POTSDAM -- Last season the SUNY Potsdam men's soccer team raced out to a hot start en route to a school record tying nine-win season (9-9-1, 3-6-1 SUNYAC) and its second playoff appearance in three years.
With the progress, fifth-year head coach Adam Parker has raised his expectations and hopes to see his first recruiting class graduate on a high note.
"They will be seniors this year," said Parker. "So this is the first time that I think there's a definite expectation of being in the conference tournament. It's kind of new territory in that we have a little bit of pressure on us now.
The seniors have been through it three times and they've been in the conference tournament twice. So winning a conference tournament game and seeing what happens from there is probably the ultimate goal."
The Bears return 23 players with postseason experience and are joined by five new faces and two transfers. Potsdam will miss the leadership and playmaking ability of second team All-SUNYAC midfielder Alessio Vitale, but will fill the void with a combination of talented players.
As always, leadership is in no short supply with a trio of captains. Senior defender Brian Emery (Brewster, N.Y./Brewster) will don an armband for the second straight year. He will be joined by senior midfielders Conor Engle (Auburn, N.Y./Auburn) and Alex Minsker (Brewster, N.Y./Brewster). Minsker was a third team all-conference pick in 2013. In addition to the captains, Parker said he expects the rest of the senior class to guide Potsdam this year.
"Those three take the brunt of the responsibility, wearing the armbands and making sure the team's ready to go everyday," Parker said. "But the seniors are almost all captains really. Those three just have the title. Between Eduardo (Figueroa) and Travis (Jordan) and Cliff (Bondi), those guys have all played so much and are so experienced that the leadership isn't just on the three captains. It's their last go around at it, so I think their ultimate goal is to be the most successful class over four years in Potsdam history."
To become the winningest class in program history, these Bears (20 wins) need six victories to top the class of 2004, which won 25 games from 2000-03.
This season new assistant Andrew Knight joins Potsdam's coaching staff. He replaces Alex Parker, who helped guide the Bears to three of their most successful seasons. Knight was a four-year starter on defense and a captain for a successful Union College program.
The Chatham, N.Y. native will help increase the Bears recruiting presence in the Capital District. Knight served as the second assistant for SUNY Plattsburgh last season, helping the Cardinals capture the SUNYAC Championship.
Potsdam's seven veteran strikers will be led by three-time All-SUNYAC selection and program all-time scoring leader Eduardo Figuroa (Rochester, N.Y./Dr. Freddie Thomas). Figueroa has amassed 59 points on 24 goals and 11 assists, while playing in all of the Bears' 55 games during his first three seasons.
Fellow all-conference striker Minsker will provide some offensive firepower as well. He scored three goals and recorded five assists in 14 games in 2013. Senior Cliff Bondi (Guilderland, N.Y./Guilderland) saw action in 12 contests last year and has played in 40 games over his career, providing Potsdam with extra speed and physical play off the bench.
Juniors Ben Firlit (South Glens Falls, N.Y./South Glens Falls) and Stephen Auyer (Oswego, N.Y./Oswego) each return for their third seasons. Firlit, who played in all 19 games last year with nine starts, has been impressive during preseason. Auyer scored two goals and added two assists for six points, while playing in all 19 games last season.
Sophomore Brandon Laurin (Chazy, N.Y./Chazy) played in 11 games last year, but broke out late, scoring in the Bears' playoff game at Brockport. His teammates voted him the squad's most improved player last spring. One more familiar face returns after a few years away. Senior Rondely Rawlins (Brooklyn, N.Y./Erasmus) will give the Bears size and power off the bench.
Potsdam's midfield corps consists of a senior, seven juniors, a sophomore and three freshmen. Lone senior Engle and junior Eric Cassidy (Queensbury, N.Y./Queensbury) will continue to serve as the team's holding midfielders.
"They're the big guys that go in there to win balls in the air, win tackles and make things difficult for the other teams," said Parker.
Junior Kyle Cronin (Henrietta, N.Y./Rush-Henrietta) looks to have an expanded role this season. He had a goal and an assist in 15 contests in 2013.
"Kyle's been the most impressive guy in preseason so far," Parker said. "He had a really good spring. He came on after his freshman year and had decent sophomore year, but with Alessio gone, he's probably the guy that has to step up and fill that void. He's a very fit player, a very good passer and very technical. He's also very good at getting everybody involved and we'll need that from him all year."
Junior Tom Benedetto (Queensbury, N.Y./Queensbury) tied for second on the team in scoring last year with four goals and four assists for 12 points, while starting 18 games. An experienced midfielder, Benedetto may also see some time at forward where he can be even more dangerous.
Fellow juniors Johnny Zator (Lido Beach, N.Y./Lido Beach) and Patrick Mylod (Clifton Park, N.Y./Shenendehowa) have looked strong in preseason and hope to carry their momentum into 2014. Zator recorded an assist in eight games last year. Junior Mario Riccardi (Beacon, N.Y./Beacon), who scored a goal while playing in 15 games last season, can play multiple positions, giving Potsdam's lineup more flexibility.
Lone sophomore and Brushton native Loren Traynor (Brushton, N.Y./Brushton-Moira) rounds out the Bears returning midfielders.
Sophomore Matt Parsons (Glens Falls, N.Y./Glens Falls) joins Potsdam after transferring from Keene State where he played lacrosse for the Owls. Parsons has shown his athleticism this preseason and his ability to cover a lot of ground.
Three freshmen will battle for time at midfield. Chris Mayrose (Akron, N.Y./Akron) has midfield experience, but could also see time on defense this year. Bryan Archer (Panama City, Panama/Sheepshead Bay) makes the trek all the way from Panama to join the team and Colton Shaeffer (Goshen, N.Y./Goshen) gives the Bears another option.
Potsdam returns two seniors on defense. Emery started the first 10 games at center back for the Bears last year before an injury cut his season short. Canton native Travis Jordan (Canton, N.Y./Hugh C. Williams) started all 19 games last season and 35 of the last 36 contests.
Juniors Alex Griffith (Rochester, N.Y./Rush-Henrietta), Andrew Doody (Troy, N.Y./Tamarac) and James Turcott (Washingtonville, N.Y./Washingtonville) have extensive experience at outside back and further solidify an already tough defense. Griffith made nine starts in 16 contests, while Doody and Turcott started 11 of 15 and 15 of 19, respectively. Sophomore Chris Schrum (Manhattan, N.Y./Millennium) is expected to be Potsdam's leader at center back this season. Schrum started all 17 games he played as a freshman defender. He still managed to score three goals and add an assist for seven points.
Freshmen Ian Warren (Shenorock, N.Y./Somers) and Matthew Wagner (Bronxville, N.Y./Bronxville) have had strong preseasons and should see time on the field as the year progresses.
The Bears have two newcomers to provide important depth behind returning sophomore Nick Davies (Webster, N.Y./Webster Thomas). Davies was impressive right out of the gate as a freshman. In his first nine games, he posted a 6-3 record, a 0.96 goals-against-average and a .791 save percentage.
However, he suffered a season-ending injury in his 10th game. Davies is joined by Tompkins Cortland Community College junior transfer Jesse Kohler (Minisink Valley, N.Y./Westtown). In two seasons with the Panthers, Kohler posted a 14-3-1 record with seven shutouts. Freshman Keagen Briggs (Peru, N.Y./Seton Catholic) comes to Potsdam from Seton Catholic where he was a three-year captain. At 6-foot-4-inches, Briggs presents a big target in goal.
The Bears open the 2014 season at Plattsburgh's Cardinal Classic. Potsdam will face defending MAC Freedom Conference Champs Misericordia this Friday, August 29 and MASCAC foe Fitchburg State the following afternoon. In addition to local rivals Clarkson, St. Lawrence and Canton, the Bears will play non-conference contests against 2013 Liberty League Finalist Skidmore, Johnson State, Sage and Bard.
This season's SUNYAC schedule presents a unique challenge or opportunity, depending on the perspective. Parker, who played four seasons with the Fredonia Blue Devils, said he's never seen parity in the league like there appears to be this year.
"I've been in or following the conference since 1997," said Parker. "And this is as deep as the SUNYAC has ever been. Any team can beat any team in the conference. Top to bottom this is as strong as I've ever seen the conference."
Potsdam hits the turf against the Cougars at this Friday 3 p.m.