FLORENCE, S.C. – The 22nd-ranked Francis Marion University men’s soccer team will open its 2009 season on the road at Wingate University on Thursday evening (Aug. 27) at 7 p.m.
The contest opens an 18-match slate for the Patriots in 2009. FMU’s home opener will be Saturday at 2 p.m. against St. Andrews Presbyterian College, the alma mater of current Patriot head coach Kevin Varnado.
Varnado welcomes back 17 of 20 lettermen, including all but one starter, from last year’s 14-5-3 squad that won both the Peach Belt Conference regular-season and tournament championships and then advanced to the second round of the NCAA Division II National Tournament. The team also earned the PBC’s Team Sportsmanship Award for men’s soccer. For these accomplishments, Varnado was named the PBC’s Coach of the Year.
FMU was also recently picked as a preseason co-favorite in the race for the 2009 PBC title. “Our keys for this season will be to stay healthy, stay humble, and stay hungry,” Varnado said. “As a young squad last year, we experienced a lot of success. We must keep doing the things to get better in order to maintain growth.”
“The squad is anxious to start the season. We have trained hard, battled pre-season injuries, and played one exhibition (a 3-0 loss at NCAA Division I UNC Wilmington).
“We understand that this season we will not be a ‘surprise team.’ With a pre-season national ranking, what we did last year, and being co-favorites in the Peach Belt, we will have more of a target on our backs. That being said, we return an experienced group, one that became familiar with each other and our opponents. They learned what it took to win, and they know what to expect this year.”
After being picked fifth in the 2008 pre-season PBC poll, FMU opened the year 1-4-1, but then went unbeaten in the next 15 matches to reach the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Among the returnees are three seniors: All-Region and All-Conference forward/midfielder Kyle Clinton, midfielder Alden Brooks, and back Jared Beauchamp.
Clinton led Francis Marion last fall with 10 goals and 25 points, while tying for third on the team with five assists. In 57 career matches, he has tallied 22 goals and eight assists.
Among the other scoring targets Varnado will look to are junior Juan Rivas, an All-Region and All-Conference choice after tallying nine goals and five assists in 2008; sophomore Adrian Sikorski, another All-PBC pick after recording six goals and nine assists as a freshman; junior Chris Foltanski (2 goals, 3 assists), and sophomore Emerson Peredo (2 goals, 3 assists).
“Last year, I felt we were probably better at the defensive end of the field,” said the third-year coach. “This year we want to improve our goal scoring without focusing on just one target and at the same time find scoring from every area of the field.”
In the midfield, key players will include Brooks, Clinton, junior Julian Ramjohn, sophomore Cameron Mabee, and freshmen Ryan Lucas and Gentry Johnson. “With this group, we will have both experience and youth directing our offense.”
On the defensive end, the Patriots must replace All-Region center back Willie Hunt. To do this, Varnado has shuffled his line-up slightly. He will move junior Ivan Juric, an All-PBC selection in 2008 after compiling eight goals and seven assists, from the midfield to left back. Beauchamp will play right back, while junior Justin Kibler and sophomores Adrian Williams and Sawyer Frank will take turns patrolling the center of the defensive line. ”These five will give us a strong, yet versatile, back line with more balance from left to right.”
Junior goalkeeper Clark Richeson, an All-PBC pick last year, returns to mind the net. In his first full season, after an injury-plagued freshman year in 2007, he posted a 1.37 goals against average with six shutouts. During the team’s 15-match unbeaten streak, the Patriots surrendered only 11 goals. “He and I both feel more comfortable with his position in goal,” said Varnado. “He has had a great week of practice as we look to start the season and I feel he is where he needs to be. Now as a junior, we will look to him for more leadership in his role as keeper.”
Both Clinton and Juric were picked to the 2009 preseason All-PBC squad by a poll of the conference’s coaches.
On Thursday, FMU will be looking for its first season-opening win since 2005. The Patriots lead the all-time series with Wingate 12-4-1 and own a 19-8-1 advantage over St. Andrews, although this will be Varnado’s first encounter with the Knights as FMU’s head coach.