CHICAGO – After completing perhaps the most accomplished season in history a year ago, the University of Chicago men's soccer team graduated a senior class that helped build a new legacy en route to the program's second-ever NCAA Final Four appearance.
The school's first-ever team championship proved to be just out of reach, but this year's senior class -- and bevy of experienced returners – is hoping to finish what they started.
"We have a team that really loves playing together, so if anything, we have a feeling that we are continuing business from last year," sixth-year Head Coach Mike Babst said. "We grew a lot as a team and a program last fall, and there is so much excitement to get out and start training again.
"We are determined to have another special season, and I think the experiences of past seasons have given our players an understanding of what it takes to make that happen."
2017 IN REVIEW
The Maroons were a team on a mission in 2017. UChicago won its first 11 games of the season to earn the nation's No. 1 ranking in NCAA Division III and mark its stamp as a national title contender. UChicago would lose just two contests all season before heading into the NCAA Tournament with a University Athletic Association title under its belt, ranked No. 7 and named a regional and later sectional, host.
UChicago dominated en route to the semifinals, topping its first three NCAA opponents by two goals or more, including a 2-0 shutout over then top-ranked Calvin. It took a gritty win in the penalty kick round to advance past Emory before the Maroons were faced with a rematch of one of their two losses of the year, No. 4 North Park.
The Maroons scored what appeared the game-winner late in the game's second half, but an off-sides call nullified the score and the back-and-forth contest finished regulation and both overtime periods scoreless. North Park would eventually come away with a 7-6 win in the PK round to end UChicago's historic run, which marked just the first time since 1996 and second time ever the squad reached the Final Four.
While the senior class of Stacey Reimann (United Soccer Coaches Second-Team All-Region), Hill Bonin (the program's career leader in shutouts, goals against average, and goalkeeper minutes), Andre Abedian (all-University Athletic Association Second-Team) and Gary Huang leave some gaps to fill, the Maroons return in 2018 with a loaded arsenal.
The senior class in particular, is downright intimidating, to say the least.
"Our five seniors have been so important to our program since they got here in 2015," Babst said. "They are ready to lead, and I know this team will be a reflection of them.
"It makes it pretty easy from a coaching perspective when some of your most effective players are also the most humble and hard-working teammates. Ultimately, it gives them so much credibility for when they need the team to be bought into their ideas."
Leading the five fourth-years is D3Soccer.com's 2017 Forward of the Year, Max Lopez. As a junior, Lopez netted 19 goals – eight of those game-winners – and four assists to net 42 points (the second most in UChicago single-season history). A two-time First-Team All-American for both D3Soccer.com and USC, Lopez was also tabbed the 2017 UAA Most Valuable Player. Classmate Matthew Koh joins Lopez up front as perhaps one of the fastest players in the nation. The speedy forward netted 10 goals and 11 assists (31 points) in 2017 to earn First-Team D3Soccer.com All-American honors.
Helping distribute to Lopez and Koh is the UAA's 2016 MVP, senior midfielder Nicco Capotosto. A two-time All-American, Capotosto earned Third-Team All-American honors in 2017 and First-Team All-Region honors.
Babst maintains his team's biggest strength is its' mindset.
"Our strength is mentality," he said. "This is a group that is able to push each other to such a high level every day – we had practices out in the cold and early in the morning this past spring where the urgency of the players felt like we were getting ready for a tournament game.
"The challenge is to be able to maintain that through all the obstacles this season throws at us."
Bolstering a Maroons' offensive attack that scored 59 goals last season is D3Soccer.com Second-Team All-American forward Dayo Adeosun. The junior scored three goals and delivered a program-record 15 assists in 2017, a mark that ranked third in all of NCAA Division III. Sophomores Carter Romero (the UAA Rookie of the Year, six goals, three assists) and Bryce Millington (21 games, two goals, one assist), add experience up front.
MIDFIELD & DEFENSE
With Capotosto leading the way, juniors Gary Zhao (20 games, four starts, three goals) and Renato Corghi (nine games, one start) add experience in the middle, joining sophomores Ben Brandt (12 games, two goals, assist) and Kevin Quigg (seven games) in the Maroons' depth.
Reimann was a mainstay on the back line, so returners Nate Johnson (20 starts, two assists), Sam Drablos (11 starts, three goals), Panos Voulgaris (15 games), Scott Lich (17 starts, four assists), Isaiah Holtquist (16 starts, one goal, assist) and Sam Barovick (nine games) will look to fill the void, as all have valuable experience on the Final Four squad.
In goal, there's no doubt replacing Hill Bonin – who finished his career with 6,668 minutes in goal and the career record for shutouts with 32 – will be tough to replace. The good news is sophomore Aaron Katsimpalis proved his skill as the last line of defense in five starts in 2017 in Bonin's absence after an injury – by compiling a perfect 5-0 record with three shutouts, 16 saves, and a 0.56 goals against average.
Despite their 20 returners, 10 starters and 15 letter winners, the Maroons still bring a loaded first-year class of seven.
There are four midfielders: Vicente Mateus (Lisbon, Portgual), Peyton Lane (New York, N.Y.), Kyle Ruark (Kansas City, Mo.) and Jorge Branco (Sao Paulo, Brazil); two defenders: Brady Rider (Simpsonville, S.C.) and Jonah Moore (Pittsburgh, Pa.) and one keeper: Calvin Walters (West Lafayette, Ind.) in the mix of rookies hoping to make their own impact in 2018.
"Our teams have always been energized by a new wave of competition coming into the roster, and our incoming first-years will no doubt do that right away," Babst said.
"This will be the most competitive roster we have ever had. The players who played smaller roles last season are a very determined group, and they have made big strides over the last nine months. There is such a great internal competition at every layer of this squad that really demands every player keeps seeking ways to move forward."
After a tough road to the NCAA Final Four, the 2018 slate certainly doesn't bode any easier for the Maroons.
UChicago opens their slate on the road in Texas, taking on Southwestern Aug. 31 and then No. 17 Trinity Sept. 2. Two more road games – including a familiar foe in No. 2 North Park Sept. 8 – before the Maroons host their home opener against Wheaton Sept. 12.
The Maroons host American Rivers Conference favorite Loras Sept. 16 and travel to No. 7 Calvin (Sept.) before matches against preseason-ranked opponents in No. 9 Rochester (UAA opener at home, Sept. 29), at No. 8 Emory (Oct. 6) and against No. 4 Brandeis (Oct. 28). The UAA league finale is set at rival Washington-St. Louis Nov. 3.
"We play the schedule we do so that we can learn as much about ourselves as possible," Babst said. "The opening month is going to ask a lot of the entire squad, and the goal is to win while we learn. Ultimately, we will have a very honest look at where we need to improve to become the best possible version of ourselves come November."