When Justin Dhillon was asked if the Cal Poly men’s soccer team set a goal of returning to the NCAA Tournament in 2016, the senior forward made it clear the Mustangs are thinking bigger this fall.
“I would call it an expectation,” Dhillon said.
That’s the vibe surrounding Cal Poly as it prepares for a second season under decorated head coach Steve Sampson. The Mustangs return five starters from last year’s team that finished second in the North Division of the Big West Conference and qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008.
That national exposure, coupled with Sampson’s championship pedigree, helped Cal Poly bring in a talented 10-person freshman class to join a defensive-minded group of veterans.
Though two-time Big West Midfielder of the Year Chase Minter and two-time Big West Goalkeeper of the Year Wade Hamilton have moved on to the professional ranks, there’s a sense the Mustangs will field a deeper, more technical team this season.
“I just love the feel of the group, the commitment and the homogeneity of the team,” said Sampson, the former U.S. Men’s National Team coach who has won NCAA and MLS championships during his career.
“They’re working hard, great leadership, and I really get a feeling like they want to do something special this year.”
In Sampson’s first year on the bench, Cal Poly matched the program record with 11 victories and ranked among the stingiest defensive teams in the country. He expects more of the same this fall with a rigorous preseason schedule that includes an exhibition match against No. 1-ranked and defending NCAA national champion Stanford at 7 p.m. Wednesday inside Alex G. Spanos Stadium.
That tune-up will give Sampson a better understanding of the Mustangs’ strengths and weaknesses before they head to ACC country to play No. 8 North Carolina and No. 5 Wake Forest to begin the season.
A challenging schedule is the only way to ensure Cal Poly’s RPI will remain among the national leaders when the NCAA selection committee starts making tough decisions in November. It’s also part of the culture of professionalism Sampson has instilled since he arrived in San Luis Obispo.
“Every single time you step on the field, you’ve got to be ready, 100 percent,” senior defender and team captain Ruben Duran said. “Even if you have problems outside, in your life, once you cross this line on the field, your mentality should just be about this.”
With last year’s leading scorer, Minter, being taken 21st overall in the MLS SuperDraft, the Mustangs’ most productive returners appear to be Duran (two goals, one assist), sophomore forward George Grote (six assists, one goal) and Dhillon (three goals, two assists).
Speedy sophomore Jared Pressley and junior Kaba Alkebulan scored twice apiece a year ago. Senior defender and co-captain Kody Wakasa’s lone goal was the game-winner during last year’s thrilling double-overtime victory against Blue-Green rival UC Santa Barbara.
Coaches and teammates also spoke highly of freshman midfielder Christian Enriquez, who spent the summer playing for the U.S. Under-19 Men’s National Team at the COTIF Tournament in Valencia, Spain. Enriquez was coached by Brad Friedel, who played under Sampson during his stint as coach of the U.S. Men’s National Team in the mid-1990s.
“That kind of experience is only going to benefit us,” Sampson said. “I think he’s got a remarkably bright future.”
Perhaps the biggest question mark is who will take over in goal.
Before he was drafted by the Portland Timbers in January, Hamilton started and played every minute for three consecutive seasons. Sampson admitted he was somewhat nervous about who would have filled in for Hamilton if he were injured last year, though that scenario never came to be.
Sophomore Simon Boehme and junior Eric Kam will split time during Cal Poly’s exhibition games against Stanford and Loyola Marymount, and Sampson said he plans to name a starter based on those performances.
“My doubts have been reassured from the standpoint that both of them had great winters and great springs, and they had tremendous summers, as well,” Sampson said. “Literally, right now it’s neck and neck as to who the starter is.”
Cal Poly men’s soccer 2016
Last year: 11-5-5 overall, 5-1-4 Big West
Top returners: D Ruben Duran, D Kody Wakasa, F Justin Dhillon
Key losses: GK Wade Hamilton, MF Chase Minter, D Kip Colvey
Season opener: Aug. 26 at No. 8 North Carolina
Home opener: Sept. 11 vs. Fresno Pacific