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Arikian, DeSantis to lead men’s soccer in 2009

Every collegiate sports team has that beginning part of the season in which it has to reconcile for its losses through graduation, transfer or otherwise. The Massachusetts men’s soccer team is no exception.

On paper, the Minutemen don’t look much different from last year (seven returning starters), but looking at the few UMass lost tells a different story. Former goalkeeper Zack Simmons, midfielder Mike DeSantis and top goal-scorer Prince Ofosu highlight some of the production missing from the 2009 team.

However, UMass coach Sam Koch can only focus on what he has – a much faster team and several players who he believes are flexible at playing different positions on the field.

So far, he has already seen proof of his team’s ability to make up for its losses.

“We had some tough losses to graduation that we worked on during the spring, and we had a good spring season,” Koch said.

After tying Maryland and defeating Saint John’s this past spring, the Minutemen still face high expectations, finishing third in a pre-season Atlantic 10 coaches’ poll.

Forwards

The way UMass fared against the A-10 in 2008, it would seem like not much had changed between its College Cup run and last year. The numbers on offense told a different story.

The Minutemen finished seventh in the A-10 during the 2008 season (24 goals) compared to 2007 where they finished third (35). This year certainly isn’t going to get any easier after losing Ofosu, especially with the forwards being the least experienced for the Minutemen (two returning players, two newcomers).

To make up for that, Chris Roswess and Mark DeSantis will need to have break-out seasons if UMass hopes to restore itself as an offensive threat. The younger of the DeSantis brothers finished the season with four goals, but really didn’t get going until conference play began.

As a left-sided player, he not only creates mismatches, but he has the hardest shot on the team. One of the things Koch likes about his returning senior is his ability to play anywhere on the field. While DeSantis’s main responsibilities will be to score goals, he may be moved around to either midfield or defense.

“The problem is that he does so many things so well,” Koch said of DeSantis’s versatility.

His leadership qualities and versatility made him a clear choice as one of the Minutemen’s captains during the 2009 season.

Chris Roswess, however, will go from simply playing a role in 2008 to being a full-time starter this season. And with that comes more pressure to score. The sophomore finished the previous season with more goals than any of the other newcomers (two) and should only continue to improve as the season progresses due to his explosiveness on the field.

It took time for Roswess to get comfortable, but he became a regular starter once the conference schedule got underway. In his second start, the sophomore showed a lot more aggressiveness, finishing with a season-high of four shots on goal against St. Bonaventure.

With that kind of play, he picked up his first goal two games later against Richmond in UMass’ 2-1 win.

The Minutemen’s newest forward, Matt Johnson, should receive his opportunities early as well. The freshman ran track in high school, which Koch believes should make for a fast front-line.

Midfielders

Aside from losing Mike DeSantis, the midfield remains mostly the same from last year.

With junior Ben Arikian as the Minutemen’s top returning player, opposing teams will certainly focus more on stopping the midfield than in previous seasons. Arikian led UMass as the team’s top distributor with seven assists, which also allowed him to lead his team in points (15).

Even with his unselfish play, the midfielder shares the honor with DeSantis as the team’s top returning scorer. This season, Koch will ask for Arikian to take on even more of the scoring load without Ofosu up front.

He considers Arikian to be the leader for the Maroon and White, simply because of his ability to lead by example.

The bigger question is not what Arikian’s role on the team is, since that is already well-defined, but who is going to play behind him. The two veterans who Koch favors most are Matthew Hess and Billy Collins primarily because of their experience.

But one of the things that Koch mentioned that he likes about his squad is its versatility. Not only does he feel that someone from his defense can move up, but that some of his additions could end up in the back.

The Minutemen feature Dominic Skrajewski and Tyler Brown as the two incoming midfielders. Koch believes that both are good enough to adapt to any position. Their depth at midfield leaves Chicago native Patrick Holmes with a chance to mature into the type of player Koch would like him to be before relying on him too much.

Alongside Arikian will be Bryant Craft. The sophomore played midfield and forward last season, starting almost right away after leaving a strong impression on Koch.

He finished the season with a goal and an assist to go along with 13 shots. Craft should see his opportunities on the offensive end go up because of the consistency he displayed freshman year and his ability to serve.

The other midfielders will be Stuart Amick and Chris Vaccaro. On the left side, Amick will have an increase in scoring responsibilities. Although sophomore year was slow (zero goals), the junior showed as a freshman (five) that he’s capable of scoring when given the opportunity.

That opportunity should come once again as his speed should help him get into scoring position.

Defense

For the last two seasons, the Minutemen’s defense consistently gave teams trouble. Simmons led the defense to two NCAA Tournament appearances including a trip to the College Cup in 2007.

As one of the top goalkeepers in the country, he finished with 386 saves and a 0.97 goals against average. His performance earned him several post-season accolades and a spot with the New England Revolution (which he eventually gave up to pursue academics).

This season, the man in goal will be someone other than Simmons for the first time in four years. Juniors Shane Curran-Hays and Chris Piekos will compete for the starting job. Originally, Curran-Hays had the job locked up because of his natural ability (he was highly recruited by several Division I schools).

Instead, a summer knee injury subdued Koch’s expectations, for now. Piekos will have the opportunity to win over the spot if Curran-Hays shows signs that he’s still hampered by the injury early on. 

Although Curran-Hays might not bring the same dominance as Simmons did, the team expects a lot out of him even though he has yet to play a single minute for UMass.

Curran-Hays has better footwork than Simmons to make up for what he lacks in strength. He also learned much while playing behind the former Minuteman.

In the exhibition game against Adelphi and season opener against Boston University, Koch started Piekos in goal, but had Curran-Hays start on Saturday against Hartford. If he feels that their ability levels are close, Koch will rotate between Piekos and Curran-Hays for a week or two before deciding on an official starter.

The defensive changes aren’t just in net. UMass lost three of its top four defenders in Daniel Lepone, Chris Brown and Stuart Thomson. The only regular on defense is sophomore Andrew Henshaw, who started 15 games.

The four remaining defenders (Sam DeNormandie, Billy Collins, David Key and Chris Gilbert) have 12 games of playing experience between them and one start.

Gilbert had the most experience as a freshman last season, playing 128 minutes, about four times as much as the other three had combined (36).

Koch will once again welcome several new freshmen to the defense, with Brody Steigerwald expected to standout because of his versatility. It’s likely that he and Skrajewski will play wherever the other is not, since they are both comfortable on defense or at midfield.

With several new faces on defense, Koch knows that it might not immediately look like one of the A-10’s top defenses as it has in years past, but he feels that by the end of the season, it will be just as good.

Adam Miller can be reached at ajmil0@student.umass.edu.

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