CONWAY, S.C. -- Not surprisingly, the Coastal Carolina men's soccer team was again voted the preseason favorite in the Big South Conference after reaching the third round of the NCAA tournament each of the past two seasons.
That doesn't mean there aren't still questions for this team to resolve -- there are plenty -- but it does show the respect coach Shaun Docking's program has earned both within the league and nationally.
No matter who comes and goes, there is a standard the Chanticleers have established in recent years, and along with it come steady expectations.
"We take huge pride in it," senior defender Shawn McLaws said. "The coaches harp on it all the time. It's a big responsibility for us every year to be in that top 25 and [be] an elite program, to keep it that way. It's a tradition. It's been that way since I got here and I want to keep it that way."
Coastal Carolina, ranked No. 17 in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America preseason poll, garnered seven of a possible 10 first-place votes from the conference's coaches in the Big South preseason poll released Wednesday and received 96 points in the voting overall. Winthrop and High Point (82) tied for second.
Additionally, the Chants swept the individual honors for the third year in a row as McLaws was voted the preseason defensive player of the year and senior forward Ricky Garbanzo was recognized as the league's preseason attacking player of the year.
McLaws earned Big South Defensive Player of the Year honors last season while helping Coastal Carolina post a 0.83 goals-against average and 12 shutouts -- both league bests.
Garbanzo, meanwhile, has been named to the MAC Hermann Trophy watch list this preseason after leading the Chants with 13 goals last fall. He is a two-time first-team All-Big South selection and enters the season 13th in Big South history with 32 career goals.
"It's either make it or break it for me," Garbanzo said of his final season. "It's either have a good season and hopefully I have a shot to go [to the] pros, or it will make me feel that I need to improve more in my game."
His play will be especially important to the Chants' collective hopes as they lose standout midfielder Pedro Ribeiro (11 goals, seven assists last year) and playmaking midfielder, Justin Portillo (team-high nine assists).
"I think Ricky knows it's his last year. He wants to try to play professional after this so he knows he has to do well and have a big year," Docking said. "He's worked incredibly hard."
Speaking on the second day of preseason practice Tuesday, Docking highlighted the losses of Ribeiro, Portillo and Matt Risher, a respected veteran contributor who started 11 games last season, as obstacles for this squad to overcome.
That said, the Chants do return seven starters and have developed a strong reputation for international recruiting, always seeming to find immediate contributions from their newcomers. Docking said it's too soon to tell who will emerge from this newest incoming class.
"We're two days into preseason so I saw them yesterday for the first time in our setting, apart from recruiting them obviously," he said. "The guys are still getting used to the heat. Hopefully a month into the season we'll have a better idea as to who's going to be able to step up for us this year and see what first-year players are going to start for us."
The Chants are coming off a 19-5 finish last season and open, as usual, with a tough non-conference schedule. After hosting Old Dominion (Aug. 20) and Wofford (Aug. 23) to start the season, they go on the road to face three ranked teams in a row with games at Connecticut (No. 8 in the NSCAA preseason poll), Maryland (No. 2) and Charlotte (No. 23).
And with intentions of again measuring themselves against the nation's elite, the Chants will hope their new roster can gel quickly enough to make an early-season statement or two.
"It's always tough losing players like Pedro and Justin, but we have a lot of new guys coming in," McLaws said. "It's tough to tell. Everybody got here a couple weeks ago, but we just started training [this week] with the coaches and it's tough to really get an idea on all the new players, but there's definitely a lot of good players. We have a lot more depth this year, I think. So we should be really good this year, we should have a good team."
"We have big expectations on us, and a lot of people have big expectations on them, but I like where things are at so far."