CONWAY — Ashton Bennett joined the Coastal Carolina men’s soccer program last season with an international background and a knack for finding the back of the net, and he indeed proved to be an immediate boost for the Chanticleers as they surged to the second round of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2003.
Well, a new season has dawned as the Chants returned to practice Wednesday, and the roster is full of newcomers from different parts of the world – including a few from Bennett’s homeland of Jamaica. But coach Shaun Docking doesn’t know just yet what kind of impact he can expect from this latest wave of international talent.
“We’ve got so many new guys, it’s just going to take us a long time to figure out the pieces,” he said before the team’s first practice. “We’ll see. It’s going to be an interesting year, I think. Obviously, we’re going to rely heavily on the older guys, the returning guys to be good leaders, to integrate the new guys as quickly as possible, as efficiently as possible and hopefully we can start to get things together during the year.”
Among those returning leaders is Bennett, who led the NCAA in goals (23) and points (53) last season, and while there are certainly a number of looming questions and uncertainties about the roster, the Chants have the respect of the college soccer community as they open ranked No. 17 in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America/Continental Tire preseason poll.
“The NSCAA poll is just a reflection of how teams ended last year,” Docking said. “... It’s a nice honor. It’s a preseason ranking and obviously the preseason rankings will look very different at the end of the year, and I think the challenge for us is to be in it at the end of the year.”
Midfielder Cyprian Hedrick, one of the key contributors to Coastal’s 18-4 record last year, and three-year starting goalkeeper Scott Angevine are both now part of the MLS’ Sporting KC team, and forward TeeJay East – who ranked third on the team with eight goals and 20 last season – is no longer on the roster due to academic issues.
And those are just a few of the holes the Chants have to fill as they return six starters, meaning those newcomers could have a significant say in whether this season lives up to the past one.
As for the additions to the roster, Bennett has familiarity with fellow Jamaican Rosario Harriott, a freshman defender/midfielder who is still pending approval by the NCAA Clearinghouse. They played against each other in high school, and Bennett speaks highly of his abilities. The Chants additionally have newcomers on the roster from Nigeria, Norway, Czech Republic and Canada as they start preseason workouts.
“On paper, it says a lot,” Bennett said of the new additions. “But we have to demonstrate it also, so we’ll just have to wait and see the outcome, see how they fit in with coach Docking’s system and see how well it works.”
At goalkeeper, the Chants have four newcomers competing for the starting job and Docking doesn’t have any inclination yet as to which one will seize that position.
“No idea,” he said. “... I think that was the attraction about coming here. A lot of those guys, they came here knowing that they had a legitimate chance to start.”
So yes, plenty of questions left to be sorted out over the next couple weeks. The Chants open their season Aug. 24 at home against new Big South Conference member Longwood, and they’ll get a stern preseason test Aug. 18 when they visit top-ranked North Carolina for an exhibition game.
“They’re preseason No. 1 in the NSCAA poll. They’ve got the No. 1 ranked recruiting class in the country,” Docking said of the Tar Heels. “They’re going to be one of the best teams in the country again, if not the best. So yeah, good test.”
Former Chants flocking to UCF
Rich Witten finished the 2012 baseball season as one of Coastal’s most productive players, hitting .346 with five home runs and 66 RBIs, but he has decided to end his playing days and begin a new career in the sport.
Witten recently started in his new position as director of baseball operations for Central Florida, following former CCU top assistant Kevin Schnall down to UCF.
“It was and it wasn’t tough,” Witten said of his decision to transition to a different side of the game. “I don’t think any player in the history of baseball has ever been ready to hang up their cleats to go pursue something else. I’d like to play forever if I could, but realistically my career on the field wasn’t going where I wanted it to go and these opportunities don’t come along very often. When I was presented it, the program they have there and the position, it was just too good of an offer to pass up.”
Witten had been playing for the Lake Erie Crushers of the Independent Frontier League after not being selected in Major League Baseball’s draft in June.
“I’ll be honest, I was very surprised,” he said of going undrafted. “You never want to get your hopes up too much, but I had a confidence that I would have an opportunity in the draft. But things didn’t work out and there’s nothing you can do about it. I gave Coastal everything I had for five years and especially during my senior season. I don’t have any regrets. It was disappointing, but on the other hand, who knows, it could be a blessing in disguise. This opportunity could be a big break and lead me to an ever better situation in the future.”
Coastal will begin removal of the football scoreboard inside Brooks Stadium on Monday and aims to have its new and improved video board installed before the start of the season.
“[Daktronics] have assured us that board will be up and operational by the 24th of August so I feel very good about it,” CCU athletic director Hunter Yurachek said.
Along with the new video board, he said the stadium will have an upgraded sound system as well.
“I think when fans come in the stadium they will notice a dramatic difference in our sound system, not necessarily in volume but in the clarity and how it’s distributed throughout the stadium,” Yurachek said.
Meanwhile, the renovation project for the school’s baseball and softball stadiums will soon get underway as well. Yurachek said construction fencing should go up the latter part of next week around both facilities and removal of the seats will follow soon thereafter. The school is hoping to repurpose the old seats in the soccer stadium eventually.
The heavy construction is expected to begin the first part of October, he said.
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318.