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September 11, 2013

University of Detroit Mercy men’s soccer is aiming for league championship

By Mark Vest
C & G Sports Writer

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University of Detroit Mercy soccer player Jason Leslie, a Troy High grad, is pictured during the Titans’ regular-season opener against IUPUI. Leslie would like to help his team take a shot at a Horizon League championship.

 

Last season may be best described as bittersweet for the University of Detroit Mercy men’s soccer team.

On the plus side, the Titans captured a regular-season Horizon League championship. But as impressive as an accomplishment as that was, coach Nicholas Deren and his players have an even loftier goal in mind.
UDM hasn’t made it to the NCAA tournament since 1996, and the Titans seemed to be in a good position to change that as they headed into the 2012 Horizon League tournament.

If the Titans had won the Horizon League tournament, it would have assured them a spot in the NCAA tournament.  But instead of having the opportunity to celebrate its first NCAA tournament appearance in more than 15 years, UDM fell short of that goal via a 1-0 defeat to Loyola in the semifinal round.
Although he thought his team played well in its loss to Loyola, from Deren’s perspective, it means there is still some unfinished business to attend to.

“That’s the elephant in the room,” he said. “That’s staring us in the face — get to the NCAA tournament. Anything can happen once you get there. The program hasn’t done it since ’96. That’s what we’re aspiring to — be as good as the ’96 team. They were special. We’re knocking on the door. I believe our program’s improving tremendously. Our players are getting better. We trained (them) like that — great staff. I think the university is supporting our program moving forward.”
Deren isn’t alone in wanting bigger and better things for UDM’s soccer program. Sophomore Jason Leslie, a Troy High grad, would also like to see his team get over that “last hump,” and make it out of the Horizon League championship tournament.

“Winning that last game in the Horizon League final, so we can get into the NCAA tournament and make a run,” Leslie said of the goals for the season. “We know as long as we keep playing together, we can do it.”
In order to help put the Titans in position to accomplish that, and increase their Rating Percentage Index — which takes into account a team’s strength of schedule, and wins and losses — Deren scheduled some tough non-conference games against the likes of Cornell and Michigan State University.

He is hoping facing that caliber of competition serves the Titans well when they begin league play. And as challenging as conference play has been in the past, things aren’t likely to get any easier, with the addition of Oakland University into the Horizon League.
While adding Oakland to the mix could make attaining the Titans’ goal of reaching the NCAA tournament even more difficult, it is a challenge that Deren seems to be embracing.

“They’re 20, 25 miles away, and we’re both (fighting) for the same prize now,” he said. “That’s positive, because they’re a good program. We’re adding a quality opponent, and the conference needs a quality opponent — that helps with our conference strength. I’m actually quite pleased that they are in.”
In order to help the Titans reach their goals, Deren said he would like to see goalkeeper Nathan Steinwascher (Sterling Heights Stevenson) and UDM’s defense hold opponents to an average of less than one goal per game.

Deren has chosen Matt Ybarra (Ann Arbor Huron), last year’s Horizon League Player of the Year, Adam Bedell (Churchill), and Kevin Pinkos (Clarkson) as team captains.
“They’re all very, very important pieces of our team,” he said. “They do their jobs better than anybody.”

While Deren understands that the path toward accomplishing their goals isn’t likely to be easy, he expressed optimism that the program is headed in the right direction.
“It’s in a state where I got my whole team now that I’ve recruited, and moving forward with how I feel the program should move,” said Deren, who officially took over as coach in 2010. “I’m trying to have some consistency and improve every year. There’s a lot of excitement at the university, in general. Everybody’s just trying to improve. And with a new Athletic Director (Robert Vowels) — he has tremendous support for our program — I think that’s only a positive thing.”

At press time, UDM was 0-0-1.

The Titans are next scheduled to be in action at 5 p.m. Sept. 11 in a home game against Michigan State University.

You can reach C & G Sports Writer Mark Vest at mvest@candgnews.com or at (586)279-1112. Twitter Follow Mark on Twitter.