by Andrew Goodwin, Sports Information Assistant
SPOKANE, Wash. – For the first time in three seasons Whitworth men's soccer returns to Spokane without the title of defending conference champions. The Pirates are hopeful, however, that a new core group of student-athletes can lead them back to the top of the Northwest Conference in 2018.
If they are to return to the top of the NWC, Whitworth will need contributions from some of last season's reserves as well as its five newcomers. The Pirates graduated six all-conference seniors in 2017, and fifth-year head coach Morgan Cathey is counting on competition at almost every position on the field to fuel a new group of all-NWC student-athletes.
"Last year's seniors were a special group and we cannot replace them," Cathey said. "I'm looking forward to great battles at almost every position this year, which will really help us build competence and depth at every spot."
Even in a year where the Pirates are competing for starting jobs almost everywhere, the forward positions may bring the fiercest battles. Whitworth returns just one starter, Drew Williams, between the three spots. Williams is one Bucs' top returning goal-scorers from last year after sending three shots to the back of the net.
Williams will likely be competing for time at the top of the attack with Jose Bautista and Luke Denke, both of whom are versatile players who could see time all over the field as well.
On the wings, the Bucs will certainly be seeing a new face in both starting spots. On the left side of the field, Zanskar Blair and Christian Haas will be the primary competitors after seeing limited playing time in past seasons.
On the opposite sideline, a pair of new faces will compete with two returners for chances. Cathey is counting on Spokane Community College transfer Chase Reidt and freshman Drew Wilson to challenge Sam McKay and DeVonte Gorman, both of whom served as reserves last season.
In addition to the possibility of playing on the right wing, Gorman and McKay may also see playing time at right back. Returning starter Blake Hepler is back at the position, but Cathey said either McKay or Gorman could challenge for that spot as well.
Hepler is one of three returning starters on the Whitworth back line, where the return of 2016 All-NWC selection Aaron Yanagi bolsters the Pirate defense. Injuries forced Yanagi to miss the 2017 season, but the senior should be back in action in 2018. Bautista or sophomore defender Scott Penner could join Yanagi at the other center back position.
Either Penner or Bautista will be replacing Ty Cardinale at center back because Cathey will likely slide the junior out to the left back for 2018. Cardinale was one of the anchors for the 2017 Whitworth defense, where his aggressive play ended countless opposing chances. Either Tyler Pangia or Blake Miller could back up Cardinale at the position or compete with Blair and Haas at left wing.
The portion of the field where the Pirates may return the most talent is the midfield. Whitworth's lone returning all-conference player, Kyle Cacoyannis, is back for his final year as the Pirates defensive midfielder. The senior started all of his previous three seasons at Whitworth.
"Kyle is the glue that holds our team together. He is a great player and an even better leader," Cathey said. "As a defensive midfielder this year we will ask him to do more than he has in the past. He scored some crucial goals for us down the stretch of the season last year and I think he can continue to help the team on both sides of the field."
Daniel Alvarez is Whitworth's other returning starter in the midfield. The sophomore earned his starting role over the second half of the 2017 season and contributed two goals to the Pirate attack.
Three of last year's reserves, Ethan Kem, Azzam Azzam and Britton Clifford should see playing time alongside Alvarez and Cacoyannis . The trio will compete for the final midfield starting job and could see the field in any of the three midfield positions. Azzam and Clifford could play with the Whitworth attack as well.
In goal, Cathey expects a hard-fought battle between Jesus Nunez, Alex Pells, and Jimmy Choi. Nunez started for most of last season and finished the year with a 1.37 goals against average and 57 saves. Choi is a freshman who played in the Gothia Cup, the world's largest soccer tournament, and Pells contributed to a shutout last year.
Whitworth's season kicks off in Gettysburg, Penn. on August 31 when the Bucs take on Gettysburg College. The cross-country trip continues with matches against Messiah (Sept. 1) and Franklin & Marshall (Sept. 3).
The Pirates open their home season on Thursday, Sept. 6 against Northwest University. They take on Walla Walla University the following day, also at home.
The Bucs' Northwest Conference opener will be Friday, Sept. 14 at George Fox.