Head coach: Jason Weides (81-75-17, nine years)
2016 Record: 11-7-2 overall; 6-3 GPAC (3rd); GPAC tournament runner up
Key Returners: D Angel Alvarez; D Luke Batters; D Florian Caraballo; F Toby Down; F Carlos Ferrer; D Aries Fung; F Marcelo Hernandez; F Matthew Ho; MF Micah Lehenbauer; MF Lewis Rathbone
Key Newcomers: GK Jacob Elam; D Jackson Myers; MF Garrett Perry; D Kevin Sanchez; D Joao Pedro Verissimo
Key Losses: MF Carlos Acosta; GK Mark Horsburgh
2016 GPAC All-Conference: Florian Caraballo (first team); Marcelo Hernandez (first team); Micah Lehenbauer (second team); Toby Down (honorable mention); Carlos Ferrer (honorable mention); Aries Fung (honorable mention); Mark Horsburgh (honorable mention); Lewis Rathbone (honorable mention)
Not long ago, the Concordia men’s soccer program hoped to challenge for conference championships. It hoped it could rise up and sometimes beat the perennial powers in the GPAC. It hoped to become one of the well-respected soccer programs in the state of Nebraska. Hope has transformed into tangible results and now realistically high expectations.
The standard has been raised by back-to-back appearances in the conference tournament championship game and by big-time postseason road wins over the likes of Hastings and Midland over the past two seasons. Head coach Jason Weides has gradually led the Bulldogs up the conference standings. Now, he has perhaps his deepest, most seasoned and most talented roster yet.
“Before, we were a competitive team, but we were the underdog in many games,” Weides said. “Now I think we’re probably not going under the radar for most teams. We’re certainly going to get the best of every team now. They see us as a serious competitor. Around the GPAC the teams we play, they know they’re in for a tough game. They know they’re going to have to play their best to get a result. They know we’re capable of doing a lot of good things.”
On paper, last season may have looked like a rebuilding scenario with 13 seniors having departed from the 2015 GPAC tournament championship team. But the 2016 group proved this program has staying power, quickly reloading with a revamped backline. Weides and his staff brought in impact transfers such as defenders Luke Batters and Florian Caraballo and debuted highly touted forward Marcelo Hernandez.
There are fewer question marks facing the program than there were this time one year ago. Other than Carlos Acosta and goalkeeper Mark Horsburgh, the key pieces are back in place. A big senior class includes captains Micah Lehenbauer and Lewis Rathbone, two starters with extensive experience.
Says Lehenbauer, a second team All-GPAC choice in 2016, “I think it was a bit of a surprise last year knowing that after my sophomore year we lost about 13 seniors. We weren’t really sure how we would adjust to all that. We were able to adjust and had an even better season than my sophomore year. We’re not too worried about the new squad coming in or the people that left. We lost good players like Carlos Acosta and Mark Horsburgh, but I think we have players coming in and players that maybe didn’t get as many minutes as they might get this season that will really be able to step up.”
The Concordia uprising that has occurred the past two seasons has been brought about by balanced teams in terms of goal scoring and defending. Though often limited by injury last year, Hernandez managed to equal Lehenbauer for a team high eight goals. A native of Cordoba, Spain, Caraballo immediately became one of the league’s top defenders, earning first team All-GPAC accolades.
The roster is teeming with seniors, but Weides also welcomes in a large group of freshmen, many of which he expects to impact this year’s squad.
“Top to bottom it’s probably one of the most talented and deepest teams we’ve had,” Weides said. “We’ve kind of felt that year to year as we’ve been progressing as a program. It’s similar to 2015 in that we have a big senior class. We actually have a big freshman class as well. Those are the two biggest classes within our team this year. I think it will be a good mix.”
There are many other notable returners to mention such as defender Angel Alvarez, forwards Toby Down and Carlos Ferrer, defender Aries Fung and forward Matthew Ho. Fung joined Rathbone with honorable mention all-conference accolades. Weides also made mention of the spring improvement of junior defender Derek Eitzmann.
Many eyes will be placed upon the goalkeeper position, a spot held down for two years by Horsburgh, one of the heroes of the 2015 run to the national tournament. Weides and Bulldog teammates feel good about Jack Bennett, who has waited in the wings behind Horsburgh. Bennett is the frontrunner in goal as part of a roster that includes two additional keepers.
“Jack has been working hard the last couple years,” Weides said. “He’s done well to really improve. This last year we started to see big strides forward for Jack. He really just became a lot more consistent. He’s ready to step up at that position. We’ve got a couple newcomers that are going to help us as well.”
Beyond settling on a goalkeeper, Concordia wants to build upon a solid regular season in 2016, but things can always get better. There were a series of nonconference defeats that the Bulldogs felt like could have gone the other way. They also weren’t particularly thrilled with a 2-1 tough-luck loss at Dakota Wesleyan (missed the GPAC postseason) in the final outing of the regular season.
Lehenbauer says this year’s team wants to play quicker and make faster decisions on the fly. Those were focuses during a spring season that featured some degree of experimentation with players moving around the field. Weides will continue tinkering throughout preseason as he lands on the right combinations and formations. No matter how it shakes out, Lehenbauer and company have their eyes on reliving the postseason thrills they’ve grown accustomed to.
“It’s been so much fun. It’s really indescribable,” Lehenbauer said. “What I’ve really been thinking about is how we’ve been a team of firsts. It makes me really excited and motivated to see what our next first is going to be this season. To know that we’ve been in back-to-back GPAC championships, we know that this one is not going to come easy just like the last two. It puts a target on our back, but I’m super excited.”
This may be the best team Weides has constructed, but the pursuit of another championship will be a challenging endeavor.
“I wish it were that easy that we could just put it on the calendar and say that we’re going to be there (in the championship game),” Weides said. “We have a long road. It will be an exciting and fun road to strive to get there. We’ll do everything in our power to get back there.”
The 2017 season will officially get underway on Saturday, Aug. 26 when Sterling College (Kan.) visits Bulldog Stadium. Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m. CT.