By BRIAN LESTER
Perhaps this is the year the University of Findlay men’s soccer team turns the tide on its fortune.
With all-Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference selections Mark Sleasman and Ryan Poyle both back in the fold, the Oilers are ready to take a step forward and secure their first winning season since 2005.
“Right now, I’m excited with where we are as a team,” said UF head coach Andy Smyth, who is entering his 26th season as the head coach. “We definitely have more offensive talent. Last year, we created a lot of chances but couldn’t put them away. This year, I think we can finish chances.”
Sleasman, a former Findlay High School standout, was a second-team all-GLIAC pick a year ago. He scored five goals and dished out five assists.
Poyle earned first-team honors as he scored seven goals and tallied five assists. The junior forwards are expected to lead the way for an offense that scored only 23 goals.
“They are a year older and a year wiser,” Smyth said. ‘We’re looking for those two to double their goal tally. We also have a lot of guys coming in who can score. Our goal scoring should improve a lot this year.”
Senior midfielder Cullen Baron, who finished with three goals and an assist, will also help the Oilers’ cause on offense as they look to improve on a 5-11-1 record. UF was 3-11 in the GLIAC.
“The conversion rate is the key,” Smyth said. “We’ve created a lot of chances the last couple of years but couldn’t convert at a high percentage. Our hope is to score more goals than the other team. We aren’t sure where we will be defensively, but we are counting a lot on our offense.”
UF gave up 42 goals as a team last season, and often, they were goals that should have never been scored.
“We had a lot of games where we let in soft goals,” Smyth said. “There are going to be times where other teams are going to score, but if we are going to concede goals, the other team needs to earn them. That is the biggest improvement we need to make defensively.”
Sophomore Joe McClanahan is the returning goalie for the Oilers. He is coming off a year where he started 16 games and allowed 28 goals. McClanahan tallied 79 saves. He will be pushed in practice by freshman Ben Richter, an all-state standout from Michigan.
“The only thing Ben lacks is experience,” Smyth said. “In terms of talent, he and Joe are similar. It’s a matter of how quickly he adjusts to the college game. I can see those two fighting for playing time all year. It’s exciting to see the competition.”
Running the defense on the field will be junior defender Jared Lyon, who also scored twice last season. Lyon is expected to lead the way on a defense that will be short on experience.
“He is a two-year starter and we expect him to really step up,” Smyth said. “He has to take charge back there and make the defense his own, instilling a sense of pride back there.”
The Oilers won’t have the luxury of easing into the 2014 schedule. They open with Quincy at home on Sept. 5 and host Tiffin on Sept. 12 in the league opener. QU was 15-5 last year while TU played in the NCAA tournament.
A battle against No. 19 Ohio Dominican, the defending league tourney champion and an NCAA tourney qualifier, awaits the Oilers on Sept. 21. UF battles 16th-ranked Notre Dame (Ohio) on Sept. 23. Last season, UF defeated NDC 2-1. The Falcons were ranked No. 4 at the time.
Only four teams make the GLIAC tourney and the Oilers know there is little room for error if they are going to be a contender.
“We have to start strong and be at our best right out of the gate,” Smyth said. “There are no easy games. We have to set the tone right away.”
Yet, the Oilers are confident they can be competitive and have a chance at playing in the postseason.
“The expectation is that we are going to get in,” Smyth said. “Our philosophy is why not us? The difference between the top and bottom isn’t huge. It’s just a matter of being consistent and doing the little things right.”