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Tuesday, 19 August 2014 00:00

Young, Tested Group to Lead No. 8 BU

Julian Sansano and the Wildcats open up the season this Friday at 2:30 p.m. against Missouri Baptist Julian Sansano and the Wildcats open up the season this Friday at 2:30 p.m. against Missouri Baptist

BALDWIN CITY, Kan. – Under Baker University Hall of Fame coach Nate Houser the men's soccer program has become a national power within the NAIA and has done so with a cast of players from experienced squads to teams with young leadership. The 2014 team hopes to return to national prominence.

The 2011 squad advanced to the NAIA national semifinals with a roster full of experienced juniors and seniors and the 2012 cast had 11 seniors.

In 2013 Baker graduated six players, including All-American goalkeeper Matt Bickley and All-American defender Andy Griffin along with starters Ben Coyle, Richard Klein, Cameron Zimmerman and Shemaiah Davis.

That squad captured a HAAC regular-season championship and HAAC tournament championship before appearing in the NAIA National Championship Final Site in Montgomery, Ala., finishing the year ranked No. 9 in the country.

Preston Phillips is the lone senior on the 2014 squad which comes in ranked No. 8 in the NAIA Preseason Coaches' Top 25 poll. The forward they call 'Pip' is the younger brother of Baker head women's soccer coach Davy Phillips and scored two goals last year.

Coach Houser has the experience to handle a roster with one senior.

"You have to force some guys to step up and lead when you have just one senior," said Houser. "We do some exercises and some leadership qualities come out in guys. We see who we can lean on. In the spring we have found those guys."

Sophomores Spencer Atkin and Kyle Young and juniors Andrew Miller and Amer Didic will be main contributors on the back line for the Wildcat defense. Newcomer Greg Baron, of Dublin, Ireland, also stepped up big in spring practice and returner Julian Sansano will have a large role as a defensive midfielder.

Offensively, Keaton Anchors had a great spring and Houser sees a cross between former goal scorers Odaine Sinclair and Richard Klein in the sophomore. He also likes the potential that junior Robert Hoeven has in the offensive side of the midfield.

Houser also hopes that sophomores Matt Hamm and Jordan Thacker will pull defenses apart offensively and fellow sophomore Cody Sliva will be a force in the midfield. Houser also likes what he has seen in freshman Blake Levine who he expects could be a dangerous player.

The goalkeeper's spot is an intriguing position for Baker in 2014. The starting spot will be a battle between sophomores Ryan Emme and Ryan Akin and freshmen Patrick Rydberg and Nick Riggle. All four enter 2014 with little to no collegiate experience. Emme and Akin in 2013 sat behind Bickley, who played in goal for the 'Cats the last four seasons and was a NAIA All-American in 2011.

Coach Houser will also be bringing on eight-year MLS veteran and current Sporting KC goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum to serve as the teams goalkeeper's coach to help develop the four keepers on the squad.

This year will mark a change for Houser. He will be solely the head coach of the men's soccer program after serving as both the head men's and women's soccer coach since 2008.

The 1994 Baker alum has been around the Wildcat soccer program for 20 years and is excited for this new chapter in his time at his alma mater.

"I always used to sort of pace of myself through practice and on game days in the past to make sure both programs were run at the highest level," said Houser. "This will be a new challenge with just the men's team. I felt a new energy in the spring with just running practice for the men.

"I think it was refreshing. I'm going to miss the girls. Seeing them practice and play in the spring I'm going to miss it. But I see Davy's energy and I know it will be a step forward for everyone."

The Wildcats will open up 2014 with an incredible challenge of facing four of the past six NAIA men's soccer national championship teams as they take on Lindsey Wilson (Ky.), the 2009 and 2011 national champions, on Aug. 30 at Lindsey Wilson, then the next day they take on Bethel (Tenn.), the 2008 national champion, on Aug. 31 also at Lindsey Wilson. On Sept. 13 at North Park in Baldwin City, Baker will take on Hastings (Neb.), the 2010 national champion.

"We're starting off with some pretty tough teams," said Houser. "With some national champion teams on the docket, we schedule these types of teams in an effort to judge ourselves and see what we can get better at.

"If they ball bounces our way, I think we will be in a great spot. You need to go see the standard in NAIA men's soccer. Lindsey Wilson is a standard, so is Ashford and Hastings."

Other notable home matches will be a rematch of the NAIA Round of 16 from last year when they face Ashford (Iowa) on Saturday, Aug. 23 at Liston Stadium. Ashford defeated Baker 3-2 in double-overtime to end the 'Cats 2013 season in Montgomery, Ala.

They will host 2013 American Midwest Conference (AMC) champion Park University (Mo.) on Wednesday, Sept. 10 at Liston Stadium and rival Ottawa (Kan.) comes to town on Sept. 24.

Baker will host HAAC opponents Culver-Stockton on Oct. 11, MidAmerica Nazarene on Oct. 14, Missouri Valley on Oct. 29 and will have senior night on Nov. 1 when they host Central Methodist.

"It's pretty incredible that we have four of the best 16 teams in the country in the HAAC year after year," said Houser. "We play those high intensity games in the non-conference just to get ready for the HAAC. We have to go to BC and Graceland this year, which are tough places to play."

Baker opens up the 2014 season this Friday, Aug. 22 at 2:30 p.m. against Missouri Baptist. Live stats and live video will be available at www.bakerwildcats.com.

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