WINONA LAKE – The Grace College men’s soccer team enters the 2014 season with its most experienced side in coach Matt Hotchkin’s tenure.
The Lancers will be driven by eight seniors who are hungry to end their final seasons in memorable fashion.
Excitement is mounting for the upcoming season, thanks in large part to stadium upgrades for the Lancers. The newly renovated Miller Athletic Complex features stadium lights, allowing Grace to play its home games at night for the first time this fall. The Lancers are taking full advantage of the new lights with nine home matches – eight under the lights.
“We have a lot of good things coming together for the program which is exciting,” Hotchkin said. “We’ve got a large senior class, a good incoming class and a new stadium. I’ve heard people in the community be excited to come out to the night games, so this should be a fun year.”
The returning senior class of Jacob Cole, Trent Smith, Dylan Andersen, Austin Altimus, Nikola Blazic, Ben Cahill, Gift Sibukome and Danilo Carnelos has reached two national tournaments in the past three years. Each senior has starting experience and will be counted on to provide steadiness and leadership to the squad.
Hotchkin believes this senior class has represented Grace College well and has firmly taken up the leadership role on the team. “The team had a 3.26 GPA last year, which ranked 11th in our sport, so they represent the school well when they put on that Lancer jersey. They have taken ownership of this team and really want to be successful and go out with a bang this year.”
Hotchkin has added a plethora of talented newcomers to the roster in hopes of fielding a deeper team than in previous years. After starting the 2013 season with a 5-2 record, Grace sputtered to a 7-8-2 finish due primarily to injuries and lack of depth. Consequently, Hotchkin brought in four transfers and six freshmen in an influx of talent.
At the goalkeeping position, incumbent starter Cole will be challenged by sophomore transfer Robbie Barnhill. Both goalies have good hands and are capable of making big saves, according to Hotchkin.
Defensively, the Lancers return an experienced core, anchored by All-Crossroads League honoree Justin Festa in the middle. He will be joined by Cahill, Altimus, Carnelos, Jon Sands, Zeb Lewis and junior transfer Nakilee Weni.
The midfield revolves around seniors Smith and Sibukome. The duo accounted for six assists and five goals last year. Other returners with starting experience in the middle include Blazic and Jon Christensen who combined for three goals and three assists in 2013.
The attacking front will be led by Kyle Hamlin. The junior has ripped off 14 goals over his first two seasons, including seven goals and two assists last year. Newcomers Sydney Ocran and Dominic Harris have impressed Hotchkin in the early portion of preseason because of their considerable pace and scoring talent. Altimus, who has netted 19 goals in his career, may also join the attacking rotation this fall.
Grace’s schedule will be challenging from the onset. The Lancers’ first official games will take place on a road trip to Colorado. The team will face three NCAA Div. II opponents over a four-day span in the team’s first official matches. Grace will return home for a four-game homestand starting Aug. 28 to help prepare for the traditionally tough Crossroads League lineup.
“Last year our schedule wasn’t tough enough to challenge us before the conference season,” Hotchkin said. “But this year will be consistently difficult. We’ll have more stress put on us early, so we’ll know exactly where we are at coming into the conference season.”
The Lancers will open up the Miller Athletic Complex on Aug. 15 in an exhibition against FC Indiana at 7 p.m. The match will mark Grace’s first game at home under the lights.
“Our broad goal for this season is to hold each other accountable in every area of life and push each other toward excellence on and off the field,” Hotchkin said. “This preseason will help us figure out some of our rotations and lineups. We are striving to play our system so well that other teams have to beat us at what we do.”