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The Lakeland College men's soccer team has waited 10 long months to take the field again and showcase its offseason work.
Lakeland finished eighth in the Northern Athletics Conference last year with a disappointing 3-10-4 overall record, 3-4-4 in NAC play. With a squad full of upperclassmen and a good mix of underclassmen, the Muskies are poised for a successful season.
"It took a while for the guys to adapt to a new coach last year," said second-year head coach Tony Pierce. "Once they became accustomed, we starting playing well, but couldn't finish at times and that really hurt us last year. I think that really motivated the guys to get better for this season."
The team created a Facebook page to keep in touch and help each other out over the summer. They posted drills and running times to keep themselves motivated, and Pierce believes this paid off during preseason camp.
"Our fitness level greatly improved from last camp," said Pierce. "The guys came in fit and ready to go, and it's going to take us that much farther down the road."
The Muskies are led by nine seniors who are determined to prove their lot in the NAC and nonconference play.
Seniors Adam Benson, Ben Koepsell and Bobby Rublee return as Lakeland's leaders on and off the field. Benson, who struggled with an ankle injury last season, returns at 100 percent. The Anoka, Minn., native anchors the central midfield where he'll distribute and combine with Koepsell, senior Jeremy Hardy and junior Jake Belknap.
"It's huge to have Adam back in the midfield," said Pierce. "He leads the team through example and communication."
Koepsell (Cedar Grove) and Hardy (Cooks, Mich.) return as key offensive threats as the two combined for eight goals last season. The Muskies will look for them to fill that role again.
"We need Jeremy to finish every chance he gets," said Pierce. "He is dangerous up top, and having more offensive weapons will take some of the pressure off us defensively."
Belknap and senior Craig Dekarske (Sheboygan) return after missing last season due to injuries. Pierce believes Belknap adds speed and maturity at the forward position, while Dekarske complements the team with his experience and power.
Also returning to the Muskies' offense in the midfield are seniors Derek Pitterle (Waukesha), Troy Eichenberger (Monticello, Minn.) and Danny Spatchek (Chilton).
"Those three play an integral role in the midfield for us," said Pierce. "Derek and Troy have great attacking mentalities which give us more offensive options. Danny gets up and down the field and distributes nicely."
Junior Yang Vang (Milwaukee) and sophomores Killian McKenzie (Oshkosh, Wis.) and Farouk Dadzie (Milwaukee) will add to the midfield. Freshmen Brandon Barry (Lake Geneva), Paul Elzinga (Howards Grove), Daiya Akiyamaand Derek VandenPlas (Green Bay) will look to add to the mix.
"Our midfield is going to be strong and competitive," said Pierce. "We have a lot of guys vying for playing time and the starting positions."
Leading the Muskies in the backfield is Bobby Rublee and junior goalkeeper Alex Piekarski. The two earned second team All-NAC honors last fall. Rublee has helped shut down some of the top opposing players and looks to do the same this season. Piekarski recorded 98 saves, including two shutouts.
Senior Joey Salazar (Beaver Dam) and sophomore Justin Blauert (De Pere) also return to the Lakeland defense. Blauert earned himself a spot on the All-NAC freshman team after an impressive freshman season.
"Joey does a great job shutting down our opponents," said Pierce. "He is quick and has the ability to come forward and distribute. Justin did a fantastic job as a central defender for us. His air game and eagerness to win the ball make him a solid player."
Rounding out the defense are sophomore Emmanuel Dicko (Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire) and freshmen Matt Kuehn (Germantown), Ethan Green (Garden, Mich.) and Danny Drabik (Madison).
"Defensively we want to minimize goals off of set pieces and start our offense as soon as we win the ball," said Pierce. "I think with our group of guys we can do that, as well as counter attack."
Lakeland has a competitive nonconference schedule highlighted by the nation's third-ranked team, the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, on Oct., 23. Last year, the Titans finished with a 20-1-3 overall record including a trip to the NCAA Division III semifinals.
"If we want to be the best, then we have the play the best," said Pierce. "Oshkosh is a solid program and that's where we want to be."
The Muskies' home and season opener is Saturday, Sept. 3, at 3 p.m. against Martin Luther. They resume nonconference action against Northland International on Sept. 8 and open conference play at Rockford College on Sept. 17.
"All off season we've talked about getting better," said Pierce. "The time for talking is done and now it's time to perform."
To see what else head coach Tony Pierce says about the season click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HF4--BMuDs0