MEN’S SOCCER: Tops will get tough test at FIU

Danny Schoenbaechler

Western’s men’s soccer team jumped off to a perfect start in the 2002 season and, for the first time in several years, was having no trouble scoring goals.

Then the team traveled south to Birmingham, Ala., last weekend for the Birmingham Southern Fall Classic. The Hilltoppers scored five goals in the two games, but gave up three first-half goals in each contest.

After a loss to Alabama-Birmingham and a tie against Birmingham Southern, the 4-1-1 Toppers are looking to rebound with a strong defensive performance Friday.

They will be in Miami, taking on Florida International. FIU (1-4) qualified for the NCAA tournament last season and is a strong offensive team.

“We are going to play a team that is every bit as potent offensively as UAB,” Western coach David Holmes said. “FIU has always been a strong attacking team.”

Heading into Friday’s match, the Toppers are looking to solidify their defense to clamp down on early goals.

“There was nothing that can’t be fixed,” sophomore defender Scott DeGaris said. “It is just going to take a while for us to get used to playing with each other.”

DeGaris is in his second year as the team’s stopper, and junior Ron Plute is a third-year starter. But Plute is in a new position.

He moved from outside defender to sweeper this season with the departure of last season’s senior captain Scott Gardner.

Junior Jeremy Weber, sophomore Brad Benz, and redshirt freshman Clay McMillan have been platooning as the outside defenders.

McMillan and Benz are both in their first year in the Topper defense. Benz, a natural defender, played forward during last season for the offensively thin Toppers.

That, however, has changed. Western has young offensive power, and lots of it.

“We have a lot of young attackers on this team,” Holmes said. “And we are going deep into the bench here early in the season. We are still trying to find the best combinations on the field.”

And the young players in those new combinations are being put to the test as the Toppers are playing some tougher competition.

“This is another game that will help our young team,” Holmes said. “Each week is a growing experience. I like the schedule. We were able to gain some confidence and are now getting into some tougher games.”

Tighter competition started last weekend in Alabama. Although the team came away disappointed, it was convinced they can play with high-caliber teams.

“We could have beat UAB and we should have beat Southern,” DeGaris said. “It comes down to coming out mentally prepared.”

The Toppers have another day to get prepared for FIU. Then they don’t play again until next Wednesday at Louisville, in another match that will prep the young squad for the start of conference play on Oct. 4 against Eastern Illinois.

Reach Danny Schoenbaechler at [email protected]