BLOOMINGTON, Ind. --- Officially, the Indiana men's soccer team boasts nine returning starters.
But at the first official practice of the 2016 season Wednesday, it felt like nearly twice that many to Hoosier coach Todd Yeagley.
"This will be the most competitive (year) for positions, since I've been back (as head coach) from a balance standpoint," Yeagley said. "Almost every position has a player that's much closer in the context of pushing that starter. That's big. They know that. A player chooses to come here, because they want that. They could easily go somewhere and be more the top guy from Day One."
Day One seemed a long-time coming for the Hoosiers, who with their combination of experience and talented newcomers, aim to better last year's trip to the third round of the NCAA Tournament and a preseason No. 15 ranking.
"Day One, we look forward to it all spring, all summer," said senior midfielder Tanner Thompson, who is on the preseason watch list with teammate Grant Lillard for the MAC Hermann Trophy. "Finally getting back out here, getting the 2-mile (run) under our belts and getting back out here playing soccer is always exciting. It's good to see the new guys and everything.
"... We'll see (about the ranking). It should be higher. It'll get higher, I'm sure. The preseason rankings don't matter too much, but I think it will rise up considering this group and the drive within the group."
Thompson's first three seasons have seen the Hoosiers end their season in the first round, second round and third round, respectively. But that's rather unsatisfying at a place like Indiana, which last reached the College Cup in 2012.
"(Motivation) is as high as it can be," Thompson said. "There's a lot of seniors on this team (seven), there's guys looking to make things happen their first year, then there's the middle class guys who want to make it a big year for the seniors. I've never seen it like this since I've been here, and we're ready to get going and get some championships this year."
Yeagley has no doubt about that hunger.
"They're very hungry. You could sense it from the moment we were ousted last year in the sweet sixteen," he said. "It was a really disappointed and upset locker room, not a, 'Man, we made it so far, that's great,' but we felt we deserved better on the day. They know the margins are small and how much work it takes to get to that time (of year).
"It's always been a motivated, focused group. I would say that's always been a strength of our program, but I'd say we're at a high point with that. That's the result of some of our competitive upper classmen and some of the younger guys too. There's not much we need from a motivation standpoint. This group is very internally motivated."
Just ask sophomore Andrew Gutman, who was more the point about those championships.
"Obviously, the goal every year is to win a national championship, so I think that's our main goal," the Hinsdale, Ill., native said. "Then everyone has individual goals, but collectively we want to play the best soccer we can.
"... Last year we had a good team, but this year we're going to be even better. We've got a lot of returning starters, people that weren't fit last year are coming in fit. It's going to be a good year."
Besides Gutman and Thompson, Indiana also has returning starters Lillard, Derek Creviston, Billy McConnell, Phil Fives, Francesco Moore, Austin Panchot and goalkeeper Colin Webb.
Webb is being pushed by Christian Lomeli, who had a strong spring, and other returning Hoosiers such as sophomores Jeremiah Gutjahr, Cory Thomas, Rece Buckmaster, Rees Wedderburn, Trevor Swartz and Jack Griffith, as well as redshirt senior Richard Ballard are among those bidding for more playing time, if not a starting slot.
That doesn't even factor in incoming freshman such national high school player of the year A.J. Palazzolo, high school All-American Ian Black, Gutjahr's former Indiana Academy teammate Spencer Glass or Belmont junior transfer Rashad Hyacenth.
"There's competitiveness in the attacking positions. We've got good depth, but who's going to separate themselves for more minutes?" Yeagley said. "No question the battle in the back (is worth watching) with returning players but some really talented newcomers or developing young players, like what Rece Buckmaster did in the spring at outside back is going to be a great challenge with Billy (McConnell). We look at what Lomeli did in the spring, and how that's pushing our goalkeeping crew.
"Honestly, you have a young player like Spencer Glass, a very talented left back, but with a returning freshman phenom with Andrew (Gutman), and Andrew knows someone's breathing down his neck a bit, even though both can play other positions."
The biggest question mark might be replacing Femi Hollinger-Janzen in the attack, something Ballard did effectively in the spring and Hyacenth did successfully as an All-Horizon League performer. They're not the only options, with plenty of talent available, though talent alone won't decide some of these position battles.
"The ultimate goal is to get the best team on the field," Yeagley said. "It's not always putting out the best talent, but the best team we can assemble. It might mean tweaking a role a little bit, we haven't gotten there yet.
"Our first game feels like it's tomorrow. There's so much we want to do and that's where the staff has tried to pinpoint specifically what we want to get done." ___
This article was written by Jeremy Price from Herald-Times, Bloomington, Ind. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.