By Brian Paglia
Pete Petersen printed out a copy of the Peach Belt Conference's preseason polls and brought his team together. The Clayton State Lakers men's soccer team was again ranked first in the conference, but Petersen read this out loud, looked at his team and tore the prediction to bits.
He knows that despite all the success of late, the three straight conference regular season championships, the three Division II National Tournament appearances in four years, there's a lot left to discover about this season's team.
That happens when the Lakers lose 17 players from a team that finished 14-3-2 and lost to Lander 1-0 in the Southeast Regional. Clayton State lost nine seniors to graduation, three underclassmen went overseas to play with professional teams, three transfered and two are academically ineligible.
It left Petersen with an expanse of recruiting work he never intended to have and had never experienced leading up to today's season-opener against Nova Southeastern at 7 p.m at Laker Field.
"I had a very stressful year," Petersen said. "With all these new guys, it's going to be interesting."
But he came out of the recuiting journey with 19 newcomers to overhaul the midfield and front line that took the hardest hits in the offseason. Clayton State lost four midfielders and a combined 31 goals up front with the departure of Peach Belt Co-Player of the Year and All-Region selection Tonny Madegwa and Peach Belt Freshman of the Year Jamal Geathers.
So in comes a conglomeration of Division I, Division II, junior college and high school talent to augment the Lakers, highlighted by 2007 NJCAA All-American midfielder Kyle Timm from Tyler Junior College. He'll be counted on to team with the Lakers' only four-year player, Johnny Lara, who returns as a starter after playing in a reserve role last season. Petersen signed two Division I transfers, three Division II transfers, one NAIA transfer, two junior college transfers and 11 freshman from the high school ranks.
Goalkeepers Glen Fox, from NAIA member Lindsey Wilson, and David Cristofoli, a teammate of Timm's on Tyler, should form a solid duo in the net. Fox on, allowing only 27 goals in 49 games. Cristofoli had a 0.70 goals-against average last season and was selected to the All-Region team.
But the defense is Petersen's main concern. Even with sophomore Brett Neilsen returning, an All-Conference selection last season, Petersen doesn't have the dominant field leader that he's had in the past. Petersen was forced to move Matthias Faublas from forward and midfield to defense. Transfers Patrick Ahern (Memphis) and Ben LeBois (South Carolina) should make an immediate impact.
"For the last eight years we've always had one big player back there," Petersen said. "Physically fast and commanding, and is an older player and runs the show. We don't have that this year. This is my only concern."
Then there's up front, where Angel Kalinov finally gets a chance to start after playing a back-up role the past three years, plus junior Jonathan McKeever and freshman Ryan Pugh, an All-State player from Whitewater High School in Fayetteville.
Soon enough Petersen will find out how good this team, that has had only two-and-a-half weeks together, can be. Too soon.
"They're keen. They're hungry. They're young," Petersen said. "Definitely the future's bright. It's this year we're concerned about. The jury's still out."