Youngest men's team in D3?
Wheaton College (Ill.) head men's soccer coach Mike Giuliano thinks he might have the youngest team in all of NCAA Division III this season. Out of the 28 players on the roster, he estimates that 20-22 will be freshmen and sophomores. But he's looking at the lack of experience to be more of an opportunity than a problem.
Now entering his fourth year at Wheaton College in 2010, Giuliano wants to impose a style. And he has just the kind of roster makeup to do it -- a young, talented group of newcomers that can be molded.
"It's not important that they play my style. It's important that they play the same style," Giuliano said. "I want to play an up-tempo, high defensive pressure, quick counter attacking, crisp, quality possession at all times style. So I'm going to be a lot more demanding. One advantage of having a younger team is they will be very open-minded to what you have in mind. So really it's up to the coaching staff that we have to say, 'Boys, this is how we play soccer here. You need to buy in.'"
The Thunder kept its postseason streak rolling last year, compiling an overall record of 14-4-4 and qualifying for the NCAA Division III Men's Soccer Tournament for the 17th consecutive year. The team got there by capturing the CCIW Automatic Qualifier in double overtime with a 3-1 PK shootout triumph over Elmhurst College. Wheaton then lost in the NCAA First Round to eventual National Runner-Up Calvin College by a 2-1 score.
A total of six seniors graduated from the 2009 team, including tri-captains Matt Swartz, Damon Brown and Tyler Risma. "One unarguable fact of 2010 is the gap between our top player and our 20th player will be smaller than any year maybe of my career," Giuliano said. "The bad news about that is, who to start? The challenges will be to identify who gets the minutes and to get them to play together. Mesko and Drew Golz are certainly two obvious choices. Who joins them, and who is at midfield is still yet to be determined."
"Goalkeeper and defender are lines with a lot of quality players coming back," Giuliano said. "Bringing back four of the five defenders, I couldn't ask for more. And when you consider the new and returning quality defenders, it will be the strength of our team."
A large crop of new players will be vying to fill out the rest of the lineup for the Thunder. This year's incoming class has the veteran head coach excited about their potential, both immediate and future.
"I can honestly say that from what I have observed in the evaluation process, all 14 of these freshmen could be battling for a starting position," Giuliano said. "I honestly believe that. This is just that kind of year." Giuliano knows it will be an adjustment period for the freshman to get used to the collegiate level of play. He sees that most of the teams that make postseason runs are junior and senior laden teams. He hopes this Thunder squad will prove that maxim false.
"Every college coach tells you that the transition from high school to college is a lot bigger than it looks like," the Wheaton head coach said. "They don't realize the impact of the increased size, speed and work rate that you see in college. Can some of these guys transition quickly and be able to play with the increased demands pace wise and concentration wise. Even tactical sophistication, can they make the wise choices."
Wheaton has played one of the strongest strength of schedules in Division III the past two seasons, and Giuliano attributes part of it to the fact that the CCIW is growing very strong from top to bottom.
"I thought Elmhurst was every bit as strong as anyone we saw last year," Giuliano said. "Carthage gets better every year. Their coach is the most tireless recruiter I know. The best player in the conference is Kris Grahn from North Park. Illinois Wesleyan was like us this year -- they had a really good freshman class last year. And Augie had their best year in a while, and North Central and Millikin were much, much improved. That means when we get to the NCAA Tournament, no level of play is a surprise."
The Thunder starts its season by hosting the Bob Baptista Invitational on Sept. 3 and 4. Wheaton takes on Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology at 7:00 PM on Sept. 3 and faces Ohio Wesleyan University at 7:00 PM on Sept. 4.
By Nathan Lindquist, Wheaton College Sports Information Assistant (edited)