Photo by Julie Ostler
When the UVU men’s soccer team won its first WAC regular season title in 2016, the program and the university achieved a goal it had since it started playing Division I soccer in 2014. With the regular season crown in hand and the conference tournament being played here on Clyde Field, everything was coming up green.
That all came to a screeching halt when the Wolverines were upset 1-0 by UNLV, the eventual tournament champs, in the first round. Subsequently, UVU was overlooked and denied an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. Despite the Wolverines having made their home in the national top-25 rankings for much of the year, the season came to what could only be considered a premature end.
Since then, the team has undergone a transformation. The Wolverines lost Skyler Milne, their second leading scorer and Alex Neff, one of their defensive leaders, to graduation. Also missing from the roster this year is Aaron Meyer, the third leading scorer from 2016, as he takes a two-year break from soccer to serve a mission for the LDS Church in South America. With Milne and Meyer go 75 points of combined production over the last two seasons. Add in losing goalkeeper Mitch Jensen, who started 10 games last season and recorded five shutouts and an 8-1 record, to an offseason ACL tear and UVU has lost what head coach Greg Maas calls the spine of the team.
“However, the players around those guys certainly had an opportunity over the last couple of years to develop,” said Maas. “And they are chomping at the bit to show not only themselves and their teammates, but also this university, what they’re capable of doing themselves.”
Returning for his senior season is last year’s leading scorer, Paul Hoffmeister, who led the squad with 21 points — including a team-high nine goals — despite being limited to 18 games because of injury. The big expectations for Hoffmeister’s 2017 have already begun, as he was voted to the Preseason All-WAC team. Joining Hoffmeister on that list is defenseman and fellow senior Giovanny Vasquez, who led the team in minutes played last season and played a large part in locking down the opposition in 10 shutouts.
Stepping into larger roles to fill the shoes of Meyer and Milne are sophomore Gui Leme and junior Donnett Sackie, who finished with eight and five points last season, respectively.
Leme “exhudes attacking confidence and swagger,” Maas said, and the Wolverines will be looking to him to emerge as a dynamic playmaker who demands the attention of every opponent’s defense.
Sackie will be playing Milne’s role after a tremendously successful summer season with the Premiere Development League’s Seacoast United Phantoms, in which he scored 11 goals and added four assists. After putting two years into his development and understanding of the game, “Donnett’s time is now,” Maas said.
Elliot Rubio, who started last season as UVU’s number one goalkeeper, reclaims the spot for the season opener. Halfway through the season, Rubio went out with a shoulder injury, opening the door for Jensen to step in and perform flawlessly. Now, a role reversal has Rubio hoping to take advantage of his opportunity. The season’s opening game against the University of Akron might have extra meaning to Rubio, who spent two seasons at Akron before transferring to UVU.
Hosting the preseason No. 16-ranked and perennial NCAA tournament mainstay Zips is a tall order, but it’s nothing the Wolverines aren’t used to after hosting programs like Washington and Gonzaga last season.
“We’re not entering that [Akron] game with any sense of nervousness. It’s excitement,” Maas said. “The opportunity to play that game here on campus in front of our 12th Wolverines is certainly a dream come true.”
This season, repeating as the WAC regular season champs is high on the Wolverines’ to-do list, and a good performance through an exceedingly difficult nonconference schedule would go a long way toward locking up a possible at-large bid to the big dance. However, the team knows it has to learn from last year’s mistakes and play to win when it counts. With a conference tournament title, the Wolverines would control their own NCAA tournament destiny.
I grew up on a farm in Burley, Idaho, but I’ve always had an intense love of sports. I’m studying journalism in an attempt to turn my love into a career. I’m a huge Utah Jazz, Tennessee Titans, and San Jose Sharks fan. If it’s a sport, I’ll watch it.