CHICAGO – Three straight trips to the NCAA Division III national tournament was an unprecedented feat for the University of Chicago men's soccer team.
The Maroons, though, want more: in the form of a national championship.
Ranked No. 1 in the country late last season before falling in an upset in the NCAA Round of 16, UChicago returns not only nine of its 11 starters, but a balance of speed, offensive prowess and a stingy back line.
Couple those skills with the motivation that comes from an early exit in last season's postseason run, and this year's squad is primed for redemption.
"The biggest thing established last year was that this group loves competing and playing together," fifth-year head coach Mike Babst said. "Whether we won it all last year or came up a little short, we created a pretty high standard for how we push each other and prepare for the next game.
"The motivation and excitement for us is that we've been waiting nine months to be able to get out there and do it again."
In 2016, the Maroons captured their fourth University Athletic Association championship and third-straight NCAA bid after finishing the conference season with a 5-0-2 record. In the postseason, UChicago topped Westminster (Mo.) in the second round (after earning a first-round bye as the No. 1 overall seed), before losing for the first time all season to the University of Redlands, 3-2, in the Round of 16.
With a 17-1-2 overall mark, UChicago finished as the No. 9 team in the final NSCAA poll, the same spot the Maroons were voted in the 2017 United Soccer Coaches (formerly NSCAA) Preseason Poll this August.
Leading the way for the offense is junior forward Max Lopez, who earned NSCAA First-Team All-American honors in 2016 after tying the single-season school record for assists (12) and adding a team-high 13 goals and 38 points. With only the loss of one of the starting front four to graduation, teammates Dayo Adeosun (seven goals, five assists) and Matthew Koh (five goals, six assists) also return to lead a talented offensive unit that combined for 52 goals a year ago.
While the graduation of forward Brenton Desai (nine goals, four assists) will be tough to replace, UChicago also brings back Andre Abedian (four goals, two assists) and David McBroom (two goals, three assists) to help bolster the attack. Seven incoming freshmen will also battle to fill key roles across both offense and defense.
In the midfield, junior NSCAA Second-Team All-American Nicco Capotosto (six assists) is back to help lead the defense, as he helped aid a back-line unit that allowed only eight goals in 2016. Others noticed too: Capotosto was voted the University Athletic Association's Most Valuable Player for the first time in UChicago men's soccer history. Helping secure one of the best defenses in the nation – the Maroons' 0.39 team goals against average led all of NCAA Division III – are returning defenders Sam Drablos (four goals, two assists), Josh Scofield (13 starts), Stacey Reimann (14 starts), and Nate Johnson (14 starts).
"This should be a very balanced attack," Babst said. "Outside of Brenton (Desai), our front four was very young last year, and now having a full year to play together, I think we should be more dangerous in how those players interact.
"...This team has more depth and competition than any team I have ever coached, and that has to continue to be the force that drives us every day."
Not to be forgotten is the role that senior goalkeeper and four-year starter Hill Bonin (0.40 goals against average, 13 shutouts) will play. Bonin already owns the program record for career shutouts (25) and was named a NSCAA Third-Team All-American in 2016. He joins fellow classmates Gary Huang, Reimann and Abedian who have one last chance to make UChicago history.
"We have a group of four seniors who have played key roles in big games, and raised the standard for the program every year," Babst said. "They will bring urgency to everything we do because they are determined for this year to be their best."
UChicago, ranked No. 9 in the United Soccer Coaches Preseason Poll, opens the 2017 campaign Sept. 1 with a home non-conference contest against Whitworth starting at 4 p.m. CT. The Maroons host two more contests – against Knox (Sept. 4) and St. Norbert (Sept. 8) – before kicking off a stretch that includes five of seven on the road. UAA play begins Sept. 30 at Rochester (N.Y.), with the latter part of the 18-game schedule featuring five of seven contests at home.
Based on the preseason poll, the Maroons will take on four ranked opponents in Carthage (No. 22, Sept. 9), Benedictine (No. 16, Sept. 27), Carnegie Mellon (No. 20, Oct. 13), and Brandeis (No. 4, Oct. 29).
"We certainly know where we want our season to end, but this is just the start of the journey," Babst said. "The minute preseason starts we are going to see how much progress we can make... we are trying to make bigger strides game to game and out-prepare the next team for the next (18) games.
"And when November comes, we hope to have a team that can do it six more times."