Watertown, Wis. -- As the 2016 season ended with a close defeat at the hands of eventual-national-runners-up North Central University, the Sabercats were already eyeing a stride forward in 2017. With 9 returning starters and 18 returning players, the Sabercats have the personnel for a solid season and an exciting NCCAA postseason run.
Key returning players for the 2017 season include upperclassmen Nathan Akers, Brett Cournoyer, Daniel Kroll, Asa St. Lawrence and goalkeeper Andrew Taylor. Freshman Zeke Steuerwald and a notable group of sophomores - a class that Pill hails as being perhaps the best class he has seen in his time at Maranatha - will kit up this season as well.
The team has named veteran returners Cournoyer and St. Lawrence as the captains for the season.
According to Coach Jeff Pill, the eclectic group has showed commitment and enthusiasm during the preseason.
"I am excited about their eagerness to train hard and smart," said Pill. "They are intent on getting better. I truly believe that the guys are focused on process. They realize it is a long season that builds gradually to the playoffs. They have been getting better each day they train, with new understandings, improvements in technique and fitness. They are committed to our core beliefs."
Despite the positive notes from the season so far, the Sabercats are faced with their share of challenges on the road ahead.
Maranatha will have some considerable shoes to fill this season, as the four-year career of Wira Wama came to a close last November. Aside from filling this gap, the Sabercats will face a challenging schedule - as Pill notes, there will be "no easy games" for MBU this season.
Maranatha will open with six consecutive NCAA DIII competitions. And of the Sabercats opening 10 games, 9 will be against DIII opposition. NACC standouts Marian, MSOE and Wisconsin Lutheran feature heavily into Pill's equation.
"We will play a difficult schedule," Pill remarked. "Plus, there are some opponents who are among the best in the region in the NCAA. So the key will be to keep focused on learning from each game. Some progress may be slow in coming, but as happened last year, we will build through each experience."
Lastly, key contributors have been sidelined due to injury this preseason, as Brendan Burckart, Austin DeAngelo and Kevin Risma have yet to train with the team. "It will be exciting to see how we do when those guys are back," Pill said.
Although challenges are in place, the Sabercats have set their goals high for the season.
"I think the guys are very process oriented and are focused on improvement first and foremost," shared Pill. "This is not only on the field, but also off the field in their Spiritual lives. They are embracing that challenge.
"Regarding outcome goals, I think the team is keen on returning to the National Tournament. We came very close last year, and many of them are using that as motivation for their endeavors. We realize that this will take a monumental commitment. For each of the past six years, one of, if not both national finalists have come out of our region. In fact, the national champion has come out of our region four out of the last six years. It is a strong region, and we are excited to see how we do striving for a return to nationals."
The Sabercats will tangle with NCCAA Regional opponents Emmaus, Moody Bible and North Central in the regular season before traveling to Dubuque, Iowa to participate in the NCCAA North Regional Tournament hosted by Emmaus Bible College. The Tournament will be held November 3-5 on the EBC campus.
But first, the Sabercats open their season tonight with a trip north to Marian University (Fond du Lac, Wisconsin).
The last time the two teams met, Marian's fast start led them to a 5-2 win over MBU. The last time Maranatha played at Smith Field, the game ended in a 1-1 tie on October 16, 2012.
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. at Smith Field.