MIDDLEBURY — It’s hard to call a 10-5-2 season too much of a disappointment, but for Coach David Saward’s Middlebury College men’s soccer team this 2009 record came one year after a trip to an NCAA Division III Sectional final and two years after the Panthers’ dream season, their 2007 run to an 18-2-2 record and an NCAA championship.
Still, even last fall the Panthers rallied late in the season after a rocky start. They came within an overtime loss in the NESCAC final of another NCAA trip; defeated regular-season NESCAC champ Wesleyan (at that point a top-five team in the nation) in the NESCAC playoffs; and in the regular season knocked off Williams, which went on to reach the NCAA semifinals.
“We were completely capable of playing with anyone last year,” said Saward, who on Saturday at Tufts will begin his 26th season leading the program.
This season, the Panthers will look to add to Saward’s 276-90-42 career mark and the team’s streak of seven straight seasons with at least 10 wins.
Having a healthy Harrison Watkins will help. Saward said the team’s slow start in 2009 (4-3-2 overall, 1-2-2 in the league) could be tied to an early-season injury to his All-American defender, now a senior. Watkins returned to score five goals down the stretch, including three game-winners.
“We were a little hiccupy early on, I thought,” Saward said. “The biggest dilemma, really, was the injury to Harrison ... I don’t like to say that one player makes a difference. He made the difference. It was as much his emotional component, as a junior and a leader, as it was the goals he scored.”
Watkins and senior back Jake Edwards (the team assist leader with seven in 2009) will lead the defense in front of returning junior goalie Tim Cahill. Two starters — Colin Nangle and Nolan Lincoln — graduated from a unit that surrendered just 15 goals in 17 games last fall, but Saward is not concerned about his back line.
“We’re all right there. I’ve got Jake back. Cahill in goal will be fine, and Harrison. And then (junior) Alex Collucci, he played last year when we needed him,” he said. “And then there are a couple first-year players who I think are very talented, who have got the ability to step in, Tyler Smith and Graham Knisley. I’m not worried about that actually.”
Although the Panthers return their top five point producers — Watkins, Tyler Macnee, Carson Cornbrooks, Edwards and Robbie Redmond — Saward is more focused on the offensive end of the field. The Panthers managed just 23 goals in 17 games in 2009.
“When you look at your good teams ... you normally find a goal-scorer,” he said. “I’ve always said you’ve got to look at two goals a game to win more than you lose. You’ve got to average two goals a game, and certainly we didn’t score enough.”
Saward believes Champlain Valley Union High School’s Macnee will be that goal-scorer. After scoring 13 times as a freshman, Macnee was a marked man a year ago and finished with four goals and two assists. But Saward is confident more will be forthcoming.
“Tyler Macnee had a bit of a leveling-out year, which was inevitable after such a great first year, but I think that he’s a special player if he puts his mind to it and stays healthy,” he said. “He’s only a junior, and I think he has all of the abilities to become one of the all-time best here.”
Saward will stick with a 4-4-2 formation, lining up four defenders, four midfielders and two strikers. As the preseason opened last week, players including senior Taylor Wilkins (a South Burlington product), sophomore Brett Brazier and possibly even Knisley were under consideration as Macnee’s running mate up front.
“We’ll just have to see who steps up in the next 10 days and says pick me. That’s what I’m looking for,” Saward said.
Saward foresees juniors Redmond and Otis Pitney winning the central midfield roles, with Redmond (four goals in 2009) more often attacking and Pitney stabilizing.
“(Otis) is going to be influential in how we play tucked in behind Robbie,” he said. “He’s going to play as our holding midfielder and let Robbie roam, which is what Robbie does naturally. He’s the Energizer Bunny, all over the place.”
Cornbrooks, a senior and another CVU product who scored four times in 2009, will probably start on one midfield flank, and South Burlington’s Rob Cole and North Country’s Adam Batista will also see plenty of time at midfield.
As always, Saward expects tough competition within NESCAC, notably from Amherst and Williams. But he believes his team has both “nice camaraderie” and talent.
“We’ll have to wait and see. But I do like them. I think they’ll be fine. How fine, I don’t know,” he said. “There are a number of teams that are going to be a handful.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at email@example.com.