The University of Maine-Fort Kent men’s soccer team has had a taste of the NAIA National Tournament the past two seasons.
The Bengals even advanced to the Elite Eight last year where they lost to Rio Grande College (Ohio) 4-0.
They finished at 20-1-2, including wins over Northwood (Fla.) and Notre Dame (Ohio) in the national tournament. They won both games in penalty kicks.
So with all of their starters back to go with some talented freshmen and a current national ranking of eighth in the nation, the expectations are understandably high.
“Winning the national championship is a realistic goal,” said junior midfielder Luka Odak. “The chemistry is excellent, we have 11 starters back and we already know what to expect from the national tournament.”
“It’s a possibility. We’re certainly hoping [for it],” said cautiously optimistic head coach Bill Ashby.
The Bengals opened their season with a 4-0 win over Husson University on Tuesday, extending their regular season winning streak to 38 games.
The Bengals have won three straight Sunrise Conference championships and would have to be odds-on favorites to repeat.
“We feel we should be better than last year,” said sophomore striker Keith Williams II, who led UMFK in scoring last year with 29 goals and 15 assists.
UM-Fort Kent scored 125 goals in 23 games.
“They are better than they were last year,” said Husson University senior back Billy Shannon. “They’ll be the best team we play all season. They’re very, very good. They’re really fast up front.”
Ashby said they play a technically high-tempo game with a lot of one-touch passes and that style of play “makes us look fast.”
Williams, an honorable mention NAIA All-American last year, is joined up front by junior Andre Anderson (26 goals, 19 assists), who was a second team All-American.
“They’re two very good strikers and they complement each other very, very well,” said Ashby.
Junior Henley Comrie (5 & 1) and Presque Isle freshman Russ Mortland will supply depth up front.
Two-time honorable mention All-American Emlyn Jacoby (8 & 14) will headline the potent midfield and is a creative and dangerous attacker while also organizing the defense.
Odak (6 & 6), Jermaine West (9 & 7) and Jarryd Phillips (10 & 10) will join Jacoby in the midfield. Ashby will also rotate in Walford Stewart (8 & 13) and Dwayne Smith (8 & 10). Smith is currently nursing an ankle injury.
The imposing back line consists of veterans Damion Stone (4 & 3), and Barrington Blake (0 & 3) in the middle with Oniqueky Samuels (2 & 2) and Spencer Jacoby (0 & 4) on the flanks. Spencer Jacoby is Emlyn’s brother. Stone was an All-American honorable mention a year ago.
Freshman Francois Nadeau will see duty in the back.
Two-time honorable mention All-American Giovanni Sinclair returns in goal. He posted a .47 goals-against average and an .810 save percentage last season while allowing only 11 goals.
Phillips said the players not only have more experience now, they also have a better idea of “how each player operates.”
Odak said the Bengals will have more depth this season.
“We only had two or three subs and we have at least four or five this year,” said Odak.
Ashby has beefed up his schedule in an attempt to prepare his team for the post-season.
They will visit Middlebury College (Vt.) on Sept. 13 and will face Berry College (Ga.) on Sept. 18 at Husson University in Bangor.
Middlebury was 15-2-4 and reached the NCAA Division III quarterfinals a year ago after winning the national championship in 2007.
Berry was 12-7-1 in NAIA play, losing 1-0 to Lee (Tenn.) in the Southern States Athletic Conference Tournament championship game. Berry had earlier beaten eventual NAIA national champion Bethel (Tenn.) 6-2. Berry was an NAIA semifinalist in 2003 and 2004.