Post from Sunday, Aug. 23
Posted at 4:18 p.m. EDT - Eric Lindsey, UK Media Relations
Thanks to Brent for filling in for me this weekend while I was away. Looks like he kept you all up-to-date on everything while I was gone, so I'll try to keep this short.
Posted at 12:19 p.m. EDT - Brent Ingram, UK Media Relations
With the Kentucky men's soccer season opening Monday with an exhibition against Dayton, it is a good time to post the in-depth UK season preview on Cat Scratches. UK opens Monday at 7 p.m. ET at the UK Soccer Complex.
A year removed from the heartbreak of a penalty-kick loss in the 2008 Conference USA Championship game, Kentucky soccer returns an experienced roster capable and determined to claim the first C-USA title in program annals.
After falling short in the conference-title game in Dallas on penalties against No. 7 Tulsa, Kentucky's quest for NCAA Tournament play was denied by the committee, despite ranking No. 21 nationally, finishing second in the conference and riding a school-record 10-match unbeaten streak.
The Wildcats won't be denied by any committees in 2009.
"We have been in Conference USA for four years and we have four second-place trophies - two regular season and two tournament - with two losses in the finals of the tourney," 18th-year head coach Ian Collins said. "I speak for all of us when I say while that might be a nice accomplishment, we are looking to push on and win this league. We are very close and it is a good league to win."
UK will seek to build upon an offense that netted 41 goals and a stingy defense that allowed only a 0.80 goals-against average in 2008, 31st-best in the nation. The Wildcats finished the season ranked 15th in the NCAA in scoring offense, averaging 1.95 goals per game.
"We finished last season strong, we lost only two of our last 17 games and finished the year on a 10-match unbeaten streak," Collins said. "We return, what I think is the real core of that team and a few new additions will help. Everybody is more experienced and focused on doing something great. We have got strong players in every position and I hope we can build on what we did at the end of last season."
Led by its trio of captains - each All-Conference USA performers in 2008 - midfielder Jason Griffiths, All-American defender Barry Rice and steady goalkeeper Dan Williams, Kentucky appears to have the right mix of an explosive offensive ability, a lockdown defense and unquestioned leadership.
"Those three guys did a great job last year - Barry, Dan and Griff," Collins said. "They are very different personalities but the three of them together get the job done and that is why we ask them to get the job done. All three of them are prime-time performers, all-conference players and all have the potential to play professionally at the next level. I am looking for those three, plus others - Tim Crone, Chad Hagerty, Brad Walker, Tyler Burns, plus all the guys that have a lot of experience - they need to pull together and get this going to where it should be at."
One of the biggest tasks facing Collins and the 2009 club are replacing the goal scoring abilities of senior forward Michael Strong, who netted a team-high nine goals in just 741 minutes a year ago. The UK offensive attack will lean heavily on Griffiths, a key cog in the midfield and offensive gameplan.
"Michael did great for us last year, he started the season very, very quickly," Collins said. "We have a number of players that are ready to score some goals. Taylor White has really come on leaps and bounds during the fall and spring season. We have not seen the best of him; he is going to have the potential to score a lot of goals, because he is a big, strong, physical striker who is very quick for a big man."
White will be expected to step up a year after scoring two goals and adding two assists in 13 games as a freshman. The reigning C-USA Newcomer of the Year, Brazilian forward Marco dos Santos, will also be expected to continue to provide an offensive spark after coming on late in 2008, finishing with five goals and five assists. Fellow forwards Tim Crone and Lexington native C.J. Tappel will be counted on as goal-scoring threats.
"Marco dos Santos took a little while to settle in his first year and ended the season brilliantly," Collins said. "Tim Crone has been a goal scorer for his first two years, a very dangerous player around the goal. We also have several other players who are capable of scoring goals - C.J. Tappel from the wide position and Chad Hagerty. We have guys that can score goals, I don't know if we are going to have one dominate goal scorer, but we are going to get contributions from several different players.
With the return of Griffiths in the midfield, along with stalwarts Tyler Burns, George Davis IV, Chad Hagerty and Mark Lavery, UK appears to be set in the center of the field.
A 2008 first-team All-Conference USA selection, Griffiths is widely recognized as one of the top midfield players in college soccer. A native of Bracknell, England, Griffiths has 27 career points in his three seasons (9 goals, 9 assists), including a perfect 6-for-6 mark in penalty kick attempts.
"The midfield will be the strength of our team," Collins said. "Jason Griffiths is widely recognized as one of the top players in our conference, no question about that. He is one of the best midfield players in the country - he is very consistent, puts his foot on the ball. Last year was really the first healthy season he has had and he proved what he can do - first team All-Conference USA, region All-American. He is a terrific player.
"Everybody knows how good he is. He is just a quality player, he wins tackles and covers every blade of grass. Jason is another guy who is going to have a great chance to go play professionally."
Burns started 19 games in 2008, logging 1505 minutes, with six points (2 goals, 2 assists), and returns for his junior season as a stabilizing force in the midfield for UK. Davis, an athletic and attacking midfielder, is coming off a strong spring showing and Lavery will look to build upon a promising freshman campaign that saw him dish out two assists in 378 minutes.
Hagerty, a native of Louisville, Ky., finished the year as UK's assist leader, dolling out six dimes to go with one goal.
"You have a number of other really quality players in the midfield," Collins said. "Tyler Burns has been here two years and has played a lot of really quality minutes. Chad Hagerty led the league in assists last year. George Davis IV is going into his senior year as well and he adds some depth and has the ability to play in the midfield as well."
In addition to the slew of veteran talent, Collins welcomes a core of promising newcomers, including Josh Albers, Josh McCray, Matt Lodge and Cameron Wilder.
"In the midfield we have a couple of guys who came in the spring and were terrific," Collins said. "Josh McCray came in from Radford and he scored four goals in the spring, he did very well, has two years of college experience. Josh Albers is a dynamic player, after spending two years at Dayton. We have a young lad coming out of England named Matt Lodge, a terrific player, plays a lot like Jason (Griffiths) - good on the ball, a good goal scorer. Cameron Wilder is a lad coming in from Atlanta, he spent some time with the Under-18 national team, quick as lightning, dynamic, adds a little bit to that group.
"We have a lot of options in the midfield, it is going to be a very competitive place to play and as a coach that is what you want. We have a lot of experience at the midfield, a couple of dynamic newcomers, but overall I think that will be the strength of that team. I like all the areas of the team, but at midfield I really like our depth, that isn't something we have always had a lot of in the past is a lot of depth and with a couple of newcomers, we add to the depth of what was already a very good group of players."
As always, the defense will be a staple of the club, an annual strength of Collins' teams. Last season, UK was particularly stingy, holding opponents to a 0.80 goals-against average, in large part thanks to an All-American back-line, headlined by Rice, and including standouts Tim Muessig and Brad Walker.
"We finished among the leaders in the nation in goals against," Collins said. "We obviously have a very good goalkeeper. We are bringing back three of the back four that played basically every minute - Tim Muessig, Barry Rice, Brad Walker played a lot of games for us, played every minute of the last 12 or 13 games together. Certainly Barry and Brad will be the backbone, both really quality players. It is a group of players that I am pretty comfortable with and we look forward to them coming out strong."
When discussing Rice, it is hard for Collins to come up with enough of a vocabulary to describe the impact he can have on the game, and the impact he has had on the program.
"Barry is good, he is unbelievably athletic," Collins raved. "He is great in the air. He has great pace. He is tough, gives 100 percent every game. I think, and I am not the only one who thinks this, he is one of the best players in the country. He is going to have a bright future professionally. He is much better on the ball, his decision making has gotten better as time has gone by. One more good college year for him will make him into a top professional player."
In addition to the time-tested veterans, several newcomers will have a chance to have an immediate impact.
"At outside back, we have a lot of competition," Collins said. "We have a couple of guys coming in that are going to be very good defenders. Chris Jumalon is a freshman from Washington D.C., who came on in the spring. We have a number of guys who can step up and play."
Williams, a two-time All C-USA goalkeeper, ranks among the top keepers in UK career annals, ranking fifth in saves (167), fourth in goals-against average (1.16) and fourth in shutouts (14). Last season, Williams was a rock, finishing with a 0.81 goals-against average, ranking 36th best in the NCAA.
"Dan has proved himself as one of the top goalkeepers in the country," Collins said. "He is fearless, he makes game-winning saves. He has really improved the game with his feet. His upside is fantastic and he is just starting to scratch the surface of how good he can be. He had a great end of the year and we really want him to build on that."
While the offensive attack has the potential to be explosive, Collins and the team understand the importance of defending.
"We scored a lot of goals in the spring, and one of the knocks on Kentucky in the past has always been `well, they don't score a lot of goals'. We scored 48 last season and scored a bunch in the spring. But the guys understand that defending will never go away and that is our cornerstone."
Kentucky will play a challenging 2009 slate, including matchups with Illinois-Chicago, Indiana, Tulsa, South Carolina, Louisville and SMU.
UK's conference slate will begin after three non-conference tune-ups - including the annual UK Invitational - Sept. 20, with Marshall at the UK Soccer Complex. The conference schedule will include league powers SMU, Tulsa and South Carolina, in addition to trips to Central Florida and Florida International.
"We are excited about some of our non conference games," Collins said. "Playing Indiana, Louisville, UIC - those are real competitive teams. We are also hosting a tournament here and expect to have a good crowd."
Looking at the 2009 club brings nothing but excitement when discussing the possibilities with Collins. Combined with a dynamic group of seasoned veterans and a slew of talented newcomers, one thing is certain, UK has the ability to take charge of its own postseason chances in 2009.
"I feel real comfortable with our players," Collins said. "We have more depth then we have had in a number of years, we have some special players, who our fans will enjoy seeing play. We have some guys that can do some things and I just hope they put it all together.
"What really impressed me was the professionalism of some of our experienced players, the way they handled things. The improvement is there for everyone to see, they have worked hard. I like what they are doing, they are quietly and unassumingly going about their job."