sophomore Danny Spatchek (Chilton, Wis.) and freshman Jacob Kleinschmidt (Neenah, Wis.), will also look to contribute offensively. Sophomore forward Jeremy Hardy (Cooks, Mich.) also returns after a four-goal, two-assist campaign last year.
"We have a lot of things we can work with, it's just a matter of how they're going to be put together," Madsen said.
Defensively, the Muskies will look to shore up a unit which finished ninth in the conference in goals against average and 10th in shutouts.
"Last year, the back line struggled statistically, so we have a chance to make some progress in that department, and I think it will make a big difference in the win-loss column for us," Madsen said.
Sophomore goalkeeper Ross Soukup, a NAC All-Freshman Team selection a year ago, looks to anchor the defense. The Plymouth native led the team with a 2.06 goals against average, 70 saves and a pair of shutouts. He will be challenged for the starting spot by freshman Alex Piekarski, a goalkeeper from Menasha, Wis.
"Both Alex and Ross have been competing well in practices, and I feel good with either one of those guys, because I think they both have tremendous skills and abilities," Madsen said. "It's going to create some selection headaches for us, because I think they both bring a lot to the table."
The head coach feels very comfortable with Rublee, who started all 17 games last season, and sophomore Joey Salazar (Beaver Dam, Wis.) leading the back line.
Madsen also expects freshmen Jake Belknap (MF, Menasha, Wis.), Thomas Grams (D, Milwaukee, Wis.) and Rodolfo Sosa (F/D, Kimberly, Wis.) to be contributors this season on both ends of the field.
Freshman midfielder Chris Maroszek (Wausau, Wis.) has been injured for the majority of the preseason and will vie for playing time when he returns to action.
Lakeland's 2009 schedule features seven non-conference, including five at home, to complement the 11-game league slate. The team opens its season this Tuesday, Sept. 1, with a home game against Northland Baptist.
The Muskies' next game, the NAC opener at Benedictine, will take place 11 days later. Madsen noted both advantages and disadvantages of having that period of time between the first two games.
"It's a little tricky that we have a bit of a gap from our first game to our second game," Madsen said, "but I think having some early scrimmages will get us ready for the first one. From there, getting ready for that next one on Sept. 12, we'll be prepared for that physically, which will be nice heading into conference play."
The team will host Parents' Day on Sept. 19 against Concordia Chicago at 2:30 p.m. That game is also Lakeland's first home game in NAC play. The Muskies host three-time defending conference champion Dominican on Sept. 26 at 12:30 p.m.