Men's soccer ties opener in 2OT, follows with 2-0 defeat, victory

As the Mercer men’s soccer team begins its first round of opening games, the team is showing great promise. The second exhibition game of the season proved to be exactly the level of competition the Bears needed as they played against College of Charleston. They are a challenging team, having just participated in the NCAA tournament last year. The Bears used the game as “a final tune-up for the regular season” as well as to “define [their] identity” as a team. The game ended in a 0-0 draw.
The Bears dominated the first half of play, and played strong in the second half. Overall, the bears played well “and to get a shutout on the road is a big accomplishment against such a talented team,” says Head Coach Brad Ruzzo.
Coming off such a strong performance in exhibition against Col. of Charleston, the Bears felt comfortable and confident going into the first game of the season against UNC-Asheville. Unfortunately, inclement weather caused by Hurricane Irene provided heavy winds approaching 40 mph that made overall game play a challenging task. In spite of the weather, the team played very well throughout the game. UNC scored the first goal of the game in the 51st minute, but within seconds sophomore Ryan King artfully evaded Asheville defense to slide a low ball into the net to tie up the game. It was a disappointing draw, but the team was pleased with how they played. Coach Ruzzo looked on the bright side as he said, “Having the potential to get better while not losing the game is definitely a positive step.”
The first home opener versus the highly rated UAB was expected to be a difficult team to play since they are extremely athletic, physical, and very talented. Before the game, Coach Ruzzo touched on his expectations for the game. He said that the team would have to play at top level to come away with a positive result. As an overall strategy, “We will have to make sure that our team defending is collective while taking advantage of our opportunities in the attack,” said Ruzzo.
The Bears played valiantly throughout the very physical game, but were unable to successfully penetrate the UAB defensive line.  Within the first few minutes of the game, UAB scored the first goal with a penalty kick. In the last three minutes, the Bears’ defense faltered for a second, allowing UAB to secure a win. Despite the loss, the Bears had a few promising plays and, for the start of the season, the team shows great promise for a successful season.
Taking a look at the team, the bears have eight returning starters with experience playing in some of Mercer’s bigger games, making this the deepest team that Coach Ruzzo has had since his start at Mercer three years ago. The returning players have welcomed the new players into the Mercer family building a good camaraderie amongst the team. Coach Ruzzo comments that this is probably one of the closest group of players he has seen off the field, noticing that “they genuinely care about each other and that goes a long way on the field.”
As far as the season as a whole is considered, the team’s expectations are to reach the NCAA tournament. Coach Ruzzo gave two ways to do that: “Win your conference tournament or earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.” The Bears are faced with one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the league and are looking forward to the challenge. Coach Ruzzo said he feels “very comfortable that our team defending will be exceptional this year and it is just a matter of whether or not we take advantage of our scoring opportunities.”
In the end, the recipe for success comes down to the perfect combination of the team’s defending, work ethic, fitness, and pure heart.