PASADENA, Calif. (Aug. 28, 2015) – Despite the graduation of just two regulars, the Caltech men's soccer team feels like a brand-new squad thanks to a renewed enthusiasm as new head coach Phil Murray prepares to lead the Beavers into their first game at San Diego Christian College on Saturday, Aug. 29.
"The team sees this as an opportunity to start anew," Murray said. "It is good for them to be able to draw a line between struggles in the past and what will be a bright future. It is a relatively young group, but we have some real leadership and enthusiasm for making this a meaningful part of their experience at Caltech. The team is really buoyed by the feeling that we are starting something new and positive, and is committed to the growth and development necessary to help position the program to be successful in the future."
Arriving with seven years of experience at Division I Fairfield University and three at DII Florida Southern College, Murray has introduced a number of new principles that have a mix of experienced veterans and talented freshmen eager to get started.
"This year is about building our foundation, developing the Caltech soccer identity," Murray said. "That will be underpinned with an organized defense that keeps its shape, while we add in those special individual talents and skills at the other end to create and win games."
This year's squad will be led by a trio of captains – seniors Theodore Wilkening (Bowie, Md. / Elen) and Adam Ball (Carol Stream, Ill. / Glenbard North) and junior J.D. Feist (Richardson, Texas / Jesuit College Prep). All three played major roles in the team last season and have quickly gained Murray's complete confidence.
"Our captains are a nice blend who complement each other well," Murray said. "Teo very much leads by example, has the respect of the group and shows a great deal of maturity on and off the field. J.D. is the voice of the team – he ruffles feathers when needed, picks out anyone who isn't performing and gets them going. Adam is right between those two as a consistent, dependable player who puts his head down and simply does a job. As a coaching staff, we've put a lot of responsibility on those three."
Feist will look to build on a 2014 campaign in which he was named Second Team All-SCIAC after leading the conference in saves for the second straight year and stopping a remarkable three of five penalty shots he faced. He has racked up 272 saves over the first two years of his career – a full 75 saves more than any other SCIAC goalkeeper in that span.
Wilkening can be considered a favorite to feature again at the back, although his ability going forward could provide Murray with some options to shuffle the back line if needed. Ball, who leads the team with a whopping 54 appearances, will reprise his role on defense as well, likely alongside junior Schaeffer Reed (Miami, Fla. / Westminster Christian), who started all but one game last year and seemed to improve throughout the season.
Senior Valentin Skoutnev (Houston, Texas / College Park) also returns, having started 16 games last year. One of the fittest player on the squad, Skoutnev has pace going forward and could factor in a number of positions this year. Junior Kevin Gao (Los Alamos, N.M. / Los Alamos) also has the flexibility to play in a number of positions across the midfield and defense, and will be a great utility player for the squad having played further up field last year. His athleticism and toughness make him a perfect fit in a number of positions.
"We have a relatively strong nucleus of defenders," Murray said. "They all have the skills and mindset for it, we are just working on getting more organization and discipline as a unit. Schaeffer is very athletic, has good pace and can link up defense to the attack with good distribution form the back. Valentin is a very dependable player – give him a job, and he'll do it. Kevin can seem quiet and unassuming, but he is tenacious in a defensive role. We are looking to be fitter and understand clearly defined roles so that we can stay organized and expend less energy, allowing us to better manage the flow of the game."
Sophomore Chris Haack (New York, N.Y. / The Browning School) is the only returning point-scorer from the 2014 team, having supplied one assist in just four starts over 18 appearances. Fielded primarily on the wing, he may be tasked with more of a central midfield role under Murray. Also returning after a one-year hiatus is junior Alec Sands (Longwood, Fla. / Trinity Prep), who tied for the team lead with two goals in 2013 and scored once as a rookie.
"Chris can do it all – connect with passes over distance, get out of trouble with good technique, and he certainly has the engine to be a box-to-box player," Murray said. "Alec is a very blinkered center forward, which we need. Every touch on the ball, he is looking to run at you and get off a shot. He is powerful and quick, with that certain degree of selfishness that good forwards have, wanting to get the ball over the goal line at all costs."
A pair of freshmen are in prime position to contribute immediately at key positions. Jack Banaszak (Bethesda, Md. / Bethesda Chevy-Chase) and Tristan Née (Dallas, Texas / R.L. Turner) could step right into the defensive and attacking midfield roles, respectively. Banaszak has a national regional title to his name, along with having qualified for the state championships in wrestling three times – experience which surely will augment his ability to provide a shield for the defense. Née claimed a national title with the U14 Texas Pre-Academy team in 2012 and boasts a wealth of other tournament experience. Rafael Fueyo-Gomez (Houston, Texas) is another freshman who could see extensive minutes early in the year. A two-time Final Four finalist at states, the winger will provide the team some width with his pace up the sideline and eye for supplying crosses into the box.
"Jack and Tristan both have very good backgrounds, playing at high youth levels," Murray said. "They have looked very comfortable already and I expect them to play significant roles, possibly from the outset. Rafa has a great attacking mindset, and is beginning to understand the full scope of the role, getting back and containing attacking defenders and maintaining the team defensive shape. He is very positive and influential on the ball."
The Beavers have added another goalkeeper to the roster this year in freshman Nikhil Gupta (Herndon, Va. / Thomas Jefferson), a Second Team All-Conference selection and state quarterfinalist during high school. A fearless and imposing figure with a knack for the spectacular save, he is set to back up Feist and will prove a very capable replacement if called upon.
"Nikhil is a brilliant foil for J.D., who favors positioning and a more technical style," Murray said. "Nikhil certainly looks the part at well over six feet tall, but he is a bit raw, which is where learning from J.D. will be a tremendous benefit. He's also a good field player which will help with his overall ability to play at the college level."
Senior Monica Li (Boulder, Colo. / Fairview), junior Valerie Pietrasz (Alta Loma, Calif. / Alta Loma) and sophomores Ashwin Hari (Allen, Texas / Plano East Senior) and Federico Presutti will also be in the mix for playing time, along with juniors Dave Luo (Westford, Mass. / Belmont Hills) and Archana Chintalacharuvu (Torrance, Calif. / California Acad. of Math & Science) and sophomore Masaharu Ono.
"Everyone has been working hard in training, pushing each other and trying to improve," Murray said. "In a small squad like ours, the commitment to training is paramount, and I've been very pleased with the group's willingness to learn and get better."
The Beavers celebrated some success last year, including taking their first point in SCIAC play since 2011 in a 1-1 tie with Chapman University. Caltech also allowed over a goal per game less than the prior season and limited opponents to their lowest shot-per-game tally since 2010.
"We are approaching the year with a focus on the continuous cycle of building and improving," Murray said. "We have to be patient and persistent in implementing what we've worked on in training during games, which are the real test. We expect to be increasingly competitive as we evaluate how we translate our work on the training field to games and build something special here."