For the first time in the Ryan Jorden era, the Lancers will enter a season as the hunted as the defending Pacific West Conference Champions will have a target on its collective back.
"I'd like to think we had a target last year as everyone gave us their best shot," said Jorden, who is 44-25-8 in four seasons, putting the Lancers' program on the map. "But we don't worry about what others are doing. We just want to get to the best level we can get to, play the best we are capable of becoming and be more mature to handle situations where we came up short last year."
Even still, the notion that the Lancers even have a target is something that seemed so far away before Jorden's arrival in 2008. Now, Jorden has taken the Lancers to the postseason all four years at the helm and has them in a position to compete for a conference title and potentially a national title each and every year.
And this year should be no different.
Coming off an all-time program-best 17-5-1 season, which included both a PacWest and NCCAA National Championship, the Lancers return 17 players and nine starters from last year.
The two starters, though, are big losses as Jorden must find a way to replace All-PacWest first team selection and team leading goal scorer Osvaldo Bastida (11 goals, 4 assists, 26 points) as well as captain and NCCAA National Tournament Most Outstanding Player Willie Rupert, who never missed a start in four seasons in the Lancers' defense.
Jorden will look to a talented group of eight newcomers to fill that void, and if one or two of them step up, the Lancers could be in for another big year.
After starting 20 games last year, junior Joey Pacheco (0.71 GAA, 8 shutouts), the PacWest Goalkeeper of the Year, returns as the likely starter in goal for the Lancers. However, Pacheco will be pushed by sophomore Mitchell Carter (0.86 GAA), who started two of his four appearances last year as well as freshman Ian Clark (Tacoma, Wash./Stadium HS).
"We have good experience in goal and have added more depth with the addition of Ian," said Jorden. "I think it's ideal to have three keepers especially if you take an injury at some point in the season. Hopefully, these three will continue to push each other as the season progresses."
Experience is the word of the day for the Lancers' back line. Three-fourths of the back line returns in 2012 and all three of them have earned postseason honors in previous years. Not bad for a group that set a program-record for goals against average (0.74), breaking the record they set in 2010.
The outside tandem of seniors Carlos Figueroa (17 starts) and Tyler Aagard (23 starts, 2 goals) gives the Lancers big, athletic defenders on the outside, but also an extra set of attackers if the situation arises. Toss in senior Brian Ahn (NCCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Defender), who started all 23 games in the middle, and the Lancers have one of the most experienced and decorated trio of backs in the PacWest.
There are a handful of backs looking to step into Rupert's vacated spot alongside Ahn as well as push for time in other spots in the back line when the opportunities arise. Sophomore Kyle Haecker started five of his 15 appearances last year, while senior Chase Magdaleno and sophomores Rob White and Jacob Zalesky will also put up a fight for time.
Then there's redshirt freshman Thomas Carter, a transfer from NCAA Division I Oral Roberts, who is also looking to crack the lineup. Carter, a local product from Calvary Chapel-Murrieta, has shown well in training camp and in early preseason exhibitions and scrimmages. Freshman Braedan Pilcher (Vacaville Christian HS) is the other newcomer with a bright future in the program.
"We have a ton of depth in the back, but we also have some pretty big time experience," said Jorden. "Hopefully the returnees will be more mature and the added players will make the competition for time all the better. One of the reasons we've been so good defensively is because we've been able to keep the ball more and giving the opponents less chances. Less chances results in fewer goals."
While the defenders have a ton of experience, there may be no deeper position than in the midfield. The five returning midfielders combined for 114 games, 91 starts, 15 goals and 27 assists last year. Then, there are four talented newcomers who have come into the mix, pushing for time and giving Jorden a seemingly endless supply of options.
All-PacWest second team selection Alex Anderson (23 starts, 3 goals, 7 assists) and Cole Schmidt (21 starts, 1 goal, 5 assists) return in the middle of the park. They are joined on the outside by Marc Hope (23 starts, 5 goals, 7 assists), who earned All-PacWest second team honors, Jonathan Garcia (16 starts, 1 goal, 5 assists) and Jonathan Fausto (9 starts, 4 goals, 3 assists).
Transfer Paul Oliver (Oral Roberts) headlines the list of newcomers. Oliver started 16 games last year as a freshman at NCAA Division I Oral Roberts, scoring twice and assisting on two others as a defender. He moves to the midfield this year.
Joining Oliver are freshmen Dominic Escalera (La Sierra HS), Chris Gaitan (Great Oak HS) and Josh Robinson (Maranatha HS). Each of them brings strong credentials and not only will make a strong case for time in the deep and talented midfield but also make the future of the Lancer midfield bright.
"Collectively, this might be our best group," said Jorden. "There is depth, experience and athleticism across the board. All of the new guys can factor into the rotation if they're willing to put the work in. This is a dynamic and dangerous group."
Perhaps the biggest question mark is the Lancers' offense. With the loss of All-PacWest first team pick Bastida, the Lancers are going to have to find a way to make up for his offensive production, which included 11 goals and four assists.
They can start at a good place on the right foot of sophomore Michael Salazar, the reigning PacWest Freshman of the Year. Despite missing three games last year, Salazar still scored 11 goals and assisted on six others for a team best 28 points. He will have to shoulder the load in 2012 while also getting help from senior Tyler Garrison (18 starts, 1 goal, 3 assists).
"Hopefully, we can fill the void from within the team, but we just won't know until we start playing games," said Jorden. "We will have to pick up some of that production from the midfield as well, but that group has proven to be capable so that should help us going forward."
The Lancers should be able to get a gauge right away as the non-conference gauntlet begins tomorrow at UC San Diego. All four non-conference opponents had winning records and combined to go 60-21-4 a season ago. Three of them made the second round of their respective national tournaments and one of them (Fort Lewis) won a national championship.
At least from the outset, Jorden and the Lancers will find out immediately if they can handle the pressure of wearing the target, and if nothing else will be aptly prepared for the PacWest slate and a chance to defend their title.
"I think from top to bottom we are a better team," said Jorden. "We lost two important pieces in Willie and Ozzie, but we have increased our quality, depth and athleticism from last year. There are a lot of guys in the mix to play this year, and guys will get their chances. If we can find ways to get leadership and have some stability, then hopefully we can take the next step forward."