GREENWOOD – The Lander men's soccer team enjoyed one of its finest seasons in recent memory in 2016. Coming off a Peach Belt Conference Tournament championship appearance and NCAA Tournament berth in 2015, the Bearcats raced through the 2016 regular season unbeaten in PBC play, claiming the league's regular season title and returning to the PBC championship match.
For the second consecutive season, however, Lander fell in the PBC title match and was eliminated in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, turning a sweet 14-4-1 campaign somewhat sour. Now, under the direction of third-year head coach Lee Squires, the Bearcats have set their sights on building upon the success of the previous two seasons.
"We've had two good years now and it's time for us to have a great one," said Squires. "There's obviously no magic formula. It takes a lot of hard work, a lot of commitment, a lot of trust in what we're doing."
There is no denying the talent returning to Greenwood this fall. The Bearcats feature six all-conference selections from a team that reeled off 13 consecutive wins from mid-September to the PBC Tournament semifinals last season.
"We know that on paper, we may have a top-five program, top-five facilities, top-five infrastructure, top-five talent in the country and it's just realizing that talent," said Squires.
Lander boasted the nation's fourth-ranked offense in 2016, as its 3.05 goals per match marked the highest-scoring Bearcat attack since 2004. Senior forward Sam Lofts (Swindon, England) led the Bearcats with 12 goals last season while junior forward Michael Leach (Wigan, England) netted eight. Senior Jamie Lunn (Larberf, Scotland) finished with four goals on the year.
The rest of the offense features seniors Ross Catley-Davies (Kenilworth, England), Caleb Fenner (Greenwood, S.C.), Jamie North (Norfolk, England) and Danny Shanahan (Leamington Spa, England); juniors Joshua Bertie (London, England), Tyler Bolton (Basildon, England), Oliver Brock (Mansfield, England), Noe Caballero (Beaufort, S.C.), Sia Jamedar (Pitea, Sweden) and Sinclaire Sandy (London, England); sophomores Corentin Da Mutten (Talloires, France), Freddie Moore Hobbis (Oxford, England) and Robbie Young (Motherwell, Scotland); and freshmen George Barmby (Hull, England), Thibault Chretien (Laval, France), Alexandre Cox-Ashwood (Wittenheim, France), Isaiah Daley (West Columbia, S.C.), Lars Kveseth (Gjovik, Norway) and Daniel Sonnerstedt (Stockholm, Sweden).
"We return Sam Lofts, Mike Leach, players of that ilk," Squires said, "but for us, the beauty of it is we don't have a starting 11 in mind yet. We've got two or three guys coming in that we really feel can add going forward the goals we were missing in big matches last year. When you get to a national tournament or a Peach Belt final, the biggest matches, there's less chances, less clear-cut opportunities and you've got to take what you get. We lacked a little bit in that last year, but Mike Leach and Sam Lofts are proven in their return and their output and George Barmby, Robbie Young, Alex Cox-Ashwood, Thibault Chretien, they're going to come in and they've got to be ready to make a statement. We've identified what we lack and we've brought these guys in to provide that, so if they come in and do their job, we'll be fine."
For the second consecutive season, the Bearcats were the PBC's stingiest defense, surrendering just 1.02 goals per match. Rising juinors and co-captains Richard Bryan (Enfield, England) and Jordan Skelton (Newcastle, England) will anchor Lander's defense. Bryan tallied seven assists last season and was a two-time PBC Defender of the Week, while Skelton was a first-team All-PBC selection. The Bearcats also return sophomore George Knight (Basingstoke, England), who finished his freshman campaign with three goals and four assists. Seniors Joshua Belk (McDonough, Ga.), Ian Foulger (Haverhill, England), Alex Garner (Grimsby, England) and George Rose (St. Albans, England); junior Matt Albertson (Aiken, S.C.); and freshman Luke Narker (Decatur, Ga.) round out the defense.
"I think we do have great leadership, great size and great ruthlessness in our mentality to not concede goals," Squires said of his back line. "Our concentration levels will have to remain consistent for 90 minutes. We have good experience along the back and that will filter through the team and provide whoever's the starting goalkeeper with great confidence."
Lander returns the PBC Freshman of the Year between the pipes in rising sophomore Dean Cowdroy (Canberra, Australia), who led the league with a .775 save percentage in 2016. Cowdroy tallied 69 saves and helped the Bearcats shut out eight opponents, earning PBC Freshman of the Week honors a league-record five times.
"We brought Dean in for a specific reason," said Squires. "He's like an outfield player with his feet, which, the way that we want to play, is a crucial attribute to have. He doesn't lack for confidence despite his lack of height and he works hard in training to compensate for that obvious lack of height. Stereotypically speaking, goalkeepers are 6'2", 6'3" with a really long wingspan, but we don't care. He's the Freshman of the Year for a reason and we expect him to kick on and develop and be a big part of what we're trying to achieve."
Lander opens the season on Aug. 31 with a home match against Chowan and travels to Lenoir-Rhyne before returning home to host rival Erskine on Sept. 6. The Bearcats face road matches against 23rd-ranked Tusculum and Anderson before opening up conference play at home on against Clayton State on Sept. 16. Lander hosts in-state conference foes Francis Marion and USC Aiken, while traveling to Flagler, North Georgia, Young Harris and Georgia Southwestern. The non-conference portion of the schedule also features home matches against Carson-Newman and Queens, as well as trips to Catawba and Mars Hill.
"I think the key for us is to manage the first few matches before we hit conference better than we did last year," Squires said of the challenging schedule. "Last year, we didn't get off to a great start. This year, we've got an equally tough schedule and we need to manage it better and understand that it's not necessarily about the performances early on, it's just about picking up the wins. As the season progresses, we'll need to start to perform closer and closer to our peak performance so that we're going into postseason playing our best soccer. That management of a season, not just game to game, is going to be crucial for us. Hopefully, we can get off to a good start, get some good wins under our belt early on and then kick on in conference and retain our title."
With two solid seasons behind them, expectations are once again high for the Bearcats. For Squires, the time to perform up to expectations is now.
"I think we've gotten to a level now where Peach Belt regular season championship and a Peach Belt Tournament championship is kind of minimum expectations now," he said. "We're not shy about that. We have talked a lot about what our goals are, but, ultimately now we've got to walk the walk and back that up and realize that potential. I think we're very confident in what we're able to achieve and now we've got to go out and execute. The time for talking has to stop and we've got to go out and play.""
While a third consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament is a goal, Squires says the Bearcats have an added idea of what they'd like to experience in the postseason.
"We've been in the national tournament the last two years and we know how tremendously difficult it is if you're not in that top two. We'd love to host. If we've got the right record and the right number of wins to be able to host, I think Van Taylor Stadium in November is going to be a pretty special place."