TOWSON, Md. — Fresh off one of the most successful seasons in program history, Goucher's men's soccer team will take the field this weekend looking to set the bar even higher in 2014.
The Gophers posted a winning record last fall for the first time since 1992. They also picked up points in four of their seven Landmark matchups, including victories over Merchant Marine and Moravian. That was not enough, though, to crack the top four of the highly-competitive conference, and qualifying for the postseason tournament will be a priority for head coach Bryan Laut and his team this season.
"Ultimately, last year was a step in the right direction," Laut said. "But we still fell a little short of our goal of making the league playoffs. The big difference between last year and years prior is that we were competitive in every conference match. This year, the goal is to take the next step, to turn around those one or two plays that didn't go our way, and to make the league playoffs."
Goucher returns the majority of last year's key performers, with 15 players on the roster having logged significant minutes in 2013. They will be complemented by nine newcomers, including a strong six-man freshmen class.
"For the first time since I've been here, we're really bringing back a mature, experienced team," Laut said. "The last couple years we brought back a lot of players, but they were still learning. Now, we have a lot of juniors and seniors with experience, along with sophomores who've played a full league slate. They've all come in fit and ready to go."
One of the unquestioned strengths last year for the Gophers was the team's defense. Goucher allowed just 22 goals over 18 contests in 2013, the lowest total for the program since its debut season in 1989, when the team surrendered 16 goals in only 10 matches.
Most of last year's defenders will be back this fall, including former All-Landmark performer Brandon Weiner (Derwood, Md./Col. Zadok A. Magruder) and junior George El-Khoury (Cranford, N.J./Cranford), who combined for five goals on the offensive side of the ball to supplement strong defensive play. Matt Fazekas, a team captain on last year's squad, has graduated, but Laut expects newcomer Scott Mt. Pleasant (Clifton Park, N.Y./Shenendehowa) to step into the starting lineup in his place.
"Our goal is to be even better defensively than we were last year," Laut said. "This is a team that more often than not should be getting clean sheets. Our defending also isn't just about the back group. We have a real solid backline, but we're successful because of the commitment shown from the goalkeeper all the way up through the forwards."
Sophomore Nicholas Stolarz (Clark, N.J./Arthur L. Johnson) returns to lead the Gophers in goal after a strong debut season in which he registered 70 saves across 14 matches (13 starts). Stolarz finished 2013 with a .814 save percentage and a 1.13 goals-against average. Senior Nate Margolis (Ivyland, Pa./Council Rock North), who led Goucher with 14 points (5 G, 4 A) last year, will also be back. He will captain the Gophers along with Weiner and fellow seniors Thomas Adair (Dunkirk, Md./Northern) and Lashaw Salta (Allen, Texas/Plano East).
Beginning with a scrimmage schedule that included matchups against Division I Loyola and junior college powerhouse CCBC Essex, Laut has attempted to design a pre-conference schedule that prepares his team for the rigors of the Landmark. After the home opener at 7 p.m. against Hood this Friday, Goucher will take on defending Centennial regular season champions Haverford Sunday afternoon in the first of four matches against Centennial conference foes. The Gophers host Moravian in their first conference matchup on September 20.
"The idea is to push ourselves against high-level competition," Laut said. "So that when we go into our league we have a better idea of who we are and what we need to do to be successful.
"The Landmark Conference is an incredible conference for men's soccer," he concluded. "But we're excited for the challenge, and if we take care of all the little things, that will add up to us doing the big things as well and hopefully that will be enough to push us into the playoffs. At the end of the day, the most important thing is giving ourselves the opportunity to win championships. That's the kind of culture we're trying to create."