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Zach Pekale | NCAA.com | September 23, 2019

What's next for Saint Mary's — the most improved team in Division I men's college soccer

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When Saint Mary’s became a sponsored Division I soccer team in 1978, the program debuted with 18 straight losses and just one win over its first three seasons of competition. 

Flash forward 40 years. 

The Gaels won 18 games in 2018 alone, far and away the most in program history. Single-season records set in goals scored (50), goals allowed (8) and shutouts (14) were just a few of the notable statistics.

But, a 14-game winning streak was likely the most improbable feat of all. The program had only produced double-digit wins four times since its inception. That level of success becomes even more unforeseen considering the Gaels won six matches the season prior.

A potent offense and stifling defense carried them to the NCAA tournament, the program’s third-ever postseason appearance, ending in a third-round, penalty-kick loss to Stanford.

“We knew we had a pretty experienced group coming in last year and that was going to pay dividends for us,” coach Adam Cooper told NCAA.com. “I don't think we thought we'd go 18-0-2.”

Where do they go from there? In order to explain, it’s important to understand where the Gaels have come from.

Cooper first noticed the potential to make a splash during the preceding spring, citing promising player development complemented by strong leadership. Still, the outcome of last year caught him off guard. 

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It was a major sign of his group’s collective maturation.

In 2016, Saint Mary’s had 13 freshmen — currently seniors — on its roster and still managed a .500 record. A positive step for a fledgling group ended with their first taste of heartbreak.

Without a postseason tournament, the West Coast Conference determines its champion based on league standings. Saint Mary’s faced Portland in a pseudo-conference championship game, losing the match 1-0. 

Cooper recalls the match vividly. He also realizes how his program responded to adversity and the ripple effect from that result, describing it as a hunger to come back stronger.

Two years later, that hunger has been harvested towards Saint Mary’s contending at a national level. 

Forward Jake Rudel and goalkeeper Remi Prieur became the program’s first two All-America selections. Both players were named to the third team, chosen by United Soccer Coaches.

No longer the prey, Saint Mary’s has become the hunter.

According to Prieur, the mentality change draws more attention to his team.

“There's essentially a target on our back,” he told NCAA.com. “They (opponents) are going to want to beat us because we have that recognition from last year. So that'll help us actually play better.

“Last year was last year.”

Based on accolades from last season, four Gaels, all seniors, were named to the preseason watch list for the MAC Hermann Trophy — annually awarded to the top men's and women's college soccer players. Prieur and Rudel made the cut in addition to forward Anders Engebretsen and midfielder Jakub Svehlik. 

Through seven matches, it’s been hard to distinguish a difference between this season and last. The Gaels’ hunger to prosper continues to manifest itself through their play. Their depth, anchored by two All-Americans and seven all-conference contributors, has grown up together. Cooper noted the seniors tend to hold themselves accountable, even more so than he does at times.

Saint Mary’s is 7-0, outscoring opponents 19-5 with four clean sheets. After Rudel and Prieur took center stage a year ago, the spotlight's been on Engebretsen to open 2019. His 19 points (8 goals, 3 assists) are the catalyst to an offense that's scored on nearly 50 percent of its shots on target. 

Engebretsen credited much of the team's 2018 success to confidence and an ability to stick to its brand of soccer, regardless of what an opponent was doing. In a limited sample size, that appears to be the case once again.

But winning five straight in August and September is substantially different than five consecutive wins from mid-November to early December.

Cooper is aware of what's needed to do both. He's coached Saint Mary's to some of its most successful seasons and played with UCLA when the Bruins won the 1997 College Cup.

"It takes all those intangibles that everybody has to have. It takes a lot of grit, perseverance, hard work, all those things," Cooper said. "It takes an army to win college soccer games, not just the guys in the locker room, but everybody involved.

"Last year, I believe we had that.”

Recreating last season is not the goal in Moraga. It's about finishing what was started.

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