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Soccer Eagles hoping to take the next step

Georgia Southern at North Florida (Exhibition)
Jacksonville, Fla.

    The 2013 season may or may not be the last in the Southern Conference for Georgia Southern’s men’s soccer program.
    According to head coach Kevin Kennedy, it’s a certainty that it will be GSU’s best shot at a SoCon title, regardless of where the program ends up in the future.
    “This is probably the team that I’ve been most excited about,” said Kennedy, whose Eagles finished third in the league each of the last two seasons. “We return a lot of experience and we return some great leadership from the upperclassmen. We’ve basically got 10 starters coming back from last year, so hopefully they can get over that hump.”
    In 2014, Georgia Southern will join the Sun Belt Conference, but the league doesn’t play men’s soccer, leaving Kennedy’s program looking for another home. The future home is still up in the air.
    “The questions about what it means for us, the team asked a lot of those back in April and May of last year, after the Sun Belt announcement made,” Kennedy said. “I told them that as information was made available, I’d talk to them. But to be honest it hasn't even been brought up in the preseason.”
    It will definitely be the last shot at a SoCon title for seniors Hunter Norton, Thomas Valikonis, Neal Bates, Roberto Lopez and Witt Carlisle, who enter the season with a chip on their shoulder. 
    “All they’ve talked about is winning a Southern Conference championship since they got on campus,” Kennedy said. “It’ll certainly be their last year to do it, and maybe everybody else’s.”
    The Eagles (6-12-1, 3-3-1 Southern Conference in 2012) made it to the semifinals of the SoCon tournament last season before losing to No. 23 Elon.
    Adding to GSU’s fire power is Kennedy’s first transfer, junior-college All American Josh Ward, who was the team captain at Jefferson College. Kennedy sees Ward contributing to the defense early.
    “He’s just a big, 6-foot-1, 185-pound center back who shows a lot of leadership,” Kennedy said.
    With all the leadership out on the field, there will be a battle in front of the net. Keeper Jack Falle, now a sophomore, started the 2012, but then-junior Neal Bates became the hot hand midway through the season and helped the Eagles win five of their last seven games.
    Chris Katt, the longest of the keepers at 6-foot-5, 195-pounds, redshirted in 2012 and will be in the mix, too.
    “That battle’s going to be wide open,” Kennedy said.
    Drew Ruggles, who was a second-team, All-SoCon performer in 2012, and joined the football team two days before the Football Championship Subdivision semifinals to try to help the team’s struggling kicking game, will be academically ineligible this season.
    Norton the other Eagle named to the 2012 All-SoCon second team.
    Reed Norton, Hunter’s brother, along with Rocco Bagley and Eric Dinka, were named to the SoCon All-Freshman team last year.
    Some big names will be absent from the pitch in the SoCon this year, including Elon’s Chris Thomas, the nation’s leading scorer, and Furman’s Walker Zimmerman, who was selected in the first round of the Major League Soccer draft by FC Dallas.
    “Some of the usual suspects have lost some key players,” Kennedy said, “but we’ll see.”
    Because College of Charleston left the SoCon to join the Colonial Athletic Association, there will be only seven teams in the league, and the regular-season champion will receive a bye to the semifinals of the tournament.
    Georgia Southern will scrimmage North Florida on Saturday. Central Florida will host the Eagles on Aug. 24, and the regular season will begin on Aug. 30, at home against Winthrop at 7:30 p.m., as a part of the SoCon/Big South Challenge.

    Matt Yogus may be reached at (912) 489-9408.