BETHLEHEM, Pa. – Lehigh looks to mix youth with experience when it opens its 100th season of soccer on Saturday and begins its chase of the Patriot League title. The Mountain Hawks return their 2011 first team All-Patriot League selection and Goalkeeper of the Year Ciaran Nugent along with team captain Cameron Omsberg to anchor a defense that looks to protect an eight-game home unbeaten streak when the team opens its season on Saturday against Hofstra at the Ulrich Sports Complex.
Nugent led the Patriot League last year with 11 shutouts , tied for second in saves with 69 and finished second in save percentage at a .896 clip. Head coach Dean Koski hopes that Nugent can remain the dominant force in goal on a stingy defense that allowed a league-minimum 0.44 goals per game in 2011, which was good for third lowest in the nation.
“We have a lot of depth at the goalkeeper position but it’s hard not to justify starting the 2011 Patriot League Goalkeeper of the Year,” said coach Koski. “We certainly expect our captain Cam Omsberg to anchor us defensively.”
Lehigh will also return two upperclassmen in Ben Wysocki and Matt Weaver who will bring experience to the Mountain Hawk’s backfield. The two combined to log 1,230 minutes last season and have the coaches excited about playing a more pivotal role on the 2012 squad.
“On the left side Ben Wysocki is doing a really good job as a left back and we hope that he is going to secure that position for us, “ said Koski. “On the right side senior Matt Weaver came into camp really fit and has had a good preseason.”
Kyle Lucas remains a candidate for the center back position. Lucas logged 575 minutes last year over 16 games and will look to be an integral part of this year’s team.
“He has had a really good preseason and shown some experience as a junior that we’re pleased about,” said Koski.
The Mountain Hawks may use a rotation in the midfield this year as players may be asked to step into different roles as the season progresses. Hopefully, Ali Famili will be the engine, but coach Koski looks to use a few different faces in the middle.
“In the midfield we have lots of opportunities with a lot of different guys, and in fact we may platoon those positions,” said Koski. “But we’ve got some options Matt Shreiner and Ben Borin who have done well in the middle of the park and we’ve seen some freshmen step in and do well including Ryan Bertrando and Jamie Luchini. We think Jamie is athletic enough to move into the midfield and Ryan has played well in preseason.”
Lehigh brings some experience to the forward position that hopes to capitalize on scoring opportunities this season and improve on the goals per game average that ranked fifth in the Patriot League last year. Junior James Meyerkord and sophomore Brian Suchoski will lead the scoring attack and have coach Koski excited about this year. Meyerkord, who started 17 games, and Suchoski, who started 12 games, bring a much needed wealth of experience to the Mountain Hawks’ offense. The two will be tasked with replacing Joe Puleo and Neal Mechionni who combined for eight of the 18 goals Lehigh scored in 2011. Though they have a demanding objective, Meyerkord and Suchoski are no strangers to the back of the net, tallying a combined three goals and eight points last season.
“Our forward pool is very strong with Jimmy Meyerkord coming in fit and ready to go as a junior and we’ve been pleased with his preseason,” said Koski. “And Brian Suchoski in his sophomore year is showing some maturity and playing for FC Sonic was invaluable in his development.”
With the addition of 10 freshmen, coach Koski understands the inexperience but expects the underclassmen to adapt to the collegiate level quickly and make an impact.
"Freshman Kyle Chin has done well so far and Will Grace should be able to contribute off the bench," said Koski. " Once the remaining freshmen get cleared, we expect them to add some depth to our team."
“It changes fifty percent of our team when you bring in 10 freshmen and carrying a roster of 22 guys,” said Koski. “But our upperclassmen have done a terrific job of welcoming our freshmen and blending them into our program from the first day they arrived to campus.”
The Mountain Hawks went 5-0-3 last season at home and expect to continue the unbeaten streak in their season opener on Saturday. The dynamic of the program does not waiver between league and non-league play, as each and every game will be a chance for Lehigh to compete and improve. The 2012 schedule includes four matches against teams that qualified for the NCAA Division I Tournament in 2011 (Stony Brook, Brown, Maryland and Colgate), but winning is a tradition with Lehigh soccer and this season is expected to be no different.
“The mentality of our team needs to be that we’ve gone 16 years without having a losing season. That’s important to us,” Koski said. “Getting results will always be an important part of this program. Whether its league or non-league - we play to win.”
Coach Koski has a feeling that the race for playoff contention in the Patriot League will come down to the wire again, just as it has in the past. Lehigh has consistently made appearances in the Patriot League Tournament, making postseason runs the past three seasons. The competition in 2012 is expected to be as high as ever which presents a challenge that coach Koski and the rest of the Mountain Hawks seem poised to accept.
“I think all the teams have improved substantially,” said Koski. “Every year, especially the past four or five years, it seems the third or fourth playoff spot will come down to the final game of the season which makes all the games really exciting, stressful and intense. I expect it to be a very competitive league like it has been in the past.”
Lehigh will host Hofstra at the Ulrich Sports Complex on Saturday at 3 p.m. The Mountain Hawks have not dropped a home opener since September 1, 2007. Live video broadcast of Saturday’s contest will be available on Lehighsports.com.