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Flames to Open Soccer Season Friday
When the Liberty men's soccer team takes to the field for its 2008 season opener Friday night, head coach Jeff Alder's squad will find itself in a position no other Flames' men's soccer team has ever been in. For the first time in many years, the Flames will have a target on their backs after a 2007 season which saw them capture their first Big South Championship, and be ranked each week in the South Atlantic Region poll.
"From day one, we have known that everybody looks at the defending champion as the team to knock off," stated Alder. "Whoever is coming off a championship year, regardless of how many players are returning, everybody is saying, ‘We need to knock those guys off'.
"Even though you want to stroll down memory lane, we need to realize those are bygone memories, and instead use them as a blueprint for this season, grow them into success this season and take it another step forward."
Despite losing nine players off last year's roster, the Flames' cupboard is not exactly bare. Leading the way is Hermann Trophy Watch List member, midfielder Joshua Boateng, first-team all-conference midfielder Juan Guzman and all-conference defenders Michael Gelatt and Douglas Nyame. Add to that, the 2007 Big South Freshman of the Year in goalkeeper Paul Gilbert and a squad deep at each position, and Liberty appears poised to make a run at another Big South title.
"We intend to be in the hunt [for the conference title]. Our plans are every year to win the Big South title and represent the conference in the NCAA Tournament, but with losing those nine integral players from last season, we may have to rely on our freshmen to gain game experience early on to helps us in November," noted Alder.
And, according to the eighth-year Liberty coach, the 2008 Liberty freshman class may be the most decorated group he has ever signed.
"What we love about this group is their willingness to commit to serving Christ through soccer, their character and their willingness to work together and serve each other, as we move our program forward," said Alder.
Once again, a strong schedule faces the Flames. Liberty will face Atlantic Sun champion Campbell, Marshall and ACC members North Carolina and Virginia in non-conference matches, along with its competitive Big South slate. Campbell and North Carolina will both visit Lynchburg this season.
"We will be tested right away with our schedule," commented the Liberty head coach. "We feel our schedule will prepare us for conference play, our conference tournament and hopefully, beyond. It will make us better, as each time out it will test us."
A Look at the Flames by Position:
In goal, Liberty returns 2007 Big South Freshman of the Year and second-team all-conference goalkeeper Paul Gilbert. Last season, he posted a 13-5-2 mark with a 1.08 GAA and eight shutouts in over 1,840 minutes of play.
"Paul made the saves he needed to make last year," stated Alder. "We need our goalkeeper to be reliable and steady, and that is what he gave us last year."
While Gilbert will open the year in goal, there is open competition for playing time between Andrew Madero, Panashe Nhekario and the sophomore keeper. Madero, who sat out last year after transferring from Thomas, brings game experience in goal, while Nhekario continues to develop, after a season with the team in 2007. Junior Kyle Probst is also in the mix at the goalkeeper position.
Strong defense has become a trademark of Liberty teams, and 2007 was no different. The Flames' defense helped post a Big South-leading nine shutouts during the year and tie for No. 29 in the country with a 0.45 shutout percentage.
"Collectively, from front to back, all the guys in front of the goalkeeper have to defend as a team for us to be successful," said Alder. "We return an experienced group on defense with Mike Gelatt, Douglas Nyame, Mike Ward, Thad Taylor and Chris Phillips. They can all play a variety of positions there, so we will be able to rotate players and can keep them fresh."
Redshirt senior Gelatt and Nyame return for their final year after a strong season for the Flames in 2007. Gelatt was named a first-team All-Big South member and was selected an ESPN The Magazine Academic All-American last season. Nyame garnered second-team All-Big South honors and scored a goal in the Flames' 2-1 victory over Radford in the Big South Championship game.
Redshirt junior Ward also returns. He started in all 20 of Liberty's contests last season. In addition, Taylor and Phillips will be in the defensive rotation. Taylor played in nine games in his first year at Liberty, while Phillips started the first four games of 2007, only to see his season cut short due to injury.
Juan Carlos Chavez, Brian Edman, freshman Andrew Jones and transfer Joe Piselli will also be members of a deep defensive corps.
"Our midfielders are very important to our system," stated Alder. "We have a lot of interchangeable parts in the midfield, and we need all our midfielders to be in synchronization in order to be effective."
The aforementioned Boateng comes back for his final season with the Flames. Last season's Big South Tournament MVP, the senior tallied 15 points on five goals and five assists in 2007. He will be looked upon to provide leadership this season.
Joining him is Guzman, who has started every contest of his Liberty career. The junior scored two goals and had three assists last season, garnering first-team all-conference honors.
"Juan had a great year last season," commented Alder. "He probably goes unnoticed sometimes, because he is so selfless in his willingness to orchestrate things for us. He is a guy we can always count on."
In addition, Daniel McGarry, an all-conference second-team performer last year, and Cameron Chastain, who was named to the Big South all-tournament squad, return for their senior season. They will be joined by Chris Osborne, who also saw playing time as a sophomore, and senior Bill Pinette.
Alder adds that several of the newcomers to the Flames squad will also see action from the freshman group of Timothy Bullock, Karol Chorak, Juan Niño, Henock Snook, Alex Verville, who could also play at forward, and Greg White.
"We have a lot of guys who are competing for minutes in this group, giving us great depth" said Alder. "It allows us to move guys around both in the midfield and upfront."
At the forward position, the Flames return Justin Willoughby, a Big South all-tournament team member in 2007. Willoughby played well for Liberty down the stretch last season, scoring three goals and assisting on three others.
"Justin had his coming-out party at the Big South Tournament last season," stated Alder. "We feel his best soccer is still ahead of him."
Redshirt junior Chris Mandell, who has played several positions during his career at Liberty, has also moved to forward, along with the final returnee up front, Andrew Scheck, who continues to show steady improvement.
Joining the group is Verville, who also could see time in the midfield, and newcomer Darren Amoo. "Darren is very explosive. He can create chances for both himself and others," said Alder.
"Meanwhile, Alex is also explosive and can stretch a defense vertically for us.
"Being able to have players who are able to play various positions gives us depth. Even though we are going to be young in places, depth allows guys to be pushed each day to get better.
"Depth also gives our team confidence. There is definitely strength in numbers. If we can stay unified and everybody pulls for everybody else, our team looks at our depth and having guys who can play multiple positions who can change a game, as a strength. If everybody does their part and steps up when needed, we have a chance to be great."
The Flames, as mentioned earlier, will open tomorrow night at home by hosting the Bluefield Rams. The contest will be the first of nine home contests for Liberty. The Flames will host non-conference foes Campbell, North Carolina, Southern Virginia and Bluefield at the Liberty Soccer Field, along with Big South foes High Point, Coastal Carolina, Gardner-Webb and UNC Asheville.
The reminder of Liberty's 16-game schedule will send the Flames on the road with conference visits to Radford, Winthrop, Presbyterian and VMI. Outside of the conference, Liberty will make trips to Marshall, Howard, Virginia and Longwood.
The Flames will look to defend their Big South conference title, Nov. 13-16, at Conway, S.C.