Noah Fleischman, Sports Editor
A year ago, men’s soccer shocked everyone by winning the Atlantic 10 regular season title for the first time in program history after graduating seven starters from the year before.
Of the seven seniors that left the team, five of them went on to play in the professional ranks. After losing a majority of the starting 11, coach Dave Giffard had to rebuild and restart what he called “a three year cycle.”
“It was a big reload, rebuild situation a year ago, and in the first year of the cycle we were able to win the regular season title for the first time,” Giffard said. “We were probably one game out of an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament again, and I thought it was a pretty successful first go around.”
The Rams took the regular season title going 6-1-1 in A-10 play, only falling to Dayton on the road in a tight 1-0 loss. During the historic regular season, the Rams defeated No. 20 Old Dominion at home 4-0 and fell in overtime to eventual NCAA runner-up Akron 4-3 in Richmond.
As the Rams head into the second year of the cycle, Giffard said more players know what it takes to win at the college level.
“I think the difference we see in training every day and in preparations there’s just more guys that know and understand what it takes,” Giffard said. “There’s more guys that know what they bring to the table and know what they can do at this level.”
The Rams return a core of their starters from a year ago, but they did lose several standout players, including many who signed pro contracts. Midfielder Siad Haji was selected No. 2 overall in the MLS Draft by the San Jose Earthquakes; goalkeeper Joe Rice and midfielder Eli Lockaby signed with the Richmond Kickers; and midfielder Peter Pearson inked a deal with Tormenta FC.
“That happens every year, good quality guys move on,” Giffard said. “You really don’t look at it in terms of you’re not just going to plug in a guy to do what that guy did. The group typically evolves and looks a little bit different and it plays to the strengths and the qualities of the dominant players that are ready to step into those roles.”
The Rams added several new faces to the roster including goalkeeper Alex Fetterly, who transferred from New Mexico after his freshman season.
“To add another guy who’s ready to play college games and who’s already proven to do that at a good level, I think that’s really helpful,” Giffard said. “Mario [Sequeira] and Alex are both really intrinsically motivated people, but it’s always nice when the guy next to you is getting his reps in is very strong and is pushing you maybe that little extra 5% more.”
Fetterly, who brings Division I experience, started four games last season for the Lobos. He made 16 saves last season for New Mexico, allowing only three goals.
Sequeira appeared in all 18 games last season for the Rams, recording 59 saves, allowing 17 goals and posted a 9-6-2 record in the net.
The Rams also added freshman midfielder Celio Pompeu and redshirt-sophomore midfielder Fiorre Mane to bolster the middle for the black and gold. Junior defender Toranosuke Abe, a transfer from Barton Community College, will help fill in the Rams back line this season.
“Those guys are going to be new faces to the team for the fans,” Giffard said. “I think there’s a lot of excitement with them in midfield.”
Redshirt-junior forward Biska Biyombo returns this season after only playing in the first four games due to injury. The Congo native was granted a medical redshirt due to his injury.
This season, the Rams will play another competitive schedule; last year, they squared off with four NCAA Tournament teams.
“I think part of it is we’ve been in the NCAA Tournament at-large three separate times, and you don’t get in the tournament by not playing against the best competition, especially from a league like ours,” Giffard said.
The Rams earned at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament in 2012, 2013 and 2017. The black and gold were the overall No. 12 seed in 2012, making it to the second round.
Notably, the black and gold will travel to Akron, Ohio, to face the Zips for the second year in a row. Akron fell in the National Championship game last season to Maryland.
“We just try to go play the best teams we can. I think it gives us opportunities for resume-boosting wins to help us with an at-large and help us with our seeding,” Giffard said. “I think it’s important to be prepared so it’s not the first time you played other top quality opponents.”
This season, the Rams were voted No. 1 in the A-10 Preseason poll, receiving eight first place votes.
Men’s soccer opens the season against Middle Tennessee State Aug. 30 at Sports Backers Stadium at 7 p.m.