Oakland 2016 Team and Recruiting Class Review

School - Oakland
Conference - Horizon League
Coach - Eric Pogue (8th Season)

Background - Oakland was 10-8-2 overall in 2015 with a 5-3-1 mark in league play. The Golden Grizzlies defeated Cleveland State 1-0 and Wright State 1-0 to win the Horizon League Tournament to earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive season. They were topped by Dayton in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in penalty kicks in a heartbreaker after the contest was tied 2-2 at the conclusion of 110 minutes of play. The 2015 campaign was the fith since 2009 that Oakland has had a winning percentage above .500 or better. The Golden Grizzlies have earned a berth in the NCAA Tournament at toal of seven times since 2000 and three times since 2010. Forward Austin Ricci was named the 2015 Horizon League Co-Offensive Player of the Year. Ricci and midfielder Matt Dudley were All-Horizon League First Team selections. Midfielder Shawn Claud Lawson and defenders Raphael Reynolds, and Jacob VanderLaan were All-Horizon League Second Team selections. Defender Nick Strack was named to the Horizon League All-Freshman Team. Ricci was named to the NSCAA All-Great Lakes Regional Second Team and Dudley was named to the Third Team. Oakland has been a member of the Horizon League since 2013. Prior to that they were members of the Summit League. 

Offense - Last year six players accounted for all of Oakland's twenty-seven goals. Three of them, midfielder Matt Dudley (5g, 6a) and forwards Matt Rickard (5g, 1a) and Gerald Ben (5g, 0a), were seniors in 2015 and will not be back. The good news is that junior Austin Ricci (8g, 3a), the Horizon League Co-Offensive Player of the Year and Oakland's top goal scorer, does return.  Ricci had a brakeout season last year and should hit the ground running in 2016. Senior midfielder Alex Serwatka (3g, 1a), who is the only returning player other than Ricci to score more than a single goal last year, is among others who will be counted upon to add firepower to the attack. Serwatka was hampered at times last year by an early injury but should be fully recovered heading into the 2016 season. Redshirt freshman forward Travis Harrington who did not see game action last year could also add additional punch to the offense. Forward Nash Popovic who transfered in from Saint Louis where he played in five games last year before sustaining a season ending injury has the potential to make an immediate contribution to the offense. Popovic, who joined Oakland in the spring, was ranked by College Soccer News as the number 46 overall recruit coming out of the class of 2015. The graduation of Matt Dudley and Shawn Claud Lawson leaves a gap in experience and leadership in the midfield that must be filled. Alec Greene (1g, 2a) and redshirt senior Chase Jabbori (0g, 1a), who are among the returning players who saw plenty of action last year, will join Serwatka in the midfield in 2016. Sophomore midfielders Jimmy Todd and Hamid Barry who mostly were utilized in reserve roles last season appear to be well positioned to develop larger profiles in 2016.  
Defense - Oakland will seek to build upon a culture of defensive toughness in 2016. The graduation of backs Raphael Reynolds and Jacob VanderLaan who were multi-year starters and starting goalkeeper and team captain Eliott Tarney necessitates some reloading on the defensive side of the ball.  Sophomore Willie Maddox who started in eleven contests last year will likely be called upon to play a key role in anchoring the defense in 2016. Ditto that for senior backs Brendan Woodfull and Keenan King who will be counted upon to bring experience and a winning mentality to the defense. Junior Wilfred Williams, a transfer from Eastern Florida State College where he was a First Team NJCAA First Team All-American selection, and sophomore Connor Ballantyne who transfers in from Dayton where he played in three contests last year are among the newcomers who should compete for minutes in the back. Junior Wes Mink who was the starter in 2014 and a 2014 All-Horizon Second Team selection and freshman Liam McQueenie who was a member of the U-18 Canadian National Team pool are among several very capable candidates who will compete for the starting role between the pipes. 

Newcomers - Four Star Recruiting Class 

Coach Pogue stated, "With the graduation of eight seniors this fall that left Oakland with three conference titles in four years, we knew this was a very important class for the future of Oakland soccer." He added, "Overall we are extremely excited about our 2016 Oakland men's soccer recruiting class which will go down as one of our top talent-wise recruiting classes in the Golden Grizzlies NCAA Division I era on paper." 

Connor Ballantyne - Defender - Shelby Township, Michigan - Warren De La Salle High School - A sophomore transfer from Dayton. Named First Team All-Catholic League and First Team All-District in 2011. Played for Vardar Academy. 

Alex Meny - Goalkeeper - Phillipsburg, New Jersey - Phiillipsburg High School - Played for FA Euro. New Jersey All-State selection. Holds career shutout record at Phillipsburg High School. 

Alex Ofeimu - Defender - Bloomfield Hills, Michigan - West Bloomfield High School - Played for Vardar Academy and Chicago Fire Academy. Ranked by College Soccer News as the number 85 recruit in the class of 2015. 

Nash Popovic - Forward - Rochester Hills, Michigan - Rochester High School - Played for Vardar Academy. Freshman transfer from Saint Louis. Ranked by College Soccer News as the number 46 player in the high school class of 2015. 

Kaveon Dux - Forward - Berkley, Michigan - Summit High School - Played for Vardar SC. Two-time All-State selection. 

Adam Giorgio - Defender - Woodbridge, Ontario - Bill Crothers Secondary - Member of U-18 Canadian National Team pool. Played for Vaughan SC. 

Nyal Higgins - Defender - Ajax, Ontario - Sinclair Secondary - Played for Vaughan SC. Memeber of the U-18 Canadian National Team pool. Member of the Ontario Provincial team. 

Sullivan Lauderdale - Goalkeeper - Pittsburg, Kansas - Pittsburg High School - Played for Springfield SC. 2012-15 All-District selection. 2013-15 PHS Golden Glove recipient. Set school record for shutouts at 25. 

Liam McQueenie - Goalkeeper - Unionville, Ontario - Bill Crothers Secondary - Played for Vaughan SC. Member of the Canadian National Team pool. 

Spencer Nolff - Midfielder - Grand Blanc, Michigan - Grand Blanc High School - Played for Vardar SC. Led Grand Blanc to an undefeated regular season and conference championship in 2013. A holding midfielder.

Evan Sawula - Midfielder - Thunder Bay, Ontario - St. Patrick - Played for Thunder Bay Chill. Selected to Ontario Provincial Team 2012-2014.

AJ Shaw - Defender - Rochester Hills, Michigan - Rochester Adams High School - Played for Vardar SC.

Wilfred Williams - Defender - Monrovia, Liberia - Liberty High School - A junior transfer from Eastern Florida State College.  2015-2016 NJCAA First-Team All-American. Member of U-14 and U-15 Youth National Teams. Played for FC Dallas.  

Prognosis for 2016 - Oakland clearly has some reloading to do on both sides of the ball due to the graduation of eight seniors from the 2015 squad who were key contributors to the success the program has enjoyed over the past few seasons. On the postive side of the ledger, Pogue has a good core of returning players to work with and what appears to be among the strongest recruiting classes in program history on their way to Rochester.

At the heart of Oakland's back-to-back Horizon League Championships and NCAA Tournament appearances is the development of a winning attitude and a team that has learned how to win the big games particularly down the home stretch of the season. While the departed seniors will be missed, don't expect the Golden Grizzlies to dwell on that. Oakland is a program that is focused on the future and hungry for sustained long term success. The addition of a recruiting class at Oakland that includes several players with the potential to make an immediate impact is a very successful first step toward accomplishing that. However, potential is a somewhat fickle word. Pogue pretty much summed things up when he stated, "Time will tell if they reach their potential, but they have all the tools to be successful in the Black and Gold."

The return of junior forward Austin Ricci up-top is a huge plus. He is a prime timer and the catalyst for the offense but he will need help. You can count on Ricci being a tightly marked man in 2016. That means others will need to step forward to add balance to the attack. Newcomer Nash Popovic who joined the team in the spring is highly regarded and looks to be among the candidates with the ability to help fill that role. Senior midfielder Alex Serwatka is among returning players who will be expected to add balance to the attack. There are unanswered questions, but if everything falls into place, Oakland could be a very explosive team in the attacking third.

The midfield and the backline also require some reloading and there will be a new face between the pipes heading into the season. Accordingly, it is reasonable to assume that Oakland will likely experience a learning curve as Pogue and his staff go about the process of integrating a rather large recriting class in with returning players. It may take a while to establish the on-the-field cohesion that the program has had the past two seasons.

Critical success factors include balance on the offensive side of the ball, the ability of returning players to provide leadership and set the pace for the newcomers, the ability of the newcomers to help fill the voids that exist, and the effectiveness of the coaching staff in merging the new recruits in with the returning players to form a unified team.  

Winning the Horizon League Championship and a berth in the NCAA Tournament are now expectations at Oakland. The Golden Grizzlies should again contend for the  League Championship and a third consecutive trip to the NCAA Tourney in 2016. However, this one looks to be significantly more challenging due to departures. In addition, there will once again be a great deal of parity in the Horizon League which leaves little margin for error. Nonethesless, a league championship and a trip to the NCAA Tourney are realistic goals for Oakland in 2016.  

 

 

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